What the Hill

On September 28, 2017 · 3 Comments

My wife keeps signing me up for running races. I guess she wants some company during her crazy pursuits. It seems harmless enough so I join her even if I’d rather be doing something less competitive. Those are the kinds of compromises one makes to keep peace in the house, and we’ve been together a long time so something must be working. Anyway she got a great discount on a whole series of races sponsored by a local running store because she bought them as a set. Wait, is this a geography blog or a running blog? Don’t worry, I’ll work geography into this. They’ll share equal billing while I examine an interesting overlap.

Clarendon Day


Clarendon Day 5K
Clarendon Day 5K. Photo by John Sonderman on Flickr (cc)

The Clarendon Day 5K in Arlington, Virginia came next in the series (map). My wife actually ran both the 5K and the 10K back-to-back, although as I mentioned, sometimes I question her sanity. Nonetheless, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) seemed quite enough for me on Sunday. We could walk to the starting line from our house so I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse to skip it even if I tried.

Running came to me only recently — really the last couple of years — although I enjoyed hiking, biking and other outdoor activities well before that. I discovered pretty quickly that I could run decently well, at a respectable pace although not spectacularly, and I generally finished just barely within the top ten percent for my age group. Ditto for Clarendon Day, 4th out of 48 in the geezer man category.

I got a great time, shaving almost a full minute from my Personal Record, finishing in 20:46 with a 6:41 mile pace. I’d never completed a 5K with a time of 20 minutes in front of it nor managed to keep a pace with a 6 in front of it until then. How was that even possible? Gravity.


Clarendon Day Elevation
Clarendon Day 5K Elevation Elevation
via Pacers Running

Some readers might remember the race I described in Regurgitated. I ran down that same steep hill and then back up! This time the course only went down the hill. I wanted to finish with a sub-20 which is one of those iconic 5K milestone times. Sadly, I think I left any possibility of that behind me long before I took up running. I’ll have to be content with those age adjusting calculators. They said I might have finished sub-20 if only I ran a couple of decades ago.


St. George Marathon


Finish Line
Finish Line. Photo by Nate Grigg on Flickr (cc)

Using gravity seemed almost like cheating. However, those times counted just like any others certified by USA Track and Field and other organizations. People have long used terrain to boost their PR’s especially for marathons. I heard of a race awhile ago that went almost completely downhill, the St. George Marathon. This point-to-point race (map) ran from the Pine Valley mountains into the city of St. George, Utah. In this marathon, runners began at an elevation of 5,240 feet (1,600 metres) and finished at 2,680 feet (815 metres). Nearly eight thousand runners signed up for this event held each October.

I don’t know how they could do it. My quads felt tight after the steep mile of my little neighborhood 5K. I couldn’t imagine how one would feel after running downhill for a full marathon. They probably couldn’t walk for a week.


Mount Charleston Marathon


Mount Charleston, Nevada (35)
Mount Charleston, Nevada. Photo by billy kerr on flickr (cc)

Just a couple of weeks ago, someone I know told me he intended to run the REVEL Mt Charleston marathon next April in Las Vegas, Nevada. This one descended even more rapidly than St. George on its path from mountaintop to city streets (map). Runners began at 7,633 feet (2,325 metres) and finished at 2,507 feet (765 metres), dropping nearly a mile in elevation. Race organizers described it as "incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful."

Why would people subject themselves to such a sustained and drastic 4% downhill? The organizers left no doubt.

Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time

They even offered a helpful chart that showed finishers at Mt. Charleston averaged 3:57:26 versus 4:28:54 for those at St. George. This race was all about people wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That was the exact reason why my acquaintance will head to Las Vegas too. His current times fell just shy of BQ and he needed that extra boost.


Apparently This is a Thing

Plenty of other downhill marathons hoped to scratch that same itch. It’s quite an honor to qualify for Boston and BQ times are brutal. A simple understanding of geography and terrain could make all the difference between running Boston next year or watching from the sidelines. Just the first page of search engine results produced a long list of possibilities.

I don’t have a burning desire to run a marathon. However, if I do someday, I doubt I could ever achieve a BQ time even with a sharply downhill course. Maybe I could age into it though. The 80 and Over BQ seemed reasonable if I can hold things together long enough.

Fire

On September 24, 2017 · 3 Comments

It seemed like wildfires burned all across the American West this summer, each one worse than the other. A fire in Montana burned so long and so intensely that many nearby towns experience perpetual nightfall for days. Amazingly, the fires of 2017 stripped an area as big as the state of Maryland. For the European audience, that equated to an area about the size of Belgium or Albania. All reduced to ashes.

Twelve Mile Circle featured a number of natural disasters previously (e.g., hurricanes, floods) so why not fire? I considered pinpointing the largest fires in recorded history. However I wanted something I could mark distinctly on my index map. Maybe I could shift my attention to famous city fires instead.

First I had to get this out of my system:



You know you wanted to see it. Or maybe that was just me. Fortunately it lasts only eight seconds.


Great Fire of London


The Monument
The Monument. Photo by Gabrielle Ludlow on Flickr (cc)

The Great Fire of London in 1666 may be the most well-known. It began in the bakery of Thomas Farriner/Farynor late at night. First it spread west and then north as winds shifted. Nearly all of the original medieval part of the city went up in flames. Firefighting techniques barely existed at the time and couldn’t contain it. The main defense involved fire breaks, literally removing anything combustible before flames arrived. However, officials didn’t move quickly enough to create breaks so the fire spread far-and-wide. Reputedly very few people died even though the fire covered a sizable portion of central London. That might have been because the city government didn’t keep good records of the poor and destitute. They may have simply been incinerated. The true death toll will never be known.

Anyone who studied English History of this time period probably remembered hearing about the fire in the diary of Samuel Pepys.

So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge…

The fire left an indelible impression. Five years later the city commissioned construction of a large Doric column near the site where the fire began on Pudding Lane. Christopher Wren designed the monument while he did the same for the reconstruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The column rose 62 metres (202 feet) upon completion and it still stands. Visitors can climb to the top of the Great Fire of London Monument for panoramic views of the city. (map)


Great Chicago Fire


Impact vs Chicago Fire
Impact vs Chicago Fire. Photo by abdallahh on Flickr (cc)

The most famous fire in the United States might be the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. According to popular legend — disproved long ago — the fire began when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp. The disaster did indeed start near the O’Leary family’s barn on an alley behind DeKoven Street (map). However, nobody knew the true cause. The story of a clumsy cow sold a lot of newspapers so it stuck.

The fire created utter devastation in downtown Chicago, consuming more than three square miles of densely-populated neighborhoods. By the end, more than a hundred thousand people lost their homes and three hundred people lost their lives. The city’s business district laid in ruins. It might have been worse except for rain on the third day. The fire finally began to burn out as it approached more sparsely-settled areas farther away from the downtown core.

As in London, the people of Chicago created a lasting memorial near the site where the fire began. The Chicago remembrance took a much more practical turn. The city constructed a training facility for the Chicago Fire Academy on the site. Firefighters now learn how to combat blazes at the place where the city’s most horrific conflagration began.

Memories of the disaster remained strong even more than a century later. The local Major League Soccer team named itself the Chicago Fire.


Great Fire of Meireki


Meireki fire
Meireki fire via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

I’d never heard of the Great Fire of Meireki before I started researching this article although it certainly deserved a mention. Meireki referred to the Japanese imperial era when the fire took place, specifically its third year, 1657. That put it just a few years before the Great Fire of London. This one also brought a capital to its knees, the city of Edo, now known as Tokyo. Its legendary origin put the Chicago story to shame. Supposedly the blaze began when a priest attempted to burn a cursed kimono. Actually, nobody knew how it started although the spot traced to somewhere within the Hongo district (map).

Edo suffered through an extended drought leading up to the fire, leaving buildings tinderbox dry. Wooden homes clustered tightly along narrow streets became the perfect fuel. High winds that day fanned flames widely throughout the city. Up to seventy percent of the Edo burned before the fire finally subsided. Perhaps a hundred thousand people died.

Totally Eclipsed

On August 23, 2017 · 8 Comments

Can anyone stand one more eclipse story? I promise this one will be a little different than most. I drove a thousand miles for a 4-day weekend and, well… Mother Nature had different plans.

Lots of loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers asked me if I planned to see the August 21, 2017, total eclipse of the sun. I started getting emails from curious readers several months ago. Actually, I began planning for the event even before anyone asked. My brother lives in a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina. Exactly one year in advance, to the day, I sent him a message requesting a place to stay. Of course he hadn’t heard anything about the eclipse at that point. Almost nobody had. Nonetheless, I wanted to stake out my prime viewing spot before anyone else could claim it. The year passed a lot quicker than I expected and soon we found ourselves heading down to Charleston.

The Drive Down



I way overthought the logistics as I always do, and as my nature often compels me. How would we survive Interstate 95, one of the most traffic-clogged roads on a good day, when hundreds of thousands of people had the same thought? I guessed maybe fewer drivers would begin their journey early Saturday morning, two days before the eclipse. We left the Washington, DC area at 5:30 am, hoping that my prediction might hold true. However, traffic coming out of DC seemed heavier than usual. It continued to build as we passed Fredericksburg and pushed forward towards Richmond. I definitely feared the worst. If traffic looked this bad even before sunrise, what would it look like when everyone woke up and started heading towards the eclipse’s path of totality?

Unexpectedly, conditions improved after we left Richmond. In retrospect, I figured they must have been heading to the beaches of Virginia and North Carolina. This wasn’t eclipse traffic, this was normal beach traffic, of people with Saturday-to-Saturday cottage rentals. We experienced nothing but smooth sailing for the rest of the drive. Honestly the easiest driving happened in South Carolina. The route seemed downright relaxing compared to the initial leg. We arrived at our destination in 7.5 hours, with an average speed (including stops) of about 65 miles per hour (105 kilometres per hour). No delays. None.

I guessed correctly. Others, however, did not. My wife’s friend left from New Jersey later in the day. She made it only as far as Fayetteville, North Carolina until being forced by fatigue to stop overnight. It took her 15 hours.


Hanging Out


Rusty Bull Brewing Co.

We also got plenty of time to hang out with family, another benefit of arriving two days early. This trip would be a little different. We would avoid the usual tourist sites of Charleston. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the crowds. Our older son enjoyed spending time in a quiet corner of his temporary bedroom playing interactive Internet games with his friends back home in Virginia. Our younger son got some quality time with his cousin, including a trip to the local trampoline park. My sister-in-law definitely took one for the team as she shepherded them during that adventure.

The rest of us visited as many local breweries as we could. Over the course of two days we hit six: Frothy Beard Brewing; Holy City Brewing; Oak Road Brewery; Rusty Bull Brewing; Twisted Cypress Brewing and Westbrook Brewing. I’d never been to a brewery in South Carolina before, so now the only states missing from my brewery adventure map were Arkansas, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma.


Eclipse Day



The morning of the eclipse

Then came the big day. I started with a six-mile run at dawn. I thought Virginia summers were brutal although they paled in comparison to South Carolina. At least mornings in Virginia offered a bit of respite from the worst extremes of the day. However, in South Carolina, I walked through the front door and hit a solid wall of heat and humidity. This seemed troublesome because all that water vapor had to go somewhere, and sure enough clouds began to build as the morning progressed. Clouds, obviously, would obscure the eclipse. Still, I tried to remain optimistic.

Fortunately we didn’t need to travel anywhere. My brother’s house sat northwest of Charleston, even further into the area of totality than the city itself. The period of darkness there differed from the theoretical maximum by only 12 seconds. We didn’t see any need to fight our way through the traffic. We already sat at an awesome geographic viewpoint.

The city itself largely shut-down for the event. Many businesses closed for the days as did the schools. Still, lots of bars and restaurants remained open with all sorts of eclipse celebrations and specials. It became something of an undeclared holiday. Even so, we decided to remain in the back yard with lawn chairs and our eclipse glasses ready.


The Eclipse


Eclipse?

Where we stood, the eclipse lasted from 1:16 pm to 4:09 pm, with totality starting at 2:46 pm and lasting for more than two minutes. Right around 12:30 pm, a thunderstorm rolled into the area and heavy clouds did not depart for the rest of the day. We never saw the sun during the entire period of the eclipse. Thunder and rainfall drowned out every other sound. Only complete darkness offered the telltale sign that something else was happening. This unfortunate turn of events offered a humble lesson in making the best of a bad situation. We did enjoy the moments leading up to totality. The world darkened visibly, especially during the final moments, arriving faster than any sunset. It looked like someone turned a dimmer switch on the entire planet, then repeated the process in reverse. We never got to use our eclipse glasses though.

When’s the next one? April 8, 2024? I have a cousin who lives in Austin, Texas. Maybe I can make reservations early.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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