Catching Ironman Finishers Makes Me A Better Person

I’ve watched dozens of Ironman races and I’ve volunteered at full and half IMs here in Madison five times now. Each time has been an incredible experience.

Sunday was Wisconsin IM 70.3 and instead of handing out water as I have in the past, I was convinced to work the finish line with some friends. We were trained in “catching” participants: You and another volunteer come from each side of the runner to physically help/escort him or her through the next 50 feet of the finish area, stopping for timing-chip removal, getting medal-ed, handing off water, and then checking with them one last time before releasing them back to the world. We learned how to make a two- and three-person “net” to catch and carry wilted athletes in, if necessary. We learned how to stop them if they were running too fast and how to shadow them if they didn’t want to be physically helped.

I love this sport so, so much. I find the mass swim nauseating to watch, but everything else about triathlon just awes me and makes me feel alive. Having done a handful of sprint triathlons and knowing friends who train for 70.3 and 140.6 mile races, I have a basic idea of how much planning and training and perseverance it takes to get to race day (i.e. lots and lots and lots.) The weather, as always, was a factor in the day and while rain delayed the start and made for slick bike conditions, I was happy for the cooler temperatures and cloudy skies. Cooler means safer, and cloudy also meant lots fewer sunglasses, and lots more eye contact with the athletes. It makes a difference to be able to see their eyes. You can see the triumph, the pain, the disbelief. Some are dazed. Some look like this is just a day in the park. It’s an incredible array of emotions at the finish line.

The first wave of finishers looked and felt great crossing the line, with only one person throwing up. To be honest, puke doesn’t phase me. I threw up from conception through delivery for all pregnancies, I have two kids and four cats. Vomit is a part of our lives. Two years ago at an aid station about ten miles into the run, a woman came up, grabbed some gels then gracefully turned and threw up, hard, in a garbage can. And then she apologized. Oh, honey. You have no idea how proud I am of you. Ironman, sure. Throwing up IN THE CAN?!? Way to go!

You get invested in these strangers, and it is thrilling to be so near, watching them work their hearts out. My favorite aid station at the full Ironman is on an out-and-back portion, and since they run the course twice, you can see someone four times. You mentally keep track of people as they come and go, silently praying for them, especially those who are struggling, while continuing to cheer the people in front of you, hawking your Gatorade or water, apologizing for being out of ice or chicken broth. Every year, we end up closing down the aid station, cheering the last person on the course through, then driving up to the finish to make sure “our” last people make it. Sometimes they don’t get there in time. Believe me, if I’ve seen you finish that race at 12:01, you’re still an Ironman to me.

This Sunday, I got to catch a friend after he finished his best HIM yet. His knees buckled a little, but he found his legs quickly and after passing him off to his brother, I rushed back to the twin lines of volunteers waiting for the next athletes.

Like all the races I’ve volunteered at, most of it is a blur that left me wired and tired, but there were a handful of finishers who had an impact. Some lean on you more than others. My last “catch” of the day before my shift was over was a young guy who started to hyperventilate. The station director gave him a good, long look, asked him if he was okay, and told us to keep walking and breathing. We did. At the finish area exit, the other volunteer raised his eyebrows at me, and I said I had it. Then, with arm still around my athlete, I asked him quietly if he was okay, and he cracked and started to cry. Oh buddy. Have you come to the right place. I happen to know someone who sobs at finish lines. She only does sprints, but she’s a real gem.

I walked him out of the mud pit and found him a spot to sit a ways away in the grass. He’s from Chicago. He doesn’t have anyone here except a friend who’s still out on the course. He’s had too much sugar and caffeine. He didn’t expect to cry. He doesn’t have to drive back tonight and plans to have a Spotted Cow or two. I listen and sit next to him and agree that RedBull is the worst, and when I notice he’s stopped shaking I get him up and ask if he wants a hug and tell him how truly proud I am of him. I leave him in the food line, in better shape than I found him.

I tell my leader I’m leaving, then head home on my bike.

Here’s the secret: Volunteering is good for me. My well had run dry. I had almost nothing left for my family. And yet giving and being present at that finish line was easy. You need someone to lean on and get you a soda? You got it. You’re still shaking and you need an escort to the med tent? I’m here. I’ll walk with an arm around you the whole way and won’t leave until I know you’re being taken care of. It’s simple, easy, necessary help that I can give. And then I wipe my hands off and I go help someone else.

Perhaps I haven’t felt useful in quite some time. Perhaps it’s nice to be needed? I’m needed all the time. All. The. Time. The seven-year old has pneumonia for the third time in three months. She felt good for a week? A few days? There is no respite. There is no cavalry. I left the kids home watching videos to pick up her antibiotic, and despite the urgency, I found myself stalled out in front of a magazine rack, in the middle of an interview of …Anna Faris?I don’t know how long I had been standing there.

But… I left that finish area restored. I helped. I did my best. I reminded people to stop their watches and congratulated them on their hard work and achievement. I gave hugs and high-fives and sodas and foil blankets and, it was enough. I can’t explain why helping strangers makes it easier to continue to help my own child, but I don’t need to. I’ll just see you at the finish line at WI IM, this September.

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Wrist band given to IM athletes to give to volunteers. Also, a reminder of my best self. She’s not that far away.
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Zoo Atlanta, March 2018

Last, but not least, we made it to Zoo Atlanta on our recent trip.  I’d heard good things about their great panda program, and then we read The One and Only Ivan by K. A. Applegate together and found out that the real Ivan spent the last 18 years of his life at Zoo Atlanta, and we had to go. The zoo has a large (the largest?) number of western lowland gorillas in North America and what seemed like incredibly large and lush habitats.  (Also, apparently this is where Dwayne Johnson did research for Rampage, and has since adopted a bachelor male, calling him Dwayne Jr.  I am sad to report I didn’t see either Dwayne.)

Amongst the four of us, almost every animal in the zoo was a priority to see, so we waded through all the school groups, refueled with Dippin Dots when necesssary, and took in as much as we could.

Something I’ve been looking forward to was see great pandas.  I know some people who are vehemently opposed to zoos, and I see their point when we look at history.  I also appreciate the focus on conservation modern zoos, especially Zoo Atlanta, have adopted.  Zoos are now key to species preservation for so many.  Plus…..it gives so many people the chance to see just how large and amazing this world is.  And whether pandas are really as dumb as rocks, or not.

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You’ll have to go decide for yourselves.

Here are some of our other favorites:

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Baby tamarin!
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The elusive clouded leopard, or a stuffed animal tossed over the fence
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Two little kids were taunting him. And he ate them. Respect.
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drooling Sun Bear! ❤
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Naked mole rats
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Komodo, thankfully behind glass
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I don’t know. As a midwesterner, let’s call these wombats or raccoon dogs.
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Red panda

After the raccoon-dog encounter, we ran across another shaggy, grizzled animal we’ve never heard of before lounging in a hammock.  If the Wild Kratts haven’t told me about it, I’m pretty sure we’re just making stuff up now.  Look at this guy, a binturong. Now before you claim him as your ‘spirit animal’ just know that I’ve already claimed this particular one, so go find your own.

We saw all we could handle, leaving out maybe a quarter of the zoo (and forgetting to photograph any of the elephants).  We’ll have to go back some day.  Other amazing encounters:

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pretty bird, what are you?
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Eastern ibis
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Black-and-white ruffed lemur
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The lions in the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison have heated rocks. Hotlanta lions probably don’t need that, do they?
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Young photographer at work
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Go eyeball Zoo Atlanta for yourself!

 

 

Fernbank 3.0, March 2018

Time for a visit to our home away from home, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.  This was our third visit, (check out the first)and this time we allowed ourselves to stay as long as we wanted without having to rush off to drive another ten hours.

Argentinosaurus in main lobby
Argentinosaurus still presides
Hands on bugs exhibit
Nature Quest exhibit still enraptures
Belemnite fossil
Belemnite in Solnhofen quarried marble still amazes

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Giganotasaurus fossil model
Giganotasaurus still looms large

I was happy to see the Halls of Georgia timeline hasn’t changed, and that you can still watch an 8-minute video on the creation of earth, get right up to the point where single-cell organisms appear…..and it ends, and you walk out to see taxidermied turkeys.  Such a great juxtaposition.

I mistakenly didn’t record all the many blooming glories of the city as I did last time.  I wrongly assumed spring would soon arrive here in Madison and we’d have our own flowering trees and tulips to ogle.  Here’s just a taste of what we’re still waiting for…

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The newest addition to Fernbank (not including the special exhibit on the body’s microbiome which did NOT have hand sanitizer at the end, ugh) is an incredible series of boardwalks and paths winding around and through the wooded swampland behind the building.  There are about 2 1/4 miles of walkways beautifully arranged and engineered to be an extension of the landscape.  We were all enchanted. The area to the right is intended for younger kids with a nature-inspired playground and a manufactured waterfall complete with boats, simple dams and obstructions kids can manipulate to change the water flow.

Another section of the boardwalk is designed for a bit older group ready to climb through/over/under/down a bunch of rope bridges  and tunnels.  You can test yourself (dominated the rope bridge, thank you), or lurk at the only entrance/exit and tell your kids you ‘just love to watch them play’ (which I did a lot more of.)
Then, you have a beautiful, screened in building for nature talks and what-not, and paths through gardens and the forest floor and old mill (?) or church (?) foundation stones (I couldn’t find any information but was intrigued.)  A cool, cloudy day, but no mosquitoes, and lots of fun.

I figured this would be our last time visiting Fernbank, but with the boardwalk addition, we might find our way back again sometime.  Go see for yourself!

Georgia Aquarium, March 2018

Our second trip to Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta was no less amazing than the first.  What a gem.

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We arrived right as the doors opened and were lucky to have the place almost to ourselves for a half hour or so.  We skipped the dolphin show this time, remembering it as too loud and too Vegas for us, but instead had a penguin encounter (<3) and took the moving walkway through the Ocean Voyager exhibit (the huge tank with the whale sharks) twice.

We saw everything we wanted (me–jellyfish behind acrylic and African penguin up close, son–reef exhibit, daughter–above-mentioned walkway, husband–potato grouper), waded through the mob to eat, then ransacked the gift shop and went happily on our way.  All of us were excited to see the belugas and penguins Jeff Corwin talked about in his Ocean Mysteries series and three of us are ready to get SCUBA certified and go swimming with those giant rays and whale sharks next time.

 

A few glorious days in Glacier National Park

Last summer, we camped just west of Yellowstone National Park, and a sore throat led me to the sweet nectar of ramen from the KOA camp store. I also bought an emergency “hand stitched” fleece blanket. Last week, another sore throat led to more cheap ramen and recuperating on the sofa under that bear blanket and I got to thinking of our latest camping trip, to Glacier National Park.

Recovery on the sofa means lots of assistants

We drove the kids out to Glacier in August and lucked out, getting a campsite at Two Medicine and stayed for three nights.  Most of the camp sites in the park can’t be reserved ahead of time, and the park has gotten so popular in the last two summers that you have to troll the campsites, waiting for others to pack up.  We’re not the only ones who want to see the glaciers while they last, I suppose.

Campsite backyard
On the path to the Apistoki Falls, which we never found

91-year-old wooden boat, Sinopah, ferried us across Two Medicine lake for a chance to torture the kids with a “miserable” hike to Twin Falls

I took a ridiculous amount of pictures, but truly, if you can go, you should to experience it yourself.  The thing that stays with me is how quiet it was, and how dark the night was.  We went to sleep the second night to very strong winds rattling the tent. (Don’t worry, the bear fleece was keeping us warm.)  I woke in the night once the wind had died and there was no sound, anywhere.  No crickets or peepers or even the owls from earlier or wind or distant car traffic or generators or any other human noise.  It was the kind of silence that had a weight to it on my ears.  I was unsettled by it then, but miss it now.

Winter kill from sap rising fast in warm Chinook winds, then expanding in a sudden refreeze.

We checked out the Two Medicine area, St. Mary and Many Glacier before driving through the park on Going-to-the-Sun highway as we left.  Two Medicine lake and a spot on the far side of Swiftcurrent Lake (that edges on the Many Glacier Lodge) were my absolute favorite parts of the park, although we really only saw a fraction of it.  We did see some bears ahead of us on the road, twice, from the car, just the way I like.  The open-range cattle were more shocking, though, just hanging out in the road, right after any sharp bend.

Recent fire scars remain

 

One of the old park tour vehicles ahead on the road to St. Mary
Wildfire scars and recovery

Some of us were there for the lichen, some of us were there for the geology

When we were there, wildfires in the park had been burning for about 10 days.  No new back-country permits were being issued, and no campfires were allowed anywhere in thepark (camp stoves were still okay at campsites only) but that didn’t affect our plans at all, and we just dealt with hazy skies.

View of Saint Mary Lake, August 12, 2017, hazy from wildfire smoke

I had been hoping to see the Perseid meteor shower from our camp site, but even if they skies hadn’t been smoky, it was cloudy those nights.   We were all exhausted from hiking and playing in the river to be too disappointed about this.  The kids made sure to have their “special ramen” and made sure our neighbors knew that “ramen makes you toot.”  They were from Seattle and before leaving, they gave us a bag of Peet’s ground coffee (because we’d very sadly left ours at home) and I’m still grateful.  (I love you, Lisa!) What an amazing place in the world.  Number ten on our list, and number one in our hearts.

Hiding from the wind at Rising Sun along St. Mary Lake

 

View from the lodge at Many Glacier
The hike begins in good spirits that last a whole quarter mile.
Hiking around Swiftcurrent Lake

 

Close to the best and “worst” spot in the entire park, a beautiful wooden bride over the river into Swifcurrent Lake.  This is where a hot, 2 1/2 mile hike through stupid, gnarled trees and a failed attempt at a trail-side pee (mom’s stupid idea) came together.  No amount of Skittles could fix it.  Still pretty, though.
Ramen for mood-restoration
Back on the road, near to stop #3 for carsickness
Just after Logan’s Pass on Going-To-The-Sun Road.  Don’t worry, Wolverine poop jokes are still alive and well in this family.
Goodbye, Glacier NP.  We’re grateful for your spacious, awesome beauty.

Jerome, Arizona

Fly into Phoenix, drive out of the airport and stop at Carolina’s, and feast on the best tacos you’ve ever had.  Get a quesadilla and know what heaven tastes like.  It’s up to you if you use the little cups for salsa, or your water cup filled to the brim like the locals.

Drive north a ways, weave through some side roads and canyons, and find your way to the abandoned Gold King Mine turned machinery graveyard/ghost town in Jerome, Arizona.

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We went this past spring and spent some time wandering through the vast collections of machinery, mining tools, buildings with mannequin inhabitants and everyone enjoyed this charming oddity.  Behold!

The man who preserved the Gold King Mine, Don Robertson, was apparently Gandalf’s own brother, and a an adventurer, collector and free-spirit.  His family is now managing the site. It was fascinating to peak in to the forgotten mine town and the things people leave behind, and I’m so glad he created it and so glad we went.

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Thanks, Don.  Jerome holds a true roadside attraction everyone should see at least once.

A Week in the Life, Take II

Do you keep seeing black and white photos of people’s lives? It is easy to see the appeal of this particular challenge; The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. Everyone can find the gorgeous in the everyday with the help of a monochrome filter. It’s satisfying to see these spaces we inhabit be lifted to a higher plane, stark and barren without people. I like to see the world that way.

I also want social media to be a link for me to those friends of mine who’ve spread across the city, state, country and world, and yet that isn’t what it is for me. I’m not sure it ever was, but it certainly isn’t that now. I don’t want to spend my time there feeling more and more alienated rather than closer to people. I took a couple weeks away from all media (okay, not my Spider Solitaire), and I felt different, and better and more hopeful and I need that to continue. I don’t have the energy to invest in visiting social media everyday to post pictures as there are a dozen things I “can’t even” about right now and, as always….

Winter is coming. Here’s what I’ll be doing this cycle around the sun: Running. If you’ve never felt the lifting of your heart from the simple act of running, I wish you do someday. I’m leaving my bootcamp for a while, doing my PT, resting all five injuries, and running. And walking. In the cold. In the dark. In the snow. I welcome the fresh air to clear out the many cobwebs. And April 7th, I’ll be finishing a half marathon because the fifth time is the charm. I welcome the early dark as a blanket of calm to mute the sparkle of the holidays. I sort and store and prepare.

….And I’m an impatient story-teller. So, here’s another seven days condensed into seven pictures to stand without explanation. You don’t even have to check in every day.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

4

5

6

Nearly full Sharps container

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Visiting The Wyoming Dinosaur Center

A year and a week ago, we visited the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, and just had to go back.  I always tell people my nine-year old is “a bit of a dinosaur enthusiast,” which, while true, is an understatement, and ignores that both his father and I are even bigger nerds about it.  I mean, how often do you get to see the actual feather imprints of dinosaurs?!?

close up of Microraptor fossil with feather imprints visible
Microraptor (early Cretaceous, China) with feathers on both upper and lower appendages. Wyoming Dinosaur Center

This year, after spending the night in Thermopolis, WY…IMG_4215 in our favorite hotel (warm cookies in the lobby in the evening) and running along the boardwalks and suspension bridge that criss-cross the World’s Largest Hot Springs, we headed over.

I kid you not, the music playing as we walked in was the same as what my husband and I walked, together, down the aisle to: Bach Cello Suite No. 4 Sarabande  (What a gift to have Nils Bultmann play at our wedding.)  I was geeking out and tried hard not to get overwhelmed before making it to the main room this year.  No luck.  It is such a phenomenal collection of specimens from the beginning of life on earth.  So much of what is on the floor is the real fossil, not casts or models, and it is mind-boggling. True, it has amazing, huge specimens of Supersaurus (“Jimbo” for those in the know) and Camarasuarus, but everything here is amazing: Stromatolites, first arthropods, fish, plants, amphibians, reptiles and on and on and on.  Absolutely worth the two (or eight, or 14) hour drive.

It’s a small museum, absolutely packed with incredible fossils. It has the most complete fossil archaeopteryx on display in North America,IMG_4272 (2)

(although The Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta has a replica of the Berlin imprint/fossil that is indistinguishable from the real one.) I made it up to a stony, fossil skeletal lystrosaurus, “the most humble badass of the triassic,” before I couldn’t absorb any more.

I handed the camera over to my six-year-old and the rest of the photos are hers.  I love seeing her view of things.

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Rhamphorhyncus, Late Jurassic
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The framing. Definitely a child of mine.

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Supersaurus in the middle, Camarasaurus rising in background

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Go see for yourselves!!