Friday, March 14, 2008

"A man who has set out to become an artist at the mile is something like a man who sets out to discover the most graceful method of being hanged..." -- Paul O'Neil, "A Man Conquers Himself," Sports Illustrated, May 31, 1956.

I once had the good fortune of watching Mary Decker run in the Penn Relays. It must have been in 1979 or 1980, when I was an awe-inspired college freshman watching her first "Ben Franklin Mile" (a less-than-4-minute race) in the city of Philadelphia. By that time, it was clear that humans could run a mile in under 4 minutes, although women were assumed to be significantly slower. Still, Decker managed to pull off a 4 min. 21 sec. mile, breaking a world record for women, and elevating herself to "superwoman" status.

These days, when I'm out there fartleking for no reason other than fun, I think of The Perfect Mile -- a story about three athletes, with the goal of running a mile in under four minutes. The story takes place in 1952, with John Landy (the privileged son of a genteel Australian family), Roger Bannister (a young English medical student), and Wes Santee (a Kansas Farm boy), were all training to run a mile in under 4 minutes. There's Wes, ripping through cornfields in the middle of the night and Roger, running instead of taking a lunch break while a first-year medical resident.

Thinking about the discomfort & agony endured by those runners during that four minutes puts it all in perspective for me and makes my "fast" runs a little more tolerable. I can suffer for 30 seconds, but then ease up so that I don't feel like puking; I can feel the pain, but pause to catch my breath. Bannister, Santee, and Landy didn't have that luxury.

Have you read any good running books lately?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Mapping" your run

Although running the same route over and over (and over) again can be comforting (after all, you know what's around the bend, how steep the road is, or how much longer you have to go), it can also become tedious and, well, kind of boring.

Fortunately, there are some fine mapping resources for the swift-footed adventurer in many of us. For example, Map my Run / and USA Track & Field's America’s Running Routes offer helpful suggestions for those who want to wonder off their oft-treaded track. I particularly like the simplicity of the Track & Field site, which provided me with dozens of local running-trail suggestions ranging from 3 to 10+ miles within easy proximity of my neighborhood.

But there are fascinating historical maps that can add new meaning to those same old trails. For example... the Library of Congress' Maps Collection (part of the "American Memory" digital project) provides access to thousands of historical maps, including the one featured in this post (which intersects with several of my running routes). The collection -- which actually represents only a fraction of the 4.5 million items held by the Library's Geography and Map Division -- can be searched by city, town, state, or broader region, and is also subdivided into categories such as Cultural Landscapes, Military battles and campaigns, and Transportation & communication. Try it out. You may uncover some cartographic treasures (even even the remnants of an old battleground in your own backyard). Note that the collection tends to be limited to items that are not owned through copyright protection (an added bonus for bloggers).

Other interesting sources for historical maps include Historical Topo Maps, "Historical Markers" sites (at Commonwealth of Virginia Historical Markers, I found a map displaying the Old Telegraph line that used to run through my county), and "Archives Wiki," which is sponsored by the American Historical Association. The Archives Wiki serves as a clearinghouse of information about archival resources (including historical maps and other snapshots in time) throughout the world. A colleague of mine also pointed out that Google Earth allows you to overlay historical maps; for example, you can place a copy of a Lewis & Clark 1814 map over your aerial domain. For more information, take a look at Spellbound Blog.

If any of you fellow runners are aware of other interesting map resources, I would be delighted to hear about them.

Happy trail mapping.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Running a red light

There's an adrenaline surge as I race down Rose Hill towards Telegraph, knowing that perfect timing is imperative. Either I'll beat the red light and possibly match my better time (about 35 minutes for this 4-1/2 mile run) or STOP completely, for at least a minute or two. I can see the light from the top of the hill. It's red, then green, and I'm running, running, running hard. I'm so close now, if it changes I'm going anyway. I nod to the waiting cars at the 4-way intersection, not knowing whether anyone actually sees me. I don't care, it's too late. Caution and sound judgment elude me. The unbridled racer in me -- the primordial essence that outruns the savage beast -- rises to the challenge of a changing traffic light, and I'm safely across the road. Whew.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Burgundy Farm

My preschooler loves our jaunts in the Baby jogger, so he didn't balk when I suggested we take a trip around the neighborhood this past weekend. Burgundy Farm Country Day School (just off Telegraph, at the end of Burgundy Road) can be a fun place to visit on a sunny afternoon when school isn't in session. The sheep & goats seemed pleased to have unexpected company, and my 3-year-old (prospective student?) had a blast careening around one of the many play areas on a weathered trike. He liked the sandbox too.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The telegraph patent

As telegraphy took hold in America in the mid 1800's, competing enterprises stretched telegraph wire and poles across the landscape. One such company -- the Washington and New Orleans Telegraph Company -- decided to extend a wire all the way from Washington to New Orleans, and remnants of that history still resonate throughout South Alexandria in the form of "telegraph road" signs. Interestingly... the new U.S. Trade and Patent Office (USPTO) is located at the South end of Telegraph Road! There's a little patent museum there that's worth a visit, and there are new eateries around that area too. I run here (by way of Eisenhower Ave.) on occasion, but it's also metro accessible (From the King St. stop, walk through the Duke Street tunnel & you're there (street parking is hard to find).

Developed by U.S. Inventor Samuel F. B. Morse in the 1830's, the telegraph was described (in patent #1647) as an "improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism." Apparently, Morse's assistant, Alfred Vail,
helped to develop the Morse Code signaling alphabet that gave value to the device, although Vail seems not to have received much credit (nor income) from his efforts. America's first telegram was sent by Morse on January 6, 1838, across just two miles of wire near Morristown, New Jersey. The message read "A patient waiter is no loser." (I'll have to remember that phrase the next time I'm stuck in traffic.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Crossing the Road

It isn't easy crossing Telegraph road, except maybe on a Sunday morning. More often than not, one needs to look both ways and then sprint, even at pedestrian crossings flashing "walk." For example, where Burgundy Road meets Telegraph and North Kings Highway, pedestrians need to say a prayer and hope they don't have a head-on car/human encounter. This is especially unfortunate since the Huntington Metro Station is just a couple of blocks from this spot. I'd take the Metro more often (and I'm sure others would too) if it were easier to access from the west side of Telegraph.

Fortunately, walkers, runners, and bikers have advocated for improvements, and the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project plans include a pedestrian/bikeway that will cross over the beltway from Telegraph to Eisenhower. If you look at the illustration (provided by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project at
), you'll notice a pedestrian path on the north-bound side of Telegraph (the Huntington Metro side) that will turn into a beltway crossover (if all goes according to plan). You'll also see an improved crosswalk for those attempting to cross Telegraph on foot or just two wheels. You'll need patience though, since the project won't be completed for a couple of years.

In the meantime, we'll just have to make do with what we've got.

Scheduled pedestrian improvements include:

  • A pedestrian walkway from the north side of East Drive, across Telegraph Road, to the north side of Lenore Lane.
  • A sidewalk from the north side of Lenore Lane to North Kings Highway, leading to a multi-use pedestrian trail on the east side of Telegraph Road from North Kings Highway to Huntington Avenue and across to Eisenhower Avenue.

Origins of an ancient trail

If you drive south on Telegraph Road from Alexandria, you'll come across several intersecting streets marked "Old Telegraph Road." It is likely that these roads traverse the original trail used to lay telegraph wire from Washington to New Orleans in 1847 (I've been doing a little research). During the Civil War, this telegraph line was apparently used by Confederate forces supporting their blockade of the Potomac River, and then, later, by Union occupational troops. The telegraph wires allowed swift communication between allies, but could also be easily severed by enemy forces.

Today, Telegraph Road bears a heavy burden of commuters who live outside the beltway but whose work requires that they head north (towards Washington, D.C.). "The Great Divide" is what I once heard a South Alexandria resident call the beltway. From the intersection of Franconia Road & Telegraph, the Masonic Temple is clearly visible and appears to be only about a mile away. And yet, it can easily take 20 minutes to get there by car on a rainy Monday morning.

Some of the challenges I've created for myself in my mostly-suburban neighborhood (just off Telegraph Road, roughly at the Franconia intersection) are to find new and innovative ways to traverse the Great Divide, make peace with the communicators, enjoy the outdoors, and explore this little parcel of the planet. I've already stumbled upon some jewels (some of them probably best kept as secrets, since I don't like noise in my 9/11 garden sanctuary (unless it's coming from birds), nor do I want my short-cut home from work clogged up with too many cars. It turns out there's a horse farm in my backyard; a Fairfax County trail ripe with raspberries in early summer (I often spot deer there when I'm out running); and a hidden playground for my 3-year-old. Too bad there's not a coffee shop and an independent book store on the corner. :)

Anyway... I plan to share my continued discoveries with my fellow travelers"Telegraphers"), whether you live in my immediate neighborhood, up the Foot Path a bit, or out in the larger community. Any uncovered secrets you may have -- whether places to visit just off of Telegraph road (or a main street in your own community), historical tidbits, or personal experiences getting around your own equadrant on foot or bike -- are encouraged. Please feel free to comment and post freely.

Over the wire,