Measuring our time on the trail

We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.

The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of  mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.

I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately  after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.

But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves.  And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.

yellow_warbler

yellow warbler (www.lilibirds.com/gallery2/v/warblers/yellow_warbler

I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.

We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.

 

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

 

 

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On the Trail: Peer into the Shade

 

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Summer has begun and in the northern hemisphere that usually means hot and sunny especially if trails are above tree line. But in the northeastern United States we are lucky that miles and miles of hiking trails remain well shaded as they traverse forests under a canopy of millions of maple. birch, hickory, oak and beech leaves, among others. The shade is a balm on a hot and sunny day.

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Running through a shady trail last week, I thought about the challenges of life in the shadows. For plant and tree life dependent on sunlight for photosynthesis, shade would seem to a be a punishment, like half rations for a prisoner, or no rations at all. Yet, the understory of forests, the part that is mostly in the shade, does teem with verdant greenery. Indeed, some trees, notably the striped maple, inhabit only the understory and do not ever breech the forest canopy. Other trees, however, are shade tolerant. That is, they can survive in the shade, for years if needed, until they have an opportunity to leave the understory and poke their tallest limbs into sunlight, perhaps after a nearby taller tree topples over, clearing a space in the forest canopy. And, many plants, even in our own gardens, flourish only in the shade.

How does life tolerate the dimness of the daytime darkness, the absence of direct sunlight, especially when that light is a currency of life for most plants and trees? There is no one answer. Instead, plants in the shade use a cornucopia of adaptations for their survival.

Think of common shade plant in many home gardens, Hostas. Notice that they have large leaves, an adaptation to collect as much sunlight as possible. In addition, the chloroplasts in the leaves of shade dwelling plants and trees are larger than in trees and plants that live in full light and their epidermal cells are better designed to maximize light. Also, shade trees and plants have no waxy layer on their leaves, something that trees in full light use to help reflect away unneeded light. And, in addition, shaded plants can change the angle of their leaves to maximize any available light during the day.

Shade is not only sunlight blocked, but rather potential not yet realized, growth untapped, waiting for opportunity. Shade tolerant plants, though, have it figured out. Do not wither during lean times. Adapt and be patient. If you find yourself struggling out on your trail, peer into the shade for inspiration, then continue on your way.

The sunlight, it is a coming.

Howard E. Friedman

 

(for more information about shade apaptations, visit : http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au)

 

On the trail: Retreat and the edge effect

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

I finally turned back.

Perhaps my plan was ill advised from the start. To run and hike in two feet of snow without the aid of snow shoes or skis. Or even boots. Just La Sportive Wildcat trail shoes and a plastic bag I had slipped over each of my feet before I put my shoes on. But I really thought the snow would have been tamped down already by other hikers with their snow shoes or cross country skis or boots.

Apparently very few people had been out and the trail was covered with thick pillowy snow, softening in the warming temperatures. But on I ran, counting on my Kahtoola Microspikes to grab the ice and hard packed snow and prevent slipping. They were no match for today’s conditions. In some cases I crashed through the top layer of hard packed snow. But in other spots I post holed, my foot slipping into a cauldron of cold. After thirty minutes I finally accepted that I was neither trail running nor hiking, but rather slowly and inefficiently slogging my way uncomfortably through a forest blanketed in snow.

It was time to retreat, that moment when hope collides with reality.

Mountaineers must deal with the quandary of retreat. If a mountaineer advances to a summit when the odds are against her, she risks her life. Yet if she retreats she will have spent thousand of dollars and weeks or months on an unsuccessful expedition. Successful climbers, however, succeed in part because they know when to advance and when to retreat.

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

American mountaineer Ed Visteurs, the first U.S. climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (and without the use of supplemental oxygen), offered realistic advice about success in mountain climbing. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”, he said. Each person who sets out on an adventure, be it large or small, must respect his own limits, his own edge of ability.

During my retreat I noticed that snow that had settled around the edge of the base of the trees was now melting away from those same trunks, leaving a ring of snow. And that ring forms a thin edge. The snow was disappearing gradually from around the trunks. The edge where the two had coexisted was the first spot to melt away.

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Snow always begins its retreat at the edges, where it abuts a fencepost, or sidewalk or stone wall. The edge is a fragile place. Retreat for humans also occurs at the edge, the edge of ability or mental discipline. And when retreat comes, it starts with just one foot step, one step back. But that one step may be the difference between adventure and misadventure.  When you are standing on the edge, knowing whether to walk forward or back is one of life’s great challenges. But do not mistake turning back for defeat. Retreat is simply an opportunity to try another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Tenacity on the Trail

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Humans aim to thrive.  Yet nature is oft satisfied with merely surviving. And at times, merely surviving is good enough. For example, some trees survive rooted only in a thin crevice of rock. And hikers and trail runners pushing through their day should take inspiration.

Gardeners strive to plant seeds and plants in the most fertile soil, and may even enrich the earth with compost or other fertilizer. And maple trees drop their seeds on the forest floor, rich with years of accumulated soil and decomposed leaf litter. Both gardener and maple tree aim to plant in a nutrient dense environment. Soil is the accumulation of lichens, mosses, fungi, animal and insect waste, decomposed leaves, twigs and fallen branches, a rich mix of nutrients ready to nourish the next seed that settles in its midst.

So it is shocking then to see that some trees are able to sprout from a rock without the benefit of a rich bed of soil. As the seed degrades and germinates, it must leach any and all available nourishment trapped alongside it in its rocky lair. And it must soak up precious drops of rainwater that find their way down the sides of the cold rock walls. Furthermore it must sprout with only the minimal amount of sunlight that makes its way deep into the dark crevasse.

Surprisingly, the sight of a tree emerging from a rock entombment is not so unusual in the forest. ‘Catskill Waterfall’, by Hudson River landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), seen above hanging in the Yale Art Museum, depicts a white birch seemingly emanating from a granite block, at the far right of his painting. And even today when driving through rocky terrain, one can often see saplings and trees growing almost magically right out of the crags that line our highways.

treeinrockTo a hiker or trail runner struggling on a hike or run, seeing a sapling or even a full grown tree swaying above its rocky foundation should give encouragement: to see life that has grown and persevered in adverse conditions. True, the tree growing out from a crack in a granite boulder may not be the tallest tree in the forest, but the tree has survived, and can help propagate its species. The tree can be a home to birds’ nests and provide refuge to insects galore which can burrow under its bark. But the tallest or the biggest tree it likely will never be.

The act of survival in the outdoors plays itself out again and again. Witness any of the birds resident through the winter. On a recent winter walk I was surprised to find myself within feet of a golden crowned kinglet, feeding among fir branches. This species, weighing less than a third of an ounce, is known to be able to survive even at temperatures of -40 F. The kinglet need not thrive on the coldest winter days, merely survive, to live so it can breed again in the spring. And so it is with the song sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, bluejays and downy woodpeckers one sees foraging, relentlessly, for their day’s nourishment throughout the winter.

Survive another day.

Such a lesson, while extreme for a recreational hiker or trail runner, is nevertheless a good one. The next mile which might seem to be insurmountable need not be covered in style. Breathlessness is okay. Sore muscles are okay. Walking and stopping are okay. Even thirst, at least for a short while, is okay. Know your limits, but persevere if possible.

The life force to survive is tenacious.

Thriving, however, may have to wait for another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Winter Ghosts on the Trail

Beech tree in January

Beech tree in January

Wisps of last year linger even at the end of January. Almost all leaves dropped off  their branches months ago but the beech tree clings to last season. Even as it stands in a carpet of snow, its leaves rustle in a wind, one of the few sounds in the forest now. Though the leaves have lost their green color and are now only a ghost of their former selves, they summon up the images of the new leaves that will replace them and the millions of leaves that will appear on the trees that now stand bare in the dry winter air.

Needle bearing trees, pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks are covered in green year around, though even they lose needles from time to time. But they do not lose them all at once. And maples and birch trees lose their leaves in a continuous rain of colorful but dead and dying leaves in late autumn. Yet some beech trees hold on to their leaves throughout the winter in a process botanists call ‘marcescence’, a trait shared with oak trees. The tan wispy leaves that last throughout the winter  no longer participate in photosynthesis. Yet some scientists have postulated that these marcescent leaves serve to protect the new yet-to-bud leaves. And some have suggested that oaks and beeches are an intermediate type of tree on the evolutionary spectrum; occupying a space between the coniferous trees and the maples and birches. (Losing leaves in the fall can be a help to trees by limiting water loss and limit damage from severe cold, while holding on to needles year round may maximize photosynthesis).

Running through the snow-covered trails at Flat Rock Brook park in New Jersey, the leaves on the beech tree seemed incongruous viewed against a snow-filled backdrop. A leaf, after all, represents growth and fertility and hope and springtime. Yet the snow cover bespeaks a winter dormancy, a time of inactivity for forests and gardens. But seeing the ground covered with snow does not mean we cannot see what it hides.

My route took me over a brook crossing, one I had done many times before, rock hopping my way across. I knew the rocks were there but they were under a pile of snow and some hidden in thin ice. I looked down, but saw only mounds of snow and despite the snow cover, intuited my path.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Yet staring at the translucent leaves both on the trees and the ones that finally succumbed to their fate, I saw re-birth. Springtime. Looking at the snow covered trail and the snow on the ground to my right and left I saw, or at least wanted to see, spring wildflowers and grasses, buds on trees and nesting birds. I did see those things I think.

What can we see when we can’t see the real thing?

Educators, psychologists and others have written about the effects of watching television on developing minds.  What happens when everything is revealed? Do we dull our imagination? The advertising industry has certainly settled on ‘selling the sizzle and not the steak’. Leave something to the imagination.

And many researchers have written about our ability to imagine and fill in the visual gaps when we read. I did not find a study comparing our brain function while watching versus our brain activity when reading. But in ‘Your Brain on Fiction‘, a 2012 article in the New York Times, writer Anne Murphy Paul cites findings of neuroscientists who used MRIs to evaluate brain activity in people while they were  reading.The research shows that the written word on the page stimulates even non verbal areas of our brain. A word like “cinnamon” stimulates the olfactory portion of our brains. Fiction, it turns out, is good for our brains.

And last Sunday, running through the snow seeing ghost leaves dangling on the tree and no Joe Pye weed where it is supposed to grow, I would add: experiencing the naked forest in winter has the power to stimulate the springtime portion of our brains even while we enjoy the winter landscape.

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Racing the Antelope…

Racing the Antelope cover

 

Racing the antelope seems to be a pure folly. Why even try to outrun an animal that can eclipse even the fastest human being alive. No contest. Yet, in suggesting this impossibility in the title of his 2001 book, professor of biology and ultra marathon runner Bernd Heinrich suggests that most people could indeed do what they think is impossible. Not to outrun an Antelope in a sprint, but to have the stamina to outrun most animals over a long distance. For Heinrich maintains, humans are designed to run. And we would do well to learn from many different species in the animal kingdom to help us understand the physiology needed to run fast and to run long.

 

Racing the Antelope concludes its final chapter remembering the author’s record setting 100 Km ultra marathon race which took place in Chicago in 1981 which he ran in 6:38:21, setting the official world record for that distance. And his success is all the more remarkable since Heinrich was already an accomplished biologist busy doing field work and publishing scientific papers. Yet specifically because of his analytic mind and intimate familiarity with the animal kingdom, Dr. Heinrich was in a position to bring a keen understanding of the science of running to bear on his own training. And train he did, running more than 100 miles a week in the lead up to his historic race.

 

The author takes us on a tour of animals familiar to us yet he dissects their lives in a way which should bring fascinating appreciation to anyone and especially someone who knows the physical pangs of exhaustion from a long run or hike. He begins describing how the hawk-moth cools its body despite almost non-stop activity during flight and feeding. The author than goes on to describe the problem of overheating among human athletes. Fortunately, Heinrich explains, humans have a superb method of cooling via sweating.

Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich (Photo credit: Sterling College)

The author goes on to describe the mind-boggling migratory routes of various bird species, including the white-rumped sandpiper which flies 2,900 miles non-stop during its migration. Heinrich uses these amazing feats to deconstruct just how a species endures a physically exhausting activity. He discusses caloric needs, the anatomy of muscle placement to maximize flight and a unique avian mechanism for delivering as much oxygen as possible with each breath.

 

Subsequent chapters peer into the world of frogs whose explosive strength in their hind legs shed light on the benefit of fast twitch muscle fibers over slow twitch. Unless of course you want to run for a long distance, like say, a 50 km race. In that case, a greater percentage of slow twitch fibers are beneficial. Remarkably, one can influence to some extent their own ratio of slow to fast twitch muscle fibers by the type of training one does he explains.  Shorter but quicker sprints will favor more fast twitch fibers. The author goes on to write about camels as well as running among early hominids. But the central chapter of the book is about the antelope.

 

Dr. Heinrich cites a scientific article from Nature magazine which declared the pronghorn antelope “the world’s premier ultra-running animal”. Indeed, the pronghorn has been timed at running 61 miles an hour. And while a cheetah can also reach high speeds, the pronghorn can sustain that rate far longer covering 7 miles in 10 minutes. What does the pronghorn have that we don’t? A combination of a high VO2 max, the ability to get the most work for the amount of oxygen available. Ultimately though the antelope couples this VO2 max with other unique adaptations, including a larger heart, lungs and windpipe, increased muscle mass and a higher concentration of hemoglobin in the muscle tissue to take up the available oxygen. “Pronghorns are just better at everything that affects sustained running speed”, Heinrich writes.

 

He goes on to explain aspects of the endurance of camels including their unique methods of dealing with intense heat despite often limited access to water. And the author touches on the basilisk lizard and even differences in running between dogs and cats before diving into his own preparation for his record setting ultra. Anyone training for or thinking about training for a race or hike or backpacking trip that will take him or her out of their comfort zone should be inspired by just how hard Professor Heinrich trained. Yet he neither romanticizes his training nor describes his feat as superhuman.

 

And that is the point of the book. We are, all of us, runners in our core. And we can run and, if properly motivated, run far. “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare”, a quote Heinrich shares from Tanzanian marathon runner Juma Ikangaa, seems to aptly represent his core philosophy for all who dream to run farther than they have run before.

 

 

 

Keep your eyes on the trail…

Hiking trail through an oak forest - "Kno...

Hiking trail through an oak forest – “Knorreichenstieg” in Germany (Photo credit: http://www.martin-liebermann.de (zeitspuren))

I drive to work everyday. I look ahead, see I need to turn right and turn the wheel to the right. A pilot makes small adjustments to the yoke to change direction as does a boat captain to the wheel. And a cyclist, of course requires, well, the bike and its handlebars for steering.

But hikers, walkers, runners – we look ahead, see the trail we want to take, and will ourselves toward our chosen direction. We look and our feet respond. A slight bend to the right, a hop across a creek, an off-trail trip up a hill through tall grass or over downed branches, roots and rocks.

No wheel or yoke or handlebars required.

Our eyes do the steering on the trail.  Eyes see. The brain generates the course corrections. The feet loyally follow directions.

Planning and navigating a route is indeed an intellectual endeavor. Following the path that lies ahead, however, is primal. It involves our core senses- the visual of course, our steering mechanism; the tactile-sensing the ground; the auditory-hearing our footfalls over leaves and twigs or the sound of splashing or crunching, say, hard-packed snow; and the aroma and taste of the outdoors. Now in the Fall the smell is of the denoument of fallen leaves, their final act before dissolving into forest floor.

Pay close attention on your next trail. Choose a route, begin the journey and your body appears to simply follow the path. But the walk ahead is never simple: It may begin with just a vision, a vision though that evolves to engage all of your senses.

It’s Crunch Time, Walkers…

Maple leaves fallen on a lawn.

Maple leaves fallen on a lawn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walking and running are solitary by design.

Walk out the door. Keep walking, alone with your thoughts. Continue running to the sound of breathing and footfalls on grass or dirt trails.

Rhythmic.

Quiet.

But last evening I experienced ‘crunch time’. I heard every step even as I looked ahead in the beam of my headlamp to see the leaf covered ground and occasional twigs. My path lead me through patches of oaks and maples, 40, 50, maybe 60 years old. Serrated leaves dried, curled, fragile, carpeted the ground beneath my feet. And while I did not always see them I heard them. This short trail run was a feast for the senses:

visual (shadowy outlines on the ground in the light beam tunneling though the dark);

tactile (sensing the change in the feel of the ground, now covered with leaves);

auditory (hearing crunches, crackles, snaps, as the soles of my shoes pulverized these leaves once green than brightly colored and now shades of brown).

For the hill walker, trail walker and hiker, ‘hearing’ the trail is a rite of Autumn no less than observing the leaves’ quietly change from monochrome to their festive polychrome array.

See it. Feel it on the ground.

And hear it as you walk and run.

Walking in a fog…

Fog obscures.

The “fog of war” explains how otherwise  civil men can be driven to act so uncivil. Fog is the rationale. Not only soldiers but poets too have turned their eyes toward the “fog”. For them it is a comfortable literary trope. “Fear death – to feel the fog in my throat and the mist in my face” wrote Sir Robert Browning (1812-1889). And when people look out their window and see the fog, they sigh as if only sunlight can bring happiness.

Last Sunday I hiked a route with which I am quite familiar, a 4 mile trail through boulder fields, along and over brooks, past a cascading waterfall and around fallen trees in an east coast maple-beech-birch forest in northern New Jersey. The trail includes over 1000 feet in elevation change and half of that is a 500 foot ascent up a section with several vistas along the way. From each viewpoint the panorama gets better and better until at the top one can see 30 miles and easily make out the skyline of New York City.

On a clear day.

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

On a clear day people make their way up the strenuous section which is almost two miles from the trail head. On a clear day a hiker will see others along the way and at the top,  in small groups or large or alone with their dog.

On a foggy, damp day you see no one at the top and just one or two souls  who have turned around complaining about the absent views.

But I for one saw value that day in not seeing. I took comfort in my obstructed view of that which I knew was there yet could not see. And for the first time in my life I made no effort to look past the slate gray cloud which enveloped the summit, which colored the nearby lime green leaves into a drab olive hue and totally hid the canopy only a few dozen feet beyond. No skyline was to be seen no how.

I surrendered any attempt to see beyond my veiled misty curtain for I began to understand that the nature of nature is that it is always beautiful if not always comfortable. We are guests in a vast abode about which we have no say. Yes, I could have waited for a sunny day. But Sunday last the fog at my fingertips was my panorama, and it was good.