Morning Climb to Castelmola

We had arrived in Sicily the day before, traveling from the airport in Catania to our hotel in Taormina on a gloomy, rainy day. The next morning dawned clear, with temperatures already climbing toward 50ºF (which for these Minnesotans was akin to beach weather).

Mt. Etna from the Hotel Bel Soggiorno

We only planned for one night in Taormina, so we would not have time to exhaustively explore the area. But I was determined to make room in the schedule to see the mountaintop village of Castelmola. What better way to battle jet lag than by lacing up the running shoes for a morning run with my son …. winding our way through Taormina to reach the zig-zag path up the mountainside.

Climbing the stairs in Taormina

My much-speedier son bounded up the steps, and on to the path that led to Castelmola via the Madonna della Rocca. At one point, striped tape was tied across the stony steps. When I paused and questioned whether perhaps the path was washed out up ahead, my son cavalierly responded, “Looks like fake news to me.” And away he went … as I huffed and puffed behind him, trying to maintain some semblance of running form.

The Stairs to the Madonna Della Rocca church

Thankfully, there were many reasons to pause and take in the view of Taormina below, with the Ionian Sea beyond. Periodically along the path were sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, giving the rigorous morning outing a feeling of a pilgrimage, as well.

Stations of the Cross overlooking the Ionian Sea and TaorminaMadonna della Rocca high above Taormina

Upon reaching a plateau, the street sign reminded us that the climb to Castelmola was not over yet.

Road to Castelmola

The last stretch of the path sent my heart rate through the roof, as the incline seemingly never-ended, with the tease of the village straight above us.

Piazza Sant’ Antonio ~ Castelmola, Sicily

Our climb finally opened to the Piazza Sant’ Antonio with the charming Caffe’ Bar San Giorgio perched on the edge of village square.  The combination of jet lag and a challenging run/hike uphill left us parched, with the downhill journey back to the hotel  still ahead of us.

Caffe Bar San Giorgio in Castelmola

Thankfully, I had stuffed a 10 euro note in my jacket pocket, so we could take advantage of the picturesque cafe seating and a classic cappuccino, with a bottle of water to rehydrate for our downhill trip. We also ordered a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice, which ranks up there with the tastiest and most refreshing beverage ever! What we learned as the week went on, is that everywhere in Sicily the fresh-squeezed orange juice is spectacular  — a benefit of visiting during January, when the oranges are in season.

Mountaintop dining at Caffe Bar San Giorgio, Castelmola
Our eyes scream “jetlag” …. the view says, “no worries” ….

We entered the square in Castelmola and a rustic truck drove by with its loudspeaker calling out to the residents, announcing the arrival of fruits and vegetables for sale.

My son and I took a few minutes to wander the narrow, meandering paths of the village, still quiet as the day began.

Narrow alleys of Castelmola

Mt. Etna provided the postcard-worthy backdrop to Castelmola’s public library.

Castelmola's library with a view

Knowing my husband and younger son were waiting for us to join them for breakfast back in Taormina, we headed down again, refreshed and refueled after our mountaintop stop.

Descending from Castelmola

Completing our run with a circular route, we took the path off of Via Branco to Taormina.

Returning to Taormina from Castelmola on Via Branco

The village of Castelmola quickly receded from view, as we bounded downhill and wound our way along the narrow path leading to the touristed streets of Taormina. I encouraged my son to go on without me, since he had so patiently waited for me to catch up on several occasions on the first half of the trek, but he kindly hung with me as we finished what ended up being an almost 5-mile outing.

Mountaintop Castelmola viewed from Salita Branco

Oftentimes the best vacation memories are not the iconic sights, but instead the times when you soak up your surroundings without the fancy window dressings of a tour or excursion or timetable in hand. Do more than just visit a destination … enjoy the journey.

~ Kat

5 Lessons Congress Could Learn From A Ragnar Trail Race

The polarity and divisiveness in our country has reached extremes never seen in recent times. Our democractic and constitutional norms are straining at the seams. Op-eds and analysts drill down with their best ideas for how to restore civility, how to find our way back to some kind of bipartisanship … but not a single one of them has landed on the obvious solution: Congress needs to run a Ragnar Trail Relay race.

What is a Ragnar Trail Relay race, you ask?!

In our Ragnar Trail Relays, teams of 8 (or 4-member ultra teams) run relay-style on three different single track loops that start and finish at Ragnar Village. Teams run day and night until each member has completed all three trail loops. (www.ragnar.com)

If you’re more a visual learner, maybe this infographic will make more sense (click on image to enlarge):

As my already slow running speed has slowed further with the years, my joy of running has grown … grown with new adventures, new challenges, and new running friends. Rather than the goal, it becomes more about the journey — isn’t that what life is about!?  And one thing that running has made clear to me is that it is a great equalizer: a mile is a mile for everyone, and while some may run it slower than others, that mile is not shorter or longer for anyone because of their job or their education, their religion or their age … or even their politics.

Are you still asking yourself how a Ragnar Trail Relay could possibly bridge any of the divides? Read on.

1. A Ragnar Relay team is rarely comprised of your eight closest friends, but by the end you will have a special bond. 

A Ragnar race is a commitment. It is a 2-day event, often a distance away that requires additional travel time, with months of at least some level of training leading up to it.  It is a feat to find eight people able and willing to commit to running trails day or night, rain or shine, hot or cold, let alone then getting all eight of you who committed months earlier to the starting line uninjured or without some life circumstance interfering.  That means that you often have a friend of a friend who joins the team, or someone you know in passing, or an acquaintance you met while running with the local running group …. and you are now going to camp together for a night or two in a 300-400 square foot space, and rely on each other to each complete 15 miles of trail runs in whatever conditions the weather gods and trails throw at you.

When you have a diverse group working toward the same goals, you always have more in common than not. 

2. When conditions are challenging, the race is still on.

When we ran Ragnar Trail Northwoods in September 2017, we anticipated classic northwoods fall temperatures with lovely red and gold autumn colors embracing us as we traversed the wooded trails.

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Instead Mother Nature played a nasty trick and turned up the thermostat … to about 20 degrees warmer than normal! When the going gets tough, teammates cannot sit and whine and point fingers at each other as to why the race cannot be run. Rather, you tear up game plan #1 and create game plan #2 … because the ultimate goal is still the same, and the miles are still the same, and the terrain is still the same. You pull together, hydrate well, and look out for each other in watching for signs of heat stroke! Because if one of you fall ill, the rest of the team needs to pick up that gap and complete it for you.

A little humor here and there works wonders, as well….

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…. because you are all in this together.

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You cannot work together as a team if you are busy making excuses. 

3. Every relay leg presents its own unique challenges.

 No one said Ragnar Trail was easy.

Those easy-to-navigate rocks during the daylight hours turn into larger-than-life obstacles at night by the light of the headlamp. I do not believe anyone goes home without taking at least one flying faceplant … and it does not always happen at night! When running on a couple hours of sleep (if you are lucky), footing becomes a little more unstable, and picking up those feet to manuever through the technical sections of trail taxes your fatigued body.

With the challenge comes the thrill of the relay race. Sometimes while running at night you feel a return to youth, running carefree through the dark as your feet seem to glide through the forest (until your toe catches that root …).  Through the trees, you can see headlamps bobbing as other runners traverse the switchbacks up or down the wooded inclines.  Some sections open for a time where you can appreciate the brilliant starry sky above. As you pass a runner, or a runner passes you, there are exchanged greetings and words of encouragement … or perhaps a warning shouted from ahead of an upcoming rock or hazard that would catch you by surprise.

That “easy” loop during daylight hours may transform into a beast at night.  Injuries, sleep, heat … even preference for hills versus challenging terrain versus faster/shorter or longer/slower runs … they all affect each runner differently, so that each loop is truly a different experience for each runner, even though every runner runs the same three loops in a Ragnar Trail race.

Even when we are on the same path, we may face different obstacles … or take a different route to the end … embrace differences and empathize with those struggling. 

4. The real joy comes in supporting each other. 

With the unexpected heat and humidity, our team found ourselves sitting sluggishly around the campsite, trying to stay cool and hydrated in between relay legs … or even trying to catch an hour of sleep here or there.  It is easy to let overtired, overheated crabbiness set in. The Ragnar Village has various food and trail equipment vendors with wares to sample. As the sun sets, a bonfire illuminates the finish line area with laser lights dancing in the final stretch of trail before the runner transfer tent. Dinner is served buffet-style with large community tables set up under another tent, and a movie marathon plays on a large screen throughout the night, with bleary-eyed runners watching the computer screens for signs their runner is approaching the end of their loop.

While the buzz of the Ragnar Village and campsites are entertaining and provide welcome distraction at times, that special Ragnar bond is created — both within your team, as well as among and between other teams — through the enthusiastic support for and from fellow runners. Whether it was making sure each runner had another teammate to walk them to and from the relay transfer tent (where runners make the bib handoff, starting and finishing their respective loops), or standing/sitting in the woods along the trail to high-five runners going by, or gathering your team together to welcome your last runner in to the finish chute …. that is where the spirit of Ragnar comes in.

Day or night, as you ran through certain segments of the trail loops, you could always rely on other runners being there with words of encouragement, energizing cheers and, sometimes, empathetic consolation.  Fast or slow, everyone was here for the same ultimate goal — while some may run to place, others run for fun, and everyone is welcome.

Providing opportunity to all does not detract from those who are in it to win it. 

5. You can do things together that you cannot do alone.

One of the race mantras is: “Ragnar is about doing things together that we could never do alone.”

The finisher medals reflect this philosophy. After your team has successfully completed all 24 legs of the trail race, each runner receives a medal which fits together to reveal a larger message.

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So, what do you think? Congressional teams with 4 Republicans and 4 Democrats on each team, charged with completing a relay race together? Posturing does not make a mile go any faster, declining to acknowledge a mile does not make that mile disappear. Everyone has to run their legs in order for the team to succeed.

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Together we can do anything. 

~ Kat

 

Holiday Spirit (30 Days of Gratitude: Day 30)

The holiday season can be full of busyness — going through the list and checking it twice, without enjoying the moments along the way. A leisurely evening run with friends, with a detour on some festive paths, was a wonderful reminder of the goodwill generated by the season. Volunteers handing out hot cocoa and cookies … fire pits roaring with marshmallows for toasting … favorite holiday tunes playing as laser lights danced.

Adding to the magic of the evening was the best light of all — the luminous orb overhead, shining on the water next to the reflection of Duluth’s iconic lift bridge.

May the spirit of the season move you to pay it forward — be kind and compassionate to friends and strangers alike.

Be grateful for the reminders of what this season is supposed to be about.

~ Kat

 

Try a Little Kindness (30 Days of Gratitude: Day 29)

Driving along a rural highway in northern Minnesota shortly after the sun rose, I noticed a beautiful dog standing on the shoulder, looking somewhat confused. He did not seem in distress, but he was nowhere near a driveway or somewhere that one would consider his home.

Helping a lost guy find his way home

Despite a scheduled meeting, I could not just drive by. I promised myself, as I slowed down and pulled on to the shoulder of the 2-lane highway, that if the dog ran or appeared scared when I got out of the car, I would not risk having him run into traffic and would get back in the car and continue on my way. But, as I stopped the car, the dog looked hopeful and his ears perked up. I exited the car and stood on the side closest to the ditch, about 20 feet away from the dog, and softly spoke to him: “Are you lost, boy? Do you want some help?” He started trotting toward me and I slowly opened the passenger door.

I was grateful that he required no significant encouragement to hop on in, where the seat cover was already in place for the four-legged companions I often travel with! I recalled a diner in the small town about a half-mile back, and drove there, as the husky quietly settled into the back seat.

I showed his photo to the waitress and table of guests at the diner. They did not recognize him, but the waitress (or perhaps owner, as well) was kind and generous, and did not skip a beat when I asked if there was any way the dog could possibly stay at the diner while I continued on to my meeting.  She called her son who lived nearby, and he found a tie-out for the dog, to secure him behind the diner. I posted a “found dog” message with the photo to a Facebook page for missing pets in the region, one of many such sites that are tireless in reuniting lost pets with their families.

I arrived a little late for my lunch meeting, after a morning of driving, and periodically checked the Facebook page for updates. Mid-afternoon, as I was ready to hit the road again, I saw the news I was hoping to see — “HOME SAFE!!”  Mutual friends saw the photo and let his owner know — they had been searching for him after his battery died on his electric fence collar, and he safely made it home again!

Gratitude for strangers who help others in need. The world would be a much better place if we all took a moment to be kind to each other, and to extend that reach of kindness to all living creatures who cross our paths.

~ Kat

Lessons of History (30 Days of Gratitude: Day 28)

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are. ”

~ David McCullough

Grateful to those who recognize the lessons that history leaves for us, and have the courage to speak truth to power. May they continue to do so, and may we always find the strength to join them.

~ Kat