Race Report: West River Trail Run 2017

Last year I tried the West River Trail Run here in Vermont and I loved it. It's challenging, but not TOO challenging. The first half is essentially flat, then there is a big mountain and a fun dam to go up and over, then 2 more flat miles to the finish. The 11-mile race went well, was nicely organized, and the day was cool and pleasant. This is just a quick photo recap.

This is around mile 5, before the trail starts to climb.

The wooded single-track begins around mile 6. There were a few muddy bits, but not bad at all. Here is Angel Falls, where the trail crosses over the water on some huge sturdy rocks.

The race course goes up and over Ball Mountain dam, using the service road that you can see going up from right to left.

This is taken from near the top of that road, looking up the West River.

The trail on the other side of the dam is a fun set of dropping switchbacks. I like to Z down this side at top speed.

Even with a bathroom stop this time, I was a bit faster than last year. I'm giving full credit to the Strength & Conditioning class I do every Wednesday morning. It's getting me fit in different ways, and also teaching me about endurance and perserverance.

2017 time: 1:53:38
2016 time: 1:56:33

I've got one more race report coming up (Vegan Power!!), then I'm taking a break during the hot months (I think!).

Gardening for Idiots: 4 Easy Steps

It's not that I'm a good gardener or a bad gardener. I am just Not a Gardener.

I do have a small, beloved herb garden that I struggle mightily (in my mind) to plant and tend each year, and that was already more than I could handle.

However, given today's bizarre political and cultural climate, I figured it's time to learn how to grow food for myself and my family... just in case. I have distilled my experiences into 4 easy steps for starting your grownup garden.

1. Visit the children's section of the public library and get a simple book on gardening. I chose My Backyard Garden by Carol Lerner, which is organized by monthly activities and has nice illustrations. The logic of getting a kid's book is that you will not get bogged down with details and possibly never move on to steps 2-4.

2. Plan your garden. Where will you put it? How big will it be? What will you plant? Carol Lerner says 20 square feet is a good size to start with.

Here's my plan. I got a little excited and planned an 80 square foot garden. I decided on lettuce, chard & kale, bush beans, beets & carrots, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes.

3. Prepare the garden space. I chose a rectangle of space at the southern end of our lawn. Part of it was occupied by the remains of a 5x5' sandbox, which we shoveled out and replaced with bags of topsoil (Moo Dirt to be specific). The rest of the space was grass, which I forked over, hoed apart, augmented with Moo Doo, and raked.

4. Plant! If possible, visit a garden center and get already started plants, then pop them in the ground after danger of last frost (aka Memorial Day). Water. 

Our actual selections at the garden center were pretty much in line with my plan. We did add a six-pack of bell peppers. We also planted some peas that had come home as part of a first-grade project. And I got seed packets of carrots, chard, spinach, and lettuce which I sowed in rows at the far end of the rectangle shown above.

Things are too close together and I'm sure the zucchini is going to riot in about 8 weeks. A bean plant has already completely disappeared. But otherwise it's all very satisfying.

I also put the annual round of herbs into the herb garden on the other side of our property—basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, plus a new Rosemary & a new Lavender to replace the ones killed by the savage winter cold. The sage, chives, rue, mint, lemon balm, and oregano all over-wintered successfully.

What have you been planting? Are you a Good Gardener?

Race Report: 7 Sisters Trail Race

I was winded, panting, a special kind of whole-body tired. Looking at the trail ahead of me, which meant looking UP a tumble of large rocks in the middle of the woods, I could see other runners picking their way up yet another technical ascent. More runners were right on my heels. I couldn't stop here. Gotta keep moving. But if things didn't change soon, I knew I'd have to drop out of this race. It was a 12-mile race, and I was only on mile 2.

The 7 Sisters Trail Race is an iconic race that I'd mainly heard about by reading one of my favorite running blogs, Relentless Forward Commotion. (Hi, Heather!) I probably should have re-read her race reports before signing up, or investigated the course in any way, but I did not. I signed up in a rush on the last day before the price increase. Only afterward did I sit down to research what I'd gotten myself into.


The course is 12 miles out and back on the Monadnock-Metacomet trail near Amherst, MA. The turnaround is the lowest elevation point of the race, and the 2nd half is more uphill than first, if you can picture that.

"Widely considered the most challenging trail race in the Northeast..." race website

"Might just be the most technical trail run in New England..." Runner's World

"It has always attracted the best trail runners in New England..." as quoted on Relentless Forward Commotion

So what does "technical" mean when it comes to trail running? Basically it means that the course demands a lot of attention and energy—roots, rocks, climbing (sometimes on all fours), and in this case on this particular day, add MUD to the mix. As one fellow runner said to me on the trail after we'd both been slipping and sliding all over, "I've decided this race is not about how fast you can run, it's about how long you can stay standing up!"

Skills I quickly learned on the technical trail: How to search for footholds on a natural rock staircase made for giants. How to grab roots or saplings when ascending or descending so as not to plunge down the hill. How to tell if a promising shiny spot in a large slick of mud is an actual stable rock or just more mud. How to walk in the middle of a stream because the water knows the best way. How to negotiate steep wet slopes while also staying out of the way of frontrunners (and midrunners) on their return lap. How to take in an amazing view while still moving moving moving.

Maybe I had no business attempting the 7 Sisters, but I didn't know that until I was two miles in and hoping SOMETHING would look up. I'd been training for a marathon all winter, so I didn't think I was out of shape. I've also been taking an excellent strength and plyometrics class that has been helping me cross-train as well as deal with discomfort and repetition... perfect for this race. But I had not been specifically training on incessant vertical terrain.

3,938 feet of gain on this course

Fortunately, things did start going my way.  First, my GU Roctane, the energy drink that I swear by, started to kick in. It contains caffeine, amino acids, sodium, and potassium and I adore it (now in delightful Summit Tea flavor! (I am not affiliated with GU)). I carried it in my hydration vest and sipped throughout the race, and I swear it gets me through just about anything. (I drank over 2 litres over the course of the race.)

Another thing that changed my mood was the return of the frontrunners. Their energy and verve and even reckless joy at running this thing FAST was contagious. As the elites all passed and the "regular" folks started passing me too, we'd exchange smiles, encouragement, quick tips.

And the nature of an out and back course takes off some mental pressure. Unlike my experiences with a looped course where I mentally grapple with multiple opportunities to drop out, here there was really nowhere to go but back to the finish. (Of course if someone needed serious help, it was available.) While the physical assignment was intense, at least I wasn't goading myself to keep going as I've done in some races, particularly the 6-hour ones. I just set the intention that I would finish eventually. And I did: In 4:29:37, in 390th place (out of 439).

Final thoughts: I would probably do this again.

Kitchen Renovation Photos

Hello friends! Happy May!

We just finished a major project in our home that I'd like to share. It feels like true renewal and spring colors and breezes over here! 

Basically what happened was that we needed a 3-bedroom house, but we owned a 2-bedroom house. We love our location and our little dead-end street and we HATE MOVING, so we decided to stay put and renovate. Actually, the house originally had 3 bedrooms but the kitchen was extended into one of them. All we needed to do was wall off the kitchen again. 

Here is the kitchen side of that story!

BEFORE: This is standing in kitchen looking towards living room. Linoleum floor, normal door-frame, greenish paint.

Renovated: The entry has been widened, the paint is now "Cantaloupe Slice," and look at that floor! Our contractors reclaimed a lovely rustic-quality oak floor that had been buried under linoleum for 50 years. It is gorgeous.

BEFORE: Same vantagepoint but looking into the corner toward our back door.

AFTER: We now have cabinets between the entryway and the range.

BEFORE: Standing in the living room doorway looking toward the kitchen's north corner. (We removed all of the cabinet doors right before work started.)


AFTER: I am loving the new contrast of dark countertop with light cabinetry. The range was moved over several inches to fit cabinets on both sides.

BEFORE: Looking toward our sink & windows. Observe that HIDEOUS wood paneling over the sink.

AFTER: New sink, new lighting.

BEFORE: Having the huge refrigerator here was a temporary solution due to walling off the third bedroom. That blank wall on the right covers our chimney.

AFTER: New narrow profile, counter-depth refrigerator, and the chimney space was cut back to allow custom shelving to fit in.

I love the whole new kitchen so much, but there are a few little sweet features that make it extra awesome. Full thanks to the pros that helped us design and execute this project (I love contractors!)

Ridiculous that we have been living without a range hood for almost 10 years. Ventilation! Light! A clock! What an incredible invention.

Our cabinet expert squeezed in this 3-inch-wide "spice pull" next to the sink. No more sorting through layers of spice jars on a cabinet shelf. Each is completely visible when the spice pull is out, and tucked out of the way the rest of the time.

A tilt-out holder in front of the sink.

We haven't quite figured out how we'll use this, it could be great for bottle brushes or "downgraded" sponges.

Look at that bitty fridge! It is perfect for our kitchen. At first I worried we would need to keep our large fridge... because we're AMERICANS. But after just a few weeks this Summit fridge seems quite capacious.

If you leave the door ajar for too long, an alarm sounds.

The freezer section is kind of shallow, but we're working with it. It has 3 drawers and the only thing that won't really fit is the Cuisinart ice cream maker insert. I can live with that.

Trash and paper recycling get tucked away in a cabinet.

Our contractor carpentered up the shelves according to our measurements, including a catfood caddy area and feeding area below that. (I know the dishes don't quite fit. It's OK.)

This is a double-layered drawer, with a sliding top drawer that pushes back to expose another sectioned drawer beneath. Our cabinet guy said, "You'll thank me for this," and we DO. THANK YOU!

I'll do a separate post later about the third bedroom—it is occupied and loved but definitely still evolving.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual kitchen tour!

Barkley Marathons & more demonic Tennessee races

Sometime between midnight tonight and noon tomorrow (April 1, 2017), 40 daring souls will line up in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, for the start of the annual Barkley Marathons. A man will light a cigarette... and they will be off.

As for me, I'll be tied to Twitter and constantly refreshing #bm100 to find out what happens. Information is titrated out in tiny tantalizing tweets over the 60 hour duration of the race, by benevolent souls who might have time to share tidbits. And I'll try to piece together: Who, if anyone, will make 3 loops, the "fun run"? Who will make 4? Who will even START loop 5? Who will flame out spectacularly and who will just drop off, "tapped out" with nary a further mention? What will happen to Jamil Coury, who fell asleep on loop 4 in 2015 and finally came in hours after the cutoff, but with all of his book pages? What will happen to Gary Robbins, the Canadian contender who got all the way to loop 5 in 2016 before basically losing his mind due to sleep deprivation? How far will women get this year?

And also... who is the guy who runs this crazy race, designed to test the limits of human endurance and offer unlimited chances to fail?

That guy would be Lazarus Lake, also known as Gary Cantrell. And did you know the Barkley Marathons is just one of the ways he is influencing our understanding of human will and endurance?

There's also the Barkley Fall Classic 50k, which is a mini taste of the infamous Marathons and can actually be finished... by some.

In the Strolling Jim 40 runners earn colored T-shirts based on hitting certain set finishing times.

There's Big's Backyard. The rules are that runners complete the same 4+ mile loop every hour on the hour. The last person standing who completes the last loop is the winner. A personal recap can be found in the latest issue of Trail Runner DIRT magazine.

Then there's A Race for the Ages in Manchester, TN, the "return of the graybeards." The winner is the one who accumulates the most miles by the end of the timed race. People over the age of 48 are allotted the number of hours equal to their age to complete the event. So if you're 70, you get 70 hours. Those age 48 and under get the last 48 hours to complete their miles. The age-weighting gives an advantage to "superveterans" of the sport.

And there's also Vol State, a 500k race that goes diagonally across the entire state of Tennessee. You're basically on your own to make it across the state as quickly as possible (there is also a crewed option)... and it takes DAYS at the very least.

So I'm fascinated not only with the Barkley Marathons, but also with how Cantrell is expanding the way people think about running, racing, human endurance, failure, and even the meaning of life. Please check out his columns in Ultrarunning, which go back into the 80s when the magazine (and the sport) was just getting started.

Some favorite resources on the Barkley Marathons:

Twitter hashtag #BM100 during the race. Refresh refresh refresh!
This excellent & exhaustive site: http://www.mattmahoney.net/barkley/
The documentary on Netflix (just search "Barkley")
The documentary on Youtube
The eerie before & after photos by Geoffrey Baker

18 Miles in 20 photos: Sunday Long Run

Every Sunday, Goddess willing, I go for a long run. For the past 4 Sundays my training program has been VERY long runs (for me) of 16, 18, 16, and 14 miles. The first two were fine, but the last two of these did not go well. The weather had turned very cold again after a pleasant thaw, and my motivation and energy were seriously ebbing. Those 16 and 14 milers were executed with gritted teeth and a grumpy heart, which made me a little worried about today's run, another 18 miler.

I decided to mix it up today by making it a project. I took one photo every mile on the mile. Come with me on an 18-mile journey across Southern Vermont!


Starting at zero with snow in the background and bare branch reflections in focus. Last day of winter.

Mile 1: Heading north on Putney road

Mile 2: This is the "strip" near Staples/Peebles plaza

Mile 3: The left turn just ahead is Black Mountain Road (see small green sign), but I'm heading straight up Kipling Road toward the School for International Training

Mile 4: Here's Naulakha, the house where Rudyard Kipling lived briefly over 100 years ago. 


Mile 5: Going through a sugarbush (maple trees on both sides of the road are studded with taps & lines lacing them together), here's a sap gathering tank

Mile 6: Intersection of Middle Road and Dutton Farm Road in Dummerston, VT—this is Baker's Violin Shop

Mile 7: Dummerston Center, I'm just about to turn left at the church to head up East-West Road


Mile 8: Black Mountain Road—I hit its northern terminus after running up East-West Road for 3/4 mile. I'm now heading south again.


Mile 9: Still on Black Mountain Road, I just passed the trailhead to the "Little Black Mountain" trail. There were 6 cars parked there!


Mile 10: Black Mountain Road


Mile 11: Heading downhill on Rice Farm Road, about 10 miles of gradual gain unspools in 1-2 miles. I'm also now in the West River Valley and the temperature feels about 5 degrees colder.

Mile 12: Rice Farm Road runs north along the West River for about a mile

Mile 13: I crossed the Iron Bridge across the West River and am now heading south again on Rte 30


Mile 14: More Rte 30, the West River is on the left through the trees. This part is pretty boring, but it's also nice and flat.


Mile 15: More Rte 30, more West River

Mile 16: Rte 30, a little bit north of the Saxton's River Distillery and Fulcrum Arts gallery

Mile 17: Rte 30, Grafton Cheese shop is ahead (the red buildings)


Mile 18: Done! Except I decided to keep running the extra half mile home, because I can add it to yesterday's 7.5 miles and round out my weekly total.


18.5 miles covered a mere 205 minutes later!

It was a good run. My legs could have kept going, but my cardiovascular system was ready to stop!