Portrait of Walt Whitman, by Thomas Eakins, 1887-1888, in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

I was reading an article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, and came across a mention of a Walt Whitman quote, “I contain multitudes”.  I had to search a bit to find the whole quote.  It is from a long poem, “Song of Myself”, part of his work “Leaves of Grass”.  The full quote, from stanza 51 of the poem, “Do I contradict myself?, Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”  I had not heard this before, and certainly had never taken on the daunting task of reading Leaves of Grass.

Finding it interesting to read a bit about Walt Whitman, I tucked this information away for later study.  Then, on Thanksgiving day, my son, who is well into adulthood, said, off the cuff, “I am multitudes”, while entertaining the rest of the family.  I was awestruck.  I just had read about this, and to my recollection, had not heard it before I read about it a couple of weeks earlier.  I asked him, “do you know where that comes from?”.  He wasn’t sure, but when I mentioned it is from Walt Whitman, he had some idea he had heard it before.

Way back in high school, some guy I didn’t know very well called me a cowboy jock.  I was taken completely off guard.  First of all, I didn’t see myself that way.  I never did rodeo, and while the people who compete in rodeo are terrific athletes, I was not one of them.  I think he meant I was a cowboy and a jock.  Again, completely not how I pictured myself.  True, we had horses.  We had three horses at one time in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Where we lived, this was not unusual.  We lived on the edge of the wide open desert.  If we had the urge, we could have ridden from our house all the way to Flagstaff.  I was also on the swim team.  But, if you put together recreational horseback riding and a sport that was utterly not like football, it doesn’t add up to a cowboy jock.  Maybe he was jealous of something, but I don’t really know why.  Clearly it made an impression on me, since I remember it so many years later.  I’ve grown to accept it as who I am.  Sometimes.

Birthplace of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819), Huntington, long Island, New York.

Clearly not my entirety, and not in complete agreement with the other parts of me.  Getting back to Walt Whitman though, what a fascinating and prolific person he was.  We live in his stomping ground.  It was his for part of his life, anyway.  He was born in Huntington, New York, an early town founded in the 1600’s 0n Long Island.  Anyone wishing to learn more about Mr. Whitman can find numerous biographies, telling of his life from multiple perspectives.  He really was multitudes.  I don’t wish to tell his life story here.  That the reader can do for them self.  But he spent his last years in Camden County, living in his brother’s house, later in his own house, in the city of Camden, New Jersey, while spending time in the bucolic countryside of Laurel Springs, from 1873 until his death in 1892.

I often have conflicting beliefs, although not as wide ranging as Mr. Whitman’s.  One of my favorite quotes comes from a sociology professor I had in college.  He said to the class, ‘the purpose of education is to make you confused when you were once certain.”  Perhaps this is the basis of being multitudes.  One must have an open mind, curious, intellectual, and aggressive in acquiring new knowledge, in order to become multitudes.

Two weekends ago, members of my running club were planning a great long run, which I call the Colonial Run.  It begins in my town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, goes through Camden, over the Ben Franklin Bridge, and then courses through colonial streets of Old City Philadelphia.  We run up Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the USA, built in 1702.  We run by Betsy Ross’ house, the Christ Church, Ben Franklin’s grave site, and of course, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.  Then we continue on, through the famous Philadelphia City Hall, with William Penn’s statue on top, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, and finish up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  We were stymied, though.  It snowed the day before the run, and the pedestrian walkway on the Ben Franklin Bridge was closed.  We changed our plans, and ran the “drives”, the West River drive and Kelly drive, and were still able to finish on the steps of the museum.  However, after reading about Walt Whitman, when we do reschedule this epic, 14 mile run, I intend to take the course past the Walt Whitman house in Camden.  We may even run past his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery, also in Camden.

I came across another “multitudes” quote just recently.  In “Delusions of Gender, How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference,” by Cordelia Fine, Honorary Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, she writes, on page 7 (yes, early in the book),  “…even if your personality offers little to hold the interest of  a shrink, there is nonetheless plenty in there to fascinate the social psychologist.  This is because your self has multiple strings to its bow, it’s a rich complex web, it has a nuance for every occasion.  As Walt Whitman neatly put it, ‘I am large:  I contain multitudes’.”

The Walt Whitman House, 330 Martin Luther King Blvd., in Camden, NJ.

Walt Whitman (per Wikipedia) held opinions on many aspects of life, such as drink (against), slavery (against) and equal rights of men and women (for).  His Leaves of Grass, and in particular, Song of Myself, were harshly criticized for his expressions somewhat covert, of sexuality, including references to homosexuality.  He extolled the virtues of sunbathing nude.  He was nationalistic and patriotic, but wrote in a way to praise liberalism and democracy.  He wrote in a free form style, criticized by some, but praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He respected all religions, but did not believe in them himself.  He is described variably as immanent (feeling that god is within everything), or transcendent (that god is external to everything), or more of a pantheist.

In spite of these views outside of mainstream, or socially acceptable thought, in spite of writing in free verse, of challenging the norms of religion, he is revered as the American Poet.  When he died more than one thousand people came to his home to pay their respects.  There is a bridge over the Delaware River named after him.  Being aware of the many works of Walt Whitman, knowing about his life, may come as no surprise to those who studied him in college, or just through curiosity.  But, I was not informed about his life and writings and will do my best to make up for that deficit.  First, though, I must sit down with Song of Myself, and see how much I can understand.  It is tough reading.

Walt Whitman Tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ. Photo by iirraa on flickr

In the spirit of the season, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.  May 2018 be better than 2017.

The Aging Carrot



As I  was digging up our carrots from our garden, having left them to grow the whole summer, I was pleasantly surprised to find the above carrot couplet you see on your left.  Why, it looked like an adoring couple, snuggling together, spooning.  I was quite taken by this natural representation of love, so I set the carrots on our counter in the kitchen.  There they stayed for some time.  When I again discovered them, hiding out behind other stuff that got piled around them, they had changed.  Yes, they were still in that loving, gentle embrace, but they lost their hair.  They became shriveled.  Their bright orange color was gone.  The embrace had lost some vital turgor.  In a matter of a few weeks, they went from being youthful and attractive, to stereotypes of the aged.

I am feeling this way, struck by the evil vicissitudes of my aging body.  It seems to have come on rather suddenly, as if a switch was turned.  I was still able to manage a decent marathon in 2015.  But this past year, my times for various races rose like hot air balloons.  What happened to the speed?  Also, I’m feeling pains I used to only feel the day after the marathon.  Now, when I wake in the morning and head downstairs to make coffee, I find myself relying on the banister, as my thigh muscles put out little protest yelps of pain.

I suspect some of this has come about due to my daily schedule and obligations leaving less time for training.  I know, people say, “you have to make the time.”  “There’s no excuse.”  But long work days and, during the winter months, short daylight hours, make challenges to getting out there and maintaining the fitness.  The other aspect, though, is what to expect as we get older.  Listening to the broadcasts of the Australian Open tennis tournament, the announcers stated over and over how shocking it was that the finalists, men and women, were all older than 30(!), and some over 35 (shocking!).  One can only imagine the losses in strength and ability to recover when one is over 60.  One estimate I read is that one loses about 0.6% of one’s overall strength and fitness for each year over 30.  I think that percentage applies to the previous year’s fitness, so that the 0.6% is subtracted not from the level at 30 each year, but from the last year’s level.

When I was 48 I got a book by Joel Friel, called “Cycling Past 50”.  While published in 1998, I think it has a lot of excellent information and advice which can be used in any sport, and certainly beyond 50.  He starts with some graphs showing how our bodies lose muscle, strength, and aerobic capacity as we grow older.  He also shows, in graph form, what happens if one allows extra body fat to accumulate, and it is not a pretty picture.   V̇O2max drops much more by the age of 70 if the percent body fat is 30% as opposed to 15%.  He addresses “task creep”, which he states refers to accumulating more work and responsibility as one hits the peak of one’s professional years in the 50-65 age group.  Beyond cycling specific information, he addresses recovery, nutrition and injury avoidance, all taking on greater importance as we get older but still wish to train and compete.  I also just ordered “Running Until You’re 100”, by Jeff Galloway.  That’s the way to take the long view….

While I feel like that carrot on the right in the top photo, I believe I can persevere and even get a few good races in, in the coming years.  At the same time, I want to continue to enjoy the benefits of aging, such as more freedom to travel, offspring who have become successful in their own lives, and an appreciation for life in general.  Anyway, see you out on the road.


Why I Love the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon

Frank nears the halfway point

Frank nears the halfway point


I have written about this race before, The Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, in which I described the race, its history, and the particularly challenging profile of the course.  In brief, the first half of the race is relatively flat after an initial downhill first mile.  Then, there is a long and sometimes steep, 2.5 mile uphill climb, a number of turns through neighborhoods, then a downhill stint to the final steep uphill 1/3 mile to the finish.

This race is run the third Sunday in March, when chill winds still blow.  In fact, this year, we had a snowstorm all day Friday two days before the race.  Most of the snow on the streets melted the following day when it rose to 50˚F, but then the temperature dropped back to below freezing that night.  For race day, we had gusty winds and temperatures in the low 40’s.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

What is good about this race?  It is one of the first races of the early spring, meaning to be in shape, one must train through the winter.  So, it encourages fortitude in training when the weather is frigid, daytime hours are few, and the conditions on the ground can be pretty miserable.

It is a race with a history.  It is one of the first half marathons in the country, first run in 1964 when Browning Ross, from Woodbury, NJ, won it in 1:07:24.  It has been run every year since then, making this year the 52nd running.

It is well organized.  Runners are given permission to use the Downtown Wilmington YMCA locker rooms, to store gear, use indoor restrooms, and provide showers after the race.  Few races I know of have that sort of facility available.  Picking up one’s number and race packet is simple and done on the day of the race.  There is a very friendly bag drop manned by volunteers.  In fact, there is a friendly atmosphere throughout, and senior Delaware Senator Tom Carper, former Delaware governor and congressman, former naval air commander during the Viet Nam war, runs the race with the rest of us.

It is for a good cause.  The money raised goes to support the American Lung Association, certainly an easy tie in with running.

From a personal view, this was my first half marathon, and the race I keep returning to year after year.  I first ran it in 2007, missed 2008, but have run it every year since.  Up to this year, I have been kind of stuck in a rut, time-wise.  My times these past years have been fairly consistent:

2007  1:51:59

Brandon at the finish line.

Brandon at the finish line.

2008  Didn’t run

2009 1:49:45

2010  1:49:48

2011  1:49:40

2012  1:53:35

2013  1:49:16

2014  1:49:34

This year I wanted to break out of my rut.  I ran fairly consistently through the darkest days of winter, through slush and cold rain, enjoyed the occasional cold but sunny morning run on the weekends, and was feeling pretty good going into the race.  Still, I had some trepidation.  I know the course, and how challenging it is.  After running it all these years I know every turn, and know when it seems like the race will never end.

So, I lined up with everyone else at the start, and took off feeling good.  One cannot help feeling good in a race which starts heading downhill for a mile.  Of course, the clever among us will recognize uphill is coming.  Instead of feeling washed up as the road headed up, though, I felt I still had some energy in me, and managed to gut out the 2.5 mile climb mid-race.  I cruised back down the hill towards the finish, and my good friend and running partner, Brandon, came back to encourage me on the last mile.  This all resulted in a very satisfying finish of 1:47:56, my best half marathon anywhere.  I finished fifth in my age group, averaging 8:15 per mile.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

Now, I’ve set the bar higher for myself, and each year get older.  I’ll really have to turn up the training screws next winter.

Arrivederci Winter

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 5, 2015.

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 6, 2015.

The whole eastern part of the U.S. was under the icy clutch of a band of frigid air the last two weeks. This air traveled from the Pacific, over the north pole, through the northern reaches of Canada, freezing Niagara Falls as it crossed the border and settled on our home. When winter comes upon us, everyone wonders, will this be another year of little snow and mild temperatures, or will we get hit with big snowstorms, creating scenes of pathways dug through backyards to driveways, snow piled high in parking lots, plows running up and down our roads, salt spray painting our cars gray-white, and people walking through the snow bundled with layers of clothing, knit caps, and big gloves.

While the weather forecasters got it mostly right this year, they did miss on a couple of occasions, when the snow hit Boston but pretty much missed us in South Jersey.  We managed to get a late winter snow three days ago, in the early days of March, while the temperatures were still in the frigid single and teen digits.  I went for an evening run the day of the latest snowfall.  It was only 7:00 PM, usually a time of the later rush hour crowd irritated and pushing to get home, but the roads were oddly quiet.  Since it had been snowing all day, it seems many businesses closed early.  The snow plows had passed through, but the snow kept falling, so the streets were covered with a thin layer of snow which had not turned to ice.  The combination of fresh snow everywhere, low clouds, and streetlights made for a very well-lit run in spite of the sun having disappeared an hour earlier.  There was a nice, faint crunch under foot as I ran, and the cold air felt good in my lungs.  My run took me past many local small shops and restaurants, all closed for the weather.  With one exception, that is.  The bars were hopping.  I think the bar owners get special attention from the snow plow drivers cleaning their parking areas.  Perhaps they need to pay a little extra for this but I’m sure it is worth it.  Teachers can’t get to the schools, but they make it to the bars.  Office workers get in late and sent home early, but they can make it to the bars.  Doctors, lawyers and dentists close early, no patients or clients are braving the slick roads to make their appointments, but they all make it to the bars.  The last few miles of my running route I pass about ten bars and every one of them was doing business like it was St. Patrick’s day already.  There is a quaintness about bars in the depths of winter.  It’s dark outside, the windows are frosted over, and one sees the profiles of the people inside all animated and lively.

In my house, we retreated to the front part of the house where the den with the fireplace is. The back half is beset with all sorts of problems. We live in an old Victorian, and the original design did not account for living in the 21st century. Bathrooms and appliances have been added over the years, and in spite of best intentions, cold air manages to sneak in like a cat burglar, freezing the water within. This past week, as the temperature dipped to a cruel zero, streams of that dense cold air moved in and around our old pipes, freezing some and leading to a couple of burst pipes.  This year, I had the foresight to at least turn off the inflow to these pipes so the damage was minimized, but we’ve had to wait until the thaw before we could fix them.

This weekend, though, brought a break in the icy pattern.  As we clicked over to daylight saving time, temperatures soared to 52 degrees.  The sun shone brilliantly, melting the patches of ice on the sidewalks.  Constant rivulets of water flowed down the street as the snow melted.  And people are out getting all their usual weekend errands in, not sure how to deal with a day when the only cover up needed is a light jacket.

Now we can start thinking about getting the garden ready for planting, cleaning up the debris that conveniently was covered up by the snow, and watch the road crews fixing all the treacherous potholes which have multiplied the last few weeks.  I’m sure in a couple of months we’ll be baking in premature heat, barely remembering how cold it got and stayed this winter.  Before that happens, I’d like to have a few more fires in the fireplace, have a reason to wear long tights and two layers on top when I run, and feel the cold air filling my lungs.

A Slog through the Slush

Here’s how the conversation, via text, went:

It’s all slush and big puddles out there do you think we should run?  And it is raining, too.

Sorry, just saw this.  Let’s go for it.  We won’t know till we try

Okay.  I am just getting ready now.

Take your time driving over.

That was at 6:45 this morning.  The snow, rain, freezing rain, and sleet had started the night before.  I was out with friends in Philly, and late at night, heading for the train, we marveled at the enormous size of the snow flakes falling steadily.  With the temperature close to freezing, they turned to slush as they hit the ground.  This morning, I stayed in bed as late as I could but still make a 7:00 AM start to my morning run.  My running partner and I had the above conversation and so I was committed to the run.  I was relieved, since I didn’t want to be the one to make the call, knowing this would not be our best run of the year.

We had to gingerly pick our way from his front door out to the street, not wanting to start running with cold, wet feet.  The road had not been plowed, and while the “inches” of snow were not that much, it was all wet and forming large pools of ice slurry.  We started off very slowly, running along areas cleared by tire tracks, being careful not to slip as we went downhill towards our loop around the park.  We had to run in the street rather than the multi-use path, which was completely covered by this slurry.  As we ran, we picked up the pace a bit.  Along the Cooper River, the geese were out in force, coping with the conditions without a problem, as far as I could see.  Approaching the far end of the loop around the park, the path was one large slush puddle, which we muddled through.  Now my shoes were wet, and my feet cold.  On the far side of the park, the road was narrowed by construction.  We had to run along on the road, with cars passing us closely and spraying ice and frozen water on our legs.  I think it was partially on purpose, since not all the cars came that close.  We moved over to the construction zone, running in ruts created by a truck that had gone through recently.  As we ran we were able to have a nice conversation, since the forced slow pace made talking that much easier.  We talked about running in the winter, and also about the play I saw last night at the Lantern Theater.  The play, called “Doubt, A Parable”, by John Patrick Shanley, takes place in a Catholic School in the Bronx, in 1964.  The story is that of an older nun, the principal of the school, suspecting the priest of having sexual relations with one of the boy students.  The story gets complicated when one hears the boy’s mother’s side of her son’s life.  The play takes only ninety minutes with a single act, and seems to leave out some crucial inner thoughts of the four characters.  One critic I read afterwards suggested the second act was when the audience discussed their feelings about the play.

Our run finished with a long uphill climb and then a flat last mile, still with the skies gray, and our feet cold and wet.  But accomplishing our seven miles, and then warming up with a change to dry socks and shoes, a dry shirt, and a hot cup of coffee was very satisfying.

A parable is a short narrative about individuals meant to be an example of a larger truth.  So, this narrative I relate to you shall also be short, and meant to convey that even when nature is uncooperative, getting out and doing is better than holing up and not doing.


Enlightenment versus Romanticism and Marathon Training

Is marathon training a product of the Enlightenment, the age of reason, or is it more a result of romanticism, seeking nature and intuitive feeling?  In the era of the Enlightenment, men, well almost only men due to the circumstances of the time, were not likely to be out running for sport or athleticism.  Descartes did not write, “curro, ergo sum”, or “I run, therefore I am.”  He did write “Cogito, ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am.”  Who were the famous people of the Enlightenment?  Sir Isaac Newton stands out.  His laws of motion laid the basis for centuries of physics study and they may say something about running.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  A lot can be read into that statement, beyond the mere physics.  One pictures a runner who needs to get out daily and run or his or her day is not complete, versus the person lying on the divan waiting for divine intervention to get moving.  The second law states that the force exerted on an object is equal to its mass times acceleration.  Another way to look at that is the acceleration equals the force divided by the mass, meaning the lower the mass, the greater the acceleration.  So, when you lose weight, and get into running trim, less force is needed to get up to speed.  His third law about equal and opposite actions may be more applicable to ice hockey than running.  Other famous individuals include Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant and John Locke.  They wrote about individual liberties, blending logic, reason and empirical knowledge, and religious freedom.  They represented those who felt selling indulgences was not the way to heaven, which began with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  I read this as one cannot buy himself into anything that takes dedication, work and time, never mind the implications to organized religion.  Our own Ben Franklin was a great thinker, inventor, writer, politician and leader.  He was not a runner, as far as I can tell.  He was part of the Enlightenment, and his words and works had great impact in his time and forward.  A reading of famous quotes from Poor Richard’s Almanac provides the curious with plenty of sayings to thinku about while running solo on a 20 miler.  Here’s a taste:  “The noblest question in the world is:  What good can I do in it?”  We’ll return to that thought.

How do romanticism and running relate?  Romanticism followed the age of reason, as a reaction to the scientific and industrial advances which seemed to obliterate the beautiful, natural and emotional.  To a scientist, Maxwell’s equations were beautiful, but to Lord Byron, beauty was found in nature, love, turmoil, adventure, and pleasure.  George Gordon Byron, called “Lord” because at age 10 he inherited the lordship of Byron, was born of a profligate father named Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, a rogue and scoundrel who apparently had anger problems.  Lord Byron, a most famous figure of the romantic era, who wrote “She walks in beauty”, and a wealth of other poems, long poems, satires and tales, was an athlete and warrior.  This was in addition to being a lover, adventurer, cad, and debtor.  He was known for boxing and equestrian skills, and played cricket.  Many other authors, poets, musicians, and artists, including Jane Austen, Delacroix, Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley, who penned “Frankenstein”, defined this era.  Romanticism meant defying order, industrial progress, rigid attachment to religion and social norms, and seeking the whole of natural and human experience.  Does this sound like a marathon runner?  In many ways, I think it fits.  We train under all sorts of adverse conditions, from the sweltering heat of summer to the icy roads of winter.  We train in the dark, and in the rain.  We gather at the local pub to swap running stories while downing pints of beer.  Our goals may be ephemeral, enjoying the training as much as the racing.  We are smitten by the beauty of our co-runners, their form and grace.

When training for a marathon, we are drawn in by plans which prescribe the length, the pace and the frequency of our runs.  There are competing programs, and some swear by one while others will follow a different program.  Some, like scientists in a lab, will try different programs and measure success by the outcome of their latest race.  We use the latest technology of the day, GPS, Garmins, heart rate monitors, and smartphone apps.

Counter to this is the marathoner who just wants to finish the race and is not so concerned about a Boston Qualifier.  This is the runner who gets in the zone, and is focussed on the Zen of the run.  He or she is still facing the great challenge of 26.2 miles, a long run, but who eschews technology and goes for the feel.

Regardless of one’s perspective, what good can we do?  Does running a marathon help mankind or is it a personal indulgence so inwardly focussed to be useless to society?   This question could be fodder for pages of argument, but not here.  I would say it is both a personal indulgence and a way to enhance life experiences for many.  It keeps us fit.  It engages us socially, away from the desk and computer.  With the enormous growth in popularity of marathon running, it has become an economic boon for many cities.  I’ve been impressed and amazed by the support given by the crowds lining the course.  I think marathon runners set a great example of dedication to the supporters, who in turn provide us with encouraging cheers and clever signs to make it across the finish line.  My readers can let me know whether Enlightenment or Romanticism best represents the marathon runner, but ultimately, it is a noble effort.

Note 1:  Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, was an example of Enlightenment wrapped in Romanticism, designing the first type of algorithm used in an early type of computing machine.

Note 2:  the header photo shows Lord Byron’s scrawled name in a pillar in the dungeon of the Chateau de Chillon, where he was inspired to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, photo by the author.

Un détournement de Chamonix.


Chamonix, and a view of Mont Blanc

On my return from Chamonix, the most common question asked of me was how I was treated by the French.  I said very well, but my friends weren’t buying it.  Weren’t they rude and dismissive? Or, do I speak French, and so had an easier time.  Or, if one just makes an attempt to speak French, is that enough?  Until one travels to a foreign country (foreign to the traveler, not so foreign to the people living there), it is difficult to understand the experience.   In the case of Chamonix, it is an international resort, welcoming adventuresome people from all over the world throughout the year. French is the native language, but English, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, and Polish, were among the languages I heard while there. There is no doubt about it’s French nature, though. This is evident in the super marché, or super market.  Generally, ski towns have very nice super markets, and here is no exception.  But the meats and cheeses were the best, the wines excellent for about $7-10, the alpine butter delicious, and the choices of fresh vegetables, superb.  It was a very busy place, and typically, around 4 to 5 PM, the locals were crowding the store to buy food for dinner.  It is not customary there, to stock up for a week or more.  How would the food be fresh?  There were boulangeries (bakeries) on every street, and the image of a person carrying a baguette or two sticking out of the bag or backpack is real.  The bread is devine, crusty, yeasty and just the right texture.  Pâtisseries, the pastry shops selling incredible raspberry tarts, eclairs, and other sweets are also common, their wares displayed in windows to lure in the customers.
I don’t speak French, at least not well enough to engage in a conversation, and I may never, but I took the time to learn a little, and have picked up some over the years. While this is an international town, not everyone speaks English, so it helps to know a bit of the native tongue.  Whenever I am in France, I am reminded of the brilliant essay by David Sedaris, “Me talk pretty one day” , in which he describes his attempts to get conversant in French. It is so funny and true, and dangerous to read in company. You’ll embarrass yourself.

I was in Chamonix for a ski trip with friends from Pennsylvania and the UK.  We are an interesting mixed group, thrown together by chance and acquaintanceship, and of varying abilities on the slopes.  Yet we invariably have a great time, and plenty of adventure to boast about.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

We arrived in Geneva on Sunday, March 2, and took a van to Chamonix.  We were dropped off at our elegant Chalet close to the center of town.  One advantage of going with a sizable group, there were eleven in ours, is that we can rent a whole chalet together, and get the benefits of a kitchen, nice rooms, and comfortable living areas.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet was, according to the “bible” left for our perusal by the owners, originally a home built for a physician in Chamonix, over 100 years ago.  It was solidly built, and the current owners upgraded everything to modern standards, with bathrooms in all the bedrooms, a huge, modern kitchen with an industrial stove, and even an outdoor hot tub, which we certainly did make use of.  A few peculiarities of local life:  recycling is done, but one must carry the trash and recyclables to receptacles in town, where there are big bins for trash, glass, plastic and paper.  Bags are not free in grocery stores.  They do sell reusable shopping bags, though.  Vegetables and fruits are weighed by the customer on a scale near the produce section, which spits out a label with the weight and cost.  Without this, one is sent back by the check-out person to fulfill one’s responsibility.

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Chamonix is famous for extreme sports, winter sports, and mountain climbing.  The mural above shows early, formative members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, an association for the guides in this region.  The woman depicted at the top, Marie Paradis, at the time a worker in a hotel, was the first woman to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc, in 1808.  Chamonix was the home of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.  Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, can be seen clearly from the town, and is a primary attraction here.  The Vallée Blanche is the ski route off of Mont Blanc, accessible from L’Aiguille du Midi, the highest reaching cable car in the valley.  It is unmarked, unpatrolled and quite a challenging run.  I did this run in 2003, with a group from Philadelphia, led by a guide named Christian.

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

Our guide, Christian.

Our guide, Christian.

Some of our group did this same run this year.  I decided not to go, having done it once and survived.  The skiing, though, in this region is not easy.  While there are slopes meant for beginners and intermediates, they are pretty tough due to their steepness and iciness.  Up high at the top of the multiple ski areas which surround the valley, the snow is good and the views amazing.  But the runs at that height are steep, ungroomed, and mainly moguls.  My friends Teresa and Kristine and I took on the second most challenging descent, off the top of Grand Montets, the Point de Vue run along the Argentière glacier.

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

During this trip we also spent a day on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the Monte Bianco side, in Courmayeur.  To get there, we took a bus from Chamonix through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel.  This eleven kilometer long tunnel runs under Mont Blanc, and was the site of a fire in 1999, due to a truck catching fire which was carrying flour and margarine.  Thirty-nine people died, and the tunnel was closed for three years after that for repairs and improvements.  Our bus left from the Chamonix train station and took us directly to the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, with no problems to report.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Skiing in Italy seemed a bit more fun and lighthearted than skiing on the French side.

Enjoying a break in Courmayeur.

Teresa, Christine, Simon, AJ, Drew, Eric, Jen, Paul, Kristine and Frank enjoying a break in Courmayeur.  Thanks, Will, for taking the photo.

The challenges were there, too, as we learned ascending to the top of the Youla gondola.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Traveling to really get away, to have an adventure, take some risks, and be out of range of work allows one’s batteries to recharge.  We had great food, some cooked by our chalet’s caretaker named Abdel.  He is Algerian by birth, with a Moroccan passport, and he loves to cook.  He prepared several dinners for us, including a Moroccan style dinner, and a fondue dinner.  Always he would include fresh salads and lots of vegetables, unlike what a restaurant meal might provide.  We played a truly bawdy card game called “Cards against Humanity”, which we learned from our UK representatives, was heavily weighted toward Americanisms.  Nevertheless, it had us rolling with laughter.  We drank plenty of beer and wine, and completely enjoyed ourselves.

I arrived home late Sunday night and had to be at work the following morning at 6:30.  It was a jarring reminder that I don’t live the holiday, jet-set life full time, only on special occasions.  I also have a half-marathon coming up, and the week of skiing is hardly preparation for a run.  I did run a couple of times in Chamonix, with Will, the eighteen year old who needs to stay in shape for lacrosse.  Good that I was able to keep up with him, although he did carry a backpack on our runs.  By the way, the French people I met were very friendly and forgiving of my grade-school French.  It was a great get-away, and I am looking forward to the next big adventure.

How to make Black Eyed Peas

Pat, a delightful nursing assistant with whom I work, was disappointed we would be missing the hospital cafeteria’s soul food extravaganza out in our surgical center, away from the main hospital.  This was an homage to black history month.  I suggested to her we should put together our own soul food pot luck for lunch, and she was quite enthusiastic about that.  In fact, just about all the nurses and techs in our surgical center wanted to contribute something.  I realize I am not black, nor do I have a “soul food” background.  But there is a crossover between Texas cooking and soul food, and I know a bit about Texas cooking, so I offered up my own version of black eyed peas as my contribution.

First, buy some ham hocks.  This is the far end of the leg of the pig, before the foot.  It has meat, but also tendon, bone marrow, fat, and skin.  I like them smoked.  (Michele, my running friend who is meat free, turn away at this point).

Smoked Ham Hocks

Smoked Ham Hocks

Put these in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a slow boil.  Cook them like this for a couple of days with a bay leaf, five or six hours a day, replacing the water as needed to keep them covered.  Let chill, skim off the fat, and set aside.  One day into this process, clean one pound of dry black eyed peas, and start an overnight soak in cold water.

Dried Black Eyed Peas

Dried Black Eyed Peas

On the day of cooking the peas, drain the soaking water, rinse the peas, and return them to a large pot.  Take the chilled pot of ham hocks, which after boiling for two days, have turned the water into a wonderful, protein rich gelatin.  The meat has been cooked to a nice tenderness.  Remove the skin, and carefully extract all the bony pieces.  There will be lots of small bones, and one gets to plow through the hocks with bare fingers, extracting the meat from the bone.  Pick out any cartilage or sinew not wanted in the final mix.  Cut or shred the meat into little bits.  Add all the gelatin and the meat to the peas.

Take one good-sized green pepper and chop into small bits.  Likewise, shop an onion.  Saute these in oil until the onions are translucent and the green pepper looks thoroughly cooked.  Add this to the pea pot.  Add water as needed to just come up to the level of the peas.  Add freshly ground black pepper, sage, and salt to taste.  Don’t over salt, since there was salt in the ham hocks.  Add several dashes of Tabasco sauce, or if you really want them hot, use cayenne pepper.

Bring the mix to a boil, and cook for 35 minutes.  Unlike a lot of beans, the black eyed peas don’t require a long cooking period.  Cooking them too long turns them into mush.  Once they are cooked, check the seasoning to be sure the heat is right.  Let chill over night.

We served these the next day by warming in a crock pot.  They were a big hit, along with all the other incredible contributions to the lunch.  We had collard greens, smokey red beans, chicken, several versions of mac and cheese, rice, corn fritters, corn pudding, green salads, and lots more.  There were several different chocolate cakes, too, since everyone likes chocolate cake.  I think we came out way ahead of the cafeteria’s offerings.

It’s still very cold here in New Jersey.  While we are facing single digit temperatures, trying to get the running miles in, facing snow, ice and wind, it’s not bad to have some nice comfort food to keep us going.

Whole lotta chafin’ goin’ on

I noticed when I got up this morning that the sky looked a bit dark and uniform.  The sun had not risen yet, so I couldn’t tell if the sky was clear or overcast.  It wasn’t as cold as it had been the last few days, around 40 degrees F, so I dressed lighter than for a frigid run.  I checked the weather on  It showed a massive band of rain heading our way, and it looked like it would reach us around 11:00 AM.

We gathered for our usual run this morning, Sunday, December 29, in front of our local running store, the Haddonfield Running Company.  About 12 runners were out this morning, one new to our group; the rest were the usual gang.  Our typical Sunday run is a thirteen mile loop starting at 7:30, followed by coffee at Starbucks.  We have a number of runners in the group who have started their training for the Boston Marathon, April 21, 2014.  For them, the weather is not an issue.   They are committed to run regardless.  The rest of us have our various races scheduled in the spring, so we also don’t mind getting a few raindrops on us.

I ran from my house to the store, and after a few pleasantries, we started off on our run.  As soon as we started, the ran began.  It was very light at first, just a mere sprinkle.  But not too far into the run, it became a steady, cold rain, with a grey uniform sky, and no real color anywhere.  We kept together as a group, probably from a preservation instinct, unlike other days when the fast ones take off like rabbits.  At first the rain didn’t seem to faze anyone too much.  There was a lot of talk amongst us, about Boston, training, cyclocross racing, geese, news of the day, and so on.  The new guy came from a cyclocross background, and had only been running since he got new running shoes for Christmas.  Geese are everywhere we run around the Cooper River Park.  They are Canadian geese which have settled permanently in our neighborhood.  They don’t migrate anywhere; they are perfectly content to stay here the year round.  Every year a new gaggle of goslings is produced, and the numbers just keep going up and up.

As the run went on, the talk trailed off.  We really just wanted this run to be over.  The rain continued with small, cold drops that now had drenched us thoroughly.  Puddles were all around, and impossible to avoid completely, so our shoes and socks got soaked, too.  We made a quick stop for a drink at the Cooper River boat house.  Oddly, there is no water fountain on the premises, so we have to drink from the faucets in the restroom.  As we got going again, we all noticed how cold we had gotten from just a quick stop.  Crossing a road on the way back, a driver, who had the right of way, stopped to let us cross the road, no doubt wondering why presumably sane people would get out and run in this weather.  While a couple of the group cut the run a bit short toward the end, my friends Tony and Brandon and I gutted it out for the full thirteen miles.  Brandon, who is usually one of the above mentioned rabbits, seemed content to hang with us older, slower types today.  I noticed, after I had stopped, that my body temperature seemed to plummet.  I made straight for the Starbucks, and grabbed my backpack.  I headed for the restroom to change into dry clothing.

The coffee shop has a gas fireplace, which was very welcome today.  We were all shivering on arrival, but rapidly warmed up in front of the fire.  After I got home, I hopped in the shower.  Yeowww!  Those areas that had been rubbed raw by the wet clothing were suddenly and shockingly evident as the hot water sluiced over me.  The shower felt awfully good, though, and once done, I put on some warm jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and stayed indoors the rest of the day.  We have only a couple of days left in 2013.  To all my family, friends, fellow bloggers, and running mates I wish you all a healthy and happy new year.

SJAC members hanging out at Starbucks after our Sunday morning run.

SJAC members hanging out at Starbucks after a Sunday morning run.

Running in the Dark

Running in the Dark

I’m up early this morning
Down the stairs I make my way
Stumble into the kitchen
Getting ready to face another day
Put on some coffee
Man, it’s cold and dark outside
Gobble down some granola
Get a hot shower,
Then it’s off to work I ride.

Now winter’s on us,
Streetlights are lit when I’m home from work
Gotta keep on training
Even though I’m just running in the dark

Just getting home now
Boy, today was kind of rough
Nothing went easy
Had to really show that I am tough
The sofa is calling
Open a beer and just sit back
No one is pushing me
Who’s to know I took some slack

Now winter’s on us,
Streetlights are lit when I’m home from work
Gotta keep on training
Even though I’m just running in the dark

I head up the stairs
Put on the pants with reflective stripes
Long sleeve shirt next
Then the vest that’s shinin’ bright
Gloves ’cause it’s cold out
Warm socks and then my old Brooks
Hat and a headlamp
No, I’m not dressing up for looks

Now winter’s on us,
Streetlights are lit when I’m home from work
Gotta keep on training
Even though I’m just running in the dark

Dodging the traffic
Getting started on my run
Garmin is reading
And it’s starting to be fun
Christmas lights are shining
Illuminate the way for me
I know why I do this
It feels so great to be so free

Now winter’s on us,
Streetlights are lit when I’m home from work
Gotta keep on training
Even though I’m just running in the dark

Wanna’ keep on running
The training game ain’t just a lark
Gotta keep on going
Even though I’m just running in the dark
Even though I’m just running in the dark
Even though I’m just running in the dark
Even though I’m just running in the dark

With apologies to the Boss.

Uncorking Croatia


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