Wednesday, November 26, 2014

First Footprints: Watchung Reservation, November 26, 2014

1:30 pm, and my reactions aren’t done.  There is little a chemist can do to speed the work in the lab, so I pick my best friend and first option – heat.  The vials go in an aluminum block at 40 C, slightly over my core temperature, much warmer than the ambient air.  I have a few hours to wait before the endpoints are reached.

The day before Thanksgiving - I’m not supposed to be here anyway, a vacation day placed on the books long before.  I leave the building, step into the frigid outside.  Rain and sleet pelt my face, but I don’t pull up a hood.  Moments later I’m in the rented Chrysler, climate control set to 75 degrees, engine pulling me along the busy, slushy streets.  Soon we climb, leather-wrapped steel beast and I, up the flanks of the Watchung Reservation, skidding dangerously if slowly up the unplowed roads to the head of the Sierra and History trails.

Changing clothes in the driver’s seat of a car is always a bit entertaining, even more so mid-week in cold weather.  I toss slacks and shirt to the back seat; drop loafers into the passenger foot well.  Replace them with shorts, tech shirt, merino wool long-sleeves, trail shoes.  Add a shell, wool cap, and gloves for warmth.  A camera for the moments. 

A deep breath and I’m out in the snow.  The cold isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  The snow on the ground holds together.  It doesn’t immediately soak my feet, and I’m glad for the reprieve.  I snap a photo of the trailhead then run through the image.  Frozen water and iced tree limbs, the bridge over Blue Brook’s unnamed tributary.  Rocky steps up the embankment.  Drooping branches, weighed down by the snow.  White planks of the swamp-passing boardwalk.  Glistening bushes, covered in ice and thorns. A laurel tree, holding fast to green, snow-covered leaves.  I snap photo after photo, until the freezing wind on bare legs reminds me that I’m here to run, not to attempt, however futilely, to capture the first beauty of winter.  I stow the camera in a pocket and run onward.

The trail drops down to Blue Brook, skidding along a slippery path.  I practice the sliding gait of the mountain goat.  At the bridge I turn left, eschewing the crossing.  Crossing leads to miles of rocks and swamp and memories of bruised, battered feet.  Instead I climb the steep ridge back to the Sierra trail.  A fork greets me at the top.  I muse on the road less traveled by; how can you tell which it is, when yours are the first footprints in the snow?  I plunge down the rightward path, downhill and away from the cozy seat of my rented car.  Whether less traveled or not, this is the path to longer running.

The Sierra trail drops back to Blue Brook, then turns away.  I abandon it, cross the footbridge, and climb up the Northern embankment.  On the climb I find my legs have little strength in them.  Is it the cold, or the trace of flu haunting my lungs?  Have sleepless nights, courtesy of job stress and life, robbed me of my vigor?  I patter onward, maintaining cadence.  I realize that the slow pace doesn’t bother me.  If nothing else, the short strides and light footfalls protect me from the uneven ground hidden beneath the snow.  I act and react, act and react, constantly recalibrating my position on the trail, climbing upward to the ridge.

The weakness persists on the Northern ridge.  I realize, despite the joy of running in the snow, that I’ve been moving tensely, worrying about a slip or fall.  I focus on relaxing.  I focus on spreading my toes in advance of the footfall, preparing to catch the ground rather than stab it.  Subtly, my pace increases and my effort drops.  I start to float over the sodden ground, then fly.  I soar over fallen trees, dodge past leaning thorns, splash through slushy puddles, glissade down steep embankments.  The distance ticks by in an effortless stream.

At Surprise Lake I pause, struck by the singularity of an empty bench by the water.  On warmer days this is a place to rest and reflect, a place to let the mind wander.  A place where children sit while parents fish, or where parents sit while children play.  Today it is abandoned and covered in ice.  It is forbidding and unwelcoming, alone.  I imagine my spirit perched beside it, a fair partner, unrealized, then I run onward.  A piece of me, however small, stays behind.  Somehow this place, frozen and silent, seems just about right.

Another climb and I’m back to the car.  A meager half dozen miles, a few hundred feet of climb.  An entry in my log book that wouldn’t garner a glance by its metrics, but a run that, shrouded in snow and mystery, holds a special place.  It’s the first run of this winter.

I drive back to the lab, chat strategy, attend to business.  My feet are still cold.  The reactions, heated, are predictably done.  I work them up, record the data, purify the mixtures.  I place the products in a freezer, awaiting further use.  They cool, and my feet warm.  Balance, however boring, is restored.

I look out through the window, the landscape dark but for the few streetlights.  I finish my reports.  I will leave now to go back to my family.  A part of me, however small, sits on a bench overlooking Surprise Lake.  I feel strung out. 

This weekend I will return to the trails.  I imagine that the snow will still shroud them, despite the many footprints placed in the interim.  I will wear spikes to make sure I don’t fall.  I will run with happiness and joy, and I will search, however futilely, for the part of me, left behind.

A side note on food
In “Eat and Run”, Scott Jurek mentions a raw-food dish derived from Lacinato kale, avocado’s, tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, and vinegar.  The full recipe is apparently available in the book “Raw Power”, but as an experimenter in the kitchen (and a cheapskate!), I’ve avoided buying the book and instead created my own recipe for kale guacamole.  It turned out remarkably well.  Here’s what I used:

½ pound Lacinato or tuscan kale, finely chopped (note: if your hands aren’t tired, it’s not chopped finely enough)
1 table spoon sea salt
Juice of two lemons
2 table spoons rice vinegar
Mix these ingredients into the kale, press, then let the mixture age while you prepare the guacamole

4 avocados, diced
1 and ½ cups tomatoes, diced (preferably a mix of roma and yellow heirloom)
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, pressed
Juice of two limes
Diced jalapeƱo to taste (note: children don’t like jalapeƱos)
Add these ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then add the kale.  I use a pastry blender to homogenize the mixture.

I serve the resulting guacamole with celery sticks, red and yellow pepper slices, and carrot sticks.  It works best as an hor d’oeuver or side rather than main fare.  The dish is vegan with a high fat/carbohydrate ratio and reasonably high calorie density, ideal for low-inflammatory recovery from a long, intense cardiovascular effort.  It is not a complete protein, so it should be served as a side to a grain/legume or meat-based dish.