A Sweet Run
Marathon Training -- Month 2

Submitted by Nancy

"No one is an island. No one runs in a vacuum. There is always someone watching you leave the house, dig it out, come back, and do it all over again. You are being watched by a roommate, a brother, a spouse. The driver of every passing car. You are being watched by future generations. …We are inexorably entwined within each other's influence. You may run by yourself, but no matter how early you start, no matter how remote your location, you never run alone."
          Marc Parent, A Mile in His Shoes, Feb. 2010, Runner's World     

"Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose."
          From the television show The Wonder Years

"I am a part of all that I have met."
          Alfred Tennyson

We started training for our May 30th marathon on January 10, 2010. We are two months in, halfway through Hal Higdon's Training Program. We have run 200 miles through snow, sleet, rain, slush, puddles, and temps from freezing to balmy! Some runs I actually felt like a REAL runner (OK, not many, but a few) -- full of strength and energy, head high, heart to the sun, feet gliding along the pavement with little effort. Other runs, however, have felt like never-ending-I'm-still-waiting-for-a-runner's-high slogs where I can't wait to see my car at the finish line parking lot.

Our first 12-mile-run stands out as being the best of the first half. It was the run of a lifetime. Really. It was that good. If my marathon training had to end for some reason, our run on Saturday, March 6, made it all worthwhile.


We drive the route to measure mileage first over humongous potholes and frost heaves, markers of that grey season that seems to last forever between the dead of winter and the glory of Spring...Tween. Our conversation in the car starts with "oh my God" as we drive up Hurricane Road. "Up" being the key word. Hurricane Road is one big hill. The oh-my-God conversation continues after we turn onto South Village Road, and encounter lots of rolling hills which continue ad nauseam onto Route 63 in Westmoreland, up and down and up and down all the way to our destination of Stuart & John's Sugar House. Wow... Pat and I are in for a huge challenge. What excites me most is the prospect of making my yearly pilgrimage to Stuart & John's on foot rather than in a car. I am going to run...all that way...and have pancakes and maple syrup as a reward! I am psyched!

I stay excited all the way up until the very moment I am about to begin jogging. Just as I put my right foot forward, and am about to push off with my left, the memory of driving up Hurricane hill comes back and I freeze in a holy-crap-are-we-really-going-to-try-and-do-this panic. Then I start to run. The doubt never comes back.

It is the first perfect spring day. You know how it feels on that very first warm sunny day after being buried in snow and sleet and enshrouded in cold since November? The sun is sparkling all around me, glinting off the pavement and the leftover patches of snow, glistening in between the bare tree branches, warming my back. It's 50 degrees and there is a light breeze. Wow, when it is this beautiful outside, it revives me, awakens the hopeful, filled-with-possibilities, I-can-do-anything spirit in me that has been hibernating during the winter, cajoling her to come out and play. Inside, I am jumping up and down and shouting yippee. That inward enthusiasm fuels my run and I feel light and strong.

What I notice right away is the hills don't seem anywhere near as terrible as I had imagined they would when we were driving the route in the car. That is unexpected and way cool, and gives my already optimistic outlook another boost.

Before I know it we are running by the one place I loved as a child -- Ellis's Sugar House. It's torn down now, a driveway in its place leading to someone's home. But I can still see the small red sugarhouse, steam pouring from the roof-top cupola, barn doors flung open, the dirt floor filled with the huge metal pan called an evaporator, atop of massive wood stove and Harriet Ellis, her gray hair in a bun, and wire rimmed glasses balanced on her nose, tending the fire with huge heavy mitts. God I loved that place. I don't think I have ever gone by this spot without flashing back to the 1960s when I was 10, breathing in the sweet smell of boiling sap.

There are no other memories of my childhood that I hold with such intense pleasure. Really, maple sugaring is my most treasured family memory. Rodney Ellis, like the Pied Piper of sugaring, would drive by our house and the four of us kids in my family would run out, finally free of our parents, and jump onto the back of the truck, joining all the other kids who lived down the road. Rodney would drive a bit and then slow way down. We'd all jump off and run to one of the sap buckets on the maple trees that lined the road, bring it back, dump the sap into the huge tank in the back of the truck, return the bucket to the tree as fast as possible, and move onto the next bucket. I was slower than the other kids because I was more focused on finding sapsicles, the tiny sweet icicles that often formed on the spigot after a cold night. I'd let the sapsicle melt in my mouth and then wash it down with sap, drinking right from the bucket. Then I'd empty what was left into the tank. We would collect sap all the way up the road until we arrived at the sugarhouse, where Harriet would be waiting for us. She'd give us each a tin cup of hot maple syrup, taken right from the evaporator. I remember standing next to the huge pans of boiling syrup, feeling the intense heat from the wood fire and sipping the maple syrup - letting each tiny scalding sweet sip run down inside me, loving every warm moment. I remember licking the sides of the cup clean. We'd spend the day at the sugarhouse and late in the afternoon, we'd walk back home, slowly.

I'm still immersed in my sugarhouse memory when we run by a series of trees pregnant with grey metal buckets. "Sap buckets!" I exclaim, feeling a nostalgic pull, grateful that there are still people who do it the old fashioned way. Pat and I stop and check out one of the buckets, about a quarter full with sap. Just beyond the buckets, though, the past fades and the technology of the day takes its place. There is a spider web of blue tubing linking the maple trees together and draining the sap with the help of gravity, into a huge barrel located lower than the trees. The tubing takes the place of a band of kids. I know technological wizards are always figuring out ways to make processes more efficient and cheaper, which often results in eliminating the need for human beings. I am not always sure that is good. It may be cheaper, but we lose the connection with the process and each other. I'm glad they hadn't developed the tubing when I was young. To have that intimate experience with the miracle of maple syrup opened up a connection with the natural world for me. Even more important was the opportunity to be free of my parents, running outside with other kids, doing a job where adults trusted me and I was actually helping. It was a unique experience for me. My strong emotional hold on the memory tells me it was also a saving grace.

We arrive at the end of Hurricane Road, having completed the largest hill on the run. I feel great. Pat feels great. We keep running. Up and down and up and down the hills on South Village Road. We pass a red house and I hear someone yell "Nancy." It is my friend Clay! We used to run by his house when he lived in Keene and then he moved and I missed him every time we ran by his empty house. I give him a big hug and he shows us his maple syrup operation, tubing running through his trees and emptying into a tank at the bottom of the hill near the road. And wow - the sap is pouring into his sap cistern! It is great to see him. He seems to be an angel in my life, standing on the sidelines, always greeting me with a genuine smile. We all need sideline angels.

We say our goodbyes and continue running. There's lots of traffic, everyone going somewhere on this beautiful spring day. Pat says, "Don't you people have another way to get where you are going?" frustrated with all the traffic. I get it. There are lots of sharp curves in the road and the oncoming traffic can be unnerving. "Think about all the people in those cars we are inspiring!" I say to Pat, letting in the possibility myself that someone's life could be changed just by seeing two 50-year-old women out running in the middle of nowhere in florescent yellow jackets, smiling. It makes me want to shout, "Hey look at us! If we can do it, so can you!"

I'm so happy. I am filled with anticipation of Stuart and John's warm maple syrup, thrilled to be inspiring a parade of people in passing cars, delighted to have seen my friend Clay and his running sap and new home, elated that I am not dying, blissful that I am running on a beautiful day with my best friend, training for something I never thought I could do. I'm waving at the drivers, sharing my joy. I wonder if they can see my exuberance? But it doesn't matter. I am not waving for them, I'm waving for me.

Our pace seems perfect and I am amazed that I seem to be absolutely fine. I feel like I could go on forever. Out of the corner of my eyes I see bright spring colors and turn to see lots of colorful eggs hanging from bare branches next to a driveway and I immediately love whoever lives there. The Easter Bunny's coming...

Before I know it we are in Westmoreland...and I got here on my own two feet! Incredible! We take a right on Route 63, passing a sign for fresh or pickled eggs. "No thanks," I say, laughing and run on by. The hills on 63 seem to get longer, steeper and more frequent, and I notice that I am feeling my legs. I am just on the brink of getting tired. We pass beautiful houses, lots of cows having lunch, a hill that seems to go on forever and then I see it. Our destination. Stuart & John's Sugar House. White steam billows from the cupola. They are boiling! I can almost smell the sweetness in the air. We run past the sugarhouse and start our extra loop around Rte. 12 and Depot Road and back to the Sugar House. The sight of the sugarhouse and the anticipation of the warm sweet reward within spur us on.

We pass a couple getting into their car and I notice the license plate is "111ers." I stop and ask them if that is a hiking license plate - meaning they have climbed all the 4,000-footers in NY and NE. Yes, they say, looking pleased. We talk for a bit, hikers sharing their love of hiking. He grew up in New York and warns that the Adirondacks are steep. We've found that out the hard way! When we resume our run, I feel so full, connected, loving, full of wellbeing, happy. I love it when the grace wave gives us opportunities to connect with others. I am glad I didn't just run past the couple. Glad I took the risk to say what was in me.

We arrive at Stuart & John's parking lot, where Don is waiting for us. He is surprised we look like we are in pretty good shape given we just ran 12 miles! Whoooo Hooooooo! We did it...easily!

It's 1 PM so the crowds at the family restaurant have cleared out and we don't have to wait long for a table. Boy, oh boy, it feels good to sit down. I order blueberry pancakes and Pat orders a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. The waitress brings over warm maple syrup and I put my hands around the pitcher. Already I am in heaven. The pancakes arrive and I pour on the maple syrup, which they soak up immediately. They are thirsty, so I give them more. Each maple-syrup-soaked bite is delectable. I breathe in the sweetness, and revel in the feeling that my body is still moving even though I am finally sitting. I love this feeling. I love knowing I did it. I love knowing that now I get to enjoy a treat. I love knowing that I get to relax this afternoon, maybe even take a nap.

I'd lick my plate if I were home. But I really can't do that here, so I scrape every last drop of syrup off my plate with my fork. Finished, we decide to watch them boiling for a minute. Their evaporator is brand spanking new, shining as bright as the sun outside. I wish they gave samples right from the pans, but I guess I've had enough syrup. Roger, Stuart's Dad, shows us the reverse osmosis machine, which takes some of the water out of the sap before boiling, so it needs less time in the evaporator.

Stuart & John's is a family business. Stuart, Ellie and Roger Adams' son, was in eighth grade when he, his family, and best friend John, decided to try their hand at making maple syrup. A year later they wondered if they might be able to sell a few pancakes along with the syrup. They opened the restaurant in 1975 at the junction of Route 12 and 63, adding onto the original sugarhouse next to their dairy farm, and it has been open every Tween season since. Not much has changed over the years. They've modernized the maple syrup process, using plastic tubing to collect the sap, oil instead of wood for boiling, and they've expanded the restaurant. But the pancakes, waffles and French toast, the Grade A maple syrup and the family atmosphere remain the same. Roger and Ellie now have twelve grandchildren, thank goodness, because they need all the family help they can get when their friends, neighbors and the tourists pack into Stuart & John's for the sweet reward of Tween.

Pat's never seen the maple syrup process. Today she got the whole tour, from the buckets to the warm pitcher of sweet elixir on each red-checkered table. As we hop in the car for the ride home, I feel life-high, happy-tired, and comfortably full.

I love it when life comes easy, when the runs feel doable. And I am grateful for the runs that come hard as well. It was only a few weeks before this that, in tears and filled with doubt, I wanted to give up on the marathon training after a particularly hard 10-mile-run. If I didn't experience the difficult runs, I wouldn't appreciate the runs that come easy. And if they all came easy, then I wouldn't have the same opportunity to learn about myself and discover what I am made of. I am doing this because it is in me. It's what I am supposed to do. That's all I know. And I am thankful that every once in a while, it comes easy. Training for a marathon can be challenging, at times, grueling. It can also be maple syrup sweet.