Welcome to Nenana

“Let’s go, let’s go.” Those were the words I heard the morning of the 6th, the same words I’d heard every morning of our Alaskan adventure. Here’s something you need to know should you decide to go on a Princess cruise, part land/part sea: while on land, there’ll be places to go and things to do and see every day. And while that’s a good thing, some people can find it a bit tiring. Fortunately, bus and train rides offer opportunity to doze.

Back to the morning of the 6th. It was the day we were heading to Denali, and the very word conjured up cultural connotations. I was used to towns like Kershaw, Camden, and Sumter, and although they too have histories, I was so accustomed to their sounds and origins of these Southern places that I didn’t find them odd or novel.

Before day’s end, we get a peek of Mt. Denali, spend a sliver of time in a tiny town called Nenana, watch a film at a wilderness access center, listen to a park ranger talk about life in the wild as we stood outside the Savage Cabin, and meet Carol Reid on Primrose Ridge. Late in the day, we’d pull into the small town of Denali for an overnighter.

On the evening of the 5th, Thomas said he wanted to visit an Alaskan village, someplace where people really lived, someplace where there was no McDonald’s—just people living off the grid in “real life.” As he talked, I thought, “Me too.”

I wanted to see women strolling down a narrow street, a child or two in two, with a beautiful backdrop of taiga forest on an incline behind them. I wanted to see old cars and NO tour buses. I wanted to see a collection of buildings that would stay seared in my memory forever, a place where people lived and dreamed and loved and ached with desire and wonder.

There were no towns along the road to Denali, at least none that I could see, just miles and miles of breathtakingly beautiful scenery—a landscape “as old as the hills” (literally) and most of it untouched and unseen by human eyes. This was territory for the moose, the caribou, and the grizzly. At moments, I’d find myself becoming inured to the loveliness, and in then in an instant, I’d catch sight of a certain stand of trees or rock formation that would force a “Look at that!” from me.

On the morning of the 6th, Thomas got his wish. At some point, the driver pulled off the highway and drove down a narrow road lined with small homes. I gawked and then gulped. So this is what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan village away from Wal-Mart and The Fresh Market. Was there a school here? Where was it?

We were in Nenana, the first Iditarod checkpoint in 2003 and 2015.

We lumbered down off the bus and split up in different directions to take pictures, visit the gift shop, purchase snacks, and stretch our legs. I was captivated by the bridges, the railroad tracks that led out of town (a sure sign that there was life down the tracks), the gorgeous orange and yellow trees, a cemetery high on a hill, and the overall feel of the place. While Nenana was but a stopping point on the way to Denali, it was a welcome one, and I savored our half hour there.

Little did I know that the day would get better and better as it progressed.

Have you ever been to Nenana? Has there ever been a spot that cast a spell on you?

Along the Chena

On the second day in Fairbanks, it was up at at ’em pretty early. Our bus driver, Benjamin, was outside waiting to take us to our first destination, a port a few miles away where we ‘d board a riverboat and cruise down the Chena River. It was cold for those of us with Southern blood, so Jeanita and I found it necessary to shop for some warm clothing in a gigantic gift shop. We each bought olive green vests with AK written on the front left. Call us Plain Janes; we didn’t want bears or moose emblazoned on our clothing–not that day, not yet.

The “All Aboard” summons came all too quickly, and we queued up to board the Coral Princess steamboat. Once on board, some of us climbed to the top deck for a better look at everything. It was chilly, yes, but some of the cold was assuaged by the free hot beverages and donuts served at the prow of the ship.

The scenery on both sides was breathtaking, and I was again reminded of how many ways there are to live our time on Earth. Some people live in high rise apartments and rarely see a single tree. Others live in dense rain forests and have never tasted a Coke or heard of a vest. Along the Chena, inhabitants live in all types of structures, some elaborate and others rustic and suited to the surrounding taiga forest, riverfront, and brutal winters. Anticipating tourist questions about the varying architectural styles, the captain remarked that as long as a house met code, the owners could build whatever style or shape of house they wanted.

We soaked it all in. There was so much to savor and absorb that I almost missed the demonstration of a small floatplane! While all was grand, There are three specific river memories that will stick with me: Susan Butcher’s husband training dogs, the scenic nature at the turnaround point, and the visit to a fishing village.

Remember Susan Butcher? She was an American dog musher, “noteworthy as the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986, the second four-time winner in 1990, and the first to win four out of five sequential years.” (Wikipedia) Unfortunately, Susan died of breast cancer in 2006, but her husband, also a musher, continues to operate Trail Breaker Kennel along the Chena, and he treated the boat folks to comments and a demonstration of the dogs on a training run around the lake.

Not long after enjoying the energetic and noisy dogs, we reached a turnaround point  where the captain took a slow turn, allowing the passengers to take sone gorgeous shots. Although I took several, the deck was too crowded with avid photographers to capture as many views as I wanted.

On the return trip, the captain slowed down a few moments so that we could listen to a lecture and demonstration by a young Alaskan woman about catching and processing fish. A few minutes later, we disembarked at the Chena Fishing village and were privileged to see caribou, learn how to treat furs, and watch some huskies being “put through the paces.” It was a magical morning that ended all too soon but not before we had someone snap our photograph beside the Chena.

Back on the boat, we headed to the port for a hearty lunch and more shopping. Everyone gathered in a huge dining hall to savor beef stew, salad, bread, potatoes, and chocolate cake.the efficiency and quality of the entire experience was amazing!

Lunch behind us, we browsed through the gift shop, and my husband found a few treasures. Since ours was the last tour of the season, prices were reasonable.

With memories of a beautiful morning along the Chena and a fortifying lunch, we once again climbed aboard the tour bus, this time headed for gold. Stay tuned to learn of our gold panning experience and the treasures we brought home.

Afternoon in Fairbanks

Should I start with a favorite memory and work backwards to the beginning of our trip to Alaska? Should I just highlight a few of our favorite sights in no particular order? I think I’ll take Lewis Carroll’s advice and begin at the beginning and go on until I reach the end.

We began our adventure in Charlotte with stops in Minnesota and Seattle. From Seattle, we flew into Fairbanks where a shuttle was waiting to take us to the Princess lodge. On the shuttle ride, the driver kept talking about the Northern lights and reported several sightings that evening, and when we arrived at our destination, there they were—green and ethereal moving clouds on the horizon.

To make sure we got the full effect, the driver steered the van around back and insisted that everyone pile out to take a better look. That, my friends, was my introduction to Alaska, and I knew I was going to love every moment of my stay there. Nearly every person we met was just as friendly and accommodating as this driver.

Too excited to sleep in, we awoke early the next morning to check out our environment. It was beautiful, especially the river walk behind the lodge. Around noon, we took a bus into Fairbanks and walked up and down some of the streets in the center of town.

One stop we particularly enjoyed was a park with a walkway along the Chena River. There was a unique “antler arch” leading to the walkway, and naturally we all took turns posing beneath it. We moseyed along enjoying the breeze, the yellow willow trees, and the gently flowing river. As we stood admiring a huge statue entitled “First Family,” I became aware of a woman in distress, alternately sobbing and shouting, sitting several yards away from us.

As I wondered what to do (if anything) to help her, music began wafting through the park, and nearby church bells began to peal. It was a memorable moment, especially when the limbs and leaves of the willow tree began to sway in the breeze. When I glanced at the suffering woman to see whether she had been affected by the sounds and sights, I saw that someone had joined her and was hugging her and speaking soothing words. My friend Deborah would call it a “God wink.”

We left the park and sauntered around going in and out of various shops. Spotting some huskies outside of a building, we began listening to their trainer and learned we were at the headquarters for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dog race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Until that afternoon, I didn’t even know what a musher was. Soon I learned that many of them will begin this race, said to be the toughest dog sled race in the world, on February 6. Musher—now that’s a word.

Hungry from our sight-seeing, we stopped for some refreshment at the Fudge Pot, a downtown eatery recommended by a friend who had dined there many times. We loved it! The smell of delicious chocolate greeted our senses as we pushed open the door. We settled on dark chocolate walnut, but before we allowed ourselves even one sliver, we recharged our batteries with fish chowder and sandwiches.

With 45 minutes to spare before the bus arrived, we visited the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. In a word: awesome. All of us especially enjoyed the museum aspects of the facility and came away with a renewed interest in the culture and people of the 48th state.

Good to Go

It will probably take several days for my skin to recover from yesterday’s wind. By the time the half marathon in Myrtle Beach was history, my face was red, parched, and stinging. Walking 13.1 miles straight into the wind can do that. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the entire 13.1; maybe it was only 12. Without a doubt, I know that anyone who participated in yesterday’s event will say, “Wind!” if asked about the weather conditions.

Yep, it was brutal. But here’s the thing. In a few days, my skin will be “right as rain,” as the cliché goes.  It won’t be glowing and luminous the way a 25-year-old’s skin would, but well, you know, I’m not 25. What I’m saying is that my face won’t hurt anymore and that it will be back to a senior citizen’s normal.

Why am I going on and on about my skin? It’s because of some comments I heard back in 1996 before I did my first full marathon. The event was to take place in Anchorage, Alaska, and several dozen people from Myrtle Beach and surrounding areas were part of Leukemia Team in Training group. We met  at least once per week to learn about Anchorage, leukemia research, and how to train for a marathon.

One night we were privileged to hear from a woman from Sumter, SC who had participated in the Anchorage event the year before. Some of her words made a lasting impression on me, and yesterday they resurfaced and reminded me that after a certain point, whining and complaining about injuries and discomfort are taboo. I say “after a certain point” because it’s permissible to share war stories. However, NO ONE wants to hear another person go on and on and on about shin splints or stiffness.

In my words, here’s the gist of what she said: The morning after the marathon, you’re going to be stiff and achy. You’ll feel pain in parts of your body you never knew you had. You might not be able to walk normally for several days. But for the most part, after a good night’s sleep and a warm shower, you’ll begin to feel better. And a day or two after that, you’ll be “good to go.” However, the leukemia patients that you’re walking/jogging/running for aren’t so lucky. They need more than a warm bath and good night’s sleep. They may, in fact, never be as fortunate as you are right this minute.

Those words were sobering and powerful.

We left Alaska on a Sunday morning and had a layover in Salt Lake City. From the airport, I called my friend who had multiple myeloma, a form of leukemia. She was “resting,” and we didn’t talk but a few minutes. I hung up the phone knowing that I was alive and well on the mend. My friend was weak, tired, and in need of a miracle. She has long since passed away, and I have a red, stinging face and a little bit of stiffness.

I’ve never whined about walking or jogging related injuries since that afternoon. I might complain just a tiny bit, but I prefer to call that type of complaining just stating the facts. After that, I think about the motivational talk I heard in the gymnasium on the old Myrtle Beach Air Force Base back in 1996. And I think about my friend Linda.

Inch by Inch

Marathon-1-2-2014

The time is nigh. Tomorrow before daybreak I’ll be at the Pelican Ball Field with hundreds of other people waiting for the BOOM that signals the beginning of the Myrtle Beach Marathon and Half-Marathon. Before that, we’ll sing the National Anthem and stand around making small talk and listening to the conversations around us.

I’ve participated enough in these events to know that there will be people who are at the top of their game and ready to take off running. They’re at the front of the pack, stretching and checking out their competition. Others, like me, will be feeling a bit anxious as they wonder what it would be like to come in last. I’m not too good at statistics, but I’d say about half of the participants will be coming up excuses about why they aren’t going to do as well as they’d like. Sometimes it’s weather, and often it’s work, family matters, or sickness. Whatever the reason, I understand their motives and fears.

I wish I were faster. I wish I could finish with no discomfort. Nothing’s certain, though. The only thing I know for sure is that I’ve put in the miles. I’ve walked downtown in residential areas, along Ocean Boulevard, at the local track, around our neighborhood, beside busy highways, and down less travelled roads. I’ve pounded the pavement in all kinds of weather, even a little snow and rain. When it would have been so much easier to sit back and take the day off, I remembered Nike’s advice to Just Do It.

Still, I’m a little anxious, and when those moments of doubt or fatigue come, I’ll remind myself of another platitude: Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is yard. I’m going to take my husband’s advice and put one foot in front of the other and keep on keeping on. I often remember my first full marathon.

It was in Alaska in 1997, and I went with 40+ people from the Myrtle Beach area who were part of a Team in Training group. All of us were committed to our united cause of raising money for leukemia research. One of my favorite images is of a female lawyer from Myrtle Beach who walked steadily and resolutely all the way to the finish. She didn’t appear to be overwhelmed by the distance the way I was. Alternately walking and jogging, my technique didn’t work as well as her steady, consistent gait.

One of my favorite psychological terms is self-efficacy, the belief that you can make something happen, the knowledge that you have what it takes to be successful. Interestingly, psychologists feel that perceived self-efficacy can be more important than a person’s actual ability. This is true in many areas, but on Half Marathon Eve, I’m only concerned about walking 13.1 miles. I think I can. I hope I can. I know I can.

As I get to the end of this post, I’m thinking of a line from the Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” I love the support, the numbers of people who come out for these events. They throng the sidewalks and cheer us on. Some offer water and Gatorade, and others shout cheers or play music. No one is negative. Every single person says something akin to, “You can do it!” or “You’re almost there.”

I’ll be looking for the cheering sections on the route tomorrow as I “just do it.” I know that if I take it step by step with the confidence that I can finish, I will.

 I’d love to read of other people’s advice, stories, or experiences with any kind of walking, jogging, running event. Did you have any special challenges? Did you find that old proverbs or clichés helped you? 

Marathon Preparation

Marathon

I’ve been “in training” for the Outer Banks Half-Marathon for the past couple of months, and as a result, I’ve been reminded of lots of truisms about exercise. By the way, I put quotation marks around “in training” because I’m certain that my training and that of SERIOUS participants is quite different. Some people get out there and push themselves to the wall (whatever that means) for miles and miles and hours and hours. Me? Well, I’ll tell you in the following tips.

  • Just do it. Excuses don’t cut it when race day comes, so get up off the couch, lace up your shoes, and head out the door. I recently jotted down this quote overheard at a talk in church: “The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare.”
  • About the just doing it, they say you only need 30 minutes of exercise four or five times a week. For those of you who can’t afford 30 minutes at a stretch, then break it up into smaller segments. That works too; something’s better than nothing.
  • Listen to your body. I’ve said this to my children and friends so much that they’re probably sick of it. Still, if something hurts, that’s a message from your body to you. Take a day off…or at least slow down. That “no pain, no gain” slogan is for the birds. Maybe, just maybe, you can do that on race day, but if you have a stress injury or torn ligament, then there might not be a race day.
  • Pace yourself. If you know that you have six miles to cover one afternoon, don’t go out like a speed demon. Start slowly and then gain some momentum. My first husband once gave me some excellent advice that I’ve never forgotten. “Work on distance first…and then on speed.”  Saturday morning I walked 11 miles, and now that I know I can go the distance, maybe I’ll hustle a little faster on Sunday morning.
  • Conserve as much energy as possible. While this is sort of like the above advice, it’s sort of not. One of my brothers, the one who’ll be participating in the OBX Half-Marathon with me (ahead of me), once told me that when he had to travel a long way, he barely lifted his feet, almost shuffling.
  • Get the right shoes. On the recommendation of Anna, my nephew’s wife, I bought some ASICS with gel. So far, so good. I’ve also learned that just the right socks are important too. They can’t be too thin or too thick, but since this is an individual preference, you’ll have to experiment for yourself. It’s amazing the difference that the correct footwear can make.
  • Just keep going. Don’t quit. In 1997, I participated in a Team-in-Training Marathon for the Leukemia Society. Each participant raised over $3,000, and about 45 of us flew from Myrtle Beach to Anchorage, Alaska. My daughter Carrie and her friend Michelle were probably the least prepared of all the participants, but they did it. They finished the entire 26.2 miles, and they did it by taking one step at a time.
  • Keep the can-do attitude. When training for the above event, a motivational speaker once came to speak to our group. One of the many things she told us was that after the event, we’d be tired, aching, hungry, and sore. However, she said, “After a nice warm shower and a good night’s rest, you’ll be good to go. Some of the patients you’re raising money for will never have that experience.” That was a sobering thought, and I’ve never forgotten its impact.
  • As the BIG DAY approaches, I find myself thinking all sort of “what if” things. What if I don’t sleep the night before? What if I’m the last one to finish? What if I can’t do it? At such moments, I think of a great psychological concept, self-efficacy. In a nutshell, it refers to a person’s belief about whether he or she can accomplish something. Once self-doubt creeps in, you’re done. If you think you can’t, you’re right. You can’t. You might as well quit right then and save yourself the embarrassment of doing it later. On the other hand, if you think you can, then you can. I can.  Yes, there will be discomfort and the recurrent thoughts about why I let David talk me into doing it, but I can and will do this thing.

Hey, and guess what? You could too. Dick’s Sporting Goods has quite a selection of shoes.