The Wave One Project (#5): Done, Done, On to the Next One

The cross-country ski trail at my high school started near the football field. It did a quick loop and then made a short, sharp climb away from the football field. I strode up that hill and suddenly sent a stream of orange juice flying out of my mouth. And kept on skiing. That was thirty-two years ago and the last time that happened during a ski race. Until yesterday.

I went over to the Keweenaw to ski the Great Bear Chase. Since the Birkie was cancelled and I had this public goal of skiing a good one, I wanted to salvage something from the season. I needed to justify rollerskiing by myself way back in June. I drove over on Friday and got to the Calumet High School to register. I asked where the spaghetti supper was. “We ran out of food,” said the young girl that handed me my bib.

Normally, I eat a pizza at around 4 pm the afternoon prior to anything big. Lately, “big” is Grandma’s Marathon and the Birkie. I spend the night before each of these in my own house. But I started eating pizza as a pre-race meal because I read somewhere that it’s a useful pre-race meal anywhere in the world because you can get a pizza anywhere in the world. This was a rare out of town race for me where I could put this choice into practice. So, naturally, I ignored that reason when faced with a food choice the night before my only 50k of the year.

I thought about stopping in Ironwood or even earlier to eat “on the timeline.” I didn’t stop. Now, faced with a dinner choice where I wouldn’t eat until 8 pm or so, I panicked. I went to the Burger King near the Calumet school. I had a Whopper and fries. Sure, terrible, but at least a known quantity.

I drink a ton of water in the morning before any race to “get things moving.” So, when I went to the hotel’s continental breakfast the next morning, I was a little nauseous from pounding a quart of water. This is normal. I had some cereal and some coffee. I got back to my room to put on my race clothes. And ran to the toilet to hurl. Burger remnants. Now, I have a serious question: Is there some tiny bouncer in my stomach that let the raisin bran go by just 5 minutes before, but was still keeping onions and lettuce and tomatoes outside the rope? How is that even possible?

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Quincy Mine near Houghton

I shook it off. Actually felt better. Suited up. Went to the race. Ran my normal pre-race template. My truck showed 2F with about 15 knots of wind outside. Painful, but not my first rodeo. “I’ve had worse,” as the Black Knight says. My skis were good and fast. I’ve never put Dermatone or tape on my face and I’ve never had a problem. I had plenty of layers, a buff, and lobster-claws. Standard near-zero set-up.

25k was uneventful. At 1:40, I was right at a 4:00 min/k pace. I was hoping for a better pace, but I was pretty happy considering the cold snow and my gastro issues earlier. This course was less hilly than the Birkie, but I figured if I ran a 3:20 total time, it’d be at least another Wave 2 quality race. My Birkie last year was a 3:25.

At 28k, I took a gel and drank some water at the aid station. Isn’t there a sea-creature that turns itself inside out to evacuate its stomach? Well that’s what happened at 30k. It kind of freaked me out that I hurled up a gallon of stuff so I stopped. While I was mopping up my face, I realized, I couldn’t really feel my lower jaw. I took my hand out of my glove and spent some time warming up the skin around my chin.

From about 32k to the feed at 39k was a long, steady downhill. When I was tucking or tuck-skating, I put my gloves in front of my face. That race direction was into the wind and I was going quicker downhill. Again, I normally do this and my face felt fine, but my stomach was on edge.

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Sundog on the way home.

I pulled up to the 39k aid station to get some water. All the volunteers’ eyes got really big. I knew something was up, but not sure what. Finally, a dude came up to me and said, “Dude, your nose looks really rough.” Aw, shit.  I took my hand out of my gloves and went skin to skin on my nose until it got pink again. “Yeah, yours was the worst we’ve seen all day,” he said. I was drinking fine all day, so not dehydrated. But could there be a component of calorie-uptake to frostbite/frostnip? I don’t know. I’ve skied in conditions much colder with no problem. At this point, I had tried to have one gel and expelled it. So, no real calories to this point and afraid to try again.

After I warmed my nose up, I tried to put cold hands back in my wet and now hardening gloves. No luck. I had to look at them to see what they were doing. I shook my head, pissed at myself. The volunteers scrounged some chemical hand warmers and I threw those in my gloves and kept on. I looked at the Garmin on my wrist to assess the damage. It was dead. Maybe it’s colder than I thought? Probably for the best to not know how bad it was with 10k to go.

I finished. Walked to the truck and saw the 4F on the thermometer. That’s twice as warm as 2F right? And only 250 miles to drive home now.

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Before every race, I set goals. I start with three boilerplate items: 1) Be safe. 2) Finish. 3) Have fun. For this one, I added 4) Time between 3:00 and 3:20. All I did was finish. I’m experienced and better-prepared than I’ve been in years. This complete collapse was a surprise. I haven’t had an ass-kicking like this in a long time. 3:40 of suck.

There was a point where I was skating my way uphill the last 10k. I knew at this point I was in survival mode. I took my hands out of my pole straps and tucked my poles under my armpits. I pulled my fingers into the palms of my gloves so I could try to revive my thumbs next to the hand-warmers. I skied with just my legs until I got my thumbs back and thought, “Someday, you’ll need toughness. And you’ll be able to look at this and realize you can bear it.” Melodramatic, but that’s what I squeezed out of one butt-ass cold, windy, puke-filled finish.

Done, done, on to the next one. Time to get ready for Grandma’s Marathon in 13 weeks. I’ll be eating pizza at 4 pm.

 

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Disappointment Cleaver

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This is not the Birkie.

The Birkie was cancelled today, so I’m not likely to forget 2017. I put in over 1200 miles training for this day since June 1st. But I’m calm. No Angry Shmo today. The scenario reminds me of something else.

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This is not the Birkie.

Mother Nature didn’t make enough snow. She made it rain at 50F in the week before the ski race. Instead of skiing my way into Wave 1 in the American Birkebeiner today, I did some other things. I took Leo for a walk. He rolled on his back in the snow, which means he’s happy. We looked at 10% of the world’s fresh water from the Endion Ledges. My children skied with me around the perfect conditions at Snowflake. We ate supper at Bulldog Pizza and I had a Castle Danger Cream Ale. It was a bluebird day.

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This isn’t the Birkie either.

In 2013, one week before I flew the F-16 for the last time, I tried to summit Mt. Rainier. I was at Camp Muir at 10,000′ with about 16 other people who were going to summit the next day. We went to bed at about 5 PM and the guides turned off the light. Twenty minutes later, the head guide came back in and said, “I’ve never said this in 18 years of guiding Rainier. You have ZERO chance of summiting tomorrow.” The glaciers had shifted and eaten all the ladders across the several crevasses. But, anybody who was game could continue to the highest point possible before the route became unsafe for clients. A few people crapped out, but the rest of us said we were in.

We woke up the next morning at about 2 AM for the final climb. It was dead calm and perfectly clear. As I was strapping on my crampons, my jaw hung open as I looked up at the stars. It was like I was in a fog made of stars. Surrounded. Cowlitz Glacier and up through Ingraham Glacier in the dark, following our headlamps. Half the group bailed out at the first rest stop. About eight of us continued on with the guides who would build a new route through the new crevasses. The sun rose when I was at the highest point. The massive stone spine where we turned around? It’s called Disappointment Cleaver. Indeed.

And it may have been the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen.

Descending Ingraham Glacier. 7 Sep 2013.

Descending Ingraham Glacier. 7 Sep 2013.

The Birkie cancellation was like another Disappointment Cleaver.

But here’s a philosophical question. Make a choice. Would you prefer Plan A in the clouds where you can only see ten feet? Or would you prefer Plan B on a glorious day? I love Type II fun, so it’s a tough choice.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, you don’t get a vote. You can only decide how to react while doing Plan B. I can tell you I was smiling on Rainier. And I was smiling today.

As high as I go. Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier.

As high as I go. Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier.

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Guts, Generosity, and Gratitude: AWP17 Highlights

I support and defend something in there.

I support and defend something in there.

Randy Brown AKA “Charlie Sherpa” invited me to go with him to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP17) in Washington, D.C. I was on a panel that he moderated called, Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap. I felt out of my league, but seized the opportunity to run my mouth in public. (I dearly love the sound of my own voice.) But, I got more from this weekend than I could ever repay. Like any good veteran, raised on PowerPoint, I’m only allowed to learn three things from this experience.

Guts

The crowd of military writers moved from the basement of The Laughing Man Tavern and headed upstairs for some food. Peter Molin (Time Now blog) set up this party on the Friday night of the weekend and what a fun group of people it was. I sat at my table and chatted with Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust). Earlier in the day, he and some other writers talked about turning writing into other artistic forms. Jenny Pacanowski read her poem “Combat Dick”, J. A. Moad II performed a scene from his play “Outside Paducah”, and Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) asked us all to hum. They pulled me way, way outside my own head.

“I’m so impressed with your courage. You guys are putting it all out there,” I said to Benjamin.

“What’s the point of keeping it inside?” He kind of smirked and shrugged.

It’s still echoing in my head. I’m filing it under “motivation.”

Generosity

At that same party, Tessa Poppe (“The Grass”) and I stood there talking about the mind-blowing people in the room. The amoeba of a crowd spat out a National Book Award winner. Suddenly, Tessa and I were talking to Phil Klay (Redeployment, National Book Award). He was normal. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe some level of standoffishness? None of that. He asked what we were writing and we said we were on a military poetry panel together the day prior. I said I was halfway through a draft of a memoir, which is the same as saying nothing.

Recovering, I complimented him on an op-ed he wrote for the NY Times that very morning. I already shared it on Facebook. I had no idea I’d be shooting the shit with the author himself over a pint a few hours later. I said his article about morality in war reminded me of a choice I faced in Afghanistan and wrote about. He pulled out his phone and asked me the title of it. He typed it into his phone so he could look it up later.

This is the kind of thing that powers a slob like me for a year.

Now multiply that by 100. That’s how many times someone of national prominence asked me what I was writing. They were supportive, gracious, and friendly. Every. Single. Person. They all offered encouragement to me, a stranger without any real credentials.

I’m trying to put on a writing workshop about military themes in Duluth in May/June 2018 with the help of Lake Superior Writers, my local writing group. Matthew Hefti (A Hard and Heavy Thing) said he’d help if he could. Jerri Bell (Veterans Writing Project) said she’d send me notes about putting on a workshop with both civilian and military writers. J. A. Moad II, from down the road in the Twin Cities, gave me some great ideas. David Chrisinger said he had a template for a three-day workshop I could look at. And so on, and so on, and so on, like the old shampoo commercial.

I ate dinner that big Friday night with Mary Doyle, David Chrisinger, and Matthew Hefti. Later, at the very end of the last panel on the last day, Mary gave me her book The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. Just gave it to me. A gift. Her act symbolized the whole weekend for me.

My nickname is Shmo. I’m regularly called Angry Shmo, by friends who know me well. But, AWP17 caused some kind of positive shift in my chest. It felt like when you’re near a big slab of snow that settles all at once. Whoomp.

Gratitude

I’m still amazed by the Internet. I’ve connected with people like Charlie Sherpa (FOB Haiku). I feel like I’ve known him for years. But I met Sherpa for the first time “in real life” on the Wednesday before his poetry panel. We explained our nicknames to each other. We talked over a military poetry manuscript I have (working title: Hugging This Rock). He’s helped me get stuff published elsewhere via information on his blog. He’s just down the road in Iowa. And in an amazing coincidence, his wife’s sister is part of a couple in Duluth that I’ve known for over a decade. Parallel universes. The day after our first meeting, I sat at his right hand (symbolic?) as a panelist in Washington, D.C. So, that’s cool.

Another example. I met Matthew Komatsu for the first time at AWP17. I first read his work when he wrote about the attack on Bastion in Afghanistan. I was just down the street at Kandahar AB when that happened at Bastion in Sep 2012, so I read it with great interest. Come to find out he’s a runner. Followed his blog about running stuff. Then I learned he’s originally from Duluth, the town where I ended up after 9/11 and plan to remain. Then, recently while trying to build my writing workshop, I wrote him some emails asking about the workshop he put on. He generously (of course) sent me a bunch of notes, information, and advice. Then, I went to the panel at AWP17 when he read his piece titled “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade.” Words about war and loss mixed with marathons. He described landmarks in Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, which I’ve run. I found myself nodding in recognition while he spoke, and not just about Minnesota locations.

Sherpa and Komatsu are just two examples of how small coincidences met the Internet and became real. This happened to me dozens of times at AWP17.

The world seems big sometimes. But the Internet makes it feel much, much smaller. It connects me to like-minded people, doing similar things, sprinkled all over the map. There was a tribe out there. I knew it. I could sense it, intellectually. But now, I feel it in my gut.

Thank you all.

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