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Monday, October 17, 2016

Vacation Planning

 Willie and I haven't had many "real" vacations in our married years, at least not with traveling involved. Heck, I've still never been on an airplane. If you don't count visiting my friend Dawn down in the St. Louis area, I think I can count two. One to South Dakota when the kids were pretty little. That was basically on an angry whim on Willie's part when he got passed over for a promotion. We took four days and saw Mt. Rushmore, The Badlands and camped at Custer State Park.

Last year, while my sister stayed with my dad for us, we went up to Minnesota. We camped at Jay Cooke State Park and also checked out a lot of other state parks along Lake Superior in Minnesota. We had very wonderful and relaxing time.

Jay Cooke State Park
Duluth, Minnesota

I decided that we were going to go on a "real" vacation again this year. I looked at the calendar and tried to find a time when we wouldn't be gone during any special occasions, like a birthday or such. I decided on the week of October 1-9. I had Willie ask for it off, and then started to figure out where to go.

I didn't want to have to spend the entire vacation in the car getting to and from wherever we went. I started looking at places. I looked at areas between a 12 to 16 hour drive away. First place I checked, the Grand Canyon. Neither of us had ever been there. It was just too far to be able to drive to and get back in a week.

I then looked at Colorado, but many of the campgrounds in the mountains close on October 1. That made that a bit more difficult, but not impossible. The same was true with Yellowstone, and most of the National Parks in the mountains. Next I looked south. We could get down to the Gulf Coast, and I'd never seen that, nor an ocean for that matter. I looked east. Niagara Falls would be awesome. I've always wanted to go to Washington DC, and Philadelphia to walk in the footsteps of our nations founders. I asked Willie what he would like to do. Never really got any kind of a real answer. I kept looking. I bought two National Geographic books, one about national parks, the other about state parks. I looked and looked. I kept prodding Willie for what he would like to do to no avail. So, one day when he was at work I decided.

"We are going to Niagara Falls for our vacation." I told Willie. He looked at me like I should have asked him first. I looked back at him and I think he realized he'd better not say that.

"Ok," he said, "what made you decide on that?" Willie loves digging and creating water features. He loves trying to incorporate waterfalls. He liked the waterfalls we had seen last year in Minnesota. I had been to Niagara before with Girl Scouts when I was in high school. That was a long time ago. I figured it was time to get him there and for me to see it again.

I looked in the National Geographic books to see if there was some place near by where we could camp. I googled New York State Parks. There were plenty, and October is not exactly peak season for vacationers. I decided I was going to reserve a campsite anyway because it would be close to peak fall colors, so the weekends might be full.

I started looking at google maps to see how far Niagara was from this campground and that. What route to take to and from our house. Would we need to stop along the way for a night, and where would be good. Then I noticed one of the longer routes to the falls was through Pittsburgh.

My husband is the biggest Pittsburgh Steelers fan ever to be put on this earth. And he lives in Iowa. Living in Iowa does not make it easy to go to a Steeler's game. He had been to one. A pre-season game against the Vikings in Minneapolis. He loved it. He never really expected to get to see them live again.

I looked up the Steelers' schedule. Now, when I do things on a whim like that, it rarely works out. I knew I had a 50-50 shot, but maybe, just maybe, they would be playing at home that first Sunday of our vacation, or even Monday night. Lo and behold! The Steelers were playing Kansas City that Sunday night AT HOME! One thing on my bucket list had been to get Willie to a home Steelers game. It'd been on the list for years. I never thought we'd ever be able to make it happen, but there it was, a home game while we would be in the area. BUT would there be tickets?

I pulled up the Steelers' website. I knew they sold out often. Maybe there was still a chance, it was only May. I clicked on "Tickets." There were some available. I was floored! Was this really going to work out? I clicked on best available, and about pooped my pants. I knew NFL tickets were expensive, but good grief. I backed down the price range and found some still ridiculously priced tickets, but ones I could bite my lip and manage. I bought the tickets!

I was going to wait until Willie got home to tell him, but I couldn't. I sent him a text. "I did something, you can't get mad, because it's already done and there's nothing you can do about it. I got tickets for a Steelers home game for October 2!" I know he doesn't check his phone while he's working so I didn't know when I would get a response. I thought he'd be at least as excited as I was.

He got home from work. I hadn't gotten a response. I asked him if he got my text. "Yeah." That's not exactly the response I had hoped for, but ok.

Next step, Hotel in Pittsburgh and campsite in New York. Hotel was easy, Google, Travelocity, done. I looked for parks around Niagara, Ontario in Canada. They don't have a park system like we do in our states. They have national parks, but I wasn't sure if I could get Willie to get a passport, so I looked again at the state parks in the NatGeo book. One was within 2 hours of the falls, Letchworth State Park. I looked it up and booked us a spot.

Never being completely sure about decisions, I kept googling Letchworth. The more I googled the more I was happy with the choice. Turns out, a USAToday readers poll voted Letchworth the number one state park in the US. It also had three waterfalls. A deep gorge went through the center of it. It was nick named the "Grand Canyon of the East." The deepest gorge east of the Mississippi. So, that would be good.

Next, waiting...

She's Incredible!!

My oldest daughter is, and always has been an incredible person. In junior high school she decided to join the track team. She did not get a love of running from me. Not even in the slightest. I didn't even like running as a little kid. I much preferred hide and seek to tag. Way too much running in tag. I was slow, so I ALWAYS ended up being "it," and then could never tag anyone else.

Valerie got her inspiration to run from her dad. He was in cross country and track in high school and continued running for years after. He was pretty good. He won a few medals in both sports, but was never what you would call a star. He ran because he liked it.

Valerie was dedicated when track season rolled around. She went to all practices, she always worked as hard as she humanly could, she went all out. However, like most teens, when it wasn't track season, she went about doing other things. In seventh grade she came home crying during the first week of track. "The other girls are all better than me, I feel like I don't belong," she said through tears. I reminded her that they had all been playing different sports all year. She was at a very small high school in rural Iowa. Most of the kids that liked sports were in sports practically all year round. She wasn't like that. She had other interests that didn't involve chasing a ball around a court or field, and her school didn't have cross country in the fall. She always had a lot of catching up to do every spring. The amazing thing was, no matter what, she kept at it.

She would never be a star. She would never win a race. In fact, she came in last, every single race. You know what though, every time, she sucked it up, she practiced harder, and determined to do better next time. Which, she did. I was always so proud of her. Never once did she give up. Never once did she not complete her race. Never once did she quit. She kept running track every single year until she graduated high school. She amazed me. As the other girls reveled in their medals, Valerie looked to run a little better time next time. The courage it took for her to go and sign up every year, and finish every single race. I was probably prouder of her than any of the mothers who's daughters always came in first or second. She was my rock star.

Valerie graduated high school, started her life as all young people do. She kept running on and off as casual enjoyment. Two years or so ago, she really started running again. She started getting serious about it. Her feet gave her problems. She has issues with the her joints, especially in her toes and ankles being overly flexible. She also has high arches. Finding running shoes became a horror for her. She saw a podiatrist who told her what to look for in a good shoe for her. All of this set her running back, but never stopped her.

She tried shoe, after shoe, after shoe. She wanted to try to run a 10k, but the shoe issue kept making that impossible. Finally, she found a shoe that worked for her. She found the best way to wrap her ankles, and tape her toes. Once she got the combination all down, she was off.

She started training. She trained relentlessly for months. She trained all on her own, I'm sure doing research all along the way to get the most of her training. She is an avid researcher. If she is interested in a topic, she will learn all she can about it. You see, she also happens to be, really, darn smart.

She set her sites on a half marathon. The IMT Des Moines Marathon, in well, Des Moines, Iowa. This marathon, the full marathon, is a qualifier for the major marathons and the Olympics in Olympic years. It aint no wimpy thing. Not that she was running the full marathon, or trying to qualify for anything down the road, but even the half marathon brings in very good athletes from all over. The full marathon brings in elite athletes from around the world. It may not be the Boston marathon, one day, it might come close.

Marathon day came. It was a very foggy day in Iowa. Willie and I had a rather harrowing drive to Des Moines. The fog was so thick, and it was dark. The full moon helped light our way the first twenty miles. The last sixty, even the super moon could no longer cut through the fog. By the time we reached downtown Des Moines, the fog had lifted, but only a bit.

We caught up with Valerie's husband at the back of the pack of runners. The full marathoners and the half marathoners were starting together. They were, of course, organized by their mile pace times. Elite at the front, novice at the back. There were about 8,000 runners running the race. Valerie was waiting, a bit impatiently, at the very back of the pack.

Anyone who knows Valerie knows this look. Her lips squished to the side as she bites the inside of her mouth look. Her very nervous, yet very determined look. She may be at the back of the pack, but it wouldn't deter her. She maybe one of the last now, but she would still run her hardest and best run ever. Because, that's just who she is. That was 8:00 am Sunday morning. The marathon started, the elite runners taking off, as the back of the pack slowly made their way to the start line for their chance to start. It took about five more minutes before Valerie got to the start line. Off into the fog she went.

Willie, Joel and I walked back to the car. We tried to get to Grays Lake to cheer her on as she did the two mile loop there. There was an app for the run that you could keep up with where the runners  were on the corse. Once we got back to the car, it looked like Valerie was almost to the lake, with the road closures, we probably wouldn't get there in time. We found a place close to Principle Park, where the I-Cubs play, which was totally engulfed in fog, and waited. It was about halfway through the corse.

As we waited, we started to realize, perhaps the app, wasn't completely accurate. Joel had a cousin running the half marathon, too. He was tracking both her and Valerie. About the time that his cousin should have been passing us, he didn't see her. She was about a quarter mile ahead of Valerie, or that was what the app showed. Joel never saw her. Then the app showed that Valerie should be coming down the road soon. I lifted my camera to may face to use the long lens to scan the crowd. We couldn't see her anywhere. Joel kept checking the app. "She should be right in front of us," he said. We looked our hardest to find her, to no avail.

I was getting a little worried. Valerie also has asthma which flares with exertion. "The app still has her moving right?" I asked Joel.

"Yup, she's moving," He answered. We kept looking. Every woman we saw with a hat that remotely looked like her aqua colored hat we watched closely until we could verify that it wasn't her. Nope, too tall. Nope, she had black shorts on. Nope, hair too long. "Maybe she took her hat off."

Another ten minutes went by. Still no sight of Valerie though the app said she had come and went. "I don't know how we could have missed her," Joel said. "Unless she took her hat off." We waited another five minutes. "We must have missed her, the app says she is way past. I'm going to find a bathroom," Joel sighed. He walked away, and quickly returned. He pointed to the crowd of runners streaming past us, and there she was! Slowly, as she moved through the foggy air her features became clear. She was doing great. She was in the middle of the middle pack of runners, looking very good. Steady and smiling when she saw us.

We cheered her on, me particularly loudly. We watched her go by and disappear into the crowd again. The worst part of the corse was yet to come. Some very large hills (yes, Iowa has them) were in her future. She was keeping steady to her pace. She knew what she needed to do, but I still worried about those hills. I am MOM after all. It's in the job description. 

We went and found a place about a block from the finish line to wait for her. We watched the elite marathoners, flanked by motorcycle police, run by at a pace that astounded us for the end of a 26 mile race. They ran by as if all they were doing was running across a busy street. The pace was quick and looked so easy. They looked like they'd been running after a bus for five minutes, not a marathon for two hours. 

We kept watching as more full and half marathoners ran by for their last block of the race. Some looked exhausted, some looked fine. A few stopped, hunched over and the crowd cheered them on. They took a deep breath, straightened their backs and started on again to the finish. 

I could see the large hills that the runners had to face from where we were waiting. Joel kept checking the app, and we tried to recalculate to guess where Valerie really was. He told me that she was probably on the hill at that point. I asked him if she had her inhaler with her, of course she did. "She hasn't needed to use it much though, lately," he told me. I looked at the hill, and said a little prayer under my breath. A little later he told me she should be on her way down, her line on the app still staying steady. 

We watched as more athletes ran by. We saw the women's marathon winner run by. We saw a group who was helping a friend in a wheel chair finish the race. We saw another man in a wheel chair, arms as strong as a weightlifter's, cruise by on his own. We saw a man dressed up like Forrest Gump, so obviously, I had to yell, "Run, Forrest, Run!" We tried to guess how long before we would see her. The app already had her past the finish line. We recognized many runners that we saw when we were looking for her before. I again scanned the crowd with my camera. Pretty soon, there she was. 

She smiled and giggled a bit when I screamed "GO VALERIE!" at the top of my lungs. Her pace was as strong as it was when we had seen her last. She was doing great. Not only that, but for the first time, she was not the last person to cross the finish line. Far from it. She was well in the middle of the pack with hundreds of runners behind her. The clock said 2 hours and 44 minutes, but it was set for when the first runner crossed the start line. Her real time was 2 hours and 37 minutes. She originally thought it might take her 3 hours. She said she'd be happy with 2:40, she beat that by 3 minutes! 

She was, as always, amazing!!!