10 Years Since Hurricane Rita

Do you remember what you were doing 10 years ago today? Besides celebrating my half birthday, I mean. I remember it very vividly because it was the day before Hurricane Rita struck the Texas gulf coast.

Just a few weeks had passed since the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina had hit. Houston had opened its arms to hundreds of thousands of Katrina refugees, but it looked like they weren't going to be any safer with a second hurricane coming right at us. Millions of people were evacuating the coast to places farther inland.

Traffic backups on the evacuation routes were turning three-hour trips into multi-day nightmares. People were running out of gas on the road and some were even dying of heat stroke. The situation at the airports wasn't much better. The airports were overrun by people trying to get out and the facilities were understaffed because many of their own personnel were choosing to get the heck outta Dodge rather than report for work.

I was scheduled to depart that Friday morning (September 23, the day before Rita was due to hit) on a flight to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Given the reports of gridlocked traffic, insane security lines, understaffed airports, etc., I wasn't optimistic that I would make it out so my Plan B was to bunker down in my house and weather the storm.

Thursday night, while tracking the hurricane's path on the news, I watched Downfall, a movie about Hitler's final days in his bunker as the Allied forces closed in on him. The movie's soundtrack featured the constant and crescendoing booms of bombs that were getting closer and closer, which very much echoed the feeling in Houston of slowly approaching, inevitable doom.

After a restless night, I arose very early Friday morning, prepared to make my attempt at the airport.
With a full tank of gas and many non-perishable provisions (in case I found myself stuck on the highway), I hit the road to IAH while the moon was still high in the sky.

Instead of car backups as far as the eye could see, though, I encountered . . . nothing. There wasn't a soul on the road. Everyone who had decided to evacuate was apparently already gone and everyone else was bunkered down. It was eerie, like something out of a post-apocalyptic film . . . and it was the fastest/easiest drive I ever had to the airport.

When I arrived at IAH, once again I anticipated that I would be entering a chaotic free-for-all (as it had been the previous day, according to the news). Instead I discovered that I was one of the only passengers there and that the airport was fully staffed. I breezed through security and reached my gate hours before takeoff. With so much time to kill and with so much relief that things were going smoothly, I decided to have a drink. As cliche as it was, I had a hurricane.

My flight took off a little before noon and we were informed that we were the last flight to depart before they shut down the airport for the storm. When I arrived in Vegas and checked into the hotel, the attendant at the desk checked my ID. When he saw that I was from Houston his eyes got really big and he went back to discuss something with his manager.

The manager came out and informed me that our entire party would have our rooms upgraded and our meals comp'ed - his establishment was proud to welcome Hurricane Rita refugees! Knowing that there were real Rita refugees who were suffering a lot more than we were while we were getting room upgrades and comp'ed meals in Vegas didn't feel great on the Karma scale, but we couldn't see how refusing would have helped anyone.

In hindsight, as charmed as that trip was, I should have gambled! However, I'm just glad that things turned out OK. Although Rita ultimately wasn't as devastating as Katrina, it still exacted a huge toll, especially farther up the coast. 10 years after the fact, my hat is off to all of the emergency management personnel who helped get people to safety before/after Rita hit.


First Obstacle Race in the books!

Saturday I competed in the Legend Race obstacle course race, a 5-mile trail run with obstacles just outside of RTP. With ropes to climb, walls to scale, poles to traverse, logs to carry, etc. every quarter mile or so, it was a lot more interesting (and a lot more tiring!) than just going for a 5-mile run.

The weather was perfect, the competitors were supportive (For example, I was having a hard time climbing a metal pole to reach a rope that I would then have to traverse when a more seasoned veteran pointed out that I could brace my feet on the nearby tree for extra leverage - it worked!), and I had a lot of fun.

My only complaint was an unexpected obstacle - a swarm of bees on the trail - very early in the race. After not having been stung for decades, I have now had more than 15 stings in two weeks! We reported the swarm to the volunteers at the next obstacle (tire flips) and they re-routed the race for subsequent competitors.

I have avoided obstacle course races because most of the big races (Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, etc.) seem cheesy and contrived. Getting muddy just for the sake of getting muddy doesn't hold much appeal for me (I spent years getting muddy on the football field - been there, done that!) so I really appreciated Legend Race's focus on real obstacles.

Today I'm sore in lots of places (especially forearms) but I really enjoyed the race. I can't wait to do it again - especially if there is an opportunity to compete with others as a team!


Weekend in Roanoke

Katie and I took advantage of the holiday weekend to take a quick trip to Roanoke, Virginia, which neither of us had visited before. Roanoke is the economic hub of southwest Virginia and less than three hours from Chapel Hill by car.

We drove up Friday after work/school and arrived in time for dinner. Upon arrival, we checked into the Hotel Roanoke, which we found to be quite charming, despite the fact that it sure looked like it could have been in The Shining!

After settling in we met a friend of mine from high school and his wife (She grew up in the area and they were visiting family for Labor Day weekend.) at Local Roots. Local Roots was a bit overpriced but offered good, inventive fare sourced from local farms.

Saturday morning we went for a morning jog along Roanoke's greenway (along the Roanoke River). It was a lovely way to start the day and we were impressed that Roanoke had so much protection for bikes and pedestrians throughout the city. We stopped by the farmers market on our way back to the hotel and grabbed a southern breakfast at Thelma's Chicken and Waffles.

It was a very nice day so we once again met up with my friend and his wife to hike along the Appalachian Trail up to McAfee Knob. Early into our hike we stumbled upon a swarm of bees. I'm not sure how many there were but I wound up with 11 stings before we finally gave them the slip. The girls were smarter than I was and, noticing the swarm in advance, circumvented it. Ask anyone who ever knew me in my football-playing days and there will be a consensus that I prefer to go through obstacles rather than around them - this time I paid for it, though!

Other than the bee incident, the rest of the hike was marvelous. We encountered friendly hikers on the trail, including many dogs, and reached our destination in two hours. The view of the Catawba Valley was amazing and seemingly went on forever in all directions - very worth the hike!

After a much faster descent (go figure), Katie and I enjoyed a pint and some lunch at Fork in the Market. I don't think this place was quite as locavore-oriented as it claimed to be but the food was fine and the beer was just what we needed after our hike.

Saturday evening we dined at Lucky, a gastropub very near our hotel. We loved it. It was an excellent mix of interesting food and good cocktails. The only downside is that the waitress never mentioned that the kitchen was closing so that, by the time we were ready for dessert (After a run and a long hike, we thought it was justified!), it was no longer available. #1stWorldProblems

On the advice of some passersby on the street, we ducked into Metro, where they gladly served us dessert - and we gladly ate it! It was really delicious, actually; not so sweet that you couldn't taste the flavors.

Sunday morning we met a different high school friend of mine and a Rice friend, both of whom now work at the same Roanoke law firm, for brunch. They brought along their growing broods too so it was nice to meet their families. We hadn't seen either of them for many years but we easily just picked up where we left off.

On our way out of town we detoured through nearby Blacksburg to see a former Rice colleague (and coincidentally also a TJ grad!) who had recently been hired by Virginia Tech. It was good to catch up with him and he also gave us a tour around Tech's lovely grounds on another lovely day.

It was a very short trip to Roanoke, but we had a great time. As we were with Abingdon, we were quite impressed by Roanoke, its friendly culture, and its excellent dining. Southwest Virginia is rapidly becoming a place to which we love traveling - and it's much more accessible to us now than it was when we were in Texas!


Running Smarter Not Longer

This year I've adopted a new running training methodology and so far I've been very pleased with the results.

Last year I was running a training plan prescribed by triathlete coach Joe Friel. It had me running four days a week, cycling through tens of different workouts. I made decent progress and set a few PRs but I didn't love it. My legs were sore throughout most of the week, I had a hard time fitting in non-running exercise, and it frankly took a lot of planning time just to stay on top of all the complex workouts, which ones to do when, etc.

Around the beginning of this year I learned that Aaron Olson, whose Paleo Runner Podcast I had been listening to for months, was promoting a new running training methodology, which is based on his own experience and insights from many of his podcast guests. He recently published a book on this methodology called Low-Mileage Running.

The methodology is pretty straight forward:
  • Focus on few high-quality workouts rather than many low-quality runs each week.
  • Only work out when you feel 100%. Allow adequate rest/recovery between workouts.
  • Frequently return to benchmark workouts to gauge progress.
For me this means:
  • Two workouts each week, one middle distance time trial, and one high intensity intervals workout
  • If I don't feel awesome during a workout, I abort and do a recovery jog.
  • As much easy jogging as I care to do throughout the rest of the week
  • As much beach volleyball, weight lifting, hiking, ping pong, and any other activities as I care to do throughout the rest of the week
In short, I have been loving it. This simple approach, with a relatively small workout menu from which to choose, is trivially easy to administer. I don't have to obsess over training planning anymore; my plan essentially writes itself each week. Also, because I frequently return to the same workouts, it's easy for me to gauge my own progress.

Performancewise, I've continued to set PRs this year and have remained injury free (which is more and more important with every new birthday). Perhaps I would have set the same PRs if I had been following a higher-mileage training plan . . . but I'm glad to hit those numbers with less time spent training.

Perhaps most importantly, I have returned to the joy of running. Instead of viewing running as something I have to do, slogging through it even if it hurts, now running is a real pleasure. My two hard workouts each week feel really good because I'm fresh and fully recovered. Any other running I do throughout the week is with friends and/or just to commune with nature. I can't overstate how psychologically important this is - I guess I had been burning out on running previously without realizing it.

Finally it's nice that I can devote so much time to other things. I'm already slammed for time, so freeing up multiple days a week of hard running workouts has really helped.

At the end of the day, running just has a much more positive place in my life again, which I love. This training methodology may not be for everyone, your mileage may vary, etc. However, if you're burning out a bit on running, plateauing, or even just looking to get started, I'd suggest that you check out Aaron's book. It's a really fast read and offers sample training plans to get anyone going.

The weather looks great this weekend so I think I'll do some trail running in the color-changing Appalachian forests - not because I have to, but because it will be a joy!


Max the Ninja Dog

We had a bit of tense situation involving Max, our golden retriever, on Monday. I let him out the front door to go the bathroom, then ducked back inside for a second to grab a poop bag in case it would be necessary.

When I came back out, Max was nowhere to be seen. That wasn't too surprising given than he likes to wander around to the side of the houses and sniff around. Our next door neighbor had just come out to let her own dogs out and was commenting that she wished her dogs were as well behaved as Max - if only she knew!

I went around to the side of the houses and . . . no Max. Sometimes he'll chase a deer into the woods behind our house, so I looked there . . . no Max. I called out his name . . . no Max.

At this point I started to become concerned. It wasn't like Max at all to wander off. His separation anxiety usually keeps him very close. Furthermore, it was dinner time and he hadn't yet had dinner, which usually means that he races back to the front door as soon as he's gone to the bathroom. So I was concerned but also just confused - something didn't add up.

I grabbed Max's leash and squeaker toy and began running concentric circles out from our house, calling his name and squeaking his toy. Some neighbors offered to help me find him but they hadn't seen him either.

After I had canvased most of the neighborhood, I still had a nagging feeling that Max running off seemed highly improbable so I returned to our yard to look for clues. As I walked around the side of the houses to check the forest again, I noticed a white cushion in our nextdoor neighbor's window . . . a white, fuzzy cushion.

I called out Max's name and, lo and behold, the cushion in the window moved - it was Max! He must have sneaked in while she was letting her dogs out. Max loves her house because there are usually dog treats lying around at accessible heights (Her dogs are much smaller than Max.) so he probably thought he could pull a quick one.

Once our neighbor returned (from helping me look for Max elsewhere in the neighborhood!), she opened her front door to let Max out. All's well that ends well, but it was a pretty tense 30-45 minutes of not being able to find him. Of course it turns out that he wasn't in any danger at all; he was just earning his title of of Max the Mischievous!