My First (Official) Ultramarathon
My First (Official) Ultramarathon
people you’re running the NYC Marathon, and you’ll get oohs and aahs, and maybe
you’ll even get people to donate to the charity you might be running for.
people you’re running the Brooklyn Marathon two weeks later, and they’ll kind
of look at you funny (then they’ll say, “There’s a Brooklyn Marathon?”).
people you’re running a 12-hour race in between, and they send for the people
in white coats.
it was that I finally found myself participating in the first official ultra
I’ve ever participated in (I’ve now ended two sentences with prepositions, but
sure, I’d participated in many ultras of my own construction before, being
careful to have them recognized formally (criteria: a) available to the public,
b) 5 starters/3 finishers c) posted results, d) a director in charge, and e)
known course), but I’d been bursting to take part in one where I could show up,
run, and leave, without the other responsibilities.
had it taken me half a decade to finally find one? My criteria are too
- Not on family time – I already impinge
on that enough, thank you very much.
- Not on work time – I’m not taking a day
off to run. That time is for family. See line above.
- Early starting – so it won’t impact
family or work time. See two lines above.
- During a high-mileage part of my running
season – else I’d bonk.
- Cool temps – ‘cuz me and heat? We don’t
get along, my Badwater ambitions be damned.
- Local – I’m not hopping on a plane for a
long race, unless my family comes with, which they won’t. They have better
things to do.
- Need friends along – in case I get hurt,
I want to be in the care of people I know. Also, I like my friends and want to
hang out with them.
- No trails – I hate trails. Trails are
for people who wear “sneakers.” I don’t wear those things. I wear Vibrams.
- Not on Saturday – I am Sabbath
first putting these demands into the grinder five years ago, the only things
the ultra-machine spit out were races of my own design, at a time of my
choosing. I put the list into the robot again, and suddenly it came back with
quite a find! It’s called the NJ Trail Series One Day. It takes place in
November, on the Sussex County Fairgrounds in New Jersey, and stages various races
(24-hour, 12-hour, 6-hour, 50k, and marathon) over a 24-hour period. The
12-hour run starts at 9 PM on Saturday night.
Notice how the paragraph above satisfies the needs of my criteria list just
above that? I found my race. Some friends accepted my invite, and all my needs
I can’t really file my usual mile-by-mile report, because that’s impossible. I
have enough problems remembering details of the Brooklyn Marathon and reporting
them (it’s run on Prospect Park’s 3.35-mile loops) in the exact order they
happened, but on a 1-mile course over 12 hours of looping? Are you kidding me?
also can’t even give you an hourly report, much less a half-hourly report or
10-minutely report. What am I, crazy? Nobody’s memory is that good.
what can I report to you? Let’s try something a little different: I’ll first
give you a description of the race grounds, and its elements. Then I’ll give
you an overview on how my friends did. Finally, I’ll save a little bit over in
the end for how things went for me. We’ll get you home quickly.
mentioned above, this took place on the Sussex County Fairgrounds, which is a
165-acre complex that hosts all kinds of interesting stuff. The website says, “This
sought-after event venue has attracted many groups seeking powerful ways to
integrate their brands with a fully engaged consumer,” but I don’t know what
that means. It sounds like a slide from a business meeting. Simply put, they
host horsey races, flower shows, craft fairs, farmer’s markets, the New Jersey
State Fair, and our little race – with a 3-day version of the same in May.
course itself is a mostly-flat 1-mile loop that cuts through and skirts around
the majority of the complex. Actually, if you can picture it, it’s shaped a lot
like a flintlock pistol, facing right. The rounded grip is the long, lonely
stretch out in the fields, the trigger and trigger-guard house all the
amenities (start/finish line, timing mat, kitchen, bathrooms), and the tip of
the barrel represents the “out and back” portion of the course. Or, if you will
– and if you are pre-Millennial – it looks a lot like the 1st Pole
Position board, minus the tommy gun barrel-grip part.
runners and their families all set up their tents and conveniences around the
gun barrel part of the course, and near the trigger-guard. The rest (an
exaggeration, “the rest” is just the .6 miles of the rest of the loop) was just
encountering the same runners several dozen times.
enough firearms metaphors. You get the picture, I’m sure. I mean, shoot.
kitchen: Oh my gawd was there food
pouring out all over the place. ‘Twas a conveyor belt of goodies being produced
through the night. There was fare even cooked up for vegans. Most of the cost
of the race must have gone here. Now mind you, I and my friends all keep
kosher, so we couldn’t enjoy everything – but there was plenty we could, and I
ate, a lot, every time I passed by, every mile. Ahhhhh numnumnumnumnum. Hunger
was not a factor at all.
bathroom: the course had indoor bathrooms. Indoor. Bathrooms. Can you believe
it? Of all the amenities ever provided on any of the 200+ races I’ve run,
nothing has been as wonderful, beautiful, and kind as this one. It was clean,
it was well-stocked, it was warm, it had actual soap (hand sanitizer is not a
proper substitute. Look up the difference in your local library - oh, wait, the
internet was invented a short time ago. Go ahead and google that).
timing: every runner was given a house-arrest anklet (I’m guessing it’s not
officially called that) to wear. Every time we hit the start mat, we triggered
updated information displayed on a large board housed in the little
hut/kiosk/gazebo/belvedere structure thingie that served as headquarters. Lap,
pace, ranking, and the like. All the good stuff.
was so happy to have some good friends along for the ride. I wouldn’t have
participated without this crucial criterion in place. I put out a casting call,
and these fine people answered. I’ll list them in order of how many miles they
covered (what? How else should I list them? By how much I like them? That’s
He looked strong for most of the race (he has an impressive and commanding
power stroke – like, the opposite of Paula Radcliffe), but after about the 20
mile mark, I encountered him walking during some of my loops, then I saw him
seated, then I saw him seated in such a fashion as to suggest he wasn’t getting
up anymore. When I noticed that, I stopped looping for a minute to ask him if
he was done. He said he was. He had a leg issue he was battling. I looked at
his watch: 26.1 miles! I told him to get his butt out there and finish up what
he needed to complete a marathon. He did exactly that. Okay, I wasn’t the
motivator. He had to walk that distance to pick up his trophy (a license plate!
Personalized by the race director! Neat!).
Jolly St. Sruly drove Michael in, went round and round (for a small chunk with
me; more on that later), went a mile longer than he ever had (he’s the veteran
of multiple 50Ks), then had to call it a night so he could support Michael.
That’s what friends are for.
The MVP of the night. I’ll put it simply: Old 12-hour female course record: 63
laps. New record: 68 laps. That’s an 8% increase; the equivalent of a 60-game
hitting streak, or 79 home runs in a season, or 108 points scored in a game.
Okay, enough sports analogies. She killed it. She destroyed it. She was
No slouch himself, Ari came this
close to emerging as champion of the male race. He cleared 71 laps. The winner?
72. The equivalent of missing out due to an ill-timed pit-stop. Oh my, though
he is no less deserving of a round of applause.
for Yours Truly, I had the time of my life. Now this wasn’t in a rah-rah
sign-waving roaring-crowd sense, but rather in a dreamlike, trancelike,
easy-does-it like sense. That’s the difference between a big city marathon like
the one I ran the week prior, and this one, on horsey grounds, surrounded by
woods, with only runners and their crewmembers present (and, for part of the
evening the wedding party on a secluded area of the grounds in a giant barn-y
thing with poor soundproofing).
arrived, with Rebecca in shotgun, to the most quiet quietness and misty
mistiness I’d ever seen on a racecourse. Temps were in the high 40s; they would
drop to high 30s during the night.
I parked in the first spot I saw – at the end of the gun barrel, as I mentioned
above – and saw runners looping around a sawhorse at the end. I realized this cohort
was closing in on the midpoint of their 24-hour race, while anybody else
showing up was doing a “mere” 12.
scouted the course, reviewed the amenities, picked up our bibs and swag,
welcomed Ari and Yisroel and Michael when they rolled in, set up our respective
gear (AKA “food”) along the lip of the course and on a little table Yisroel
provided, and rested until go-time.
plan was thus: run four miles, walk one, repeat. Do that for as long as I can,
then shuffle along at whatever speed available to me after that.
nutrition plan: partake of all the tummy-approved foods that I brought with me,
plus all the kosher fare that the race offered, plus enjoy some of the
newly-tested instant soups that I brought along. I scheduled that for every
four hours of the run.
Rebecca, and Michael bolted out of the gates like they had business on the
course to attend to. Yisroel hung out with me for a while.
was my plan, I ran for four miles with Yisroel alongside me, then began
walking. Yisroel wished me well and bounded off.
this repeatedly meant I saw my friends a lot more often than I would had I
stuck to a consistent running program. Head-nods and polite waves aplomb, but
after a while, I couldn’t get Rebecca’s attention. She was focused and deathly
serious about her undertaking. Good!
kept up my 4/1 program for three rounds. In the middle of fourth attempt, it
very quickly turned into a 3/2, and still in the middle of it all, a 1/4.
That’s just as well. No regrets about that. This was an entirely new and
different experience for me. I reached about twenty miles after around four
hours, and it was time for my soup at approximately 1 AM.
I swear, I think I fell asleep for the next four hours, lost in my dreamlike
daze, because the next thing I remember after thinking, “Damn, that was some
good soup,” was, “Ooh, I think it’s time for another soup!”
time in between? I spent it doing these:
Shuffling along happily – I was just
happy to be there, taking in this fascinating, new experience. I day-, er,
nightdreamed a lot. I just kept moving forward. Because it’s such a short loop,
people notice each other’s progress. I didn’t get pats on the back until I
started shuffling following a long series of walking. In this scenario it’s
easy to notice when a fellow runner is gutting things out. Also interesting was
the one portion of the course that was sand and pebbles. During the night,
these were easy to negotiate – what with my wearing my Vibrams – because of the
shadows the large pebbles cast. Once day broke, and the sun moved overhead, the
shadows disappeared, and it was more ow-ooh-ow for that stretch for the last
few hours. Wasn’t so fun.
Watching the sky – I’m a star-gazer by
nature, and I don’t think I ever realized how dramatic the movements of
constellations are over the course of night. They practically tumbled. For long
stretches, I’d just stare up, impeded by nothing except for the curve of the
road. At one point, four superbright
stars were stacked up one atop another. Ari passed me, patted my shoulder, and
– knowing I’m an amateur astrologer – asked me if I knew what was up with the
arrangement (it was that noticeable
even to the uninitiated). I did know. They were not stars. They were the moon,
Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all neatly queued up. Gorgeous.
Making bathroom stops – an indoor
bathroom is such a wonderful favor that
I found myself in it even if I didn’t necessarily need need to go. Needing to go sufficed. It was also just a great
way to rest my legs every few hours. At one point, I was in a stall between two
other runners. The runner to my left said, “Hey, anyone know what time it is?”
The runner to my right said, “Yeah, it’s 17:30. Um, I mean 2:30. Wait, holy
$#!+, I’ve been running for seventeen and a half hours?” Ha!
Watching the leaderboard - that leaderboard was fascinating to watch,
and it was fun to parse out the statistics quickly every time I passed by.
Quite often during the night, I’d be in the company of a runner whose status on
the course I was curious about. I’d either keep pace, or race after them to see
the numbers. Sometimes it got a bit hectic. If I allowed too many runners in
between me and the runner in front of me, I wouldn’t get the numbers, so I
found myself sprinting on occasion. It was fun chasing after Rebecca every time
she passed. She was killing it. It was also funny when I’d chase the leader
(who would end up running 135 miles!) but before he’d get to the leaderboard
area, he’d pull off to the side to his crew. Doh! All that running for nothing!
I approached the start area shortly after 8 AM, I decided that would be enough
for me. I’d already gone further than I ever had before (previous record: 40
miles, on my 40th birthday), and I still had to drive home. It was
imperative that I rest before doing so. So at 8:16 AM, after 11:16:43 of
running, I pulled in and called it a day, er, night, having cleared 41.5 miles.
The director signed my license plate, and I headed to the car to rest.
plopped myself down at the foot of the little hill, and inverted myself with my
legs in the air. I must’ve looked funny, because some runners started taking
selfies with me.
those who didn’t, presuming they were focused on finishing their races with
squeezing out as much distance as possible, I yelled “One more!” People really
responded to that.
also managed to grab a few winks.
half hour after the race was over, I was still lying there, well rested, when
Rebecca came shuffling in, having clobbered the female race record, but now,
suddenly, unable to walk straight.
both managed to clamber into the car, and got home safely.
Notes from Our One-Week Dixie Vacay
from Our One-Week Dixie Vacay
Ill-advised, to say the least. .1
miles into the run, I realize I’m a lunatic. I step off, head to the couch, fall
in, and reset my alarm for my usual 4:45 AM, which isn’t ungodly at all.
I wake up the family at 5:00 AM, and
we’re all out of the house with our bags within one hour. Perfect.
The kids have silver-foiled
breakfasts, and a truckload of DVDs to amuse them for the drive to Philly
Why Philly Airport? Because my wife
and I have realized that we’d rather drive more time to a regional airport and
spend less time parking and going through security than spend more time driving
through mounds of traffic to a local airport and deal with all kinds of
time-consuming stupidities and aggravations. We prefer to be kind to ourselves.
We recommend the same for you.
Also, Dan’s Deals said so. We do
whatever Dan says. Dan says where to go, and when. We obey Dan.
The drive down the turnpike is nice,
with the sun rising behind us, and giving Newark a gleaming sheen.
Newark, the city that looks great
when you look up, but not so much great when you look down.
We arrive in Philly with no problems
(I continue to marvel at the city’s building a stadium, ballpark, and arena
within one foot of each other). We park, get through security, and we’re on our
plane lickety-split. Not a single person gets on our nerves in any way.
Our flight is empty. We pretty much
sit wherever we want, and we have maximum comfort.
See what I’m talking about? How many
more perks do you want?
When the plane touches town in Louis
Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, I delightedly add state #34 to the
number I’ve been to. Exciting stuff!
We’re off the plane in a flash, get
our luggage in a jiff, pick up our car in a femtosecond (The agency gave us
several choices. We went with the one with the DVD player. Trust me, no other
considerations matter, except maybe for a functioning A/C), and wheel up to
Kosher Cajun NY Deli & Grocery, where we eat like kings (I even try a dish
I’ve never seen or heard of before, which is highly unlike me. Rice and beans
and sausage and New Orleans stuff. I’m feeling adventurous), pick up food for
the road, make Shabbat-food arrangements, and we’re on the road, heading east.
I notice the people are friendly
here. One person on foot accidentally cuts me off. He then says thank you,
followed by a sorry, sandwiched by another thank you. What is this? I hear it’s
We cross the border of Mississippi
and pull over to take a pic under the welcome sign. State #35! Woohoo!
My wife’s a bit tuckered out, so I
take over the driving, pull over once we cross the Alabama border, and I snap
another family pic under the sign. State #36! Yes!
With that in the bag, I have now
visited every state east of the Mississippi (the border of the U.S. before The
Louisiana Purchase), save for Tennessee. Tennessee, I’m coming for you.
A short while later, we cross the
Florida border, but the sign is impossible to access. Grumble. Been here before
though, but never in the panhandle.
We finally make it to Pensacola
Beach, realizing that the entire trip from New Orleans was a preview of what
we’ll be touring over the next couple of days.
Before we pull up to the hotel, I
look up what “Pensacola” means: Choctaw for “Hair people.” I did not see that
When we reach the hotel, despite
that we woke before dawn, took a plane to the south, drove hundreds of miles
east, and spent chunks of the day in six different states, we’re suddenly in
our bathing suits and everybody’s in the outdoor, warm, pleasant pool – which
is one of two pools, plus a mini kiddy-park kind of pool, and a hot tub. We
picked a good one.
Inspired by the recent Olympics, my
daughter shows me how to do the butterfly. I rip several pec muscles.
Two hours is more than enough
pooling for now. My wife makes a lovely dinner and we’re out like lights before
we even get to chew.
I head out for a 6:40 AM five-mile run, my first ever along
the Gulf of…well, anything. In this case, it’s the Gulf of Mexico. The white
sand and green water is gorgeous gorgeousness. Directly south of me, if I could
see it, is the Yucatan Peninsula. I’m in another world.
I heard there’s a boardwalk in the
area, but can’t find it. I like running on boardwalks. I find a cop exiting his
precinct and mounting his bike:
Me: I heard there’s a boardwalk in
the area. I’d like to go for a run on it. Know where that is?
Cop: Sure, see that tall building
Me: Tall building? Everything’s flat
here except for the hotels.
Cop: Ha! True! Good eye. Okay, see
that building with the triangle top?
Me: Are you saying because it has a
roof it’s taller than everything else?
Cop: Ha! Yes I am. Anyway, right
there is where the boardwalk starts. Goes until the next strip of land there.
Me: Ah! Thanks! Have a good day.
Now that’s interesting. The
boardwalk here is on a strip of land that connects two landmasses. There is no
boardwalk on Pensacola Beach/The Gulf
of Mexico itself. I find that a bit odd. I’ll pass. I wanna run along the gulf,
not an isthmus (yes, I had to look that up to remind myself what such a
formation is called).
While on the beach, I espied a pier
jutting way out into the Gulf, and I immediately thought “I ran clear to the
ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as
well turn around, just keep on going.” So I noted to enjoy a run on the pier on
my return trip. When I did return from where I kept on going, I found a sign
that said this:
STOP: IF YOU PASS THIS POINT WITHOUT
AN ARMBAND OR ANNUAL PASS, YOU WILL BE FINED FOR TRESPASSING.
What? I turn around. I see a sign
that says it’s $1.25 to access the pier. There’s a man in a booth, looking
bored as heck. I must be his first fish of the day.
Me: Hi, do I seriously have to pay
$1.25 just to run to the end of the pier and back?
Bored: Yes sir, no exceptions.
Me: Well, another time then.
I’m not paying money for something I
should be able to do for free. When I get back to the hotel, I ask the
concierge if such practice is common in this area. She says absolutely it is.
I wake the family up at 8:00 AM. I
daven, we dress, and head down for the complimentary breakfast. I marvel at how
dairy creamer always seems to end up kosher no matter where I find myself. Nice
going, kashrut industry!
After that, we spend two hours in
the green green ocean, followed by one hour in the warm warm pool and hot hot
We have a homemade lunch, and we’re
on the road for a quick trip to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which is,
allegedly, the world’s largest naval
aviation museum, but the place seemed small to us. The boys, surprisingly,
we’re unamused and unengaged, but the Blue Angels movie rocked (Shucks, their
training sessions bookended our vacation) and any place is great from which I
exit with having to read a recommended book (The Raft, by Robert Trumbull).
We have some light snacks, and we’re
on the road again, headed north for a three-hour drive to Montgomery, Alabama.
It’ll be the fifth state capital our children have visited (after humming
Wakko’s 50 State Capitals to myself, I realize I’ve only visited six, and I’m a
bit older than my kids).
At a gas station pit-stop I come
across another sign I’ve never seen before:
My wife pays for the stuff, and gets
carded. The cashier has an IQ of a pizza rat, because we have the following
Me: You think my wife looks under
Pizza: Um, it’s a policy for people,
um, y’know, under 30.
Me: Dude, I’m just complimenting my
wife, is all. Help me out.
Me: Okay kids, wheels up, enjoy your
As we’re driving, my wife mentions
that she hasn’t seen any deer signs this entire trip. I say, hey, different
strokes for different folks – or um, different signimals for different animals.
Especially in these parts, we keep encountering the rare Homo Sapiens
Friendlyus. They seem to be abundant.
Two miles later, of course, we see a
We finally arrive in Montgomery.
This hotel room has three full beds, three TVs, a stove, washer/dryer. The
works, for a song. Wow. It doesn’t have green water and white sand though.
After a nice home-cooked meal, it’s
lights out again.
I head out for a 6:45 AM four- mile
run through a very empty city, past everything we'd enjoy a bit later in the
day as a family. My aggregate time is slow because I snap pictures of plaques,
in the event that we’re hurried through our morning. We have a busy schedule.
This is what I encounter:
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s house (I’m
excited just to be running by. I cannot wait
to get inside later!).
His children’s babysitter’s house (she’s
still alive and lives there. She’s 104. There’s a plaque in front of her house
commemorating a person who’s still there. If that isn’t wholly unique, I don’t
know what is).
The First White House of the
Confederacy (How is this place not egged daily, Confederate flag flying and
The State Capitol (With the flags of
all 50 states in front. I never realized the Mississippi flag has the
Confederate flag right up in the left-hand corner. This only compounds my
The Civil Rights Memorial Center
(Maya Lin’s marble-and-water architecture is stunning up close, but it’s
blink-and-you-missed-it from the road just feet away).
Troy University (with its cool and
imposing Trojan warrior statue. Sprawling college campuses are one of my
favorite things to run through).
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum (We’ll
be back later to learn stuff!).
The Alabama River (bodies of water
are another item I love running along).
The Hank Williams Museum (not my
kind of thing, but some people are rabid).
Madison Mini Mart (for some
breakfast supplies, and I swear this is the only grocery of any kind in this
city that I can find. This city is built strangely).
Upon my return to the hotel, the
streets are still empty.
I wake the family up at 8:00 AM
again. I daven, we dress, have cereal and homemade french toast for breakfast,
and we’re out and about The Empty City.
First stop: pictures in front of a
restaurant called Mushroom, because the ladies in my life love ‘em, and they
can’t pass up this op.
Second stop: The Rosa Parks Museum,
where we get an education such that we’ve never had before, with information
crammed into our heads that is not available in any textbook any of us have
ever read. We learn stuff we didn’t know, didn’t know was available to know,
isn’t even googleable, and confirms for us that the only way, really, to learn
anything is to be there. We stand on the spot she was arrested. The whole
experience is wake-up call stuff. I hope my children realize how enriched they
are. When they learn about civil rights in class, I hope they’ll raise their
hands and fill everyone in on everything they can’t possibly have known, unless
they were there.
Third stop: taking pictures of the
lizard our big boy spotted, then pics with the boys under the Trojan warrior.
Fourth stop: The Civil Rights
Memorial. For some reason, I’m not very successful in explaining the importance
and relevance of the architect and this architecture. The boys are more
fascinated by a bug surviving the falling water than they are in my history
lesson. Can’t win ‘em all, but at least they were there.
Fifth stop: a quick peek at the
First White House of the Confederacy and the state capitol (across the street
from each other).
Sixth stop: the grand prize, the
reason I’m thrilled to be here, the raison d’etre – at least for me – of our
visit to this city: Martin Luther King Jr.’s house. We have the same experience
we had at the Rosa Parks Museum: we learn a truckload of things we didn’t know,
didn’t know we didn’t know, are now thrilled to know, and are enriched now that
we know. I didn’t know about the penknife stabbing, or that he was a private smoker,
or that the indentation of the thrown bomb was preserved, or a whole list of
wonderful and interesting things that our eager guide showed and explained to
us. I was thrilled just standing outside of the house of a man I admire so
much. Walking through his space is almost too much joy. Again, you have to be there to know. Textbooks and
Wikipedia don’t do these kinds of historical people and events justice. You’ve
got to inhabit the space to feel the history.
Thoroughly elevated, and grateful
and thankful we came, we break for homemade lunches again – in the park behind
the King house where The Man spent meditative moments – before hitting the road
again. We’re going south back to the coast.
It should be noted, before we leave,
that the city remained empty, and therefore quite eerie. It felt abandoned.
It should also be noted that because
of this emptiness, any tours we were given of anything started and were run
according to our own schedule. With nary anybody else present, accommodating us
Anyway, back to the road: we pass a
place called Murder Creek, which, I learn, is named for a murder that actually
occurred along the creek.
For this, I’m happy to not inhabit
the space. Wikipedia will work just fine, thank you very much.
We arrive at USS Alabama Battleship
Memorial Park, in Mobile. The eponym of the site is not the only showcase here.
They’ve also got the USS Drum submarine, tanks, and planes, including Calamity
The battleship is awesome, and
sweaty, and the boys love it. The girls? Not so much. Everyone appreciates the
submarine though. Cool stuff.
Interesting to note that the ship
serves as a shelter for families for hurricane events. Matter of fact, along
the coast are constant reminders about the beating Katrina brought down on the
area. This will be the first of many such in-person reminders.
I’m happy at my newfound ability to
identify a few more planes than I used to, as a result of a resurgent interest
in books about recovering lost airmen and planes from WW2.
Fully hydrated after our run through
the place, we head back to the road and arrive in Pascagoula, MS. The name
means “Bread nation” in Choctaw. Interesting.
While my wife fetches dinner and
breakfast supplies, I take the kids to the pool, and my wife joins us later.
The kids have some home-cookin’ for
dinner. I have a Labriut meal and Tradition chicken soup. Life does not get
6:20 AM 5.4-mile run into
Mississippi Sound. Along the way I encounter at least five
pallets-turned-into-US-flags, which is a thing I’m seeing more and more.
I also stumble across Camp Jefferson
Davis, and President Zachary Taylor’s summer home, because that’s the kind of
stuff you come across at random in this area (truth be told, if you pay
attention, back home in NJ and NY, there are scores of places where George
Washington’s army encamped. I find a lot of ‘em when, yes, I’m out for runs).
I also encounter crazily friendly
people (what’s a crossing guard waving hi to me for from across the street?)
and a free pier! This one sticks out one-tenth of a mile into the water. Fun
On my return trip, while waiting for
a red light to turn, I encounter the physical embodiment of Mater from the Cars
movies. Seeing this in print won’t do our conversation justice, but it’ll have
to do, and I’ll be glad to recreate it for you in person:
Mater: Ha yer doin’ there, young
Me: Hey, I’m alright. Hayoudoin’
Mater: Aw, y’know, hangin’ in there.
Ah hear iss goan be a hot wun.
Me: Isn’t it always a hot one around
Mater: Aw, y’got that right, son.
You have a good day now.
Wakeup today is 7:45 AM, because we
have to be out the door on time for our 9:00 AM appointment. We got gators to
In Moss Point, MS we find ourselves
in Gulf Coast Gator Ranch & Tours and have, all at the same time, the most
interesting, unnerving, frightening, and wondrous time of our lives. Later, an
informal survey would prove this to be the high point of our vacation (so you
might as well stop reading now, because it’s all downhill from here. Oh, just
The first things we encounter are
hilarious typos: They sell both souveniers and souviners here. I guess they
sell them phonetically.
We’re not here to laugh at typos,
No, we’re here to see the…electric
chair? Right there, near the cashier. The boys delight in strapping each other
Where did this chair come from? Oh,
it just floated in on a Hurricane Katrina wave.
How about that for a serverneer?
We receive our gator food, and head
out the back door onto the property.
Immediately, we’re transported.
We’re in the bayou, the real deal. In front of us are dozens and dozens of huge
algae-covered alligators, sunning and luxuriating. The only thing that
separates them from us is a single chain-link fence.
Our big boy is more fascinated by
the lizard on the fence. Seriously? Do you see
what’s in front of you? Then again, this guy is good at spotting lizards.
While we wait for our guide, we
start feeding the alligators their turd-shaped protein biscuits. It’s fun, but
it’s mightily scary. Chomp. Gone. These animals are gargantuan too: twice my
height; four times my weight. Absolute killers, and we’re just playing with
I note a sign on the building that
we entered. It’s 15 feet up, and it says “Katrina Water Line.” Whoa. That
brings to mind a particular question, which I’ll pose later, so hold that
Real-life Mater’s twin brother comes
out, holding a two-foot gator with some black tape sealing his mouth. Each of
the kids (that includes me) take turns holding him. Gator Jr. is calm, but
tries to give our big boy a kiss. Hooboy.
Finally, it’s swamp time. We meet
our guide, Mike, and clamber into an airboat along with an elderly couple, who
have this experience on their Bucket List. They sit in front. We have the back
row, bookending the children. Basically, we arrange ourselves in gator-eating
priority, should this machine tip over. I’m more than a little scared. Our
guide sees how we’ve arranged ourselves, and says, “Y’all did good ha you
setcherselves up with the kids there’n middle.” A parenting compliment always
takes the edge off.
We put our headphones on because
it’s going to be loud, and we’re off into actual, literal, really really real
Our guide is a capable hand, eager
guide, and fun fella. We encounter a few gators, and Mike feeds them
marshmallows. Interesting snack.
The fun, though, is when he puts the
airboat through its paces and performs various spins, turns, and glides over
solid ground. I swear, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a vehicle in my
At one point, Mike pulls over (Not
easy to do! Airboats have no brakes!) and asks if we have any questions. I do!
Me: What happened with your gators
during Hurricane Katrina?
Mike: Aw, we lost ‘bout two hunnerd
fitty of ‘em.
Mike: Got back ‘bout seventy,eighty
Mike: Yeah, we had folks returnin’
‘em to us, finding them tags we have on ‘em.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more
befuddled by a statement that came out of another human being’s mouth – and
we’re in middle of the wackadoodliest election season in history.
Imagine if you will: you’re on your
roof due to the ocean invading your entire neighborhood, waiting for the Coast
Guard, and a gator comes along to keep you company.
The mind boggles, nay, is blown to
We tour the nursery before we leave,
I give Mike a nice tip, and we’re on the road. Our destination? To Infinity,
and beyond. Uh, literally.
The Gator Ranch was near the MS/AL
border. We’re off to the MS/LA border.
En route, I mention to my wife how
interesting it is that we are, at the same time, in what is probably the most
racist part of America, but also the friendliest.
She says, “You might have that
perspective because you’re white.”
That’s what my wife does: take a
statement of mine and restate it with a new vantage point that gives me serious
I reflect on this. It’s true, I
escape certain biases because of the color of my skin, but invite others –
along with, blessedly, certain graces - because of the nature of my outward
appearance. I’m a Member of the Tribe, and often, it’s obvious.
Lots of food for thought.
We arrive at the John C. Stennis
Space Center AKA the NASA Infinity Science Center AKA Dork Heaven. It’s NASA’s
official welcome center. It’s their largest rocket testing facility. It’s in
middle of a 125,000-acre acoustical buffer zone (we saw the signs declaring
this but didn’t understand what they meant), and it’s awesome (read this: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/news/newsreleases/2008/HEC-08-158.html#.V9As_k0rKUk). The tour of the testing platforms is mind-blowing, and
the science center is much like the Aviation Museum: small, but very cool (just
look at the stuff you can see with
your own eyes!: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/home/index.html).
We have liftoff again. Shabbat
awaits. We finally get an opportunity to take a family pic under the Louisiana
sign. We’re glad to be back. We’ll spend as much time here as we did all over
Waze takes us along the rim of Lake Pontchartrain,
which is actually a giant tidal lagoon (Boy, I’m learning so much about land and water formations!)
to our hotel. The lake is named for a French minister, but it’s meaning I
simply cannot derive, which is a blow to my onomastic tendencies. Me sad.
It’s 24 miles long, 40 miles wide,
and according to the correct formula (PI * SquareRoot of 2 * ((1/2 long
axis)squared + (1/2 short axis)squared)) has a circumference of 103.62 miles. I
put it on my Bucket List of Things I Want to Run Around. When will I tackle
this Bucket List? I don’t know, but that’s what these things are for (I did run
around the island of Manhattan earlier this year, though, and that’s a good
That small non-land circle you see in
the SE corner of the state map of Louisiana? It’s the lake. Across the length
of it is a bridge that goes the whole 24 miles. It’s the longest over-water
bridge on earth.
I’ve noted, from reading several
travel guides, that New Orleans lays claim to several World’s Biggest titles.
Some are founded, some not. I’ll note some more as we go along.
We finally make it to our hotel,
right on the lake, directly overlooking the bridge. Gorgeous.
My wife arranges for some amenities
for our stay whilst I tour the hotel with the kids. Must investigate the gym,
pool, and shvitz.
This time I do the supply shopping (they
have more than one grocery in this city) while my wife readies the kids for the
I jump in with them, and we frolic
until there’s an hour left to Shabbat. We then do quick shower rotations, and
in our little hotel room (rated #3 by the kids out of the four we stayed in),
we welcome Shabbat.
We’ve got a fridge, a hotplate, full
Shabbat meals provided by Kosher Cajun, and a lot of creativity on my wife’s
We have a lovely meal, play some
games (both “Would You Rather?” and “Garbage” can go on forever), do some
reading, and hit the sack. We have to rest up for a long day tomorrow where we
can’t get too far out of each other’s personal spaces.
My big boy and I wake up earlier
than everyone else, and we create our own little reading nook while we wait for
the others to rise. He has Geronimo Stilton. I read J.K. Rowling’s “Very Good
Lives” in one sitting (Not hard to do) and continue reading “The Man of
Feeling” by Henry Mackenzie, followed by a dessert of more New Orleans travel
guides, just in case I missed something that we can cram in before leaving.
The rest of the family slowly opens
their peepers, one after another. Finally, we’re all awake. We dress, I daven,
I “come home,” we chill, we have a lovely lunch again, we play more games, read
more books, take some naps, run around a bit in the hallway until one of the
cleaning ladies tut-tuts the kids back, and survive the day in one piece. We
head to bed early again (we’ve all pretty much had eight good hours of sleep
every night. All of us are well-rested and energetic), because tomorrow’s a big
6:00 AM 8.4-mile run along the gorgeousness
of Lake Pontchartrain, and in the company of people that are so friendly, they
don’t just wave, but actually give full-throated “Have a nice day”s when they
I get a close-up view of the area’s
canals, seawalls, levees, and gigantic locks. It’s quite the education, just
seeing it all with my own eyes, and seeing how it’s all laid out. Again, you’ve
got to be there to know, as we’ve mentioned earlier. Boy, this city is
A hilarious sight: an “Alligators in
area” sign. Oh, really? Gee, back where I’m from, we just have, oh, I dunno,
squirrels, and I don’t think they eat people.
I return invigorated from my run,
then shower, daven, and wake everybody up at 8:00 AM. We’re off to New Orleans
First though, a ride along the
seawall along the Mississippi river, towards kosher restaurant destination #2
(of three): Waffles on Maple.
Oh, we eat well, very well.
Gargantuan waffles aplenty, plus a surprise: a slush lemonana. Oh gosh, so
Bellies full, let’s do Nawlins.
I studied the transit system carefully
before we came. It’s rather simple. Four lines going in specific directions,
mostly at 20-minute intervals. Piece of cake.
We board the St. Charles streetcar,
the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world (Claim: founded).
It’s operated by hand, a bell is rung with the driver’s feet, and it goes so
slow, that runners go along comfortably inside the tracks, with plenty of time
to move out of the way of a streetcar barreling down at them at 2 MPH.
The difference between a streetcar
and trolley? For that matter, a tram? Semantic, really. Ergo: none. They’re all
one and the same (feel free to call me on that. I have friends who can get hung
up on this kind of thing).
We alight onto Canal St., billed as
the widest boulevard in the world, which is a lie if I’ve ever seen one. My
wife agrees. We’ve seen way bigger, in multiple places. Nice try, New Orleans.
Bourbon St. is directly in front of
us. No thank you, we’re with children. Royal Street it is.
The first thing my wife spots on the
border of the French Quarter is a Torah Crown, on the shelf of a pawn shop.
That’s an odd place for something like that to be. Also: it’s beautiful.
My wife leads us inside and casually
asks questions about it, and how it got there. The gentlemen behind the counter
is a bit hard of hearing, but we learn that the price is $10,000. I’m not sure
that this calls for a rescue of sorts, ala Pidyun Shvuyin or anything, but in
case it does, the address is 637 Canal St. It has a sign that says “Expert
Jeweler on permises” (sic; then again, everything is sic around here), and
whoa, you can actually see the crown via Google Street View. There it is right
there on the Royal St. side, next to the chanukiyah: http://tinyurl.com/CanalTorahCrown.
We walk further along, and my kids
fail to grasp the cultural significance of their surroundings. My fault. We
pull over so I can give a quick history lesson. Glazed-over eyes. I’m not
successful. Hmmm, still my fault. Okay, we’d better get to Jackson Square right
quick, lest we have a mutiny on our hands.
William Faulkner’s house is just a
beat away, and I really would like to have a quick look, but the natives are
restless. We have to beeline for the Square.
Which is empty. Where’d everybody
go? Where are all the bands and street performers and artists? Are they all
auditioning for America’s Got Talent (Go Tapeface!)?
My kids are not happy. The one thing
they find most amusing is the functional water fountain.
Look, kids! The statue of Jackson!
Look, kids! St. Louis Cathedral!
It’s the oldest one in the United States (the gentile version of Touro
Synagogue, I suppose)!
No? Oh, man, okay, let’s go to Café
Now here’s why I’ve been so eager to
come here: I have noted, and friends have agreed, that all those “75 Things You
Must Do When You Visit x” and “23 Things You’ve Got To Try When You’re in x”
lists and websites are always 65% filled with stuff for you to eat. The lobster
in this place is awesome! The crab here is amazing!
We keep kosher. We can’t do that. We
can only check off 35% of these lists. It’s annoying.
Except for Café Du Monde! It’s the
first place on any of these lists that we can finally partake in. I inquired
about the kashrut with the local Chabad before we made plans, and it checked
out. I’m not just happy, I’m all-body thrilled!
Uh gimme some beignets and Café Au
Now, finally, in New Orleans, I find
the first rude people since landing here. I won’t reveal the heritage of the
restaurant’s staff who brings this on, because that would be lacist, but they
certainly make me feel like I’m right back in New York. Boy, do they have a
caustic, impatient “No beignets for you!” attitude.
See what I did there? Okay, not nice
The beignets are indeed delicious,
and my iced coffee is very good.
We sit down to enjoy the goodies on
the steps behind Washington Artillery Park & Moonwalk, and we watch a
sleight-of-hand magician do his thing. His name is Michael, goes by Rooster the
Magician, and he’s quite excellent. Since he calms my kids down and entertains
them, he deserves some props. This is him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhahZ_1y7Vs.
Once the show is over, and the
beignets consumed, we head to the Toulouse (I only speak the truce!) Station of
the Riverfront streetcar line. We’re taking it all the way to the end to visit
Mardi Gras World.
Except it doesn’t go all the way to
the end. It stops one stop short of its destination. Uh oh, we’re gonna hafta
walk, which is no big deal for me (despite the 40-lb backpack I’m rucking all
day) but the kids aren’t gonna be happy. I do have plentiful water supplies in
the pack, though. Let’s roll.
It turns out to be a 1-mile walk.
That isn’t bad. It skirts the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which bills
itself as the largest single-level convention center in the world. That might
be true. It dwarfs the Javits Center back home. Mocks it, really. I use a
running map toy to measure the length of it: .64 miles (Javits: .19). That’s a
long building. How does a city even find the space for such an immense thing?
I should note that I’m a bit wary
along this way. There are nooks and crannies, that, analogous to back home,
would be filled with homeless folk and random ne’er do wells. However, there
aren’t any, and I’ve noticed this in other nooks and crannies that aren’t
filled with suspicious strangers. I’ve seen the spaces the homeless inhabit in
my neighborhood, and on recent vacations to the West Coast and Hawaii. The
spaces here are similar, but they’re vagrant-free. Curious. The city is doing
something right in this regard. I wonder what that is.
We arrive at Mardi Gras World with
our nerves intact and our bodies still properly hydrated.
The tour is awesome, and the kids
love it, and I think they finally understand what Mardi Gras is all about, and
we each pick our favorite sculptures (Mine: Kiss!). We get complimentary beads,
and finally feel like proper tourists.
We have a homemade lunch on the
Mississippi River, while we wait for our complimentary bus to shuttle us back
to the French Quarter (thank goodness for that. When I asked the guide about
transportation options back, I was humming “Send Me an Angel” in my head [Boy,
I haven’t that song in decades]. He did!).
Back on the riverfront, it starts
raining. No problem. We discuss indoor options. The girls will go to the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium; the boys will go to the Audubon
Aquarium of the Americas.
The girls, reportedly, have a great
time whenever a butterfly doesn’t get stuck in their hair. The boys lose their
minds with joy (the dad too. There are creatures here he’s never seen before,
such as the lookdowns, which school in a fascinating way), most especially with
Parakeet Pointe, an exhibit where you get birdseed-covered sticks and coax the
birds to land on them (we spend an hour total in there!), and the Stingray
Touchpool, over which our little one loses his mind with happiness over being
able to touch them.
We all meet up after in the lobby of
the Imax theater. We bridge the time-gap by placing a Happy Birthday call to my
mother-in-law. Interestingly, at that moment, we’re at the end of the
Mississippi River, and she’s at the tippy-top, 2,350 miles away. Happy
We see Finding Dory in 3D. It is a
great, great heart-tugging movie. Baby Dory is so cute!
We walk back to our St. Charles line
streetcar, and take it back to our um, street car, which we use to convey us to
kosher restaurant option #3: Casablanca. I love the food, and eat well, and
omigosh, they have slushy lemonana here too.
After some quick shopping, it’s back
to our hotel, and lights out. Full day today; another one of the same tomorrow.
6:30 AM 6-mile run to the left of
the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, as opposed to the right. My Strava synopsis of
the run explains everything in full: “2nd run ever across Lake Pontchartrain
rim. Saw last levee to break during Katrina, an "alligators in area"
sign near a park bench, pelicans in flight, and a gorgeous sunrise (as I did
I actually saw both the penultimate
and ultimate levees that broke; that alligator sign was hilarious in the park
bench context, those pelicans looked like those pterodactyls in flight in
Jurassic Park, and when I say gorgeous sunrise, I mean it.
I shower and daven, wake up everyone
at 8:00 AM for a hotel-room breakfast (in order to get out of our hotel room on
time daily, I put on the weather channel – No kids shows! Too distracting! –
and ask them to serve as meteorologists for the day), and we’re off to City
City Park is 154% the size of
Central Park, and has almost an infinite amount more of amenities and
amusements for children. We’re planning for a full day here.
Now then, you’ve heard the English
expression “Man proposes and God disposes”?
It’s from the Yiddish expression “A
mentsch tracht in Gut lacht.”
Which is from the Hebrew expression,
“Rabot machshavot b'lev ish, v'atzat HaShem he takum.”
Which is from Proverbs 19:21.
A few days ago, I noted that a
single one of the amusements – which would best target our little one – was
closed on Mondays. No big deal. Plenty more amusements left for everyone. The
park has that much to offer.
Then last night, while browsing
opening and closing times, I notice one more amusement is closed for Monday.
Okay, still not a big deal, because on every other website the amusements in
question show that they’re open daily.
We arrive in the park and note that
it’s pretty empty. No big deal, that’s been our experience throughout, but we
quickly learn that everything that requires payment to enter is closed for the
What is up with that? I’ve never
seen anything like it. A whole park? Closed? Arrrrrgh! Okay, plan B.
In a short time, we’re done, and
we’re off to the next Plan B site in the Garden District: New Orleans
Glassworks & Printmaking Studio. Besides for public art, we love the
artisanship of glassblowing too.
Remember the scripture I quoted
above? In French it translates to:
“L'homme propose et dispose d'un
The workshop is closed. Some excuse
from the proprietor about it being too hot and all.
How can it be too hot when you’re
already dealing with temperatures that reach infinity?
Some in our party don’t want to go
to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; others in our party don’t want to go to
the Audubon Zoo. We decide to make everybody both happy and miserable by going
First, the art. My kids enjoy. The
graffiti exhibit is interesting, the collage of world-famous Renaissance artworks
is gorgeous, but my favorite is this one: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CSbq5oQWwAE44P7.jpg, entitled “Computer Printout of Stephen King’s Brain” by
A quick homemade lunch outside of
the museum, and we’re off to site B of plan C.
We pass the National WW2 museum (I
think my kids need to be a bit older), and the Superdome iImpressive from afar,
but puny up close).
We arrive at the Audubon Zoo. I
won’t mince words: it’s one of the most disappointing experiences of our lives.
The water in every animal enclosure is brackish, the staff seems disinterested,
the ice cream carts are all closed, the animals look aged, filthy, tired, and
bored. It’s like everyone gave up. My big boy does find several more lizards,
and I’m proud of myself and my kids for facing fears on the ropes course, but
those are the only silver linings. We’re happy to leave.
Okay, dinnertime. We ask the kids
what they’d like, and they choose Kosher Cajun. The place is good. Off we go.
First, we pass a restaurant called
“Cowbell,” which we snap a pic of and send to a Christopher Walken-loving
We eat heartily, and dash out early,
because we have to go for one more dip in the pool. We can take our kids
anywhere, but they love the basics. I like that about them.
Our daughter makes quick friends
with an African-American girl playing in the pool, showing off to each other
what they can do (her race will be relevant in just a few sentences). We
continue to be amazed at the swimming prowess and bravado of our little one
(Thank you, Coach Jen!).
Before leaving the complex, I take a
pic with my boys in the 170º shvitz (Pfft, my shvitz back home approaches
boiling!) that’s one for the ages.
Later, before hitting the sack, my
wife mentions to me that she believes the kids minds were blown back in
Montgomery when they learned that people can be mean to each other because of
the color of their skin. The comment was obviously prompted by our daughter’s
free-and-easy play with a friendly stranger in the pool. Indeed, it seems we’ve
raised our children free of these horrible biases. We give ourselves some
credit, and we’re thankful to their school, too.
6:30 AM 4.3-mile run through the
Jewish part of New Orleans. I run past the conservative synagogue, the local JCC,
and the Chabad in the neighborhood. I pull up to Chabad, and wonder if I might
be able to meet the fellow who had given me all the kashrut, travel, and
Shabbat advice. I do! My good man Yossi answers the door! I found the guy I was
looking for! Ha! I thank him profusely for his help, and he thanks me for
stopping by. How wonderfully serendipitous a meeting this is. Fantastic.
I also have a closer look at the
city’s canals, and their attendant vulnerabilities. Gosh, will this place
survive the next 100 years? Seriously, the deluge threat is ever-present. I
could not live here.
I finish again along Lake
Pontchartrain, and pass again under the incredible bridge. I have a look at a
few of the 9,500 (!!!) concrete columns. What a structure. Again, if this was
back home, the homeless would live in several of the crevices I see. None here.
Nice job, New Orleans.
As I walk back to the hotel, I note
my very first road rage. A car barrels out of the garage, cutting off a person
trying to park. Took long enough.
I shower, daven, and wake up the fam
at 7:30 AM. We pack and head off to Waffles on Maple for one more memorable and
fulfilling breakfast. I’m getting spoiled with lemonana; I try the slushy
coffee with a healthy meal. I’ve gorged enough.
En route to the aiport, my wife
points out the first honk she’s heard since arriving in these parts. Combined
with the road rage I saw earlier, it looks like this city is falling apart.
We surrender our car and its
life-saving DVD player, and get to the airport and security with plenty of time
One dunderhead woman begins
complaining to the TSA about all the liquid-filled touristy trinkets and
gewgaws she’s stuffed into her carry-on luggage, saying they should know tourists will put this stuff into
their baggage, so why can’t she keep them?
Really, lady? Why don’tcha come over
to New York and try to pull this stunt?
That’s how chill this place is.
People have time to hold up lines. TSA treats her nicely, and patiently. She
ends up managing to get her stuff into the luggage she’s already checked in.
She doesn’t know how lucky she is.
We are too. A benefit of small
airports in chill cities is that the TSA is un-harried, and an eagle-eye
screener can catch illegal items more easily. This guy catches everything.
Liquids and sundries in carry-ons aplenty are caught left and right.
We again have the flight to
ourselves, and stretch out as we want, comfortably. I marvel at the Pontchartain
Bridge one last time, lose my mind solving Sudoku puzzles, read some more, SMH
all flight at my hilarious, chatty patty little one, and finally, have the
worst landing ever.
Our pilot is either a rookie or a
stunt pilot, because our plane yaws, pitches, rolls, and does practical figure
8s and Fugoid Cycles before it finally touches down. It’s as close as I’ve ever
come to using the barf bag.
Treadmill sweet treadmill 5:30 AM
2.4 mile run, after which I step on the scale and find that I gained one
singular lb. over our vacation. I ate like a king, but I ran like one too: 34
miles in total.
Work sweet work.