Monday, March 23, 2009

Coffee & Biscuits: The Shamrock 4 Miler

It was cold last Saturday when I got out of bed and out the door at 6:30 in the morning. I headed over to the Stonecrest Shopping Center in Ballantyne to run the Shamrock 4 Miler, a race organized by Run For Your Life stores located throughout Charlotte (see blog post "Run For Your Life").

I don't like running in the morning. I see people running in the dark, dressed from head to toe, slugging along the sidewalk when I take my wife to work. The little reflective patches on their running gear flash in the headlights as I pass by in my warm car, still in my PJ's. I understand that some people have to run early because they don't have that kind of time to put the miles in after work. But for me: I don't like running early in the morning. If I have to watch the sun come up I like wearing my moccasins, drinking coffee.

So here I was out in Ballantyne*, in the cold, ready to run a race that stretched four miles, down one side of Ballantyne Commons Parkway and back up the other. I showed up early because I've had some injuries in the past and now have to take a lot of time to warm up and stretch. The Shamrock festival ground was filled with all sorts of runners and their family members. There were booths from The Flying Biscuit restaurant, a radio station, The Great Harvest bread company, a coffee company, there was a bounce house for the kids, and a booth from Run For Your Life. The thought crossed my mind that I could just skip the race and hang around the booths eating biscuits and drinking coffee, but I had paid the entry fee and didn't want to chicken out so easily.

The final call to the starting line was announcing over the loud speaker and I made my way out to the street.

I haven't run a foot race in about 5 years. And the only races I've run have been the cross country races in high school (many, many years ago) and a few 10k's after that in my hometown. I wasn't used to all the fancy racing stuff that bigger cities provide on race day. I wasn't used to picking up a "chip" before the race. A chip is a little electronic doo-dad that fastens to the top of your shoe and records the exact time you pass over a sensor pad at the starting and finish lines. That's because in a race there can be so many people crowded up to the starting line that when the gun goes off folks in the back may not even get to the starting line until several seconds or several minutes after. I was not used to this. In the little farm town where I grew up, unless things have changed recently, there are usually only about 100 runners at the starting line so it isn't that difficult for everyone to start at the same time. I was not used to the nifty digital clock at the 1st mile marker either. I was only familiar with our town's attorney, Mr. Spot, riding his bicycle ahead of the runners and standing at the mile marker shouting out times from his stopwatch as we ran by.

The runners, all 850 of us, huddled close together like a bunch of arctic penguins at the starting line. We shivered and stretched and jumped up and down to stay warm. The runners with jogging strollers (baby joggers) started a minute before the other racers. And then it was our turn. The penguins crammed closer to the line and I heard someone yell "go" and we were off!

The thing I noticed immediately was how quiet everything got. Just a few minutes prior, people were talking and laughing, telling stories about past races or whether so and so would be racing in other events coming up. But as soon as the race started all you could hear was breathing and running shoes striking the pavement. My adrenaline kicked in and I was running pretty fast--too fast. My first mile time was 6:54, which is good for me but the first mile was downhill. The entire morning I had been telling myself to take it easy. This is your first race in awhile. You don't have to go out there and kill yourself. Just run easy and finish strong. As soon as the pack took off from the starting line all that wise advice flew right out the window.

I was excited about competing again. It was kind of a rush. I'm not a thrill-seeker, so for me, this is as good as it gets. I smiled for the first few seconds, but then my lungs became filled with that sharp frigid air and the smile turned to a grimace. My stiff legs, which had been warmed just a few minutes earlier, ached as I tried to get a better position in the group. Runners passed me by, male and female, young and old.

I passed a baby jogger during the second mile. It was an entertaining little moment. A little girl, all bundled up in a soft, puffy, pink outfit sat in the jogging stroller as her dad pushed. He asked her how she was doing. With her face flushed from the cold wind and in her little voice she answered quietly,"Gooood."

It was kind of a lonely race. I played organized team sports in the past as well and there were always spectators in the audience cheering. Last Saturday's race didn't have any of that. It was chilly, it was early and the only spectators that were there along the course were a few police officers and race volunteers. The police officers gave you a look of indifference as if to say, "Well, you brought this on yourself." And even when the race volunteers tried to be encouraging and enthusiastic you still didn't get much because they were freezing out there too and their clapping was muffled by their gloves and mittens.

Three weeks ago, I began coming out to the shopping center to run the course and get a feel for the distance. According to the Run For Your Life website the course extends to John Delaney Dr. and then crosses over and continues up the other side of the street. So I trained on that course about three times, always going down to John Delaney Dr., crossing the median and heading back up the hill. But on race day, before John Delaney was even in sight I saw police barricades at the intersection before JD! Then the thought passed through my mind, "Is there another, shorter race? Do the 4 miler's continue on past the barricades?" I didn't know what to do. I turned to a gentlemen who had been running off my left shoulder to ask him about it, but because I was fatigued and my face was so cold when I opened my mouth it sounded like, "Duhs ev-wee one ton heah?" He said yeah, but was probably thinking, "What's wrong with this guy?"

When I realized that the race was shorter than I had been training I got all excited again and turned up the heat to luke-warm which at that point was really all the heat I had left. I pushed hard up the hill, but it seemed like I still wasn't going anywhere. I eventually passed another baby jogger. This guy was pushing 3 kids in his jogging stroller! He's huffing and puffing, leaning forward pretty far to keep the stroller moving up hill, sweat pouring off his face. The kids were getting restless, all crowded in that thing and I guess were misbehaving because the runner, in his exhaustion said, "Lulu! I said knock it off! *huffing* Leave him alone! *puffing* Sit still. We'll be done soon. *huffing & puffing*" It was the running equivalent of long car rides on your family vacation. Are we there yet, Dad? We'll get there when we get there! Don't make me pull this jogging stroller over! That guy should've won some special award. The rest of us had it easy. We just had to run, but this guy had already run three miles with the fourth up hill pushing three squirmy kids in a stroller.

With the third mile behind me and just about to complete the fourth I finally made it to the top of the last slope and turned the corner and into the homestretch (do they call it that in the running world?). I could see the finish line, but it still seemed a good distance. There were two other guys ahead of me that I wanted to try to beat. I didn't want to start my sprint early and fade before the finish and I didn't want to wait too long to sprint and have them too far ahead to beat. The time came for my final kick and I rushed past the finish line. My time on the digital clock read 28:37.

I cooled down and stretched and helped myself to a free hot biscuit from The Flying Biscuit booth and went over and grabbed a cup of coffee. Man, it would've been perfect if I would have had my moccasins and PJ's. I met up with my wife's uncle, Clint Prouty (who beat me by over 3 minutes) and we stayed to watch the awards ceremony in which he took 2nd in his age division.

I was officially addicted to running races again and when I got home that morning I wanted to run some more. But reason got the better of me and so I opted for having some breakfast and going out to mow the lawn. There would be plenty of time for more running.

*Ballantyne is an area/neighborhood right outside of Charlotte.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Ahh, Drink-Patrick's Day. A day where Americans go out wearing all manner of ridiculous green-colored costumes and drink themselves into oblivion in honor of Ireland's patron saint, Patrick.

Patricius, as he was originally known, was actually a Romanized Briton who was kidnapped at sixteen years old by Irish raiders and sold into slavery to an Irish king. As a slave, Patricius was made to watch over the king's flocks out in the countryside-- cold, underfed and without clothing or human contact for about 6 years. He prayed everyday that he might return to his homeland until one night he had vision. God, who Patricius hadn't really believed in when he lived in Britain, spoke to him telling him that his, "...hungers are rewarded. You are going home. Look, your ship is ready." Patricius escaped captivity, walked about 200 miles to the sea where he convinced merchant sailors to allow him to board their ship which was bound for the main continent.

It still took Patricius a few more years to reach Britain and his family. But time passed, and while he was living with his family he began receiving visions from God again in the form of voices of the Irish people begging him to return to Ireland. As much as he tried to ignore the visions they persisted until finally Patricius journeyed to Gaul (France) to begin a theological education. He returned to Ireland as Saint Patrick, spreading the Gospel and eventually converting hundreds of pagans to Christianity.

Just like every holiday here in America, it seems like we take so little time to actually celebrate the reason for the holiday. We twist it around and when we're done it ends up a poor reflection of what it used to be. Veterans Day and Memorial Day--barbeques, blowout sales at department stores, drinking; Cinco de Mayo*--drinking; Christmas (probably the worst example)--shopping ourselves into a stupor; St. Patrick's Day**--drinking; Fourth of July--fireworks, drinking. The list goes on.

So the next time St. Patrick's Day comes around, before you don your soft, puffy, green-striped top hat and emerald glasses...before you wipe your greasy, chicken-wing-covered fingers on your beer stained "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" shirt...before you even put anything green on...before you guzzle that 10th green tinted brew...before you start a fight with someone over nothing at the bar, please take at least two seconds to remember St. Patrick, the struggles he endured and the spiritual work that he accomplished when no one else would.

Be sure to read How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.
*Cinco de Mayo, first of all, is a minor Mexican holiday and despite popular belief, is not the day Mexico gained it's independence. May 5th is the day that the outnumbered Mexican forces defeated the highly trained French military at the Battle of Puebla.
**It is a myth that St. Patrick chased all the snakes out of Ireland.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Run For Your Life

A few days ago I decided that I needed some new running shoes because I had been running in the same pair for over a year which, any running nut will tell you, is too long. Through a recommendation I found a store called Run For Your Life in Charlotte. They actually have three stores, I think. I wandered into the Dilworth store right off of Park Rd.

The store is very neat and spacious. It contains all the crazy stuff a person might need in order to run. That's always a little funny to me because really all a person needs is shoes, but a store that just sold shoes would be a pretty sparse one so you have to add clothing and accessories; like little water bottles that fit in a belt you can strap to your waist, kind of like Batman. The store is stocked with gloves made of reflective material and stretchy pants for cold days and a good assortment of shirts and shorts made with "wicking" fabric that I think actually drains your sweat directly from your pores using little machines sewn into the fabric, converting the sweat into drinkable water (although I could be wrong) They have pamphlets on the wall with information about races and running clubs. And finally against the back wall are the shoes. That's what this story is really about.

Each shoe is placed on it's own little platform made of brushed steel and mounted on the wall. They are lighted and displayed like museum artifacts, labeled for exhibit from tribes called Saucony, Mizuno, Brooks, Addidas, Nike, etc.

After an ankle injury I sustained about 5 years ago and knee problems more recently I was educated in the art of being fitted for running shoes. Almost like when you would go to a department store with your mom and the shoe salesman would bring out that cold metal measuring device with the slider on the side to measure your foot's width and so forth. Many times it was my mom who was the one who did the "fitting". You remember--you'd put the shoe on, she would press her thumb down on the toes of the shoes to see how much room you had, mostly checking for that delicate balance between being too tight, cutting off blood circulation and also making sure that there was enough space left so that you wouldn't grow out of them in two weeks. Then she would make you walk around the department to see how they felt. That was good enough for me then, but when you're a grown-up and you visit a true running store to buy true running shoes the salesperson takes it to a whole new level. They don't wear short-sleeved dress shirts with ties, musty slacks, sporting comb-overs like the shoe sales persons of my youth. No, these folks are experts. They know running shoes.

The Run For Your Life store was quiet when I first walked in. Beth, from Buffalo*, was off to the side unpacking some inventory and Kara, from Rochester*, was busying herself with straightening the shelves. Beth had recognized me from an earlier reconnaissance mission in which I gathered information about Charlotte running groups, races and to get an idea of the shoes' prices and so I wouldn't look dumb the next time I came in to actually buy them.

The first thing I was asked to do at Run For Your Life was to take off my shoes and run from the rear of the store to the front and back again so that Kara could watch my stride and to see how my feet struck the ground.

She asked me questions almost as if I was filling out a health questionnaire at a doctor's office, but only for runners. "So you had an injury, huh? Which foot? Do you have pain when you run? Do you over-pronate?" Over-what? She took my old shoes in her hands, flipped them over and studied the soles like a forensic scientist. "Hmm, she said, looks like you over-pronate a little."

Kara brought out two boxes of shoes that she thought would work for my feet. I tried them on, she felt around the toe just like Mom would and then she asked me to run around the store again. She said, "You mentioned it was your left foot that had the injury? Because your right foot is doing something funny when you run."

A couple came in during this time and was promptly attended to by Beth. Beth asked them many of the same questions Kara asked me. I tried on two more pairs of shoes and a few more customers entered.

The cool thing about this store was that as more people filed in Beth and Kara never lost their cool. They kept introducing all the customers to each other. "Miss Edith (who was probably in her late 60's) this is Ben, Ben this is Chris. Ben is new to Charlotte, from California." We were all part of this little run-a-holics anonymous group.

I tried on more pairs of shoes, completing more laps up and down the store as Kara watched my stride. Sometimes she would say, "Oh yeah, I like those on you. Your right foot's not doing that thing that it does." But most of the time she shook her head and said, "No, not good. I don't like those." Occasionally, she would call Beth over and have her watch my weird feet run. Beth would offer her opinion and walk back over and continue with her customers. I'm telling you, it was a well oiled machine.

After about 45 minutes, the place was busy. There was Chris, originally from Georgia, who was a swimmer now training for triathlons, there was Miss Edith, the couple from earlier, and two other ladies whose names I didn't get. I was too busy running around the store.

The floor was covered in half-empty shoe boxes with tissue paper strewn about like Christmas morning. Most of the boxes were on my side of the store. I would take a lap then Chris would. Miss Edith walked back and forth trying to decide on some snappy orange and white New Balances. Beth took the other couple outside to try out their shoes. It was a circus with only Beth and Kara in the center ring keeping all the animals and clowns from losing it.

When it was all over, I was the only customer left in the store and 13 boxes of shoes lay on the floor. I had set two pairs aside that I wanted to go back to. One pair fit too small and would have to be sent from another store and the other felt great. I slipped the latter pair on and the shoes fit like...well... like gloves. I took another jog around the store. I was floating. There was no pressure in places where there shouldn't be. My screwed up ankle was in no pain. There was plenty of bounce while still maintaining support.

"I'll take 'em," I said.

"You're sure?" said Kara.

"Yep, they fit the best and I don't want to be here another hour and have to help you clean all these shoes up off the floor," I said.

"You don't want to wait to try on those other ones when they get here tomorrow?" she said.


"Ok..." Kara exhaled. She knelt down one last time and did some last minute checking. She felt around the toe and side and finally pulled the tongue back to check the label. She looked up at me with a frustrated look, "Ben, these are 12's!" (I wear 11 1/2's) Let me go get the 11 and a half's."

Kara went to the back room to get the right size. She emerged from around the corner with a frown on her face.

"You don't have them." I said. She shook her head.

"They're at the other store," she said, with a defeated look. "We can have them here for you tomorrow."

"You gotta be kidding me!" I laughed. She shook her head.

"Oh well. I guess I'll just have to go back to my old injury-causing running shoes," I joked.

I showed up the next morning around 11am and could see Kara standing inside the store near the front door. I could've sworn she was smiling until she saw me walking up (I'm kidding). She was helping another employee Perry? with dressing the mannequins. I walked in right when Perry was pulling one of the dummy's new running shorts up. Of course, I said something like, "Ahh, caught you with your pants down." I know, I know, I thought it was genius too.

So Kara had already filled her co-worker in with my history so he said,"Oh, your the guy who tried on 13 pairs yesterday." I guess that was a PR (personal record--runner's love to use the term PR) for Kara that day.

There they were waiting for me. The two pairs that would be competing for my feet. I tried them on, did my little jogging routine around the store again. Perry came over to check out my stride too, also noticing my floppy right foot. And finally I decided to take home the Saucony's. I think they're called The Saucony Volcano Avalanche Tiger Hurricane 3000's with the patented Comfor-Tread designed by the Sealy mattress company. Saucony also partnered with Toyota so that each shoe holds a small hybrid engine in the heels, causing tiny bursts of electricity when the runner's foot strikes the ground. The shoes also come with an AM/FM radio and cassette player.

As I was leaving Kara said,"You tried on 15 pairs of shoes. That's really something." I could cut through her sarcasm with a chain saw.

As I walked out of the store, feeling the warm sunshine on me, I couldn't help but feel the weight of my accomplishment settle on my shoulders--15 pairs...

All joking aside, if you're serious about running and you want to be fitted for a good pair of shoes, visit Run For Your Life stores around Charlotte. Like I said they know running and they'll make buying shoes pretty fun. If you see Kara and Beth at the Dilworth store be sure and tell them that Ben sent you...actually maybe you shouldn't.

*The fact that I've noticed that people living in Charlotte are never actually from Charlotte seems to be a recurring theme in my blog. See my first blog, Wagons East.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

He Stopped And Smiled: The Passing of John Cephas

John Cephas 1930-2009

I am very saddened to report the passing of country blues guitarist, John Cephas. John died of natural causes yesterday, March 4th, at his home in Woodford, VA at the age of 78. Here is an excerpt from the website he shared with his partner, harmonica player, Phil Wiggins:

“Bowling Green” John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family. He takes his nickname from Bowling Green, Virginia, where he was raised. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. His grandfather taught him the folklore of eastern Virginia, where his ancestors had toiled as slaves, and Cephas learned about blues from a guitar-playing aunt. But it was his cousin, David Taleofero, who taught him much of what he plays—the alternating thumb-and-finger picking style that characterizes Piedmont blues.

After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard. By the age of nine, John was playing for weekend gatherings with family and friends. Music from the ragtime era and early Piedmont artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red were all influences on Cephas.

As a young man, John joined the Capitol Harmonizers and toured on the gospel circuit. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to the United States and went through a variety of jobs that included professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s, Cephas was starting to make a living from his music and, since forming a duo with Wiggins in 1977, John has performed all over the world, serving as an ambassador of this singular American art form.

Among his many endeavors, John serves on the Executive Committe of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and has testified before congressional committees. He is also a founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society. “More than anything else,” says John, “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people… more people going to concerts, learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music. I don’t want it to die.”

Cephas received the coveted National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. These fellowships recognize those who preserve cultural legacies in music, dance and crafts.

I had the good fortune and pleasure to see and play with John Cephas on a few occasions. Last July Nathan James and I opened up for he and Phil Wiggins at a house concert in Gig Harbor, WA to support the Centrum Country Blues Workshop. One of the songs they played that afternoon (I can't remember it's name) is featured in the video below. It was both peaceful and melancholy, a beautiful tune that made the whole place silent and gave me chills.

Several years before, my partner and I were playing a corporate BBQ at the Taylor Guitar factory, at which John Cephas was an invited guest. He arrived as we were playing and started to walk right on by us to join the crowd and shake some hands. But just as he stepped a couple of feet past the bandstand he stopped, turned around and looked at as us both, a little surprised (I'd like to think) that two young guys here in San Diego county were playing piedmont-style country blues. Mr. Cephas nodded and smiled, pausing for a few seconds more to listen then continued on. That smile was one of the greatest compliments I could have ever received as a country-blues musician. The song we had been playing was by the great Blind Boy Fuller and later in the day John told us that it was one of his favorites.

At a time when our country is faced with economic and political uncertainty we need to remember what really makes us American--the history, passion, and SOUL of our traditional music. This is the thing that people turn to when they are confronted with adversity or heartbreak not governmental institutions. We overlook sometimes, the use of art and music as a tool to help keep us feeling human, flesh and bone, to help us avoid being made into hardened cogs to keep the "machine" running.

Country blues and gospel music are two of the major foundations of American music as we know it today and John Cephas had mastered both of those styles in his lifetime. He toured the world sharing our musical traditions and he worked tirelessly to make sure that our inheritance would be secure by passing those traditions on to countless others here at home.

John Cephas was a national treasure and he will be sorely missed, but I'm thankful his music will continue to live on.


Cephas and Wiggins:
Nathan James & Ben Hernandez:
Blues At Centrum:
Ben Hernandez: