We Love You, Grandma Gatewood

I get faster as I get older

— Emma Gatewood

In 1955, Emma Gatewood (1887-1973) became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  She was 67.  The AT was then 2,050 miles long, and she averaged 17 miles per day.  By the end of the trip she had lost 24 pounds.  Grandma Gatewood went solo, dressed in jeans and sneakers, and didn’t carry a tent, stove, or sleeping bag, but rather slung a sack with food and gear over one shoulder.  She picked berries along the side of the trail and relied on the kindness of strangers.  She’d sleep “anywhere I could lay my bones.”

Grandma Gatewood
Grandma Gatewood. Source: Tampa Bay Times

The media called her “Queen of the Forest.”  She came across to some as a “wild tramp.”  According to one hiker who met her on the trail, “She was one tough old bird.”  Grizzled Maine outdoorsmen lauded her for having “pioneer guts.”  A Native American told her, “I’ve seen lots of things in the woods but you’re the most unusual sight I’ve ever come across.”

Two years later she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail again.  She completed it a third time in 1963 at the age of seventy-five.  She also walked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, averaging 22 miles per day.  For these accomplishments, she was described as a “living legend among hikers” and America’s “most celebrated pedestrian.”

She climbed mountains, crossed raging streams, endured rain and cold, slept outdoors, sidestepped snakes, killed and roasted a porcupine.  All the while, “I kept putting one foot ahead of the other.”

In her eighties, she split her time between managing a trailer park, traveling the country as a celebrity, and blazing new trails in southeastern Ohio, where she lived.  She received the Ohio State Conservation Award and the Governor’s Community Action Award for her “outstanding contributions to outdoor recreation.” After she died, a six-mile stretch of Ohio’s Buckeye trail was named the “Grandma Gatewood Trail.”

She thought people relied too much on cars and needed more exercise.  “Most people today are pantywaist.”

Grandma Gatewood.  Source:  Appalachian Trail Museum
Grandma Gatewood. Source: Appalachian Trail Museum

Ben Montgomery tells her story in an interesting and well-researched new book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail (Chicago Review Press, 2014)

The book opens with a description of her hardscrabble background, growing up on a family farm in southeastern Ohio, one of 15 siblings.  She married and raised 11 children of her own.  Her husband was abusive.  She endured his beatings for twenty years before divorcing him in 1941 and obtaining custody of the children.

She had read about the AT in a discarded issue of National Geographic magazine and it had caught her imagination.  But she didn’t tell anyone.  In preparation, she made overnight expeditions in the local Ohio forests to test equipment, food, and first aid supplies.  Her first trip to the Appalachian Trail ended in disaster:  she started in Maine but quickly lost the trail and had to be rescued by park rangers.  When she came back the next year, she started in Georgia and headed north.  Maine was still a challenge, but she persisted despite bad weather, rough terrain, the loss of her glasses, which left her nearly blind, and a sore knee.  Upon reaching the northern terminus of the AT on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, she sang “America the Beautiful.”

“I did it,” she said.  “I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.”

People wanted to know why she undertook this challenge.

At first her answers were flippant:  “I took it up as kind of a lark,” she said.

With time she provided more insight into her motivations.  “After 20 years of hanging diapers and seeing my children grow up and go their own way, I decided to take a walk— one I always wanted to take.”

But why the Appalachian Trail?

“I’m a great lover of the outdoors,” she explained.  “I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill, then what’s beyond that”.

“Some people think it’s crazy,” she told a reporter. “But I find a restfulness— something that satisfies my type of nature. The woods make me feel more contented.”  Not only are the forests beautiful and quiet, but on the trail “the petty entanglements of life are brushed aside like cobwebs.”

Another reason:  she wasn’t ready to slow down.  “I don’t want to sit and rock. I want to do something.”

But why did she really want to do this?  According to the author Ben Montgomery, the hike was a response to the abusive relationship she had so long endured, which included frequent and severe beatings.  Montgomery speculates that her hike was a form of “walking away” from that experience as much as it was “walking towards” a specific goal.

Her daughter, Lucy, tells a different story.  “Mama” was determined to do something notable.

One can speculate, but at the end of the day, the why may not matter.  When one reporter asked why, she simply stated:  “Because I wanted to.”

And that’s what’s so inspiring about her story:  that she set out and accomplished her goal, no matter how improbable it seemed to others.

Emma-Gatewood IV
Grandma Gatewood. Courtesy of Lucy Gatewood Seeds

What did she think of the experience?

I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t. There were terrible blowdowns, burnt-over areas that were never re-marked, gravel and sand washouts, weeds and brush to your neck, and most of the shelters were blown down, burned down, or so filthy I chose to sleep out of doors. This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find. I’ve seen every fire station between here and Georgia. Why, an Indian would die laughing his head off if he saw those trails. I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.

These observations spurred local hiking clubs to improve maintenance of the trail.  As her fame spread, more people began to thru-hike the AT.

Upon further reflection, however, she acknowledged, “After the hard life I have lived, this trail isn’t so bad.”

Despite all the challenges, or maybe because of them, it seems to me that Grandma Gatewood had a hoot on the trail.  On her second thru-hike of the AT, she wrote to her daughters, “I am fine and having the time of my young life.”

I slept wherever I could pile down.  Course, sometimes they weren’t the most desirable places in the world, but I always managed. A pile of leaves makes a fine bed, and if you’re tired enough, mountain tops, abandoned sheds, porches, and overturned boats can be tolerated. I even had a sleeping companion. A porcupine tried to curl up next to me one night while I slept on a cabin floor. I decided there wasn’t room for both of us.

On one of her hikes, she killed a porcupine, roasted it, and tried to eat it.  She took a bite of the liver and immediately spat it out.  “It took me two or three days to get that taste out of my mouth.”

A reporter asked her what part of the AT she liked the best.  ‘Going downhill, Sonny,’ she replied.

She was audacious, unflappable, purposeful, practical, tireless, blunt, friendly, tough as grit, and public-spirited.  And she had a sly sense of humor.

Emma Gatewood was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame in 2012.

We Love You, Grandma Gatewood

Don’t Tell Me to Stop and Smell the Roses

When I set out to thru-run the Long Path in 2013, I received some negative feedback.  One person told me that runners should stick to the roads and leave trails to hikers.  Another said I should learn to stop and smell the roses.

Boy, that comment irritated me.  I still remember it to this day.

Let me explain why.

First of all, roses are difficult.  I used to grow them in our garden, but without liberal doses of toxic chemicals, they fell victim to black spot, aphids, caterpillars, Japanese Beetles, and many other pests.  If a rose bush survived its first year, the critters soon invited all their friends and relatives and the next year the onslaught was even worse.

Needless to say, when I thru-ran the entire 350-mile Long Path, I didn’t see many roses.  There wasn’t much to slow down and smell.

So forgive me if I change the metaphor slightly.  By “smelling the roses,” let’s suppose what my friendly critic actually meant was, “examining and admiring nature.”

On my last run in Sam’s Point, I did exactly this.  I stopped to count the number of needles growing together in fascicles on the Pitch Pine trees (Pinus rigida) that cover the Shawangunk Mountains in this area.  I had thought each fascicle contained two needles, but discovered it was three.


I checked a handful of fascicles.  The tree had thousands.


And the mountains were covered with millions of trees.

View of the Catskills rising above the Pitch Pine barrens, from High Point in Sam's Point Preserve/Minnewaska State Park Preserve
View of the Catskills rising above the Pitch Pine barrens, from High Point in Sam’s Point Preserve/Minnewaska State Park Preserve

Out here, you could spend the rest of your life counting Pitch Pine needles.  I believe in certain parts of California, where thousands of acres are devoted to growing flowers, you could spend the rest of your life smelling roses.

Instead, by continuing to run — and thus by covering more ground — I was able to take in multiple views of the distant Catskills, admire not only the sweep of the Pitch Pine barrens stretching for miles in every direction, but also hemlock groves, glacier-polished conglomerate rock faces, steep gullies and ravines, sky lakes, water falls, and much more.

Next time someone tells me to “slow down and smell the roses,” I’ll surely smile and nod politely.  But I might also say:

Pick up the pace and see what you’re missing!

Don’t Tell Me to Stop and Smell the Roses

Catskill Wanderings: Kaaterskill High Peak

I woke up with a headache, coughed up some yellow phlegm, blew my nose, and went back to sleep.  I had come down with a nasty head cold before the Boston Marathon and thought I had shaken it — and it here it was nine days and a half a bottle of cough syrup later.

But the sun was shining, and so I finally dragged myself out of bed a little after 10 AM.  Odie hopped in the back of the car, and we headed off towards the Catskills.  If I didn’t feel better, we could always turn around and come home.

The plan was to hike Kaaterskill High Peak, one of the Catskills’ taller mountains, and a spot I would return to later in the summer as a part of a special challenge.  This morning must have been the first truly beautiful day of spring, because the parking lot in Platte Clove was full.  We parked on the shoulder of the road.

And off we went, up a steep old logging road and after a bit took a shortcut through the woods and linked up with a snowmobile trail that circles the summit.

And then we discovered this wreckage.  It looks like it was once an airplane.

Plane wreckage on the shoulder of Kaaterskill High Peak

The day was sunny and warm, but a cold wind blew from the north, chilling me.  I shivered, coughed, and blew my nose.  Odie trotted along happily.

We were looking for a turn-off where a trail was supposed to take us to the summit.  Suddenly we came across a large cairn; someone had considerately placed a figurine  amongst the rocks facing toward the summit.  What makes the Catskills interesting, is you never know what you might see.

Cairn and figurine pointing to the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak

The footpath headed steeply uphill.  There were occasional blazes on trees, but they were  faint, and Odie and I had to guess our way among the rocks.  I huffed and puffed.

The path became quite steep and scrambled up a series of cliff faces.  I put Odie on his leash and hauled him up and over several ledges which were too tall for him to jump.

And then we got to the top of the ledge and discovered beautiful views across the Hudson Valley and Platte Clove.  We could see the mountain wall across which the Devil’s Path traverses (Overlook, Indian Head, Twin Mountain, and Sugar Loaf).  The Hudson River shimmered in the distance.. According to the map, this was called Hurricane Ledge.  A couple was sitting on the ledge, enjoying the sunshine, shoes off, a picnic spread before them.  Odie sniffed discretely at their food and scurried off as I clucked in disapproval.

View of Overlook Mountain and the Hudson Valley from Hurricane Ledge on the southern slope of Kaaterskill High Peak
View of Overlook Mountain and the Hudson Valley from Hurricane Ledge on the southern slope of Kaaterskill High Peak

Then he discovered a muddy puddle which seemed just the right size to sit in.

A mud puddle on Hurricane Ledge

After a short hike, we reached the summit, a small clearing surrounded by a thicket of spruce and fir.  There was another cairn and another piece of the plane wreckage.  The trail was covered in snow, which Odie took advantage of to scratch his nose

Cairn at the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak
Cairn at the summit of Kaaterskill High Peak
Odie scratching his nose on summit of Kaaterskill High Peak

We headed north down the backside of the summit, aiming to complete a circuit of the snowmobile trail and then return on the logging road to the car.  As we descended, the snow and ice got thicker and more treacherous, and in some places the slope was quite abrupt.  At one dicey spot, my feet slipped out from underneath me, and I slid out of control for about three feet, becoming quite angry.  It seemed inconsiderate to leave so much snow out on a beautiful spring day, and how was I supposed to have known to bring micro-spikes.  I glared at the mountain, blamed the couple on Hurricane Ledge for not advising us of this hazard, and blew my nose.

We survived the descent and found the snowmobile trail  It was helpfully marked with a wooden plank.

Snowmobile trail on northern flank of Katterskill High Peak
Snowmobile trail on northern flank of Katterskill High Peak

The snowmobile trail was covered in puddles, and we slogged through mud and water — but we’re used to that.

On the way down the logging trail, we started to run.  Odie was pleased to have gotten in an 8-mile hike, and an added positive:  he had covered himself in mud, which seems to be a favorite practice.  The afternoon sun was still warm, the sky was clear, the wind was calm, and as we trotted down the last few hundred yards, I noticed my cough was gone.

I blew my nose and felt quite happy.

Catskill Wanderings: Kaaterskill High Peak

2015 Boston Marathon — Recap

Life is just a place to spend time between races.

— George Sheehan, Running & Being: The Total Experience

Happy to report I completed my third Boston Marathon in 2:58:52.  This was just over a minute faster than last year.  It’s my 8th marathon PR, my 5th PR this year, and my 12th PR since turning 50.  It was my 61st marathon/ultra and — strangely — I came in 61st in my age group….

Boston 2015

For A races, I typically develop a specific pace plan, especially if I’ve had prior experience with the course.  The blue line below shows the plan for 2015:  it starts relatively slowly then settles down to a 6:40 pace, with some allowance for the hills in Newton, and then ends at a steady pace.

2015 Boston Marathon Plan vs. Actual

My actual performance was a little different (the red line).  I started out faster, based on the advice of Chris Solarz, who is now an 11-time Boston veteran and a very fast runner.  He pointed out that the first mile is a steep downhill, so why not take advantage of that?

I did this and saved about 30 seconds vs. plan.  But I spent most of the race closer to a 6:45 pace (instead of 6:40) and fell a little further behind in the Newton Hills.  Arriving at the finish line, I was about 90 seconds behind plan goal of 2:57.

While I did end up a little behind, that may reflect the rain and some headwinds or the fact that I’m just getting over a minor head cold.  Also, this was my first time racing the marathon with zero calories.  Last year I took about 120-140 calories during the race.  I felt good this year and decided that even if it cost me a little time, it was just as important to get the experience racing at high intensity without the supplemental sugar — the goal being to improve my capability to burn fat.  (That capability will be very important for some adventures I have planned for later this summer.)

Compared to 2014, I was really pleased with my performance.  Not only did I start out faster, but I finished with a decent kick, the final mile at 6:39 and the last 1/4 at 5:44, whereas last year I pushed really hard through the hills and then fell apart during the last few miles.

2014 v 2015 Boston Marathon Pace

Even better, when comparing average heart rates in 2014 and 2015, I ran faster this year at a lower heart rate.  Faster with less effort — that would be progress!

Heart Rate 2014 vx. 2015 Boston Marathon

A final comment: the Boston Marathon is great fun because of the high-spirited locals and the chance to see running friends from all over.  Here I am (in the back, wearing the black cap and blue shirt) surrounded by a bunch of super-fast runners, including a woman (Keila Merino) who will be undertaking a trans-continental run across the US this summer, Chris Solarz (who holds multiple Guiness Records for extreme running events), and other people who are much faster than I.


2015 Boston Marathon — Recap

A Manifesto for Minimalist Races

As we all know, the best trail races are well-marked and have great aid stations.

So why would anyone offer a race with neither?

Last year, my friend Todd Jennings and I organized a race to celebrate the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), a magical footpath that traverses the entire 74-mile length of the Shawangunk Mountains in New York’s Hudson Valley.  For those not familiar, the trail starts at High Point State Park in New Jersey at a junction with the Appalachian Trail, follows the western edge of the Great Appalachian Valley, passes rare pitch pine barrens and glacier-polished cliffs and talus fields, and ends just beyond a restored railway trestle high above the town of Rosendale, NY.

The Shawangunk Mountains
The Shawangunk Mountains

I had discovered the SRT by thru-running it, and the idea was – rightly or wrongly – to provide a format where other runners could experience the adventure of following the SRT through the wilderness, unassisted.

That meant no aid stations and no supplemental course markings.

Frankly, I was happy to do away with aid stations.  I don’t feel good providing people with highly processed sugary foods.  This stuff is increasingly linked with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.  At the same time, the kind of food I personally favor isn’t necessarily the right answer for others.  If my goal was to lay out a smorgasbord of high-quality tasty foodstuffs, I would have opened a restaurant instead or organizing a race.

There’s an easy solution:  Let each runners take responsibility for managing his or her nutrition.  After all, that’s what people do when they head out on the trails on their own.

I don’t have a problem providing water.  But why would people who love nature want their water collected in plastic bottles?  Here’s a lower-impact answer:  Let runners bring water filters.  After all, the SRT passes streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, and the incredible Bashakill, which is southern New York’s largest wetlands.  This isn’t Death Valley.

Filtering water from a stream in the Shawangunks
Filtering water from a stream in the Shawangunks

Just because we don’t have aid stations for the SRT, doesn’t mean we have a casual attitude towards safety.  We have checkpoints to ensure accountability of all participants, and we work with highly-trained search & rescue teams should it be necessary to extract someone from the course.  As race director for SRT, I wasn’t hanging out at the finish line; rather, I was out on the course for 36 hours straight just to make sure everyone was OK.

What about course markings?

The SRT is blazed with paint splashes and plastic disks from start to finish.  I verified this by thru-running the course two times, taking detailed notes along the way, and then working with volunteers from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference to clean up certain portions of the course.

Even so, running a blazed course is surprisingly difficult.  We runners tend to look down, so we don’t trip.  That makes it easy to miss a blaze at a key intersection and head off in the wrong direction.  Trust me, I’ve done it plenty of times.

Typical paint and disk blazes on the SRT
Typical paint and disk blazes on the SRT

To help runners stay on course, we provided paper maps and a free smartphone app which shows where you are relative to the SRT at the push of a button.

The goal of the SRT event is not to lure unsuspecting participants into an orienteering challenge or a bushwhacking adventure for which they are not prepared.  After all, if someone gets lost, the race director bears the responsibility for finding them.

What’s required is that you pay attention.  Call it being “mindful.”  And, yes, it’s an added mental challenge on top of the physical.

But we feel good asking runners to step up to this extra challenge, because being mindful is a critical component of moving through the wilderness safely.  So why not practice it in races?

Another reason not to like supplemental markings:  I can name races where the volunteers put up the markings in the wrong spots, course marshals steered people in the wrong direction, or vandals even took down the markings and put them up heading the wrong way.

Plus I happen to think trees look nicer without orange tape.

In the future, racing might be an altogether different experience.  Maybe there won’t be blazes or markings.  Maybe you’ll just see turn signals flashing on your Apple Watch or in your Google Glasses.  That’s OK.  However technology may evolve, the principles of Minimalist Racing should remain the same:

  • respect for the wilderness in as close to its natural state as possible
  • an expectation that runners will be responsible and mindful

(If you’re interested in minimalist racing in New York’s Hudson Valley, check out the SRT Run/Hike or the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival.)

A Manifesto for Minimalist Races

Are All Things Numbers?

When you race you are under oath. You are testifying as to who you are.

— George Sheehan

I’m on the train to Boston for my third Boston Marathon.  If I complete the full 26.2 mile distance, it will be my 16th marathon and my 61st race of marathon distance or longer.  If I give credit to the longer distance covered in ultra-marathons (for example, a 100-mile race would be worth 3.8 marathons), then Boston will be, if successful, my 155th marathon-equivalent.

My goal is 2:57.  If successful, this would be an improvement from 2:59:00 at NYC last fall and 2:58:48 at Boston a year ago.  It would also be my 7th marathon PR and my 13th PR since turning 50.

These numbers don’t matter to anyone but me, but they do matter to me.  They show who I am.  Just like George Sheehan says.

I’ll put in a good effort at Boston, but the more I run, the less I fret about effort, and the more I think closing the gap between goals and reality.  Numbers are important, because they help measure that gap.  Otherwise, we get tempted to imagine closing that gap by creating delusional realities (“yeah, I could run 2:57 — if I wanted to”).

That’s why I like Archimedes, who is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.  He is credited with saying:

All things are numbers

— Archimedes

Archimedes of Syracuse 287 - 212 B.C.
Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620) Source: Wikipedia

Heading into this race, I put especial attention on the taper.  In the past, I’ve gained as much as 5 lbs. during the taper and recovery period (5-6 weeks of reduced training volume).  Evidently it’s hard to change eating habits.

5 lbs may not seem like a lot, but imagine racing with a 5 lb dumbbell.  It’d slow you down.

According to one study, a 5% increase in weight would slow a 150-lb runner by 30 seconds during a 5K.  Extapolating from this, 5 extra lbs could cost me 3 minutes in a marathon, according to calculations based on the Jack Daniels pace calculator.

I don’t weigh myself every day and sometimes not for weeks, but three weeks before Boston, I stepped on the scale, and to my dismay, found my weight was 153.0 lbs, or 3 pounds above ideal race weight.

Then I strained a calf muscle, which required a week’s rest for recovery.  Weekly mileage plummeted from 92 miles to zero.

It was easy to imagine showing up at the starting line with a 5 lb dumbbell worth of extra weight and a three-minute handicap.

To manage the taper, I began weighing myself daily and did a bit of swimming to keep up the training volume.  Like most people, when I’m hungry, it’s hard to say “no,” but to the extent possible I tried to behave.

Seeing the numbers every day helped.  It kept me focused on the goal.  By Saturday morning, when it was time to hop on the train for Boston, I was down to 150.8 pounds.

Graph of author's weight during taper leading to Boston Marathon.  Missing data points due to travel
Graph of author’s weight during taper leading to Boston Marathon. Missing data points due to travel

Thank you Archimedes.

But I feel compelled to add a postscript.

When the Romans invaded Syracuse, they sent a Centurian to capture Archimedes unharmed.  But the great mathematician was so involved in working through a mathematical proof, he refused to get up from his desk.  The Centurian ran out of patience, and that was the end of Archimedes.

Are all things numbers?  What do you think?

Archimedes of Syracuse  Source:  https://natureofmathematics.wordpress.com/lecture-notes/archimedes/
Archimedes of Syracuse Source: https://natureofmathematics.wordpress.com/lecture-notes/archimedes/
Are All Things Numbers?

Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who have long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  What does it mean to you?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people.  Even Sun was a person.

At one time many people lived at Koso Hot Springs in the Saline Valley, on the eastern side of the Inyo Mountains, not too far from Owen Lake and what is today the town of Lone Pine, California.

The people were going to have a race.  In this race they bet their lives.  Mudhen dug a pit and built a fire to cook those who lost the race.

The people headed to the starting place in the southern part of Saline Valley.  There was a marsh with willows and other plants, and many of the people went there to gather leaves to eat and branches for arrows.  Coyote went with them.

The race started, but Coyote was busy sucking the sugary sap from the willow stems.

Frog went over to Coyote and struck him.   “What are you doing?  The race has started.”

Coyote ignored him and kept eating.  Frog got angry.  So he urinated on Coyote.

Coyote emerged from the willows, and found that all the people had gone.  He started to run; but he was way behind.  As he ran he saw Frog ahead of him, sitting under a creosote bush.

“Why aren’t you running?” Coyote asked.  Frog didn’t answer.  So Coyote stopped and urinated on Frog. Then he went on.

Now the people were getting close to Koso Hot Springs.  Coyote could see the dust far ahead, at least twenty miles away, so he picked up the pace and ran as fast as he could.

While they were running, Frog caught up with Coyote and then took a flying leap and bounded over him.  While in midair, he made sure to urinate on Coyote.

“Stop it!” Coyote shouted.

The people were nearly to Koso Hot Springs.  Frog took a final jump and landed right at the edge of the fire hole.  He won the race.  Coyote came in second, close on his heels.

After the race, the firetenders threw the losers into the fire. Only Bear and Sun remained. When they started to drag Bear to the fire, he roared, but they pushed him in.  Now only Sun was left. The people started to talk.

“We’d better leave him or they’re won’t be any light,” they said.

“No way,” Coyote shouted.  “If he had beaten me, he would have thrown me in.  We must throw him into the fire.”

Coyote took hold of Sun.  When he did this, Duck, Woodpecker, Nighthawk, Chipmunk, and all the other people ran for the house.

Coyote dragged Sun to the fire. Then he paused, and before pitching him in, he looked to see which way was the house and made sure to fix that image in his memory.  Then he pushed Sun into the fire.  All went dark.

Coyote ran in the direction of the house but despite his precaution, he couldn’t find it. He ran around in the dark, shouting for help. The people in the house heard him, but didn’t answer, because they were angry with him for extinguishing the light.

All this happened in the fall.  Coyote traveled around all winter looking for the house.  He stumbled around in the snow, fell off mountains, and got lost.  He went way back in the High Sierra.  He crawled around, feeling with his hands, until he recognized Mt. Whitney.

“This is where I used to go and this is the trail I used to follow,” he said.

He crawled around on his hands and knees until he got close to the house again.   While he was looking for the house, the people inside reconsidered.

“Maybe we should let him in,” Frog said.  “He’s smart. He might tell us how to get the sun back.”

After this, they answered Coyote when he shouted and invited him inside.  They fed him the plants they had been gathering all winter, until he regained some strength.

Coyote started to talk. “There are a lot of different kinds of people here. Some of us ought to know how to make the sun.”

The people said, “You’re right.”

Some of them started to shout, and a little light appeared.

Coyote noticed this and said, “When I shout, the sun will come out.”

Coyote shouted loudly, and it became completely dark again.

Duck said, “Quack,” and every animal made his noise, trying to bring Sun back. When Duck quacked, a little light, like dawn, began to show.  Duck quacked again, and the light got brighter. The third time Duck quacked, Sun came out.

The people saw that it was springtime.  They emerged from the house.  Everything was green.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The Race to Koso Hot Springs

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source:  http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/
Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who had long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  I thought this one might be helpful to people running in relay races….what do you think?

*          *          *

A long time ago, the animals were people. They had no fire in this part of the country.  It was cold.

Lizard was lying in the sun, trying to keep warm.  He looked up just as a particle of ash, blown by the south wind, drifted slowly to the ground.  It looked like the burned stem of a bulrush plant.  All the people came over to look.  They wondered where it had come from.

Crow thought he smelled smoke, but no-one could see anything.

Coyote walked by and pointed at the ash.

“What’s this?” he asked.  The people all shook their heads.

“You don’t know what this is?” Coyote asked, “This is ash from a fire in another country.”

They stared at him blankly.

“We need somebody to fly up in the sky,” Coyote said, “to see where it came from.”

Chickadee jumped up into the air, flapped his tiny wings, and flew a little ways up.  But he quickly tired and fell back to the ground.  Then Woodpecker and Blue Jay tried, but after a little bit they fainted and fell all the way back to earth.  Coyote put some water on their heads to wake them up.

Then Hummingbird said, “I can do this.”  As all the people watched, he soared high into the air and hovered there for quite some time, turning first to the west, then the north, then the east, and finally the south.  Coyote craned his neck and squinted, trying to see where Hummingbird was looking.  Then Hummingbird fluttered back down.

When he was on the earth again, everybody gathered around. They wanted to know what he had seen.  He told them of a big body of water far off in the south. There were many people on the shore, he said, dancing around a huge fire.

“We must go there,” Coyote said, “and get that fire.”

They all started running toward the south. They ran all day without taking any breaks until they reached a mountain peak, where they rested during the night.  The next day they ran until they reached another mountain.  On each mountain, Coyote stationed one of the people. They kept running, they did not walk, until they had crossed nine mountain peaks and sat on the tenth.  From this vantage, they could see the water that Hummingbird had first spotted and the fire burning brightly on its shore.

Evidently, the people there were having a big celebration.  They were dancing around a giant bonfire. Coyote trotted down the mountain and ripped a handful of milkweed from the ground with which he fashioned a fake beard. Then he joined the people and danced with them around the fire.  The old women eyed him suspiciously, especially the fake beard.  They weren’t stupid, they worried that he was going to steal their fire.  But their chief didn’t notice.  As Coyote danced, he moved closer and closer to the fire and then he leaned his head over the flames until the beard caught fire. As soon as it was lit, he ran off — and the fire in the camp went out.  The old women howled in dismay — and the people took off in pursuit, desperate to recover their fire.  It wasn’t hard to follow Coyote, his burning beard glowed as brightly as if he were carrying a lantern.

Coyote ran to the first person he had posted on the mountain peak closest to the lake and passed the fire to him. This person ran with it to the next one on the next mountain peak, and in this way they passed the fire along. The pursuers were close on their trail, and when they caught up to Coyote, they killed him, and then they killed everyone else who had stopped after passing the fire on.

The fire was relayed from one person to another until it was passed to Jackrabbit, who put the fire on his tail, which turned black from the soot.  Then he passed it on to Rabbit.  As Rabbit ran with the fire, the pursuers used their powers to summon dark clouds and cause hail to fall from the sky.  The hail hurt Rabbit, and he squealed in pain and fear as he ran.

Rat was living alone on the top of Lida Mountain, just north of Death Valley, in a house  surrounded by sheer cliffs.  He heard Rabbit crying and scrambled down the slope.  Rat took the fire from Rabbit and ran with it back up to his house.  The fire burned a red spot on his breast.

The pursuers gathered around Rat’s house. “Catch him,” they shouted to each other, “but don’t kill him.  We want the fire.”  But they couldn’t climb up the cliffs.

Rat took the fire and lit a large pile of brush.  Then he scattered the burning brush all over the country.

The pursuers fell down and died.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

What a Runner Could Learn from a Ranger Mom

A long time ago, I was a U.S. Army Ranger.  It was just about the toughest thing I ever did.  Honestly, I wasn’t very good; my path ended up taking me to Wall Street, which was a better fit for my skills.  But I’m proud to have served my country as best I could, and I remain very impressed with the caliber of people I encountered in the Army then and today.

U.S. Army Ranger School Graduation 1987.  The author is located directly below the
U.S. Army Ranger School Graduation 1987. The author is located directly below the “N”

Violence of Action:  The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror, consists of a series of first-person accounts told by Rangers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I recently met two of the co-authors, Charlie Faint and Marty Skovlund Jr.

Most of the stories were about combat operations, but the story that caught my attention was that of Scoti Springfield Domeji, the mother of Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeji, a highly regarded member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Scoti’s account is the story of a Ranger Mom.  As a priest and general once told her, “You raised a warrior. Not everyone can raise a warrior.”

Reading this, I immediately recalled the Spartans of Ancient Greece, especially the Spartan mother who told her son, “Come back with your shield, or on it..”

Growing up, Spartan girls ran, wrestled, and trained, just like the boys.  As mothers, they expected their sons to fight and win.  If they died in battle, that was a cause for celebration, not sorrow, because that was the purpose for which they had been raised.  The injured or defeated were not welcomed home.

Spartans are a minority in modern America.  Like me, Scoti grew up during the 1970s, a time when soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were treated poorly.  We both remember the feelings of tension and divisiveness.

Raising two sons as a single mother, Scoti had to be tough.  She recounts how young Kristoffer once got into a fight.  The other boy’s father marched up to her, demanding  “Who’s this boy’s dad?”

“I am!” she replied.

The fight occurred because she had given Kristoffer permission to “handle” bullies.  The rule was, “Do not throw the first punch, but make sure you end it.”

That wasn’t the only rule she enforced.  “Start anything you want. If you hate it, don’t whine to quit. Mom’s not negotiable; you will finish your commitment.”

In her story, she explains a little more of her philosophy:

I wanted my sons to learn that failure is success in disguise. I never allowed two sayings in my home: “I don’t know how” and “I can’t.”  I taught the boys to say, “I’ll try.” I didn’t care if they failed, but I expected them to try.

When Kristoffer asked permission to enlist, she was reluctant to sign the paperwork.  She acknowledges that deep down, she was thinking, “If you’re killed, I’ll feel guilty.”  But she did sign, and he enlisted in the Army and volunteered for the Rangers.

Like any mom, she worried.  She may have been a “lioness single mom,” as her friends called her.  But she recognized that her “cub” had grown into a “full-fledged lion.”  Even so, she instinctively yearned to take care of him.

On October 21st at 11: 30 pm, she received unexpected visitors.

“Who’s knocking on my door?” I spoke aloud. My surprise at the sudden banging on my front door near midnight gave way to annoyance. “Probably someone with car trouble. If I ignore the knocking they’ll go away.” The insistent pounding on my door continued for fifteen minutes. I finally walked down my stairs and opened the door. Two tall men in military uniforms stood on my front steps.

He had been killed by an improvised explosive device.  There were funerals, ceremonies, and memorials.  During these events, Scoti would remind herself, “Be strong. Hold yourself together. My son, a Ranger, would not want me to embarrass him.”  Passing three rows of Rangers standing at attention, she told them, “You are all my sons now.”

Ranger Mom or not, she missed her son.  “At first, some days I could barely manage breathing. My mind raced, consumed with thoughts of Kristoffer. I wanted my son back to hug, to touch.”

It didn’t help when her three year-old granddaughter asked, “Is Daddy better now?”

Even as time went by, Scoti continued to feel the loss of her son sharply.

I still fly blind trying to navigate turbulent ups-and-downs of mourning. Unpredictable emotional loops, rolls, and spirals send me crashing. I burn with longing for my son to still be alive. I’ve lost all power to reclaim before-my-son-died “normal” or to control after-death’s sting.

The loss did provide her some perspective on life.  She stopped worrying about the “shoulds.”  She no longer had the energy “to swim against the flow of the unimportant.”  She looked around her and wondered why so many people pursue goals that seem to lack significance, why so many spend their lives “running away from difficulties or trying to sprint past them as fast as possible.”  She remembers her son as someone who “bolted toward challenging, dangerous situations,” and she continues to believe that “challenges aren’t to be wished away.”

To help manage the physical toll of her grief, Scoti took up CrossFit. “Some days just putting one foot in front of the other feels like I will shatter to pieces,” she admits.  “But I soldier on, pushing my limits.”

Sometimes, the emotional pain overwhelms my physical strength. With immense effort, I urge myself forward. Just take one step, one more step.

What could a runner learn from Scoti?  Something about the spirit that keeps you moving forward, one step after another, no matter how bad you feel, whether it’s the last quarter mile of a 5k, the last five miles of a 350-mile ultra-marathon, or some challenge or loss in the real world.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”  In other words, keep moving.

I wonder how those Spartan moms really felt.

Thank you for sharing your story, Scoti.

SFC Kristoffer Domeji http://freedomremembered.com/index.php/sgt-1st-class-kristoffer-b-domeij/
SFC Kristoffer Domeji “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) http://freedomremembered.com/index.php/sgt-1st-class-kristoffer-b-domeij/
What a Runner Could Learn from a Ranger Mom

Tales of the Timbisha: Coyote Races

View of Death Valley and the Panamints from Zabriskie Point Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

A long time ago, the animals were people.

Coyote’s brother Wolf told Coyote, “I want you to run a race with the five Mountain Sheep brothers.”  The mountain sheep weren’t very fast, Wolf thought.

“Just as soon as you outrun the five brothers,” Wolf said, “I will be there to cut their throats.”

Wolf had picked a certain place for them to start, at the crest of a mountain.  Witnesses were stationed at key points along the course.  As they milled around the starting place, people got to saying that the mountain sheep were good runners.  Then they saw Coyote, looking strong and fresh.

The race started.  Coyote had little trouble outrunning the sheep.  Before they were halfway, the Mountain Sheep were panting, gasping for air.  Coyote got to the end of the course with ease.  He went around doubled over, pretending he was out of breath.  The people saw him and laughed.  He was most pleased with himself.

Wolf was glad.  He cut the throats of the mountain sheep and prepared a big feast.  The people ate until they were full, and then they ate some more.  Coyote was proud.  He became very sure of himself.

“There’s one thing more,” Wolf said.  “I want you to race the Magpies.”

He gestured to a distant peak.  “The race will start way up on that mountaintop over there.  Three magpies will race you.”

Coyote didn’t like the sound of this.

“You’re not serious, are you?” he asked.  “The Magpies are mighty birds.  If I lose, they’ll kill me and eat me.”

“There would be lots of spectators,” Wolf said, shrugging.  “All the people would be watching you.”

So the day of the race came.  The Magpies arrived before Coyote.  Then Coyote came, stepping from rock to rock (as was his superstition).  One of the witnesses sounded the start.  On both sides of the course, the spectators cheered and shouted.

Wolf had told Coyote, “If we win, we’ll get all the pretty feathers of the Magpies.  I want the feathers for my head.  The wings I want for my buckskin suit.”  Now Wolf took up his station at the end of the course and waited there patiently with a long, sharp knife, its blade glinting in the desert sun.

Coyote started.  He tore along on the ground, raising a cloud of dust.  But the Magpies folded their wings against their bodies and dove.  The course was all downhill, and the Magpies hurtled through the air.  When Coyote reached the bottom of the valley, the Magpies were already there, waiting for him.

Coyote didn’t know what to do.  He tried to hide.

“All right now,” the Magpies said, “we’re ready to butcher you.”

“Don’t butcher me right away,” Coyote pleaded.  “Let me go bathe in the cool creek before I die.  That way, I’ll be clean.”  They agreed.

Coyote ran to the creek and dove under the water. He tried to hide under some green weeds that were growing in the running water.  But the Magpies’ quick eyes found him.  They ducked under the water and dragged him out.  They killed him.

Wolf did not get his feathers.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: Coyote Races