Holiday at the Lake

February 17, 2008

This is long but so was the race…. 

My pat answer whenever someone would ask me how I hoped to do at the Holiday Lake 50K++ was “finish before the cutoff”.  I really had no idea how I was going to do, or what time I should shoot for.  I took little comfort in the knowledge that Holiday Lake is known as the “easiest” of the ultras put on by uber-ultraman David Horton.  At 34(ish) miles, Holiday Lake promised to be my longest, hardest, hilliest, trailiest run to date.  After all, I was going into it with only one notch in my marathon belt, and that was the OBX – a flat road race.  

So, my stated goal was to finish within the cutoff time of 7:30. This was reinforced by the pep talk that Dr. Horton gave to the ultra newbies after the pre-race pasta dinner on Friday night.  He told us repeatedly that our primary goal should be to finish.  “Your friends and family back home aren’t going to know or care anything about your time – they’re going to think you’re crazy regardless.”  He also gave us a lot of tips about handling the race itself, such as what to wear (no tights unless it’s below mid-20’s), how to fuel (eat as much as you can handle but save the Mountain Dew “jet fuel” for the second 17-mile loop), how to handle nausea (open mouth and insert finger), and how to handle the stream crossings (run straight through). In addition to the practical tips, he gave us points to ponder that were both challenging and inspirational.  “Many of you are going to want to quit – don’t you do it!”  “It never always gets worse.”  And, the pearl that would see me some tough spots the next morning – “this too shall pass.”

He also told us that we wouldn’t sleep well that night, and he was right on target.  My mind already racing with anticipation, it went into overdrive as I chewed over the snippets of conversation that I had been hearing all evening as my fellow runners compared notes about their most recent 50 and 100-mile adventures. As I lay in my sleeping bag in the bunkhouse, I wondered if there was anyone else in the 260-runner field who was anxiously calculating and re-calculating the pace that would be required to beat the first cut-off time at the halfway point.

I did eventually drift off to a restless sleep, and woke at 5:00 a.m., a half-hour ahead of my alarm and Dr. Horton’s wake-up call over the camp intercom.  I could tell that my stomach wasn’t going to stand for too much, but I did manage to get down a half a bagel, some juice and a cup of coffee.  Before too long my wonderful crew arrived – my wife and daughter, who had spent the night in a nearby motel.  They delivered my water bottle and gels that I had inadvertently left in the van the night before (there had been a mild panic when I had discovered that I didn’t have them with me), I got some last minute hugs and words of encouragement, and all of the sudden it was 6:20 a.m. and we were lining up at the start.

And then we were off.  At least, we were supposed to be.  All was good as we shuffled along for the first third of a mile up the road, but when the course veered off onto the trail, we had a major traffic jam as the cluster of the 200+ runners who hadn’t been at the front of the pack sorted itself out into the single file line necessary to run the singletrack.  Even after we were on the trail, it was stop and go for a mile or so until the field started to spread out.  Everyone seemed to be good-humored about it, though – a much different vibe than with a road race.  Even so, when we got to aid station #1 at mile 3.5, I was a bit alarmed to see how much time had already gone by, so I blew through without stopping.  I was feeling good and wanted to make up some time – I still had over 13 miles to go before the halfway point cutoff and needed to make up some time.

The first loop went fairly smoothly, overall.  I was running at a comfortable (slow, by road racing standards) pace and was feeling good, and after a time I realized that barring injury I was in no danger of missing the 3:30 cutoff at the halfway point.  

The much-anticipated stream crossings were cold and wet as expected, but fun nonetheless.  It wasn’t too long after the second one, though, when I started sensing some irritation in my shoes – some sand and grit had worked its way in and I knew that I was going to be running on size 9 hamburger patties if I didn’t do something about it.  I became fixated on a clean and dry pair of socks.  So, when I ran down the hill toward the halfway point and my wife Jennifer approached me as she had at every aid station and asked me if I needed anything, my one-word answer was “socks!”  I could tell by her expression that socks was the one thing that she hadn’t been prepared for, but she took off running up the road to get them.  I sat down on the curb and took of my shoes and wet, gritty socks.  One minute.  Two.  Three.  I asked my daughter Morgan where the van was parked and she wasn’t sure.  Four.  Five.  I sent Morgan running up the road to meet Jennifer and grab the socks.  Six.  Where is she?  (I learned after the race that the van was parked over a quarter mile away).  Seven.  Finally I spotted Morgan running back toward me with socks in hand.  Eight.  I grabbed them, pulled them and my shoes back on, and headed back out for the second 17-mile loop.

I lost nine minutes at that halfway point aid station, sitting down, getting stiff, fretting about the minutes going by.  The delay was entirely my fault – while we had originally discussed the possibility of changing shoes at the halfway point, that morning I had explicitly told Jennifer that I would not be changing, per the advice given by Dr. Horton at the ultra newbies pep talk the night before.  So, there was no reason to expect her to have had the socks with her.  While I was ticked at myself for wasting so much time, and a bit concerned about how stiff I had gotten, I took some comfort in how good the clean, dry socks felt.  That is, until the next stream crossing.  Lesson learned.  Wear socks that rise a bit higher on the ankle and don’t let in the grit.  As for the water – suck it up. 

The second loop was a different animal from the first.  Talkative runners got quiet and started focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.  Packs of runners dispersed into pairs or singles.  Runners started to shuffle and trip and stumble on roots and rocks that they had dodged easily on the first loop.  Aid stations became more and more inviting.  I was so fortunate to have Jennifer and Morgan there waiting for me at each aid station.  The tables were so well stocked that I only took them up on their gatorade and food offers a couple of times, but it was wonderful to have their support.   

The last few miles were tough.  We got to what I figured was around the 31-mile point, the finish line for a “normal” 50K, and I rhetorically asked myself why this one had to tack on some extra distance.  I lost all pretense of good running form and realized that I could walk nearly as fast as I could run.  While it is common for ultramarathoners to walk up steep hills, my definition of “uphill” changed to anything with an incline of about 2 degrees – hey, if my treadmill would say it’s an incline, that worked for me.

Finally, I heard the crowd at the finish, across the lake.  I reveled in the sound and picked up my pace, then the sound faded and I realized that I was now running away from the sound.  I slogged on a bit more, and finally could see the road through the trees.  I burst out onto the road (well, I didn’t actually burst – any ability to do that had left me about 10 miles earlier) and knew that it was all downhill from there, literally.  Morgan soon joined me and ran me into the finish.  I can’t imagine a better way to cross the line.  I heard Dr. Horton announce my name, shook his hand, and joined the ranks of the ultramarathoner as an “official” finisher with about 50 minutes to spare before the cutoff time.

Ultrarunning is an amazing sport.  The comaraderie and mutual encouragement between runners is remarkable.  I am used to running road races in which mid-and back-packers (me among them) will cheer on the frontrunners as they speed by in the opposite direction on the second half of an out-and-back course.  This was the first race that I have ever run in where the leaders cheered back at the rest of us in return.  The personal challenge and commitment involved in an ultramarathon is just as remarkable.  I hurt toward the end of the marathon last fall.  I hurt bad during the last few miles of Holiday Lake. 

Many thanks to Dr. Horton, the rest of the organizers and the volunteers, my fellow runners, and my #1 crew.  It was a great experience.  Now my only question is whether I should spend the next year working on improving my time at the 50K distance, or go ahead and move up to a 50-miler. 


OBX Marathon Recap

November 24, 2007

It was still dark with a pre-dawn temperature in the mid-40’s when Jennifer and I arrived at the high school parking lot where the shuttle buses would take us to the starting points of our races – the marathon
for me, and the half marathon for her. I was starting to get a bit antsy about the whole thing, and was looking foward to a few minutes of calm with Jennifer so she could remind me that this was supposed to be a fun experience, and that it would all be over with by lunchtime in any event.

It was not to be.   No sooner had we gotten out of our car than the glare of bus headlights lit up the parking lot and the dozens of runners who had been lurking in the shadows started moving lemming-like toward the shuttles.  We joined the herd.

“Quick, turn around!” Jennifer said, and snapped a photo.
dark-and-cold-but-dry.jpg We had just overheard the guy in the white jacket on the right of the picture telling someone that this would be his third marathon in the last month and a half, and that he was hoping to qualify for Boston. Feeling more than a bit out of my league, I was sorely tempted to follow Jennifer on board one of the half marathon buses, but a quick hug and kiss later, we went our separate ways. Wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into, I stepped on board the marathon bus, and off we went.

We arrived at the marathon start about 20 minutes later. My nerves had settled considerably during the ride. While I had been able to tell by the conversations around me that there were some very accomplished marathoners on board, I was glad to hear a couple of them admit to being newbies like I was. The most comforting thing that I heard was from an older guy across the aisle, who said that his goal for the day was to “finish the marathon, drink six beers at the post-race party and not throw up.” Good to know that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have my sights set on Hopkinton.

We got off the bus around 6:15 a.m., in advance of the 7:20 a.m. scheduled starting time.  Nothing to do but wait – people-watch as runners stepped off of the other shuttle buses, stretch a bit, try to stay loose and warm, and take advantage of the long row of port-a-johns that spread across one side of the parking lot adjoining the starting line.  I stepped inside one and quickly exited after being greeted by the powerful stench of fresh vomit.  Guess I wasn’t the only one who had some pre-race jitters.   

I checked my watch frequently as I waited for the hour to pass.  I said a quick prayer for Jennifer at 7:00 a.m., the starting time for the half-marathon.  A few minutes later, I joined the crowd that was migrating over to the starting line.  We self-segregated into corrals based on our anticipated race pace.  My usual training pace for long runs is between 9 and 10 minutes per mile, but my marathon strategy was to try to stay closer to 11, at least for the first half.  I wanted to run a negative split – run the second 13 faster than the first 13.  Based on everything I had read about running marathons, this seemed to be the best strategy for avoiding the common error of going out too fast and running out of gas.  Running slower than usual sounds simple enough, but it is actually difficult – particularly when you are full of race-day adrenaline.  I found a spot near the back of the 10-12 minute/mile corrral and reminded myself for the umpteenth time that I needed to keep my pace in check. 

Finally, after someone sang the National Anthem, offered a prayer for a morning of good competition and fellowship, and gave some last minute runner instructions that were unintelligible through the public address system, the horn sounded and we were off.  “One foot in front of the other and don’t you dare stop” was one of the last things that my 14-year-old daughter had told me.  That admonition was ringing in my ears as I took my first steps. 

The first 7 miles were unremarkable, pleasant actually.  Much of this first stretch had us winding our way through Sound-side neighborhoods, where the true OBX’ers live.  Many of the houses had boats in the yard or driveway, but it was clear that most of these folks were locals and not vacationers – we ran past one guy who was butchering a deer in his front yard.  I enjoyed the scenery and the ample crowd support, but I tried to pay close attention to the task at hand.  I was having a hard time keeping my intended pace; while I felt like I was doing little more than shuffling along, I was staying a lot closer to a 10 minute pace than the 11 that I had targeted. 

Before I knew it, we were out of the neighborhoods and facing one of the major landmarks of the race – the Wright Brothers Memorial. As we circled around the huge granite monument, I noted the stiff breeze that had attracted the Wright Brothers to the Outer Banks in the first place. We had been shielded from the wind for much of the time that we had been running through the wooded neighborhoods, but I realized that it was going to be a factor for much of the rest of the race, and hoped that it would stay at our backs.  I knew from running the half-marathon in 2006, though, that while we would have the benefit of a tailwind for a good portion, we would also face some cross-wind and headwind stretches.  

Around mile 9, we entered what would be my favorite part of the race – the Nag’s Head Nature Preserve. This was a 2 mile stretch through a forest on a winding and hilly dirt road. While the terrain and surface elicited grumbles and groans from some of my fellow runners, I loved it, and had even been looking forward to it. Things got even better (as far as I was concerned, anyway) at mile 12, when the course veered off of the dirt road onto a single track trail with a substantial uphill climb. As I chugged uphill, I was no longer worried about sticking close to an 11 minute mile pace – I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t go over it. 

Then, as quickly as the trail had come upon us, it was over, and we found ourselves on asphalt once again as we hit the halfway point.  I ran over to the aid station at the half-marathon marker and told the medical workers about a runner that I had passed about a quarter mile back who was having some trouble, and then evaluated my own situation as I washed down some Carb-Boom gel (I recommend the Double Espresso flavor!) with some water from the bottle that I carried in my waist pack.  As enjoyable as the trail section had been, it (and the 9 miles that had preceded it) had taken a toll.  I was starting to feel some fatigue, and had a painful twinge in my left glute that I was hoping wouldn’t progress into anything worse.  I reminded myself that I was halfway done, my time was where it needed to be, and I was feeling fairly strong on the whole.  I also took some comfort in the fact that I was now running in Jennifer’s footsteps, as the half-marathon course is the second half of the marathon course.  Knowing that she had already been there, and would be waiting for me at the finish, gave me a welcome spark as I headed into the second 13.1.

The next seven miles were almost trance-like.  One foot in front of the other.  The course alternated between stretches of a closed-off lane of divided highway and vacation house neighborhoods.  All asphalt, and mostly flat.  My feet were starting to hurt from the pounding, and the twinge in my butt was starting to run down the back of my leg.  I thought that I would be all right as long as I could stay in a straight line, but if I stumbled or had to make a sharp cut, I was afraid the twinge would explode into a full-blown pull.  As much as I had enjoyed the stretch of trail running, and as much as my feet were starting to hurt from the pounding on the asphalt, I was grateful that the road was now smooth and flat enough that I could get into a machine-like rhythym and just keep chugging along.

Sixteen miles.  Seventeen.  I was staying at around a 10:30 pace, but the miles actually seemed to be going a bit faster now.  This was not what I had expected.  Eighteen.  Nineteen.  Oh my gosh, I’m almost at twenty.  THE 20.  There’s the mile marker.  Big crowd at this aid station.  And there it goes.  Twenty miles down.  Only a 10K left.  I’m going to make it.  I’m actually going to do this.

At that point, I nearly got choked up with emotion, and had to force myself to focus.  While I was now confident that I was going to finish, and knew that I was on pace for finishing in goal time, I knew as well that I still had the hardest 6.2 miles of the race ahead of me.  I tried to get back into the machine-like rythym that had gotten me through the last 6 miles.  It was harder now.  I was still chugging along, still passing people, but I could sense that the “low fuel” light in the dashboard was getting ready to flash on.  Just in time for The Bridge.

The hill on the Washington Baum bridge that connects Nags Head and Manteo really isn’t all that big, as hills go.  But, the placement could not be worse.  Mile 23 is right at the top.  Many more were walking than running at this point.  I was determined not to be one of them.  I kept going, and finally crested the top.  It would have been a great feeling, but all I could think was that I had three more miles left to go and very little gas left in the tank.

I got off the bridge, and finally made the right-hand turn toward downtown Manteo.  This was a long, straight, flat stretch.  At this point I would have loved some curves, or turns, maybe even a small hill or two – anything to break up the monotony.  One foot in front of the other.  I was sparked by the sight of a marathon runner who had already finished, draped in a mylar blanket and walking in our direction, looking for a friend or relative to run in.  That meant that the finish was near! 

Then, I saw the best sight I saw all day, apart from the finish line itself.  Jennifer!  She had finished her race and backtracked to find me.  She looked great.  She asked me how I was doing.  She knew better.  “Can’t talk!”  She laughed and cheered.  What a lift that gave me!


I kept on going.  Up ahead in the distance I saw the brown sign for the Festival Park turnoff.  I knew that once I reached that sign, I would be mere hundreds of yards from the finish.  What a long stretch that was. 


And then, just like that, I was done.  I crossed the line and my throat and lungs locked up and I wheezed a little bit.  I hadn’t wheezed after running in 30 years, but I think it was emotion as much as anything.     


I finished the marathon in 4:32:20.  Going into it I didn’t think there was any way in the world that I was going to beat 4:30, and I honestly would have been happy with anything south of 5 hours.

I ran a negative split – not by much, but I did.  The strategy worked.

I ran injury-free.  Well, injury-free except for a blackened toenail which I’m going to lose.  But that’s more a trophy than an injury! 

What a day.  What an experience.  What a wonderful person to share it with.


There will be more.

The Next Best Thing To Being There

October 2, 2007

Sorry, I’m not quite ready to shelve the whitewater theme just yet.  Bear with me.

After spending way too much time on YouTube viewing rafting videos, I have found a 3-part series that comes closer than most to showing what it’s actually like to raft the Upper Gauley.  Most commercial rafting trips are accompanied by a kayak videographer who paddles ahead of the rafts, then pulls onshore at various points and films the rafts as they navigate the rapids.  As entertaining as these videos can be, they really don’t give much of a flavor of what it’s like in the raft.  These three videos, however, combine footage from three sources – the kayak videographer’s footage, plus footage from a rafter’s helmet cam and footage from a rear-facing camera mounted on the front of the boat.  The end result is probably the next best thing to being there. 

The first clip has an intro and then footage of the first major rapid, “Insignificant”. 

It’s not, by the way. 

The second clip features my favorite rapid, “Pillow Rock”.  You run Pillow Rock by charging as hard as you can straight for the giant namesake rock, then at the last moment you shoot up and then veer past it on the right, slapping it with your paddle as you go by.  Sometimes you get it, sometimes it gets you. 

This clip also includes “Lost Paddle”, which is the longest and probably the most dangerous rapid on the Gauley.  I particularly like this clip because you can hear the guide’s urgent commands and the rafters’ grunts and groans as they press on through this very long rapid. 

The third clip shows “Iron Ring”, and finally, “Sweets Falls”.  Sweets is a spectator favorite due to the many rafts which wind up flipping in the Box Canyon below the falls.  There’s a Roman Coliseum-like atmosphere as the crowd waits expectantly for rafting carnage to ensue.

Many thanks to mwstoll, who put these videos together. Good stuff. 

Why is it OK?

July 6, 2007

A headline on our local news yesterday was a report that the police broke up a house party and charged 25 people with Underage Possession of Alcohol. Fifteen of those charged were adults over the age of 18 but under the legal drinking age of 21. Commenting on the bust, our local prosecutor explained that “[t]he lesson here is it is illegal for children to drink. The lesson is the one that I don’t want them to ever have to learn is going to the funeral of one of their friends; that’s the lesson I don’t want them to learn.”

Speaking of funerals, a review of U.S. casualties in Iraq as of July 4, 2007 reflects the following:

A 20 year old from Charlottesville, Virginia died as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Grottoes, Virginia was killed by small-arms fire during combat operations against enemy forces in Ar Rutbah, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Coeburn, Virginia was killed by a non-combat weapon discharge in Kuwait.

A 19 year old from Falls Church, Virginia died as a result of hostile action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Richmond, Virginia died of wounds sustained when his dismounted patrol came under enemy small arms fire during combat operations in Hit, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Hampton, Virginia died of wounds suffered when his mounted patrol came in contact with enemy forces using small-arms fire and a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Iraq.

An 18 year old from Richmond, Virginia was killed when her military vehicle hit a roadside bomb as it was returning to Camp Eagle in Baghdad, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Fairfax Station, Virginia died of injuries sustained during combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Alexandria, Virginia died from injuries received as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Chesterfield, Virginia died of wounds received as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from King George, Virginia was killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive inside the mess hall at Camp Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Woodbridge, Virginia died as the result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Crimora, Virginia died while conducting combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Winchester, Virginia died of wounds received in action in central Iraq.

A 19 year old from Stuarts Draft, Virginia died as a result of hostile action in Babil Province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Stafford, Virginia was killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive inside the mess hall at Camp Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Lynchburg, Virginia died of non-combat related injuries in Muqdadiya, Iraq.

An 18 year old from Manassas, Virginia was killed during combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

Why is it OK for 18, 19 and 20-year old Virginians to fight and die for their country, but illegal for them to have a beer?

Live Music is Better

June 6, 2007

Given Austin’s claim to fame as the “live music capital of the world”, I felt it only proper that I head out to find some.  On the recommendation of my friend and guitar hero Jim, I headed to Antone’s. Antone’s is an Austin institution – everyone who is anyone in the rhythm and blues world has played there, not the least of which was Stevie Ray Vaughan. I never had the chance to see SRV, but my appreciation for his music is such that even going to a venue where he had played was a must-do for me.

Antone’s was worth the visit, for the history if nothing else. The band was good, but SRV they weren’t. They looked to be college-aged, young enough that I’m not sure they could have fully appreciated what an honor it was to be playing on the same stage that had hosted the likes of SRV, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.  The crowd was a mixture of college-aged kids, many of whom seemed to know members of the band, and somewhat older folks like myself who I suspect were there more for the venue than for the music.  I stayed for an hour, then headed out in search of the blues.

I found it at a place just down the street. An eerily spot-on cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” lured me in, and it was nothing but the blues for the next two hours. Unlike the 20-somethings band at Antone’s, these guys had been around for a while. The lead guitarist was pushing 50 and looked like Ned Beatty with a ponytail, but the guy could flat-out play.  And that was why I was there.

As I listened, I reflected on how difficult it is to make a living playing music.  Most of the band members were my age or older, and they were easily as good as anyone that we have in Charlottesville, which fancies itself an up-and-coming music town in its own right.  Yet, they were playing for tips and hawking their CD for 5 bucks. 

This hits close to home for me.  My brother has been at it for over two decades, and despite talent and dedication, still lives a day-to-day existence.  The friend who directed me to Antone’s is a gifted guitar player, and lives two lives – career to pay the mortgage by day, and passion to soothe the soul by night.  I have another friend who is in the same situation as a singer – he has more talent than many who are making a living at it, but finds himself victim of not enough opportunities to go around.  He’s got to get tired of people asking him why he doesn’t sing professionally full-time.  He’s been trying to – for 20 years.

Personally, I don’t have anywhere near that kind of musical talent.  I can fake it a bit, but whenever I’ve gotten up on stage, I’ve found that I start to think and overanalyze things too much to be a real musician – sort of like when I step into the batter’s box on the softball field. Real musicians feel more than they think.  That’s why they can get up there night after night.  It may not make economic sense – their shot at making it big may have long since passed, if it ever came at all – but when they are playing, there is a sense of joy up on stage.

I’m envious. I’ve looked for that sense of joy in law practice, and in the corporate world, and have come up empty. Maybe I’m asking too much to expect to find the sort of joy in my work that musicians find on stage. But I’ll keep looking.


February 9, 2007

My church is one of several dozen local congregations participating in a social ministry serving Charlottesville’s homeless population: PACEM (“People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry”).  Each winter, these churches open their doors to the homeless, rotating weeklong shifts to provide food and shelter to 20-40 homeless men.  For the men, PACEM provides the basics that anybody reading this probably takes for granted – a safe, warm place to sleep, a hot meal, laundered clothes, and a shower.  Beyond these basics, it also provides the men with something more intangible but no less important than food and shelter – an acknowledgment of their humanity. 

A few of the men might be recognizable as the panhandlers that we occasionally bump into around town, but most are not.  Many of them have jobs, although they obviously earn less than a living wage.  Their education level varies, but most have at least a high school diploma or G.E.D., and a few have college degrees.  Many struggle with addictions or other mental health issues.  The one common denominator, apart from not having a place to call “home”, is that they are all used to being invisible. 

Some have their invisibility thrust upon them.  These are the men who look the part of the homeless – the panhandlers, the ones who seek shelter under bridges, in illicit campsites, or in abandoned buildings.  The ones like the man who was found dead a few years back behind the dumpster at my office building, laying in a bed of flattened cardboard boxes.  We make them invisible by pretending that they aren’t there.

Others seek to be invisible because they don’t want to stand out.  These are the men who have jobs, or at least want to have jobs.  They may have found themselves homeless because of poor choices that they have made, or their situation may be due to circumstances beyond their control.  Whatever the cause, they want something better for their lives, something normal.  In the meantime, they don’t want to call attention to their situation.   

Regardless of whether their invisibility is self-imposed or thrust upon them, when the bus drops them off at our church for dinner at 6:00 p.m., they are there.  There is no hiding their existence or their circumstances.  There is also no denying their humanity, and it is in acknowledging their humanity that those of us doing the serving receive as great a gift as we give.

I’ll be spending the night with our PACEM guests tomorrow night.  While I will miss time away from home and family, I am grateful for the opportunity to put Matthew 25:40 into practice.

What Can Brown Do For You?

December 27, 2006

I wanted one thing from Brown – enough extra income to increase my money-to-month ratio – i.e., ensure that my money outlasts my month. While living on one income has been a good thing for our family in most respects, it has put a definite strain on our budget. Charlottesville’s cost of living is relatively high, the area’s household income is relatively low, and having a large family does not make things any easier.

So, at 3:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in late November, I arrived at our local UPS distribution center for an orientation session for my new part-time job as a package handler. I was hired as a seasonal worker to help them get through the crush of the holiday shipping season, but my hope was that I would find the schedule manageable enough to be able maintain it on a long-term basis. My need for supplemental income was, after all, not seasonal.

The first few hours of the orientation session consisted of a mixture of paperwork and training videos. Then, about 6:00 a.m., we were put out on the floor to get a taste of the work that we had signed on for. For most of us, that work was unloading tractor trailers full of packages.

The tractor trailers arrive at the distribution center fully loaded (floor-to-ceiling, front-to-back), and back up to one of eight bays in the side of the distribution center. The unloader (sometimes solo, sometimes working in a pair) opens the trailer door and starts grabbing packages and putting each one on a constantly-moving conveyor belt. The belt pulls each package out of the trailer and into a complex sorting system that will eventually result in it being loaded on the package car (UPS-speak for the brown delivery truck) that will take it to its final destination.

Unloading tractor trailers is not rocket science. Grab a box, put it on the belt. Grab a box, put it on the belt. Grab a box, put it on the belt. The expected pace is a package every 3 seconds. It’s easy to keep that pace when you’re grabbing Aunt Edna’s Christmas fruitcake or a package from LL Bean. It gets a bit more challenging when you’re dealing with heavy auto parts, or picking apart a teetering wall of packages that is threatening to bury you in an avalanche.

But still, not rocket science. I made it through the end of the shift, and reported for duty at 3:00 a.m. the following morning for more of the same. To say that I was grateful for the weekend would be an understatement.

Week #2 dawned two short days later, and my start times were getting earlier as the holiday crunch time approached. 2:50 a.m., 2:40 a.m., 2:30 a.m….. Despite the schedule creep, I was settling into a routine. Up at 2:00, stumble my way to the car, slam a Mountain Dew on the road, clock in at UPS, and slog away for the next 6 hours or so. After each shift I’d head home, jump in the shower to scrub off the grime, and trade the filthy t-shirt and jeans for the coat and tie of my regular 8:00-6:00 job. At least, what used to be my 8:00-6:00 job. It’s hard to be at the office at 8:00 a.m. when you’re still in the back of a tractor trailer slinging boxes. Fortunately the nature of my regular job allowed me to slink in at 9:15-9:30 a.m. without raising too many eyebrows. I’d get through the day at the office, head home for supper, and try to stay awake long enough to be able to read my 3-year-old a story and put him to bed. Then I’d crash for 5 hours or so, wake up, and do it again.

I was managing, but it was an uninspiring existence. I felt myself turning into a zombie; I wasn’t exactly bubbling over with initiative at the office. Worse yet, I was becoming detached from my family, as I was only with them (awake, anyway) for a short time in the evenings. My only consolation was that weekly paycheck – after all, I wasn’t putting myself (and Jennifer, who was picking up my considerable slack at home) through this because it was enjoyable, I was doing it because it needed to be done.

The next week, Week #3, my start times were earlier yet – 2:30 a.m., 2:40 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., and 2:15 a.m. I adjusted the alarm clock accordingly. The job itself was tolerable. Finding little in common with most of my co-workers, I kept my mouth shut, pushed hard, and quickly attracted the notice of the supervisors. They asked me to stay on after the holidays, thereby removing the “Scarlet S” of the seasonal hire. It was nice to get some validation, particularly in light of the fact that I was informed that same week at my regular job that I would not be getting the promotion that I had anticipated. The explanation was that there was a perception that I was not “excited” enough about the position, and that my lack of enthusiasm would be sensed by the team.

Hell, I thought I had been doing pretty well to stay awake.

The start times for Week #4, the week before Christmas, were earlier still. I clocked in on Monday morning at 1:15 a.m. and started slogging away. 2:00 a.m. 3:00 a.m. 4:00 a.m. 5:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. 7:00 a.m. 8:00 a.m. I was nearly done with my last trailer when it happened. I bent down, grabbed a box off of the floor, twisted up and to the side to put it on the belt, and felt the hot poker shoot through my lower back. I fell against the side of the trailer and gasped to catch my breath. I had strained my 43-year-old back, and just like that my package-handling career at UPS was over.

Looking back at it now, that was a good thing. I had been earning much-needed supplemental income, but I was becoming an absentee husband and father, and the body- and mind-numbing fatigue was reaching the dangerous stage. It’s telling that of the many thousands of packages that I had handled during my stint at UPS, some of them as heavy as I am, the one that did me in could have been lifted by my 8-year-old. My body had just said “enough is enough.”

So what did Brown do for me? It provided some pre-holiday cash, which was timely. It broadened my life experience, gave me some interesting insights into how a freight handling operation works, and provided me with a number of colorful character studies that might find their way into future scribblings. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a dose of perspective, of which I seem to be in continual need. As important as the additional income may be, I must resist the temptation to let its pursuit take the place of family, health, and happiness.

Now to find a part-time opportunity that will let me keep the proper balance….