Friday, August 6, 2010

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

It's early September of 1985 and along with 24 other 4th graders, we sit restlessly in our chairs as Mr. Spanton goes over the first homework assignment for the new school year. We need to write a paper on how we spent our summer vacation and turn it in by the end of the week. Undoubtedly the entire class groaned in unison as it was still warm outside and the last thing that we wanted to do was to write anything down about the previous 104 days of summer in which we were still trying to extend. As I recall I wrote about our family trip to Mackinaw Island, how we rode the ferry across the straights and got to see the Mackinaw Bridge. What I didn't include where the things that you don't necessarily appreciate when you are 9 years old, like spending time with family, enjoying the great outdoors without oppressive snow and just being a kid.

Fast forward 25 years to the summer of 2010 and although the summer is not over yet, I find myself tasked with the same exercise; trying to spin a tale of how I spent my summer vacation. While having long since moved away to college and onto a professional career now in the foothills of Alabama, this summer I had the opportunity to work remotely from Kingsford, Michigan. This was the town where my parents have spent most of their lives and where I grew up. Most of my job is preparation for software demonstrations that I give to power companies, which involves travel so it doesn't really matter where I live, as long as I have my laptop and an airport nearby for travel. So after figuring out some logistics at home, I packed up the car with the dogs and set out to drive the 900 miles north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

I had some initial thoughts of how the summer might unfold over the course of the following 51 days, but what happened was not what I expected. Somehow along the way I remember the importance of family, the pure enjoyment of running and that you need far less to be happy than you actually have.

Let's first start with the fact that the last 7 weeks have not been a vacation; with work travel and our busy season today is the first day that I have taken off, including working through the 4th of July. There have been multiple trips to Kansas, South Carolina, Houston and even back to Huntsville. While here in Kingsford, I have my "office" set up in the kitchen where my laptop and monitor are hooked up to the internet so I can access work files and participate in conference calls. My normal routine would be to wake up early and after letting the dogs outside to do their business, I was typically working by 6:30am. My dad would laugh because my work uniform was most often a pair of split shorts and technical shirt that I had put on after the run from the night before and would wear during the run on the current day. Just like at home, I would drink coffee all morning, eat lunch around noon and find some time to plan out the run for that night. To be honest, I probably worked more efficiently and turned out more productive work in the last two months than any other two month stretch in quite some time.

Yes I missed my friends in Huntsville, my weekly trips to Fleet Feet and Starbucks. The first few weeks were pretty tough, but with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and my BlackBerry, I was never more than a nanobyte away from catching up with them. Being in the minority of runners here, most days I would either run alone, with the beagles, or on occasion I would get together with an old friend to do some track work at the high school. What I found in those lonely hours afoot was my affinity for running. I remembered why I started running all of the years ago and recaptured my zeal for the sport.

I felt a little like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire at times, sharing his revelation of the mission statement. I was running fewer total miles, but I was running a higher percentage of quality miles. More tempo runs, more track work, more hill repeats, more pickups during a long run and more races, yet with a lower volume. I managed to regain some of the speed that I had from the fall of 2008 when I was setting most of my personal records and before my love for ultra marathons and long runs developed. I have hardly stepped foot on a paved road this summer as most of my runs have been on gravel roads, trails, snowmobile trails or deer paths which has done wonders for my health. I will attribute much of this to the gorgeous summer weather in Northern Michigan, where highs in the 80's where high and mostly the mercury never got about the upper 70's.

While the cool weather was a driver, so was the fact that I had rediscovered my appreciation for life. Being around family and seeing friends from your childhood made me more relaxed and with far less stress from the daily grind. I was able to focus on running quality and not trying to figure out how I was going to fit a run in when times were busy. If it was raining or if I just wasn't feeling it, I turned around early or just didn't run all together. In the same breathe, when I did feel good I would pick up the pace, focus on faster leg turnover and crank out some fast miles. Some weeks I would have 4 or 5 days in a row with quality running where I was hitting it hard every day and while my monthly mileage may have dropped from the normal 350-400 down to 250 I was running better and enjoying it so much more.

I managed to work in several races during my sojourn from Huntsville, including a trail marathon in Florence Wisconsin on the first weekend I was here. I ran very well that day, despite no marathon training whatsoever and earned the overall win on a course that included a river swim at mile 18. This victory fueled my training as I would go on to run very well in Copper Harbor at the Run the Keweenaw stage race (6km hill climb, 12km trail race, 25km trail race) finishing 3rd overall. I had a good showing at the Twilight 5km on the weekend that I had to travel back to Huntsville for work, running 17:14 which was faster than last year in tougher conditions. More recently I ran a season best 35:56 on a very hilly 10km course in Iron River, Michigan which earned me the victory. I have one last race to run, which will come tomorrow at the Lake Antoine Classic 15km trail race.

I wish that I could explain the feeling more accurately but unless you are in the situation, it is difficult to understand the metamorphosis that I have gone through. After my time here I feel like my running has improved, I am closer with my family and my dogs have gotten some quality "Dad" time on the trails. I think it all comes back to the simplicity of life where you don't need much to be happy. I spent the summer living on whatever I was able to fit into the car and left behind a house full of things that will be there when I get back, but that I don't need. I want to make changes to my life as soon as I get back home to Huntsville to help simplify life and show the people close to me how much I appreciate them. You won’t see me quitting my job or anything like that, but you will notice a nicer, more pleasant and friendlier Eric as I take some of these life changing revelations that I have learned during the summer, back home with me. When you are able to step back and take a look at your life as I have been able to, you start to understand what is important.

A perfect example of happiness was a trail run I went on earlier in this week. I went out the door without a watch and with an empty water bottle. I set out across the river on the train bridge and toward the Spread Eagle Barrens. From there I ran on some gravel roads that turned into grassy Jeep roads that turned into single track that turned into some bushwhacking. I used the sun as my guide for direction, blackberries and raspberries along the trail for fuel and water out of passing streams for hydration. I was gone for a few hours and have no idea how far I went, but I know that I was running pretty damn fast out there and enjoying every second of it. Toward the end of the run I had an option of crossing the train bridge or making my way toward the highway to get back to my parents. I chose the third option which was to swim across the fast moving river to the campground, trail shoes and all. I was running through the woods and making waves in the water like I was a kid again with no worries in the world.

So now as I face the reality of packing up the truck and mapping out the route to drive back home, I am taken back to 1985 all over again. There have been more than two decades of summers since then and some mighty fine adventures and trips that I will never forget along the way. I was able to spend more time this summer with my family than I have been able to since high school which was a solid 15 years ago. I was able to go for fun runs, take the dogs swimming and drink my fair share of New Glarus Spotted Cow. I was able to eat thin crust pizza as only can be made in the Midwest. I was able to look outside my office window and see the people floating on tubes down the river, or see deer run across the yard. I was able to reconnect with friends from the past and share memories of the summers gone by. I was able to watch TV with my Mom at night after work and dinner and help my Dad with chores around the house. Ok that last part is not true, but I did clean quite a bit and I cut the grass once. I was able to blog a little, and catch up on emails that have been cluttering my inbox for months. I was able to run around my old neighborhood which would jar memories of people and places from yesteryear. I was able to do all of the things that you can't do when you are back home for a weekend.

So on my last day here in Michigan I can't help but think that this has been a fine summer that will rank amongst the best I've had. I am sure that my parents don't want me to leave, but I'm ready to get back home and spend the rest of the summer with my Huntsville family and friends.

So how did I spend my summer vacation? Doing all of the things that I love and unlike being 10 years old, this time I appreciate all of them. I also am ready to make changes in my life to show those close to me how much I value them. Coming full circle, I think that Mr. Spanton would be proud of my essay.