Monday, July 21, 2014

July 20 - Then and Now

July 20th marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Although sometimes I wish I wasn’t getting old, I’m glad I was old enough to experience that epic moment. Born not long after Sputnik, my childhood coincided with the U.S. space program in the 1960s. By the time the Apollo program began, I was building and launching my own model rockets. I devoured as much coverage as possible for each mission.

I remember that July 20, 1969, came while family members were visiting for vacation. During the day, we were at my great-aunt’s cottage located at Lake Washington outside of Parkersburg, WV. One of our favorite activities was swimming at the beach on the lake, but some of us gathered around a transistor radio to listen to the news coverage that afternoon of the Lunar Excursion Module’s landing on the moon.

Later that evening, our extended family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s home in Lubeck, to watch the coverage of man’s first steps on the moon. One reason why we watched it there was because they had a large console color television, which was still a novelty to most of us at that time. Granted, the astronauts only had black and white television cameras for their shots from the moon’s surface, but at least the news commentators in the network studio were in color.

It was quite an eventful night for a youngster—one that I will long remember, made better by the fact that it was shared with lots of my relatives. As it turned out, my early interest in spaceflight helped me to get a job at NASA Headquarters when I graduated from WVU. That 1985/’86/’87 stint I worked for NASA before returning to West Virginia enabled me to join the NASA Alumni League. This membership led to another significant event in my life which occurred exactly 20 years ago.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, a fancy black tie dinner was held on July 20, 1994, in Washington, DC. Many astronauts would be there, as well as celebrities such as newsman Hugh Downs, astronomer Carl Sagan, etc. Vice-President Al Gore was to be the keynote speaker. I received an invitation to attend and decided to go. At that time, I was a member of the Wood County Board of Education, and the local press picked up on the story. I still have the yellowed newspaper clipping (showing me with no gray hair and no receding hairline) hanging on the side of my refrigerator, because it was one of the highlights of my life.

As if that date was not already special enough, the pieces of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 (which had only recently been discovered) were crashing into Jupiter while we watched. This was a giant comet that had been “captured” by Jupiter, and then broke apart into a “freight train” of 21 pieces, all of which followed a similar line before slamming into Jupiter over the course of a few days, including July 20. Many of these fragments left huge impact spots when they exploded into the Jovian atmosphere. It was the first time humans had ever watched collisions in space. Plus, this “space spectacular” was occurring just as we were celebrating our own biggest achievement in space—it was almost as if the universe was supplying its own “fireworks” to commemorate Apollo 11.

I remember that a separate room had been set up at the hotel that night for a press conference with Carl Sagan along with astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker plus David Levy, who had discovered this previously undetected comet and were also in attendance. It was quite a thrill for me to watch these astronomers interact with the press about this major celestial event after the dinner.

For most folks, Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 has been forgotten, and July 20 simply means Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. While that still means a lot to me, I have the added memory of a gala 25th anniversary celebration in a fancy Washington hotel, full of my childhood hero astronauts and other dignitaries, culminating in a press conference featuring another hero of mine—Carl Sagan—explaining the significance of watching a completely different “landing” on another surface within our solar system. Indeed, July 20, 1969, as well as July 20, 1994, are both great memories for me.

Now if only I still looked the same as my picture on that old yellowed newspaper clipping!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Taking a teen "Und Brodvay"

Last Friday night (July 4), Anna and I were car camping at Lake Sherwood in the Monongahela National Forest deep in the mountains of West Virginia. Exactly one week later, we were in a nice hotel room looking down upon the throngs of people in Times Square. What a difference a week can make!

This past weekend we took another chartered bus trip to New York City with Arts & Culture Tours. Lisa Starcher Collins does a good job of organizing weekend bus trips from Parkersburg to Times Square. You can read about a couple of my previous trips at this blog post and at this first story (which also explains the "Und Brodvay" term I use for my NYC trip stories).

The primary purpose of this trip was to take Anna’s teenage niece for her first visit to New York City. She lives in a rural area of the state, but had previously visited Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Washington with us. However, New York City is unlike any other city, and so we thought it would be good for her to see just how big it is. The “Big Apple” is in a class unto itself.

Anna and I enjoy walking in New York—we feel it helps you get the full effect of this unique environment. After checking into the hotel, the three of us walked up Broadway, past the Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman hosts “The Late Show,” to Columbus Circle. We skirted across the lower part of Central Park before stopping to watch an impromptu break-dancing exhibition (that was very impressive) at the General Sherman statue on the south-east corner of Central Park.

Then we headed down stylish 5th Avenue, with a fun stop at the famous FAO Schwarz toy store. We toured St. Patrick's Cathedral, although the scaffolding for the renovation work there made it less astounding than usual. We walked further south, to the New York Public Library, and then diverted over to see Grand Central Station. Back on 5th Avenue, we went down to the Empire State Building. After our visit there, we walked over to the original Macy's Department Store and then up Broadway back to our hotel at Times Square.

Anna and I typically make that long walk hitting the midtown highlights whenever we arrive in town, to acclimate ourselves to the sights and sounds of the big city. We had warned her niece to be sure to wear good walking shoes, because we get our exercise when we are in town. Since it was near afternoon rush hour on a Friday, there were lots of people on the streets (and especially in Grand Central Station). With many pedestrians in a hurry to get home for the weekend, it gave her a sense of the energy in this city. The sidewalks were full of people! I speculated to her niece that she would likely see more human faces this weekend than she will see all year back at home.

We ate dinner at John's Pizza on 44th Street, so that we could say we had a New York pizza. Then it was getting dark, so we were off to explore the Rockefeller Center/Radio City Music Hall area, before our appointed time for the Top of the Rock (the observation deck at the top of the highest building at Rockefeller Center). It was amazing to see the city lit up below us at night! We finished by taking in all the neon and LCD lights within Times Square before retiring to our hotel room.

Saturday was spent getting on and off a guided tour bus which took us to see many of the important sites around the town. Much of the tour was familiar to us, but it was a good introduction for Anna’s niece. We did get to explore parts of Central Park today that we had never been to before, but that we recognized from movies and television. Our tour guide was a former actor who did a really good job of telling stories about life in the city.

We ate lunch at Guy Fieri's restaurant (from the TV show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives”). We also saw our only celebrity sighting--Bernadette Peters, who was nearby doing a promotion for the local animal shelter.

Late in the afternoon, we changed into nicer clothing for dinner and a Broadway show. We walked over to the Hell's Kitchen area and had a nice Cajun dinner at The Delta Grill. Then we headed to the theater to see the Broadway show "Wicked." Anna had wanted to see this show (a “prequel” for “The Wizard of Oz”) for years, but normally we just see shows that have half-price tickets available from the TKTS ticket booth at Times Square. Wicked is so popular, their tickets are never offered for half-price. Since this was a special trip for the three of us, I previously ordered advance tickets and gave them to Anna for her birthday recently.

I had heard a lot of hype about Wicked, but didn’t know quite what to expect. In fact, I didn’t have high expectations for it—assuming it was overrated. However, I must admit that I left the theater with a better understanding of the high reputation this show has achieved. I liked it better than I thought I would, because it was very well done.

Our final day included a NYC taxi ride to take the Staten Island Ferry, a visit to the impressive 9/11 Memorial, a walk from the southern tip of Manhattan, through the financial district, past the Brooklyn Bridge, and into Chinatown for lunch. Also this day, we checked out the subway, took the Radio City Music Hall tour (which included meeting a Rockette), and visited some last minute tourist stops such as LegoWorld, the Cake Boss Cafe, the Disney Store, the NBC store, etc. It was a very busy day to end a big weekend in the Big Apple.

Our bus left the hotel around 5:30 and we were back home in about nine hours. It was a whirlwind tour, but I think we accomplished what we set out to do. Besides having a good time for ourselves, we wanted to take a teenager from rural West Virginia to our nation’s biggest city. We weren’t promoting New York as the ultimate place to live, but we wanted her to see for herself what the big city is like. We wanted her to have confidence in an environment completely different than West Virginia, but we also wanted her to be able to appreciate West Virginia even more. Hopefully, she will have the same “nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” attitude that Anna and I have. Regardless of where life takes her, we hope she will always remember her first trip to the Big Apple.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

R.I.P. David Ice

I was saddened to learn yesterday that David Ice died recently. Although I wasn’t fortunate to have him as a teacher at Parkersburg High School, I had admired his reputation there. I started attending PHS Student Council meetings during my senior year, even though I was just observing (I never thought I could get elected to Student Council at PHS, although I did write a few interesting anonymous letters to the editor of the PHS Journal about school issues). Dave was the faculty advisor for Student Council, and he took note of my interest in governance at the time. I could tell he was a great teacher. Partly because of his encouragement, I decided that when I went off to college, I would get involved with student government. [That plan worked out pretty good for me at UC.]

I later crossed paths with him at WVU, when he spent the summer of 1981 in Morgantown taking graduate classes in Public Administration with me. It was really special for me to have a teacher I had looked up to sitting with me as a student. I felt we bonded well over that summer.

In between my Masters in Public Administration and my law degree, I worked for the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Government Organization Committee during the 1982 session of the Legislature. By then, Dave was taking a leave of absence each winter from his PHS teaching position to serve on the staff of the House Education Committee, and he “taught me the ropes” about working as a staff member. We spent many late nights in the Capitol. Later that year (after the session ended but before I started law school), I decided to run for the House of Delegates myself. He was very helpful during my campaign, although I finished sixth out of ten in (what was then) a five seat district.

After graduation, I took a federal job in Washington, DC. Dave wanted to visit DC with his wife and young daughter, and contacted me for visitor tips. I ended up meeting them at their hotel in the suburbs, and played tour guide during their weekend visit.

By 1992, I was once again living in Parkersburg and decided to run for the Wood County Board of Education. As with my first attempt at elective office, Dave was very helpful—and this time I led the ticket. I have fond memories of long talks at his home on Quincy Hill on campaign ideas and educational issues.

Not long after I took office, I found myself in trouble, because I wanted to see the schools for myself, but the county superintendent decided that board members were not allowed to tour the schools. Dave was a key confidante during this major controversy, which resulted in an affirmation that board members do indeed have the authority to visit schools.

Dave had left PHS to take a full time position as the Assistant Secretary of Education and the Arts (under Steve Haid and then Barbara Harmon-Schamberger) when Governor Caperton was in office. He was later appointed by Governor Underwood to the top position as Secretary of Education and the Arts. During my eight years on the school board, his office in the Capitol became a regular stop during my frequent visits to Charleston. I learned a lot from him during those years, and I’d like to think we worked together well on several educational issues.

For example, I was appointed (perhaps with his help?) to a "blue ribbon commission" to determine how to expand the implementation of Governor Caperton’s initiative to put computers into all West Virginia schools. Originally, the program put computers in a different elementary grade each year. Caperton gave the Commission members a kick-off speech that clearly indicated that he assumed we would recommend a continuation of that one-grade-per-year program, and would start putting computers in all seventh grade classrooms around the state.

However, I was part of a sub-group that started arguing that the same implementation plan that worked for elementary schools would not necessarily work well in secondary schools, where classrooms are not necessarily assigned by grade level. We came up with an alternative proposal to allocate computers to secondary schools based on a formula, and allow the county school systems propose how they would allocate their usage. It provided more flexibility to local schools, and allowed immediate needs to be addressed better than the rigid “one-grade-per-year” plan. Our commission’s recommendation was not what the Governor had envisioned, but it ended up getting selected. Working quietly behind the scenes (as he often did), Dave played a big role in convincing “the powers that be” that this was a better solution.

I also was appointed to two other big committees to grapple with thorny state-wide education issues. One was on teacher evaluation forms, and once again, it seemed as if the committee had been appointed merely to adopt the solution that the State Board of Education members had already decided upon. However, I questioned whether a simple (acceptable/unacceptable) personnel evaluation system that the president of the State Board of Education proposed was the best solution. I felt that there needed to be more choices so that better feedback could be given to those who needed to improve, thus it made sense to me that teachers be “graded” on an “A/B/C/D/F” scale just like their students. Once again, Dave quietly urged me on to challenge the conventional wisdom, and as I recall the committee ended up going along with me (I think the representatives from the employee associations didn’t like either version, but they liked seeing me challenge the State Board’s position).

Of course, the third major committee comprised of folks around the state to examine an issue was school calendar reform. It was my efforts on this committee that primarily caused my defeat by the unions—although much of what we were trying to achieve was eventually passed in recent years by the Legislature.

My point with all this is that David Ice supported my efforts (sometime covertly, sometimes overly) on these difficult decisions. Whatever success I had as a school board member often came as a result of careful and confidential deliberations with him. He was definitely a mentor to me, and I was a better board member because of his advice and support.

I hate it that we had lost touch over the years after he moved to Colorado. We exchanged a few Christmas cards and such, and I remember unsuccessfully urging him to get on Facebook. I guess I just always thought I would see him again and be able to tell him how much I learned from him (even though I never had him as a high school teacher) and how much he meant to me. In his quiet and competent manner, he taught me to “speak truth to power”—and I don’t think you can give a government teacher a higher compliment.

This is one of the ways I can tell that I am getting old—people who meant a lot to me and who helped to mold my life are starting to disappear. Don’t wait too long to tell folks how important they were to you. I had shared some of this with him in the past, but I wish I could have told him one more time. He really meant a lot to me!

[After posting this tribute on my Facebook page, it quickly became apparent that he meant a lot to my friends as well, many of whom “liked” my tribute and some shared comments with me about their experiences with him. Indeed, Dave was a very good person!]

R.D.: I had the good fortune to work with him in Gov. Underwood's administration. He was a great guy...nice...integrity beyond measure...

G.D.: Good man. sorry to hear of his passing

K.B.: One of my favorite teachers at phs! He took a hand full of us kids to gov Rockefeller's first Inauguration. Wood co schools was closed because of cold weather, but he got the okay and still took us kids to Charleston.

P.S.B.: I was very fortunate to be in Student Council at PHS with Mr. ice as my advisor,he was one of my favorites,great educator.Thanks David beautiful tribute.

J.K.S.: I remember him from when he was with the Office of the Education and the Arts and served on our Grant Advisory Council. What an impressive man! He always had the students in mind and what was best for them plus he was so down to earth & genuinely a nice human being. RIP

R.S.: I had classes with Mr. Ice my senior year at PHS, learned a lot from him. Mr. Ice and Mrs. Harvey along with some of the best USAF Sergeants I had the privilege to serve with help to round me out for better or worst. Both Mr. Ice and Mrs. Harvey help instill in me to question the status quo and not to rely on what the experts preach as the "gospel". Mr. Ice is one of the few teachers I had that I remember very well and glad to have had.

S.McH.P.: I just read your informative note that really shares to us how extra special Mr. Ice was. To be honest, I have tears in my eyes and a tug at my heart. These are beautiful memories you have. I'm so sorry you have lost such a special and influential person in your life. I know as you said, we are starting to lose people in our lives that we just thought would always be here. I was hit hard with Dads death. I always thought he would be here. Now I know different and it hurts when we have to realize that we are losing loved ones and special people in our lives and , yes, it's because they got older and we have entered into the age of getting old. It's scarey to me. Im so glad that you DID get the chance to tell him at different times what he meant to you. What an extraordinary career he had! I didn't realize all that he had accomplished. I sent his death notice to my older sister. I told her I found out from you via FB. She had Mr Ice in high school and he made an impact in her life too.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nelson ROCKS!

Anna’s not much of a daredevil—she likes her feet planted solidly on terra firma. So she just shakes her head and rolls her eyes when I take off to do activities like ziplines, or the BridgeWalk, or the Via Ferrata.

The Via Ferrata at Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center (about a dozen miles south of Seneca Rocks) was indeed one of the most challenging activities I have attempted—but it also provided perhaps the greatest sense of accomplishment (see my story in “Wonderful West Virginia” magazine). I had been interested in returning to Nelson Rocks to fly on their zipline canopy tour, but I wanted Anna to come along as well so she could see the place and better appreciate my personal achievement. Our recent July 4th weekend “staycation” in West Virginia provided that opportunity.

We arrived before sundown on July 3rd to our room at the Nelson Rocks Lodge. I was scheduled for the 8:00 AM zipline tour the next morning—Anna had scheduled herself to sleep in. We enjoyed watching the sunset over Spruce Knob (West Virginia’s highest mountain) from rocking chairs on the balcony outside our room.

Early the next morning, I joined some other nice folks downstairs for the zipline tour. We met our guides, got geared up, and hopped onto a rugged little bus that drove us on a steep road about halfway up the mountain to the cabin area where the zipline tour starts.

The Nelson Rocks zipline tour consists of twelve zips, with three swinging bridges, a ground landing at one point, and a repel from the final tree stand. We were flying through the canopy of hardwood trees nearly all of the time, with only an occasional glimpse through the trees to the North Fork Valley below. We finished within walking distance of the lodge, having zipped most of the way down the steep mountainside. It was great fun, and the other families in our group (from Erie, PA; Canton, OH; and Martinsburg, WV) all enjoyed it a lot.

Above: One of our guides (dressed in red) is shown about halfway across this zipline--typical of many on the Nelson Rock Canopy Tour.
Below: Repelling down about 40 feet from the end of the last zipline.

I rejoined Anna at the lodge for a quick lunch prior to our hike to the mountaintop. Fortunately, we were offered a ride on the “short bus” as it was taking a visiting family and their luggage up to the cabin area. From there we started our trek up the second half of the mountain, occasionally stopping when openings in the trees provided an enticing glimpse of the surrounding countryside.

Above: Anna looks down on a farm in the valley of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Spruce Knob is the peak in the distance.
Below: A group who had just completed the Via Ferrata were already at the peak when we arrived. It was a beautiful day!

As we approached the summit, the exposed rocks require some careful climbing to get to the top. Fortunately, pre-positioned climbing ropes help people to better scramble up the final section of rocks. Once on the peak, the view is absolutely incredible—360 degrees (once you peer around a couple of scrawny wind-blown pines) of natural beauty! The farmland and the highway in the valley seem so small below you! Seneca Rocks can be seen to the north, as well as North Fork Mountain to the east and Spruce Knob to the west (seemingly at about the same height). Nelson Rocks’ two parallel rock “fins” extend to the south and up the next hill. Anna was thrilled with this reward for her climb to the top—but she didn’t realize her hike had merely just begun.

Anna scrambles to the top; while I lean against one of the rocks near the peak. The view is absolutely incredible!

Instead of retracing our steps back down to the cabin area and following the road back to the lodge, we took the “Corridor Trail” which zig-zags precipitously down the mountainside, between the two fins of quartz rock (hundreds of feet high in places) used by the Via Ferrata. Being blocked in on both sides by sheer rock cliffs soaring vertically towards the sky is bizarre. It is hard to explain the geological oddity of Nelson Rocks without actually seeing it, but trust me—Anna understands it much better now.

Above: Pay heed to this sign! It is not an easy trail.
Below: A view of the trail near the top. Notice the walls on each side which continue to the opposite hillside, as well as the "rubble" that comprises the trail.

I thought since we would be going down the Corridor Trail, it would be easier than if we had tried hiking it uphill, which would have required traversing about a thousand feet in altitude. However, there is a real challenge to hiking down a very steep path—especially when much of that path is comprised of a jumble of rocks, many of which are loose. In my story about the Via Ferrata, I had likened rock climbing to playing chess, carefully picking your moves and thinking of the implications for your following moves. To some degree, hiking down the Corridor Trail also involved carefully picking your moves, while ensuring your footholds were stable. Perhaps it can be described as “climbing downhill” (which sounds like an oxymoron until you try it). This is not a hike for a novice. Fortunately, Anna is quite the hiker and rock scrambler—she just doesn’t like to dangle in the air.

Hopefully these two pictures give a sense of the steepness, as I took one looking uphill at Anna while she took one looking downhill at me.

We often stopped to take pictures or simply to view the natural spendor afforded by the occasional breaks among the trees that had managed to grow in the boulder field. Except for a lovely large luna moth, we never encountered any wildlife on this trek. However, as I ruminated on that, I realized that this corridor would be a lousy place to live—you can’t go very far to the left or to the right because the walls box you in; your only choice of movement is up or down, and both are steep. Some trees had managed to thrive, but the rocky terrain prevents much undergrowth. So it is not exactly the ideal living environment.

Behind Anna, you can see the bridge in the distance of this tilted picture. The luna moth was about the size of my hands--and fascinating!

One of the highlights of the Via Ferrata is the bridge (although if you ask Anna, she doesn’t think it is substantial enough to be classified as a bridge). This “so-called” bridge, which takes you from the western fin to the eastern fin, is about 250 feet long and about 150 feet above the ground. It is comprised of five cables—one overhead where your safety harness is clipped, two for handrails, and two for holding the slats upon which you walk. These simple 2x4 slats are spaced 18 inches apart, to minimize the weight of the bridge and to decrease wind resistance. As I wrote in my story about the Via Ferrata, it requires some focus and concentration to cross—but it felt good to be able to do it.

Two views of the Via Ferrata bridge that I previously walked across.

So as we “climbed downhill” on the Corridor Trail, I was enjoying the glimpses I was seeing when we first could look down and see the bridge. Eventually, we were level with it, and then we were hiking under it. Even Anna was astounded (at my stupidity?) when she saw the bridge for herself. There is no way she would ever try to cross it! However, it was interesting to see this man-made conveyance floating in the blue sky above the green leaves and between the grey rock cliffs.

Above: This shows the bridge where it meets the eastern wall. Look close and you can see just how "thin" these fins of rock really are--just a few feet wide.
Below: Still following the rocky trail downhill, with the western wall ahead.

Finally, we reached the end of the Corridor Trail, where it joins the dirt road next to the creek that flows through the gap. We had a much smoother walk down the road and back to the lodge. As we walked, we talked about the rugged beauty and unique geology of Nelson Rocks. We agreed that Nelson Rocks is yet another wonderful location in West Virginia that few people know about. However, there is a bit of a risk in letting folks know what a great place it really is. After all, we hope to come back again for more exploration and enjoyment, and we don’t want to see it overrun with tourists! But Anna made it clear that she is only coming back for the hiking, as she intends to keep her boots on the ground. [Methinks we should try "climbing uphill" on the Corridor Trail the next time we visit!]

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Biggest Loser Winner

I don’t watch TV very much. I only pay for the cheapest cable package, so I don’t get many channels. My television is used primarily for the news, some PBS documentary stuff, and Jeopardy. Even with these favorite shows, it is often just playing in the background while I’m multi-tasking on something else.

Thus, I know very little about most of the TV shows that are deemed popular. This is especially true for most of the new wave of “reality shows.” However, because of my constant struggle with dieting and exercise, one type of entertainment programming I have watched periodically is weight loss shows—particularly “The Biggest Loser” on NBC. I remember the very first season, and have watched the show change over the years. While I sometimes get frustrated at the convoluted plot twists and efforts to induce drama in the house, I still tend to have it on—even if only as background noise for my other activities.

Given my history with this show, my interest was piqued when I discovered that there was going to be a travelling Biggest Loser Half-Marathon event in Charleston, WV. Two former contestants whom I remembered—mom Jackie Evans and her son Dan Evans—are the stars of this traveling roadshow, with other former contestants joining in as the race caravan rolls from city to city during the year. The timing for the Charleston event turned out right because we were thinking about going that weekend for some other reasons. Plus, I am currently competing in a six-month weight loss contest that started in January and ends soon. I could choose to get up early on Saturday morning and go for a 13.1 mile stroll.

All of this decision-making for our plans that weekend was happening at the last minute. When it appeared that we would indeed go to Charleston, I decided to wait until I had completed at least nine miles of racewalking before signing up (figuring that 9 was close enough to 13.1). I’ve done a couple of half-marathons in the past (one running and one walking) but it had been six years since I had last gone that far. However, I’ve always been one who is more interested in the thrill of the race itself than in the tedious training most people do prior to the race.

Just five days before the race, I registered for it (after checking the long range weather forecasts). By waiting until the last minute, I had to pay full price—there are discounts if you commit to the race early, but I had missed the last chance on those reduced rates. It was the most expensive price I have ever paid for the mere opportunity to punish my body. I guess you are paying a premium price for the connection with the Biggest Loser TV show, and the cachet that goes along with that. I’m normally rather frugal, but I decided that this might be worth splurging on. After all, you never know how many more opportunities I might have to do a special event like this.

In fairness, you do get a bit more for your money than I expected. The day before the race, they have a nice registration process with informational sessions on a variety of topics, including inspirational speeches from former contestants (I even got my picture taken with Chelsea Arthurs from this past season). The event shirt was blaze orange (good for hunting, too!) and very nicely designed. Participants also received a matching drawstring bag with the Biggest Loser logo. Everyone who finishes gets a snazzy looking medal, age groups are set up in five year (not ten year) increments with the top three in each get medals as well, and professional photographers roam the racecourse taking your pictures, which can be sorted by your bib number and downloaded for free after the race.

On raceday, I made my way over from the hotel to the starting line area at Haddad Riverfront Park. I wanted to represent both of my alma maters, so I wore my University of Charleston Golden Eagle socks and my former WVU soccer jersey, which has the flying WV logo offset on the chest, so that my bib member would not block it.

The half marathon was set to start at 8:00, but it would have three waves from the starting corral, each separated by a few minutes. The first was to be strictly runners, the second would be runners and walkers, and the third was to be strictly walkers. I had registered as a walker, but since I would be using a racewalker technique, I decided to position myself in the second group (but perhaps I should have started with the final wave?). Plus, I was antsy and wanted to get going so I could get this over and done.

Soon the horn sounded and the second crowd started emptying the corral. Even though I was at the back and just racewalking up Kanawha Boulevard, it wasn’t long before I started passing slow runners or runners who had already decided to take a break and walk, even though we were only a short distance into a half marathon. Further up Kanawha Boulevard, someone had posted an inspirational sign near the Capitol which read “You run better than the government runs!”

Upriver from the Capitol, we turned off of Kanawha Boulevard and headed back towards the Capitol via Washington Street. Then we veered behind the Capitol Complex and over behind UC Stadium. Near the WCHS television studios, we took the bridge across the Interstate and started up the hill. By then, it was really getting hot and humid.

I’ve written about my only other visit to the cemetery on the hill above Charleston. Now I was walking a half-marathon through a convoluted path that took us up, down, and around the narrow roads of the cemetery. Just when you would reach the crest of a hill, hoping that it was the last and that you would finally be walking downhill back to town, you would see it merely led to a short downhill followed by another uphill just beyond. Near the mausoleum there was a water sprayer that you could go through to cool off, which I gladly opted to do. A few of the other participants were noticing the majestic views of the Kanawha Valley, including the Capitol dome in the distance, but I had enjoyed them on my prior visit—at this point, I just wanted to get out of the cemetery before I died!

Finally, we reached another water station and then started the descent back to town. I like long downhills when I am running, but as a racewalker you must continue your walking stride rather than let your momentum force you into a run. It was a bit frustrating to see runners who I had passed on the cemetery hills (when they were tired and resorting to walking) suddenly catch up and pass me on the long downhill stretch.

Soon we were turning off Court Street and onto Virginia Street, working our way through downtown. I was surprised in the East End by a former high school classmate, who ran out in the street to give me hug—despite the fact that I was drenched in sweat. It was a very inspirational gesture from a beautiful girl whom I have rarely seen (not counting Facebook) since graduation. That is one good thing about getting old—hugs are granted far more readily now than when we were in high school. Thanks, Jane!

I'm flexing my bicep while pointing at the WV logo to indicate I was feeling "West Virginia Strong!" after Jane's hug.

As we entered the Capitol Complex from behind the Governor’s Mansion, I noticed a woman up ahead of me stop to take a picture of the Capitol dome from that western side, which allowed me to close the gap on her. Then, as we were going by the back center of the Capitol, with the fountain in the center, she stopped to take another photo of the northern side. Obviously this was her first visit to West Virginia’s capital city, so as a proud native of the Mountain State, I offered to stop and take a picture of her with the Capitol dome behind her as a memento of her visit. Between this photo shoot and the hug from my high school classmate, I probably lost a minute off my time, but both were worth it.

Eventually, we arrived back on Kanawha Boulevard, where we had veered off of it a few hours earlier. I was trying to stay in the shade of the trees to avoid the oppressive sunshine. After completing 11 miles, Kanawha Boulevard never seemed so long! I could see when I passed UC on the opposite river bank, but the boulevard kept going and going! Finally, the downtown appeared as I went under the Southside Bridge, and saw the Union Building (the only building on the river side of Kanawha Boulevard) where I had worked a part-time job my last senior semester. I was so glad to be near the end that I wanted to run, but had to maintain my racewalker stride. The crowd was cheering to encourage us to the finish.

I could see there was a clock on the right side of the finish line, but they had some colorful flags lined up in front of it which inhibited my ability to read my time until I was close to the finish line itself. I noted that it read 3:03 (and some odd seconds) as I neared my final steps of the race. I was so relieved to have finished 13.1 miles (especially since I had not practiced going further than 9 miles). The time didn’t really matter—it just felt great that I had done it! There aren’t too many folks who have even attempted a single half marathon, and now I’ve been able to complete three of them—in three of West Virginia’s biggest cities, each of which have been important in my life (Charleston, Parkersburg, and Morgantown).

I had not set a goal for myself prior to the race (in part because I had no recent data since I had not practiced a half marathon), other than the goal of simply finishing it. After all, it takes some gumption to merely attempt a half marathon. However, when I realized I almost beat the three hour mark, I started trying to think about how much time had been spent hugging and taking pictures. Then I remembered that the event clock would have started with the first wave to leave the starting corral, so if there was a two-minute gap before the second wave started, then I could subtract that amount off my time. That calculation in my head got me even closer to the three hour mark.

Finally crossing the finish line!

As I staggered from the finish line area, I grabbed a bottle of water, a banana, and a couple of plums (I skipped the bagels) that were among the free post-race food offerings, and headed for the levee to rest, stretch, and listen to the end of the concert by former Biggest Loser contestant Dan Evans. Then it was time for the awards ceremony. I knew I had not seen many other walkers, and that with five-year interval age categories, I thought there was a chance I might have won something. However, to my surprise, my age category was not even announced.

I went over to the wall where they were posting results pages from their electronic scoring, and discovered that I was not listed at all. I spoke with someone in charge, who explained that the chip embedded in my racing bib must have been faulty. They asked if I had noticed my time as I crossed the finish line, and I told them it was 3:03. They entered it in the computer (and may have otherwise checked to confirm a rough estimate of my time from a list of bib numbers as they crossed the finish line). Eventually, they informed me that I had indeed finished first in my age group, and gave me a certificate and blue ribbon. I even got to have my picture taken with a group of the former contestants. Although there was a snafu, it turned out to be okay.

When examining the post-race results on the webpage, there were only 31 registered walkers (plus 253 runners). It was surprising to me that more people in the Charleston area didn’t take advantage of the chance to participate in a Biggest Loser Half Marathon! I finished seventh overall, and there was only one other guy in my age group. It might sound good to say I finished seventh overall in a half marathon, but I compared my time to last year’s Parkersburg Half Marathon (which attracts about a hundred walkers), and discovered my time would have finished 52nd overall (plus not even make the top five in my age group). That helped to keep me from feeling too full of myself. I don’t claim to be a great athlete—I’m more of a “fathlete” who channels his inner stubbornness to make it to the finish line.

All in all, it ended up being a nice day for a stroll around Charleston and then to hang out with some reality TV stars! It sure is much more memorable than simply sitting on the couch and watching TV!

After the race, with four former Biggest Loser contestants--
Chelsea, Danny, Lauren, and Dan.