Friday, August 24, 2012

Farewell to summer

The light is changing, as it does each year when summer reaches towards fall.

In June, we welcome the light as it brightens, sharp sunshine that shimmers with heat and long days and summer plans. In July, it seems the brightness will last forever. And then, suddenly it always seems, it is late August. The dark of night seeps into each day a bit earlier. The sunlight is still strong, but somehow not as energetic as it was a week or two ago. The light is changing.

The first time I really noticed the alteration of late summer light I was on my mountain bike in Colorado, returning to town from a single track ride south of Crested Butte. The light was still bright, but seemed more golden than white as it sifted through the mountains onto the open valley floor. The air was heavy with autumnal hues, even as the grass and sage around us held fast to their summer green. It was almost magical, that light in the mountains, and a sure sign that summer was waning.

There was another ride there, near to my front door, short and mellow, and so a favorite for after-work evening jaunts. This trail looped along a river valley, through patches of aspen trees. A friend dubbed it the yellow room in the in-between season of almost-fall. There was the sweet mustiness then that comes with decaying leaves and cooler nights. The sun sank low over town, through the aspens, their leaves rustling and gilded. The air itself seemed golden there, as the late day, late season sunshine reflected from the winding river like a long, amber ribbon.

The landscape is less open here, in the mountains of New Hampshire, and so the change in light not quite as palpable. But the light is changing. Already we notice the darkness edging in just after dinnertime, the sun lazy in its morning rise, the nights cooler than we are, perhaps, ready to accept.

School starts next week, which means it’s fall, even if we’re still weeks away from Equinox. The ferns in the field have browned. The dense canopy of forest on the mountains, seen from afar, is already dulling from bright green toward muted gold as the leaves start their annual transition to red and yellow and russet.

It is a blessing to live in a place of seasonal changes, to be surprised so often by the signals of the changing seasons, even as we know they’re coming. It is hard to let go of the warmth and light and freedom of summer. This year, particularly, it seems I am not ready for the changes that come with fall: from calm mornings and unscheduled days to school routines and regimented hours, from heat and light to frost on the grass and dark evenings.

Perhaps we’ll squeeze in a little more pool time after school hours, savor a few more popsicles, dig our toes into the sun-warmed sand. But the signs are there; summer is on its way out. The light is changing. I will bask in its golden glow for as long as I can.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Making it to the top

Before last weekend, the last time I’d climbed to the top of Cannon Mountain without the aid of a chairlift, a mid-winter moon was rising over the broad, rocky shoulder of Mt. Lafayette, and I had snowshoes strapped to my feet. That quiet evening I was rewarded for my toil with a proposal, a sparkly ring, and a cold beer at the summit.

Almost there!
The scene on the hill last Saturday was markedly different, as I joined a line of sweating, gasping people winding up Cannon Mountain during the final leg of the 20th Annual Top Notch Triathlon. This was my third Top Notch experience, my first coming as an “Ironwoman” 17 years ago, and my second when I ran the race as part of a relay team a decade ago.

My team this year included biker extraordinaire Martha Wilson, who pedaled a great opening leg, passing other riders on the road and in the woods, and all-around athletic superstar Melanie Harkless, who pounded through the swim across chilly Echo Lake and sent me on my way up the mountain with a shout of “Go! Go!” (Mel and I first met at race registration Saturday morning, and I learned after the race that she had previously won the Top Notch as an Ironwoman and held the course record for six years. I know how to pick a good team!)

My goal heading into the triathlon was to finish the climb in less time than it had taken me during my last Top Notch experience, 10 years and many life changes ago. I came within a minute of that goal, barely missing. Thanks to my super-fast teammates, our team finished first in the women’s relay team division, and 9th out of 76 teams.

Over two decades, the TopNotch Triathlon has grown from a relatively small event to one that this year included 261 individual finishers and 76 relay teams, with racers arriving from throughout New England and as far afield as California, Alaska, and Switzerland.

Racers range from serious athletes to casual participants out for a good time, and the roster always includes plenty of locals in each of those categories. The race now even draws the occasional professional triathlete. Despite its growing popularity, the Triathlon remains a community affair, with a neighborly friendliness that stretches from morning registration through the finish high above Franconia Notch, some 10 miles and 3,320 feet in elevation gain later

Besides offering a fun challenge, the Top Notch is also run for a good cause. Proceeds from the event – more than $6,000 annually – go to the Lafayette Recreation Department, where the funds are used as seed money for projects like improving the playground and playing fields at the Dow Strip, installing a gazebo there, and creating new basketball and tennis courts in Franconia.

Milling around the start area before the race, I found a slew of familiar faces – friends, neighbors, kids I used to coach, parents of kids I used to coach, my children’s babysitter. They were all there to cheer someone on, to run the triathlon, or as race volunteers helping register competitors and direct traffic.

Among the crowd, of course, were the Cowles family: Tim and Kim who founded the Top Notch Triathlon back in 1992 and continue to orchestrate the event, and their kids Anne and Tucker.
Once Tim had started three waves of racers Saturday morning, he headed up to oversee the finish. After seeing to endless course set up and registration details, Kim, Anne and Tucker jumped on their bikes and ran the race.

As Top Notchers toiled up Cannon’s slopes Saturday, the mood on the hill remained convivial. Folks being passed on the mountain offered words of encouragement to other racers, even as they gasped for breath. One racer commiserated with a woman just ahead of me who was bleeding from bad scrapes on her thigh and shoulder incurred during the bike leg. A guy near the top gave me a wheezy pep talk as he surged slowly past.

I heard the crowd at the finish before I could see it, as I turned onto the Tramway trail and the final steep stretch. In that crowd were my teammates and my three young children, whose cheers of “Go, Mama, go!” were swallowed by the general shouts of encouragement. As I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by Jean McKenna, one of the friendliest faces around – and one of more than 60 race volunteers who helped orchestrate every Top Notch detail.

At the end of the climb this time around, my reward was high fives from my family, and joining a community of friends and neighbors in celebrating 20 years of a great event. I caught my breath and joined the crowd, which included a growing number of racers, to cheer others through the end. Buoyed by the cheers, as I had been, nearly every racer found a last burst of energy to run through the finish, breathless and smiling all at once.

This essay is also published in this week’s edition of the Record-Littleton. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ready to Run

“You are a goddess!” Those are the words embroidered on the inside of my favorite running skirt. Yes, sometimes I run in a skirt. It’s a skort, actually – that fantastic combination of shorts and skirt that has made many a woman feel like a goddess. And it’s what I’ll suit up in Saturday, as I prepare to scramble the height of Cannon Mountain during the 20th annual Top Notch Triathlon.

As triathlons go, this one is a little bit inside out: racers start with a bike ride that traverses pavement and forest trails en route from downtown Franconia to Echo Lake at the top of Franconia Notch, proceed to a chilly swim across the lake, then scramble up the ski trails of Cannon Mountain. (The traditional triathlon format is swim-cycle-run.) From start to finish, the triathletes will travel a distance of roughly 10 miles – a mere smidgen compared to, say, the 140 miles covered in an Ironman event. In that distance, however, Top Notchers gain a total of 3,320 vertical feet, 2,280 feet in elevation gain in the run alone.

The run alone is what I will do as part of a Top Notch relay team Saturday morning. Many years ago, I completed the entire race as an “iron woman.” I last participated in the Top Notch 10 years ago, before I had three kids, when I was pretty fit and nimble and still in my 20s. At least I thought I was fit then, but climbing the mountain suggested otherwise, as men in spandex passed me left and right on my way to the summit. To say I “ran” up the mountain would be, well, a blatant lie. But I made it, and my team did just fine.

This year, with my mountain and road bikes collecting another layer of dust in the garage (sigh), I’ve taken to lacing up my sneakers in the wee hours of the morning or the rare afternoon I am child-free and running the roads and trails around home.

I’ve been an on-again-off-again jogger since high school, when I would run the mile-and-a-half loop near my house a few times a week between soccer season and track season. In college, I kept up my routine of jogging a mile or two here or there as part of my effort stay in shape for soccer. Eventually, these short runs were replaced by long bike rides on Colorado single track and cross-country ski treks in the mountains.

When I moved back East nearly a dozen years ago, I discovered the challenge and thrill of road biking, then the challenge and thrill of child rearing, which is a workout in itself, but of an entirely different type.

Running fits most easily, for me, into the family scene, and so it has become my workout of choice. I’ve upped the miles of my regular running routes, and running has become something I look forward to, when years ago it was more of a chore. I like pounding the pavement – and even better is running the trails through the woods. I time myself now, striving to go a little faster each run, and I’ve shaved a minute or two (depending on the length of the run) off my mile time.

When I run, my mind settles. Sometimes I actually go for a run just to calm my thoughts. Often I come up with a story idea, or work through a writing challenge I’ve struggled with, while I’m outside, running. I don’t listen to music, preferring the natural sounds around me – be they birdsong or the engine rev of the speedy Subaru with Vermont plates that delivers the paper along one of my routes. I’ve seen moose on my runs, spooked deer and ruffed grouse, and last week came nearly face-to-face with a black bear.

I am no marathoner, but running makes me feel good, strong. Maybe not quite like a goddess, but close enough.

For the past few years I’ve told myself I should do the triathlon again, start to finish. Alas, my swimming is relegated to the odd stroke in the pool as I splash around with the kids, and I’ve just told you about the bikes.

So, I mentioned the idea of putting a team together to an acquaintance who enjoys competing in the wild and wacky sport of cyclocross. She thought it would be good training for her participation in the 24 Hours of Great Glen bike race the following weekend and recruited a friend for the swim. In a matter of a couple of days, we had a team and were registered to race.

On Saturday we’ll join a few hundred other racers, a fun combination of serious athletes, many folks just out for a good time, and a bunch like me – looking for a physical and competitive challenge with a good dose of fun thrown in.

The Top Notch started off as a purely local event two decades ago and now includes competitors from throughout New England and as far afield as Colorado, California, and Florida. There are still plenty of local racers, of course, and many of them often place near or at the top of the score sheet.

I don’t know where our team will land in the standings. I’m hoping to get to the top faster than I did a decade ago, but I don’t know how realistic that is. I do know that, whatever happens, at the end of the day, the inside of my skirt will still say, “You are a goddess.” And that’s pretty good encouragement.