Weather or not to race

As Monica’s body reached peak marathon racing condition, the actual races were getting cancelled in cascades. For the past six months, Monica has been training in hopes of taking a chunk of minutes off her personal best of 3:34:44. She’s 10 lbs. lighter and she’s got me massaging muscles she never had before (my toil knows no end). The racing season in the South was getting disturbingly short. Houston, Baton Rouge, Albany. Every marathon at a desirable latitude fell victim to COVID – cancelled or postponed. Only smaller races that could institute adequate distancing survived. Monica found the Oak Island Marathon on a barrier island beach town in North Carolina. Sure, it might have been easier to just roll the dice on a race not far from home in Melbourne, FL (no rules in Florida). But she worried that Melbourne would be too warm. It turns out, the Melbourne race started fine – but got cancelled mid-race because of severe thunderstorms. Oak Island or bust.

We loaded the RV with racing gear, school supplies and winter clothes in anticipation of extending our trip into the Apalachians and then a meandering tour through the deep south’s Civil War and Civil Rights sites. Everything depended upon the weather.

As we departed, the forecast was concerning. Initially, it threatened to snow. Snow at the beach in North Carolina? This just didn’t reconcile with everything we assumed about this part of the state. Indeed the forecast eased off the snow prediction, but cold rain didn’t sound like much of an improvement.

Getting there would be half the fun. On our way to North Carolina, we worked in some educational value to the trip:

Our first stop was at Fort Mose, just north of St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos. Since reclaimed by the shifting salt marsh, the fort was built almost 300 years ago by former slaves, for former slaves, at the behest of the Spanish, as a fortification to protect against British invasion from the north (nothing like putting slaves on the front line).

Then is was over to the Mission Nombre de Dios, the site upon which Pedro Menéndez de Avilés is said to have landed in 1565 (Got that Pilgrims? That’s full 55 years before Plymouth Rock.) I’m not Catholic, but this place has a spiritual serenity about it that can’t be denied. The woman in the museum was surprised to find two history-loving children who were rapt by the long-version of her tour. The chapel is believed by many to hold a unique ability to bring fertility to those hoping to have children, so we lit a candle in honor of those who don’t yet have their own homeschoolers.

There’s a lot of history at the Castillo de San Marcos. Yes, the coquina proved to withstand a naval bombardment, and Chief Osceola escaped from his prison cell there. More significantly, in 2006 a young Jon strolled it’s perimeter holding the hand of an even younger Monica.

Monica got in a final shakeout run and our little girl celebrated her birthday atop a horse.

Monitoring the weather forecast for the race proved to be a useless endeavor. It changed by the hour. The reality was that Monica had to be ready for everything, which isn’t easy to do when you hope to leave the starting line carrying and wearing as little as legally allowed. She needed layers that were light enough to run in and could be shed easily. She needed a separate pair of shoes and socks for her warmup run and then a dry set to start the race in. She needed a hat to keep rain out of her eyes. She needed gloves, a rain cover, something for her ears – all with the assumption that when she hit operating temperature, she’d toss them along the course.

In a stroke of great fortune, the race director told us we could camp at the Start/Finish line the night before the race, eliminating a 30 minute drive from the nearest campground. Monica tried on various iterations of her race attire. The key pieces of clothing being the “frog-tog” light rain jacket and (not pictured) a pair of gloves loaned to her by our great friend Pila, a Columbian marathoner who once lived in Minnesota.

Race morning arrived, wet and cold. We woke to a steady drizzle that seemed to have no end, and a cold 35 degrees – just shy of freezing. Leaving the RV for mere moments was a test of fortitude, much less getting out and running 26.2 miles. Undaunted (okay, maybe a little daunted) Monica, and two other running comrades from St. Pete, lined up to race. I didn’t even bother waking the kids. In fact, they slept for the first 8 miles of the race. I bravely walked to the first straight-away to get a shot of Monica (before making a cowardly retreat to the toasty camper).

And she’s off. While I headed back to the camper to have a cup of coffee within view of the finish line.

The big question early on was whether she would – or even SHOULD – complete the race. The entire purpose was to make an improvement on her Boston Qualifying time. There was no need to exhaust herself running the full race if weather conditions prevented a strong time. She had even mentally circled a race in Louisiana three weeks down the road. Dreary weather or not, we should have just been excited that the race started. It rained for the first ten miles; I could see it on the window as I enjoyed my second cup of piping hot coffee.

And then the rain started to lighten up. The thermometer never got above 37 degrees, but Monica had the right clothes. I left the safety of the RV to see her at mile 14 (a harrowing march of several hundred feet for me) and she looked strong. For spectators to track runners, this race opted for a fancy app that requires runners to carry their phones with them. (This is so silly I won’t even say anything more about it.) When Monica passed me, I had very little sense of how she was doing in the race, other than that she seemed to be doing well based on the type of runners in her vicinity.

Mile 14, waiting for Monica to materialize. This was the ejection point if she decided to DNF and race another day. She didn’t slow down, taking water and blazing ahead.

My next plan was to find her at a point where mile 21 and 24 crossed. Little did I know that miles 18 – 21 were her dark moments where she questioned the meaning of life. Now, I’m not saying this just because I like the narrative, but Monica said that seeing me at mile 21 lifted her spirits and gave her the boost she needed to tackle the last 5 miles of the race. Each time I saw her, she arrived sooner than expected, moving faster than I expected. After she passed me at 24, I had to bike back to the finish line ahead of her, and she was moving so steadily, I wasn’t going to have much time to spare when I got there ahead of her.

Somewhere before mile 25, Monica (over my right shoulder) can almost see the finish line.

I almost missed her crossing the finish line as I hung my bike back on the RV. Here it is:

But would it be enough? Strangely, the clock at the finish line only displayed the time of day, not the race clock (not super helpful). So we weren’t exactly sure how she did. Minutes later, we got the results: 3:29:44 – a full five minutes faster (to the second) than she ran in Georgia last year. The results were good enough that she wasn’t left wondering “what if the weather had been better” – in fact – she’s not sure the weather slowed her down much at all. 

Post race glory. I’ll give a more detailed account in my upcoming book “Almost Frozen: How I Survived Bicycling Several Miles While My Wife Ran A Marathon.” Lower right: the game changer was getting to park at the start/finish on the night before the race.

Weather continued to be a major factor in our trip. Back at our campsite, we had a quiet evening reading, playing Guess Who?, and watching a John Cusack rom-com (no, I still haven’t seen Say Anything.) When we went to leave the next day, the family buckled into their seats – and then…

… our awning wouldn’t retract.

Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog regularly, knows that I pride myself on my handiness (a trait born from Monica taunting me early in our marriage). I’ve fixed washers, dryers, dishwashers, water heaters, busted pipes, ovens, and leaking faucets. And four ice makers (because I’m cursed with bad ice makers). Now, I faced an awning in a steady rain.

First, I discovered a flipped breaker. But restoring the connection didn’t wake up the motor. I tried reconnecting us to shore power. I tried running the generator. Finally, to manually retract the awning, I had to use a 7/16th socket and my drill to slowly return it to its resting point. (Shout out to Monica for Googling the size of the nut.) Soon we were on the road. Of course, later in the day, the awning worked perfectly. (P.S. In this rain jacket, I have become my dad.)

After getting the awning retracted, I did one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. I mentioned in the caption above that I tried all sorts of different electrical configurations to get the awning motor running. After this, I neglected to disconnect the shore power after I’d reconnected it (after I’d disconnected it the first time). So when we drove off, I was still tethered to the campground by a 30 amp cable. That 30 amp cable is not 6 miles long, which is how far away we were when I realized my mistake. Fortunately, I hadn’t tightened the connection, so I didn’t rip the side of the RV apart. I turned around. It was a very long 6 mile drive back to the campground wondering if my power cable and my $300 surge protector were in the middle of the road or wrapped around the tree.

It was worse.

The cable was neatly wrapped up and hanging from the power stand. Someone had witnessed my buffoonery and tidied up my mistake. I shamefully exited the RV and reclaimed my power cord not knowing who was watching this embarrassment. I’ll never know who it was, and now we can never show our faces in that campground again. To add insult to this ordeal, I later learned that the reason the awning wouldn’t move is that I’d already started the engine on the RV. The awning won’t move with the engine running because they know there are stupid people like me.

Through another band of rain, we departed for Raleigh to visit a friend and camp in his driveway for a couple of nights. Over the course of the week, Monica had reconnected with one of her high school English teachers who is now a professor at Old Miss. We set a date to visit him in Oxford and talk to a class he’s teaching on “The American Road” (on which, we are experts – don’t tell them about my power cord incident). But then the ice storm of the century swept across the country – and even as I write, many Texans still don’t have power and fresh water. At one point the temp in Mississippi was 4. Yes, 4. So we decided to put the Civil War and Civil Rights on hold and head south to Charleston.

Heading to Charleston we spotted a small battlefield cemetery, commemorating the Battle of Averasboro. To read about the battle at the cemetery, you’d think it was a satisfying Confederate victory. But the reality is that the Confederates at first drove off a detachment of Sherman’s army, but then ran when Union reinforcements arrived (and surrendered less than a month later). I’m reminded of a Jason Isbell lyric from his ode to Charleston when he basically says you can make up stories about the Civil War, but there’s no faking a palm basket weave. This battle story didn’t hold water.

We had one day of really good weather in Charleston. This is our third visit to Charleston (check out our others, HERE and HERE), so we started with something new, visiting the McLeod Plantation, which is run by the County. Unlike other Plantations which celebrate their antebellum opulence and pastoral serenity (amazing what you can accomplish when labor is free!), the McLeod Plantation doesn’t gloss over the fact that its existence is owed to one factor: slaves. Our tour guide, John, was a descendent of the Gullah-Geechee culture which was brought to the sea islands from West Africa and exploited for their skill in growing the best cotton. It was a fascinating tour.

Fun fact: there’s a parking garage right off King Street in the heart of Charleston that accommodates RV’s. It was amazing. We spent the rest of the day just wandering the streets of Charleston, and most importantly, we returned to Peace Pie where I enjoyed the most delicious dessert I’ve ever had.

Amazing story: after the Emancipation Proclamation, the land at the McLeod Plantation was divvy’d up among some of the plantations’s former slaves. Then, second worst President ever, Andrew Johnson, decided to give the land back to the owners. Black families continued to work the land, and use the former slave cabins for housing, schools and churches. (You can see the faint stencil of bible verses on the wall). One woman, born in the cabins in the early 1900s went on to become a nurse and eventually returned as the caregiver to the final living McLeod, who died at 104 years old in 1990 and deeded the house and remaining land for nonprofit use.

The kids enjoyed this comically narrowed sidewalk. I was just glad we didn’t have our RV on that street.

Monica picked up a pair of fancy earrings at the shockingly high-end Preservation Society store. Hyman’s may be the most famous restaurant in town – I’ve never eaten there – but this is our third visit to Peace Pie next door. Their ice cream sandwiches are the real reason that Union Troops were reluctant to leave Ft. Sumter. Eating them in cold weather has the added bonus of not melting while you eat them.

Our trip came to a premature close, as we returned to Florida after 9 days on the road. When we got on I-95 in South Carolina, the temperature was 55 degrees at 11 a.m. Less than two hours later we hit the Florida border and it was 86 degrees. I’m really glad we didn’t head west into Alabama and Mississippi and risk freezing the pipes on our RV.

We still got to talk to Dr. Dolan’s class at Ole Miss, but we were able to follow it with a dip in the Gulf.

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. After series of major medical issues, Jon was diagnosed with a serious genetic condition called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. With life completely altered, they developed a road-trip habit. Reach Jon at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.


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