Wednesday, May 27, 2009

An open letter...

Dear drivers of Portland, Oregon...

Hello. My name is Russ, and I love this fair city. So very deeply. In fact, I adore the entire state of Oregon, with its stately mountains, breathtaking shorelines, and endless supply of microbreweries. In under one year, my love affair with this city, this state, has blossomed into one of utmost sincerity.

But seriously: If you people don't learn how to drive, I'm gonna start bustin' eco-friendly caps in carbon-emission-reducing-asses.

In my lifetime, I've lived in 5 major cities: Chicago, Milwaukee, Nashville, Los Angeles, and Portland. I've driven through 49 of the 50 United States, through Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Those last two involved driving many single lane dirt roads littered with wandering sheep and barking sheep dogs. When you come face-to-face with another automobile, you have to psychically work out how you'll get around one another. Somehow, it always worked out.

And yet this city's drivers regularly cause an eruption of expletives from my lips the likes of which might offend even a fleet of sailors. Or an Irish grandfather. Trust me on that last one.

I've compiled a quick-sheet list I plan on printing out and delicately placing beneath the windshield wipers of every Subaru and vegetable-fueled Mercedes I see. It reads as follows:

Welcome to your car! Once inside, please make yourself comfortable, and keep the following in mind...


• Stop at posted stopsigns. And look BOTH WAYS before accelerating
• Merge onto freeways by gaining speed on freeway entrance ramps
• Pro-tip: Try matching the numbers on your speedometer with the numbers posted on speed limit signs. It's like a little game!
• Remove your foot from the gas pedal within 10 seconds when traffic lights go from "red" to "green"
• Use your turn signal to alert those behind you that you are going to park/turn/pull over to look at pretty flowers/celebrate this amazing experience we call "life, man!"


• Stop when no stopsign is posted at an intersection. Go! I know you do DO it!
• Slow to a crawl in the middle of a crowded, multi-lane road. No matter how desperately you need to find the REI address/food co-op/pub happy hour
• Wave cars sitting at stopsigns to "go ahead" when you yourself do not have a stopsign. While this is polite, it also falls into the realm of "dangerous" and teeters on the brink of "co-dependance"
• Stay in the left lane on a freeway while on your casual, 40 MPH drive. Actually, this also falls into the "Do" category about matching the little numbers on your dash with the numbers on the signs
• Over the course of 5-8 blocks, slllllooooowwwwwly accelerate to the speed limit. I know you're laid back. 7 of the 12 bumper stickers on your car have already alerted me to this fact
• Right turn from a far left lane? Please don't. Please. Just don't.

Now, let's be careful out there!

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Here's your coaster."

These are the words I have heard on numerous occasions after, quite literally, crossing the finish line of an ultra marathon. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Ann and I ambled out the door bright and early to the trails of Forest Park; I, signed up for the 50 KM distance, Ann, for the 10 KM. And boy howdy does morning come early around these parts.

We picked up our numbers, wandered around the start/finish area, stared in horror at the snaking lines for the port-o-potties, when I ran into Ruben (click here to see how he blew my ass away). I'll not save the reveal and tell you now: He KILLED the 50 KM course record and won the freakin' thing in 3 hours, 38 minutes. Then he rode his bike 8 miles home.

Uh huh.

We ran into Brian, who works the kitchen the the pub and is brother to the twin sisters who own it. He's such a mellow, sweet, funny fella, and today was to be his inauguration into the world of ultra running...and marathon running. I don't think he'd run farther than 20 miles in training for this one, which took me back to a young man who approached his first ultra in very much the same way. I am, of course, talking about: Zac Effron.

Kidding! It's me.

We lined up, the 50 KM and the 20 KM racers, the race director tossed a few tips out about trail markings, and I snuggled up beside Ruben, so I could get out ahead of the majority of the pack (the 20 KM had 120 runners, we had 70). Then, with all the pomp and circumstance of any ultra, the RD yelled "Go!" through a megaphone and we were off.

I tailed Ruben the first 1/2 mile (he was running at what I like to call a "sprint") and fell into my own pace once I knew most of the pack was behind me. A few passed me here and there on the winding UPHILLS THAT LASTED FOR THE FIRST 6 MILES. I knew this was coming, but I wanted to see how hard I could push myself on this run, so my mantra was, "Stay on the 'good' side of 'uncomfortable'."

The climb is fairly significant, even if this 50 KM has "only" 3500' of gain (most have more in the 6,000' range) and I wanted to be on pace to hit aid station #1 in 1 hour, 5 minutes or less. I was really pleased to find myself refilling my water bottle and shoving PB and J squares in my mouth in under an hour!

This was both good and bad, as time would tell.

I scooted down the firelane and hooked a left back onto the Wildwood Trail. I smiled, calling it in my mind, "The Engagement Trail", as I'd just passed the spot where I'd proposed to Annie only one month prior. This section is all about down, down, down, and a few runners scooted by me (the 20 KMers turned around at the aid station, so it was just the ultra-weirdos now) and I heard another on my tail. I shouted, "Let me know when you need to get past!", to which he responded, "I'm good - let's keep it up!" This was Taber, and yet again, I met another truly cool person to run with during a big distance race.

I'm very familiar with Forest Park, so there were no surprises (save for one, which is coming up), so I went into auto-pilot, and we chattered away like a couple of schoolgirls amped up on Mountain Dew and the music of Zac Effron (there's his name again...why???). Taber ran the same race last year and very humbly mentioned he that he and his then-girlfriend came in dead-last. I asked his finish time (8 hours, 6 minutes) and gave him the good news that last year, I'd run in the DFL (dead fucking last) 40 minutes after his finish. We talked about our pace, and I told him I was looking to come in between 5:15-5:30, and the pace felt like that was spot-on. Wait until you see how spot-on.

Before we knew it, we were hanging a left up Saltzman Road towards aid station #2. We were about to do a 10 KM loop and then return back to this aid station, and I began thinking that Ruben should be on his way back any minute. Taber needed to use the "facilities" (as in, "not a tree"), but this aid station had no port-o-john. We snarfed down some food while I heard one aid station worker - younger gal - ask a woman around my age, "Do you run too?" Just looking at her, I knew the answer.

Runner-woman: "Yes."

Younger girl: "Marathons?".

Runner-woman: "Uh huh. And ultra marathons too."

Me: "Oh man, you run those? Those people are fucking crazy!"

Pause. Then laughter.

I eyeballed an uncut watermelon and whispered a secret prayer to the ultra gods that it would be sliced on our return, as the heat was growing. Taber and I headed down Firelane 5 to complete our 10 KM loop when, lo and behold, up the steep incline come Ruben, tailed by the 2nd place runner. And by "trotting" I mean "still sprinting" (his pace ended up being 7:03/mile. For 31 miles. On hilly trails.). I yelled, "I knew it! You BASTARD!" He laughed and told me he'd see me later. Yes, as in much later. As in, not on the same day.

We wound up back on Wildwood and rolled along until a small climb on Trillium trail: A nice, level, short, well-groomed piece of single track. I'M LYING, IT WAS STEEP, ROOTY AND LONG. I stopped to use the lavatory (aka, "some random tree") and eventually caught up with Taber again, and down we went. And I mean DOWN. Gas Line Road carries you downhill to Lief Erickson - the road that runs through the heart of the park - and on tired quads, the super-steep downhills came as a big-ass surprise to me. I would venture to say that we were crawling down 25% grade for a short bit. Once that kick in the ass was over, it was a short mile or so on Lief Erickson before we hit the climb back up to Wildwood. I never thought I'd welcome a climb so dearly. We power-hiked up the same bit we'd seen Ruben galloping up earlier and landed back at the aid station, stocking up on foodstuffs and water. Alas, the watermelon still sat whole on the table, as if still awaiting a blow from Gallagher's Sledge-O-Matic.

Down on Saltzman, we hit Wildwood again, which is where the sloshing in my guts began. I figured I downed too much water and not taken in enough salt, so I popped another electrolyte cap and vowed to hold back on H2O. Upon revealing to Taber my stomach issues, he offered his GI distress situation was growing more and more ominous. We were under 5 miles to the last aid station, where a Honey Bucket (grossest name of all times for port-o-potties, FYI) awaited. My legs were feeling a little trashed at this point, due to my pushing a little harder than my comfort zone. I remembered that I hadn't actually tapered my mileage very much during the week, not as much as I would have had I been "racing" this one, so I knew I was paying for it. We hammered the rolling hills and downhills and finally hit the 3/4 mile ascent to the aid station. When we arrived (mile 25), Taber jumped in the Honey Bucket (ew, again) and I made small talk with the aid station worker, who is part of Trail Factor: The local running group I belong to, with which I have yet to run with. Then I saw it:


I think I ate 1/4 of the watermelon. SO GOOD. I took off (Taber and I decided that the last 5 miles, all bets were off) and found myself back on Wildwood, knowing that I'd be losing 900' down to the finish. Piece of cake, right?

Willie Nelson penned a song a number of years back, about the desolation of living alone, called "Hello Walls." At this point, I entertained myself by stating, "hello, wall" over and over, as I'd hit "The Wall" myself around mile 28. I was DONE. I was fascinated by the feeling, taking it in stride; the fact that I thought that the only way I was going to finish this one was to tumble down head over ass to the finish. I engaged in a walk/run scenario, which I cursed on the downhills, and WOOSH, Taber dashed past me with a big ol' smile on his face! Funny how the mental distress of GI issues, once lifted, can send you sailing as though you're at mile 4 and not mile 29. I cheered him on and continued my slog.

"Screw this," I muttered. And began to run. And run. I knew I was about under a mile from the the finish and pushed. Another runner caught me, striding so strongly, I could only imagine how dead I looked by comparison. He yelled, "Let's do it! Let the adrenaline carry you!" and I picked up my pace, seeing the finish only 200 yards ahead. "Go for it!" I yelled, and he took off like a Zac Effron album on the Billboard charts. I've done enough of these big races to know that I can live with the extra 4 seconds on my finish time by finishing strongly and comfortably.

Pumping my arms and giving it my all, I passed Annie who was snapping pictures, and crossed the finish in 5 hours, 24 minutes. And not a single, full step beyond the finish, Wendell - co-race-director with his wife Sarah - smiled and offered the three words that would sum up this day's battle of Man vs Himself:

"Here's your coaster."
(actual moment depicted)

Taber had finished 3 minutes ahead of me, knocking - are you ready? - 2 hours and 40 minutes off his finish time last year! We congratulated one another, Ann and I thanked Sarah for putting together yet another fantastic event, and headed home for a shower and then out to the pub for food and brews. Once there, the phone rang: It was Brian, on the highest runner's high I've ever heard, ecstatic over the experience. AND, he finished only 15 minutes after me! Un. Be. Lievable.

I hope he enjoys his coaster.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Out of the gates, before digging into this, I have to admit: I was a band nerd. I've been a variety of nerds over the span of my lifetime (see below post), but from the ages of 10-16, you could find me snickering over the term "spit valve" or marching the streets in some of the worst uniforms known to humankind:


That second photo appears to be a young fleet of real estate agents invading suburban Chicago. With brass weaponry.

When I was 15, one of my fellow band geek friends (although he played drums, so there was a modicum of cool there) purchased tickets for us to see jazz trumpet legend Winton Marsalis in downtown Chicago at the Chicago Opera house. Note: His uniform? FAR COOLER than any I ever played in:

My friend, Rob, drove myself and two other dorks downtown, parking underground, across Lake Shore Drive, from the opera house. As we clambered and got all psyched to see a show that our grandparents would likely have been into, we passed through an underground tunnel that would pop us up on the sidewalk at the virtual doorstep of the performance hall. Well, somewhere in that 100 foot walk, someone swiped the tickets, and Rob's wallet, from his pastel, padded-shoulder jacket.

Uh oh.

This was discovered while standing at the ticket window in the lobby. Being 15-17 years old, we began to lose, as they say, "our minds". I remember the older woman in the ticket booth being very patient and offering Rob the phone to call home, which he immediately did. As it turned out, his mother had bought the tickets with a credit card, and two phone calls later, the tickets were traced and we all heaved relieved sighs (my GOD, what if we'd brought DATES? Fat chance).

The transitional point is fuzzy, but someone told us to wait in the lobby and that they'd be back in a moment. When they did return, we were told to follow them. Confused, we ambled behind him down a hallway where hundreds of instruments in their cases lined the walls. What the hell was going on?

At the end of the hall, we took a sharp left - I remember that - and our escort opened the door.

Lo and behold, there stood Winton and his band, hanging out in the green room, in a cloud of "strange smoke".

He stood and extended his hand, thanking us for making it down to the show. He told us he was sorry to hear about what had happened but was glad all had worked out.

And just like that, I knew something amazing had just occurred.

The show? I don't remember a piece of it. I'm certain it was mind-boggling and beautiful, but the shock would last for days. All because one man had taken a few minutes to extend thanks and appreciation to a group of giddy young jazz nerds.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Ann will officially hate reading this. Why? Because it's a rant I go on far too often, with the passion of a martyr being hauled to the stake.

It's "The Star Wars Rant", Annie. Please close your browser and forgive me.

I. LOVE. Star. FUCKING. Wars. I saw the original at least 3 times in the theater at the age of 7. I still have my action figure collection, although really, we all know they're small "dolls" and I was a little Nancy to play with them as often as I did...and still do. "PEW PEW! The stormtrooper's dead!" can be heard late at night, erupting from the depths of our basement.

I'll spare everyone the obvious, "GEORGE LUCAS RUINED MY CHILDHOOD!" convulsing cries regarding the last 3 movies. They sucked Bantha pud. And if you know what I mean by that, God love you and your 1983 lightsaber replica.

No, I'm going to perform the ultimate act of sacrilege:

George Lucas phoned in his shit for the first three episodes as well.

Exhibit A: Character naming:

So, the wannabe pilot, trapped on the sands of Tattooine, the boy who dreams of flying through space and defeating the Evil Empire. What was his name?


And what of the renegade smuggler, who plays by his own rules and asks for help/friendship from no one. His name?


Oh, and poor Han. In one of the first scenes we meet him, in the dark cantina of Mos Eisley, who shows up to collect the money Han owes Jabba the Hutt?


These are but a handful of examples that make those close to me want to tear their ears off and shove a Tusken Cycler in my mouth and gently pull the trigger. But one MAJOR plotpoint hit me today while I was on a run (yes, I think about Star Wars when I run. It's a miracle I've ever even touched a girl), and it's a biggie:

In "Empire Strikes Back" ("ESB", my dear geeks), when Luke leaves Dagobah for Cloud City to fight Darth Vader (don't get me started on that Goddamned name. Seriously.), as Luke's X Wing lifts into the skies he so boldly dreamed of one day walking on - just as his name suggests - Obi Wan turns to Yoda, and the following exchange is had:

Obi Wan: "That boy was our last hope."

Yoda: "No, there is another."

This is in reference to Princess Leia, who is Luke's sister. Of course, Luke doesn't know this information yet, and neither does Obi Wan, which is strange because in Episode 3, HE TAKES LUKE AND HIS TWIN SISTER TO THEIR NEW ADOPTIVE PARENTS.

Yes. Obi Wan was there when the two babies needed saving. But somehow, only 20 years later, he completely forgets she even exists. The hell you been smokin' out there in the desert, old man?

Thirdly and finally: I recently read Carrie Fischer's autobiography, "Wishful Drinking". In it, she reveals that beneath the flowing white robes of her Princess Leia costume, Lucas insisted she not wear a bra. When she asked why not, George's response was, "No one in space wears underwear. Because of the lack of gravity, your bra would suffocate you." Apparently, this was said in all earnestness. But here's the conversation as it could have happened in a more honest manner:

"Carrie, I don't think you should wear a bra."

"Why not?"

"Because you are attractive, and the majority of people seeing this movie will be teenaged boys. I would very much enjoy the honor of giving them their first erections."

Of course, two episodes later, Leia winds up in this getup:

Not that I'm complaining.

I don't fault the guy for being, well, kind of a shitty filmmaker when it comes down to it. He built an empire (creepy?) and entertained/continues to thrill audiences worldwide.

In fact, I think I hear IG 88 and Boba Fett calling from the basement. 'scuse me.