Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review: Born to Run

It started with almost too much mystery. A hidden culture. A mythical, ghost-like figure whose purpose was obscured. An anthropological study of canyon-dwelling natives. 

 It took about 70 pages before the pace of the book picked up and flowed. It’s almost like the first couple miles of any run, slightly labored. Once I advanced beyond the entry point, the body of the Born to Run opened up into a tale I couldn’t stop myself from following right through to the author’s last word.

The essence I took from the book is that running can and should be enjoyable. The characters, the best of them, run for no other reason than pleasure.

In reflecting on this truth, I recall that my most profound periods of success with running have come when I use running as a salve for my woes: as a way to relax after work, to jumpstart a weekend, to reconnect with myself, or to commune with friends. I’m most content in my runs when it’s not competitive, but a form of renewal.

I gathered this is how it started for some of the ultra-marathoners featured in Born to Run. They didn’t set out to be awesome distance runners. They ran for pleasure; their success was a side effect of the elation felt in the run that carried them further and faster.

I think these same qualities apply with long hikes, too. It’s the heart you put in it. When you find a love of life for and through the movement, it feels like you can go on forever.

McDougall gives readers a fascinating look at the philosophy and psychology of successful distance runners as much as the physiological constructs of the human body built to run. The fundamentals come down to building as much soul as strength, but the run-fast formula is laced throughout the book in research studies, anecdotes, and practical applications.  

It’s more than a how-to book to running. It’s a gripping story of a amazing races, unforgiving terrain, kindhearted people, and a dedication to something bigger.

After all, McDougall writes: “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other but to be with each other.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

Down to Earth Diva: The Evolution of a Hiking Skirt

I haven’t done the math, but I’ve probably walked 4,000 miles in skirts. It started with my decision to hike in a skirt when I hiked the A.T. in 2003.
On the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010.

About two months ago catalogs selling clothing for active women started arriving. I suspect race directors for the Nashville Marathon sold my name. Athleta and Title 9 have become regular circulars in my post office box since then. I was flipping through them over lunch one day, scanning pages for skirts with just the right details – synthetic fabric, pockets, A-line, and without under-shorts. It turned into one of those moments when you step outside yourself and observe the absurdity for a moment. Here I am, with plenty of skirts for running, hiking, and playing in, yet seeking more.

While some might consider it an obsession, I consider it a quest for the perfect skirt (then again, I’m always on a quest for the perfect backpack, too). Regardless of the fixation that drives my compulsion to purchase and try out every skirt made of wicking material (and they’re even more common now that running skirts are on the rise (no pun intended, though they do tend to be shorter that what I’d like for hiking).

I’ll go ahead and admit here that I like to feel like I look nice even if I’m sweating. I don’t have to wear Prada on the trail, but some semblance of matching makes me feel, well, presentable – just like my momma taught. (oh, how many times did she chide me for looking like a ragga-muffin when I wore tore jeans and ratty tees in my younger years.)

Here’s a quick run down of the skirts I’ve hiked in, from the very first of my hiking skirts, to the latest and most preferred.

This grainy picture is one my mom took as I set off from Amicalola Falls to start my 2003 A.T. thru-hike. She captioned the photo. This skirt was not good for hiking. It’s a cotton blend and a wee short for backpacking without running tights under it. It worked fairly well otherwise, but by the time I reached Erwin I realized I needed another kind of fabric. I talked to POG at Miss. Janet’s house. She recommended a supplex material. I ordered some from Quest to be sent to my mom and gave her my vision for a wrap skirt, with Velcro closure at the waist. She would mail it to me at a future mail drop stop. (As for this skirt, I still wear it for running and dancing.)

Between the time I placed my sewing order with my mom and received that skirt I made it to Trail Days in Damascus. I coerced the fellas with Granite Gear to stitch me a skirt with fabric they had on hand. They used my original hiking skirt as the guide, used a water resistant fabric that’s really intended for packs, and had it made in under an hour. They even went the extra mile, adding a zippered pocket, and applying seam tape to the seams. The pocket served me well, but the seam tape was probably overkill. It’s a well made skirt that albeit short works well for winter hikes when I plan to wear tights under it.  The fabric feels bomb proof, too. 

On my A.T. Hike in 2003.
Starting the Art Loeb Trail in Feb. 2012.
I don’t remember which Virginia town I was in when I got my red hiking skirt from my mom, but I hiked in it the rest of the way to Maine. It had its own quirks. My mom had put the pocket on the inside of the skirt (think under-shirt travel wallet) which made it pretty useless for anything except putting my plastic bag wallet in it when I was walking in towns. The under layer of fabric of the wrap skirt would work its way between my legs, so I had to cinch the fabric from the bottom part of the skirt up under my hip belt so I wouldn’t get snagged on my skirt. It wasn’t pretty to have my skirt all cinched, but it served the purpose. The fabric dried quick in the really rainy hiking season of 2003 and it had all other benefits of hiking in a skirt. 

When I came back from my long hike I was convinced I needed to get into making hiking skirts that were worth a damned. The market in 2003 was primarily designed for men. A few innovative outdoor companies started making men’s kilts before they adapted them for women (however backward that is). I teamed up with my friend Joanna and we started, then faltered, in the creation of a line of hiking skirts. Here’s one of the prototypes. The waistline works (I learned that it’s called a yolk, like “yo, drop a yolk on that”), and it has ample pockets. This sample is made from a rain coat material. We never could find fabric color and weight we were happy with for production, and my dream for that project slowly slipped away. 

I have a couple skirts from Cloudveil (same style, different color) that I bought in 2005 or so at Frugal Backpacker in Asheville. They’re decent skirts, but they can look a little dumpy. Last time I wore one someone asked me if it was a rain skirt. I suspect she asked because it has a little sheen to it. The one good thing about wearing these skirts is that I don’t love them, so it feels okay to just get them dirty. My same friend, Joanna, screen printed a crop formation on one of my skirts which makes it feel a bit more interesting. 
Starting last summer's hike on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies.

My solo hike through the Grayson Highlands last fall.

I have a couple of other Mountain Hardwear skirts that I also bought at Frugal intending to hike in them. I wore them hiking once or twice. While they have plenty of pockets (a plus for hiking) the cut is too narrow such that it restricts my stride. They’ve been relegated to town-only skirts, or maybe boating, but there’s nothing redeemable about them when it comes to the trail.

Last, but certainly not least, is a skirt I discovered while I was hiking the PCT. It’s made by Royal Robbins and rocks! I think it’s called the Discovery skirt. I had reservations when buying it because it zips up the back and I worried I would be irritated where the zipper is between my back and my pack. My fears were unfounded. The skirt has ample pockets (one for my camera, one for a bandana, and one for a snack or hiking guide pages). The best part of this skirt is that it conveys from trail to town easily. It doesn’t have that typical outdoor fabric look; it has a flat finish with no sheen. It’s long enough to preserve modesty. It doesn’t restrict my stride, and it even has a ruffle (need I say more!)

Last summer's weekly hikes with my niece and nephew. I have this skirt in green and slate.
Hope to get one in orange this year.
 In the whole scheme of things, I’d probably like to have it a couple inches shorter, but it’s the absolute best hiking skirt I’ve found to date. But, that doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking.

Hiking in a Skirt

I wrote this piece in early 2004.

I wore a skirt because I’ve always enjoyed wearing them: long ones, short ones, shear ones, jean ones, ones that flutter on the dance floor.  They make me feel like a woman: powerful, sexy and strong.  After every backpacking trip I can remember, I have rushed home to slip one on; because in doing so, I reconcile my feminine side with the part of me that can get dirt under my nails, not shower for a week, and eat food that has fallen on the ground.   That was the biggest reason I decided to wear a skirt on this epic – ok, six month – journey from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.  It would define me as a woman and as an individual.  As I donned my homemade bright red wrap around skirt, fastened with Velcro at the top, I wanted to share with the world that a woman can hike 2,000 miles in a skirt. She can do anything she puts her mind to; she is strong.

I hiked in a skirt – but there was nothing feminine about it.  At times I had mud up to my knees.  My hair was matted so thickly between my showers in towns that it took 30 minutes of combing to untangle and lay flat the locks.  I smelled; my belongings smelled.  My wallet was a plastic bag.  My “umbrella,” a garbage bag.  Typifying my outdoor living was this skirt that had become a darker shade of red on the back from ground-in dirt and sweat, the front was faded from exposure to the sun.  Nothing says well-worn like a two-toned article of clothing.  

Here we are turning compost as our work-for-stay duty at Lake of the Clouds Hut.

Hiking in a skirt wasn’t always pretty.  I left some of my behind on a rockface in Maine because my sneaker slipped from the foot hold immediately calling to question my shimmy-down-the-rock method; shorts may have ripped but my butt would have been safe.  I crossed Franconia Ridge in my wrap in such high winds that every attempt to lift a leg and place it in front of me resulted in my leg being two feet to the right.  Needless to say, I showed at least half of New Hampshire my zebra print undies that day, and left an indelible memory in the minds of my hiking partners.  Sometimes, I even got a hurtful comment or two from comrades.  Some male hikers, perhaps threatened by my hiking ability or caught in their generational frame of mind, made comments about “chasing the skirt,” as I was passed them on the trail.  I still waiver on the question their ignorance, insensitivity or attempt at humor. 

But, it had its perks, like peeing standing up and with my pack on.  Now this may seem silly, but I drank a lot of water - over a gallon a day - so the call to nature was frequent and cumulatively time consuming. For the first 600 miles of this trip, and every hiking trip before, I would unfasten my hipbelt, set my pack down, and take out my toilet paper and the plastic bag for disposing the used paper.  I’d find a nice place to pee, then work everything in reverse: putting the toilet paper away, hoisting the pack back on, and fastening my hipbelt before moving forward.  Discovering I could pee standing up, grab a couple of accessible and nonpoisonous leaves with which to wipe, cut my pee stop times in half and made me a more efficient hiker.

I got a lot of odd looks from people, and was asked to explain myself through that squinted eyeball of scrutiny as someone looked from my mud covered boots, up my sinewy legs, to the skirt, the backpack, nostrils flared as they caught the smell, and the inquiry began: “You hike in that?”  This question came from hikers and non-hikers alike.  After explaining the benefits of comfort, freedom of movement and discretion when dressing in shelters or hostels, people seemed to get it.  For female hikers bewildered by my chafe-free claim, I shared my secret weapon: BodyGlide, a body lubricant used by runners, which I applied ritualistically each morning.  The ability to pee standing up was received with much enthusiasm, and was the turning point for many of them to make the switch.   

The Lemon Squeezer in New York.
Pack goes through first.

I wasn’t the only woman on the trail, but what I found was that I became a spokesperson for women on the trail, perhaps because of my chosen attire.  I answered all kinds of questions: “Yes, I’m hiking alone,” “No, I’ve never felt threatened by anyone on the trail,” or “I’ve seen bears, but they are more interested in blueberries than me; I’ve avoided the snakes by giving them plenty of room; and, generally, shelters are home to at least one spunky mouse.” 

As my journey evolved, so did I.  Initially, I may have been a woman hiking the trail, but for the last 1,000 miles, I was a hiker hiking the trail.  I knew that for every challenge that I faced, others faced it, too.  I set out to prove that women could hike the trail in a skirt, and so they can, but not all women will.  Not all men will either.  It is fortitude of mind and soul.  It is the individual journey that takes us places.  What we choose to wear is insubstantial.  

As for that two-toned red skirt - it is the best skirt I’ve ever worn, and it is safely quarantined to a plastic underbed box where its putrid smell and vivid memories are nestled until my next adventure. 

(This article ran in the June 2004 issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors and was performed as a monologue of women's stories presented by Phoenix Theater Company in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2004.)