Vermont City Marathon, The Best Weekend of the Year

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Ah, marathon weekend. In the many years since I ran my first race at Vermont City Marathon, my feelings for this weekend have morphed and evolved but always remained strong. That first year was an egocentric maelstrom of doubt and triumph. The next year, a slow but joyful victory lap. In the years since, I’ve run on relay teams with friends through heat and near-disaster, and through incredible joy and celebration. Over time, my focus has shifted away from fixating on how I’ll perform in the race itself, to embracing the whole weekend as massive festival of all the things and people that I love best about Vermont. So when race weekend is already a bubble of unblemished happiness, how could it get better?

Enter Meb.

The Meb, THAT Meb. The one and only Mebrahtom Keflezighi.

He of the slight frame and swift feet. He of the storied comebacks from injury, winner of Boston, of New York City and of an Olympic medal. He who inspires fans and competitors alike to be better runners, to be better people.

At this year’s VCM, Meb was the star attraction, the race ambassador, the invited guest. And I was his star-eyed, gobsmacked chauffeur. It is a miracle I didn’t crash the car in the dopamine haze of being in his reflected glory all weekend.

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There is a risk when one allows oneself the vulnerability of idolizing a hero. No one is perfect, and too many who live in the spotlight disappoint us when their venality and true disposition seep through the cracks. And really, even the good guys don’t deserve the pressure of being perfect, of never putting a foot wrong. It’s unfair to ask and the resulting letdown is predictable.

And yet I emerged from three days with Meb with my idealism intact. His schedule at VCM was no joke: hours of public appearances, thousands of handshakes and high fives and crowds of people clamoring for his attention, for a few seconds to build into a lifelong memory of that time I met Meb -- remember?

I watched him captivate an auditorium full of people with his story of escaping Eritrea and becoming a professional runner; he transformed even the distracted little kids and too cool adults into slack-jawed fans. I watched runners who should have been resting their feet before a marathon wait an hour in line for his signature and a good luck hug. I watched runners cross the finish line wasted by their effort but who suddenly revived at the sight of Meb standing there congratulating them on the race. I watched the energy radiating from him as he gave focused attention to each person. Quick with a smile and joke, full of respect, gratitude and joy.

It wasn’t an act. He’s the real deal.

And as he readily points out, it’s not a one-man effort. Meb was accompanied by his manager John, and I was working with another ultra-awesome VCM volunteer, Chris. And all of this was held together by the unmatched talents of Jess Cover, marketing manager of RunVermont and my friend and running mentor. Marketers, especially those who work for non-profits, will tell you it’s easy to sell a product you believe in. Jess believes in the transformative power of running, and that is so deeply evident in how she communicates with runners and the community about all of RunVermont’s events - especially VCM. Watching the entire RunVermont team pull together this massive enterprise is an awesome sight to behold. Plus, they let me hang with Meb and called it “work.” It is sooo easy to love that team.

Race weekend is a time I always look forward to and it never disappoints, even when the miles are tough or weather is terrible. The friendships and community I’ve formed through running are a constant source of joy and encouragement. But this particular race weekend was even more memorable thanks to the special vantage point I was given.

[Vermont City Marathon: May 25-27, 2018]

 

One Day Without Plastic, An Experiment

 Darn you, delicious cold drinks! Plastic bag of ice, held closed with a plastic clip.

Darn you, delicious cold drinks! Plastic bag of ice, held closed with a plastic clip.

I have been traveling in countries where the problem of plastic waste is much more visible than it is in the U.S. Here, we put our throw-away plastic in recycling bins and walk away from it, literally and figuratively. But in many countries, the real impact of trash plastic is unavoidable: you see it everywhere. Plastic floats across open expanses of the Sahara desert outside Ourzazate; it chokes the culverts around Ho Chi Minh City; it sits in festering piles on the streets of Kathmandu. The water and soda bottles, the plastic packaging we take off of every product we buy -- it has a lifespan we can't imagine and it's all just piling up.

So when National Geographic launched its multi-year Planet or Plastic? project with its June issue, I was in. All in.

Yesterday, as I traveled around Vermont for an easy but busy day of reunions with friends, I tried to avoid single-use disposable plastic. There were some obvious things I knew to look out for (lids on take-away coffee cups, drinking straws) but I was curious what else I would encounter that I'm not usually aware of.

Here's what I noticed:

6:30 a.m. Since I'm traveling, some of my toiletries are in a quart-size Ziploc bag. I've been using the same bag for weeks so it's not single-use, but still. I brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and think, "Not a great start, Daniels."

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8:05 a.m. Uncommon Grounds in Burlington, Vt. I presented my travel mug for coffee and got a bagel with cream cheese for here, thinking that I would also avoid paper waste. The toasted bagel was given to me on a ceramic plate, and the cream cheese was in a pre-packaged plastic cup. Didn't see that coming.

9:00 a.m. Took an Uber across town to pick up the car a friend is loaning me. He left the keys in a mailbox in a paper envelope. An entire hour without disposable plastic!

10:16 a.m. Grocery store, the worst. Nutrition-oriented people talk about the interior aisles of grocery stores being full of processed foods that they imagine as huge piles of sugar and salt, rather than 'food'. I am starting see the entire grocery store as a temporary warehouse for the plastic that will live forever in landfills. I wanted to buy flowers, lip balm and some kind of cleaning product to detail the interior of my friend's car.

  • I thought this particular store would have buckets of loose cut flowers in addition to the cellophane-wrapped bouquets, but no. I bought the plastic-shrouded flowers anyway because I wanted them as a thank you gift and didn't have time to make another stop. At the checkout, the cashier asked if I wanted a flower bag. A second plastic bag to hold the already plastic-covered flowers.
  • I examined the lip balm choices and debated this trade-off: all but one were in plastic tubes, but the one that was in a small metal tin was shrink-wrapped in plastic. I went for plastic tube of lip balm that was sold in a cardboard sleeve. (The two best choices were both twice as expensive as the worst choice: a plastic tube of Chapstick that was also encased in a plastic packaging.)
  • Next, the cleaning aisle. I took in the neat, endless rows of plastic-bottled cleaning solutions and abandoned that item on the list.
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12:18 p.m. Drove to Montpelier for lunch with friends, and this went well! We ate in a proper restaurant (JP Morgans), with food on ceramic plates and drinks in glasses. Kudos to the restaurant for not putting straws in the glasses, I didn't even have to ask!

1:30 p.m. Crashed a press conference at the Vermont Statehouse by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Phil Scott. No plastic was used in the reporting of a story on dairy farm aid.

2:10 p.m. Visited a friend for coffee at the National Life insurance headquarters. I brought my travel coffee mug with me, avoiding a carry-out cup with a plastic lid from the cafeteria. The security protocols required me to wear a name tag; at least the plastic card holder gets reused.

3:15 p.m. Met another friend for coffee. (My god, I drink I lot of coffee.) I ordered an iced coffee, requesting it in a glass with no straw. My friend immediately agreed, 'Good point - no straw for me either.' The guy put the coffee in front me accompanied by a plastic straw.

5:00 p.m. Drove back to the Burlington area and met a friend in Winooski for a beer. (Note to self: exactly how much of my daily caloric intake is in beverages?!) Then I ordered a craft ginger beer, because in Vermont people say precious phrases like 'craft ginger beer' without flinching, and requested no straw. "Oh, I saw you posted something about straws," my friend says. "I'm on a mission," I reply.

6:07 p.m. Another friend and I were hosting game night for an really fun mix of people who don't know each other. On my way to her house, she requests that I pick up name tags, ice and bug repellent. Ice and bug repellent left very few options in terms of plastic. I could have purchased the metal spray bottle of bug repellent but I wasn't sure if that container was an equal or worse waste problem to the plastic bottle.

For name tags, I stopped at Staples and was determined to avoid buying the plastic packages of name tags that I knew would be displayed. Instead, I opted for adhesive shipping labels sold in a cardstock paper envelope, nearly three times as expensive. Bonus, I noticed that Staples sells a cardboard package of cleaning wipes for car interiors, so resurrected my morning idea of cleaning my friend's car. (Bonus negated: the wipes are of course in a plastic pouch, and the cardboard packaging is doubly superfluous waste.) I also bought a pad of paper for score keeping, noticing only one option wasn't shrink-wrapped in plastic. I declined the plastic bag the cashier offered me, and while taking a picture of the three easy-to-carry-in-my-own-damn-hands purchases I explained, "I'm trying not to use plastic today."

I arrived at game night feeling a little defeated and annoyed that my one-day effort to avoid plastic was not a triumph. Most of the disposable plastic I used or purchased was optional, and I still opted in. And a few of my plastic-avoidance tactics were noticeably more expensive than cheap, disposable plastic. (THAT's the nub of the problem, right?)

Here are a few things I could have done differently:

  • Handed the cream cheese back to the barista and eaten a dry bagel
  • Called around to stores and farmstands until I found one that sold loose flowers
  • Cleaned my friend's car with a bucket of soapy water instead of specialized cleaning products

And, I could have refused to eat the food at game night. Nearly everything we had was prepared food, sold and served in disposable plastic containers.

I'll try again tomorrow.