Saturday, May 28, 2011

Get Him to Jemez

ed. note: this is a bit of a departure from my recent posts.  Last weekend I had the privilege of pacing Nick Clark (read his account here) for the final 14 miles of his victorious performance at the Jemez 50 mile trail run in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  I thought the experience was worthy of a blog post, so without further adu please enjoy,

Get Him to Jemez!

Scott - Looks like I was through the ski lodge in just under 6:30 [elapsed time] last year (11:30 am). Hope to be there a little earlier this year - maybe 11:00 - but if you leave Santa Fe at 8:00 as planned then you'll have more than enough time.

See you out there - and thanks again (don't forget the gel)


The gel, the gel.  I’ll get to “the gel” in due time.  At this moment it is 11:15 am, and I am waiting for Nick on the wooden expanse of the Pajarito Ski Area base lodge deck.  It is a gorgeous day, a little chilly at 9,200 feet elevation, but clear and mostly calm.  I am ready.  Maybe just a quick stop to the bathroom from being utterly and completely ready, ready to pace Nick Clark for the final 14 miles of his title defense at the Jemez 50 mile trail race here in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Nick is looking to win the race again, and also has his eye on setting the course record this time around.  And I am here to help him.   

Nick and I train together in Fort Collins, and he asked if I would run with him here in Los Alamos today when he found out I would be attending my cousin’s high school graduation in Santa Fe for the weekend.  I figured it would be a good way to get in a fast training run as I prepare for my own 50 mile trail race in June, so I agreed to the venture.  Nick is a much better runner than I, and normally I have no chance of keeping up with him in a race, which makes my pacing qualifications somewhat suspect.  In fact I can think of only two handicaps that would allow me to keep up with Nick during a race.  One, if he was significantly more fatigued than I, or two, if he was saddled with lots of extra weight, or perhaps required to lead an old truculent dog around the race course. 

The Jemez 50 mile race does not require runners to carry heavy packs, or lead animals, truculent or otherwise, so no luck there, but it does allow racers to have a pacer for only the final 14 miles of the course.  So I figured I could probably keep up with Nick as I would only have to run 14 miles to his 50, and I would be joining Nick only after he had ran 36 miles and negotiated something like 10,600 feet of climbing and 8,700 feet of descending.  The equation goes something like this:

Nick - (34 miles * 10,600 feet climbing * 8,700 feet descending)
Slush - (0 miles * 0 feet climbing * 0 feet descending)

And yes, you read that correctly.  The Jemez 50 mile race course boasts over 12,000 feet of climbing and descending over its 50-mile span.  Let’s see if we can put this into perspective.  Start with a marathon.  Marathons are somewhat difficult, most would agree.  Then consider the Pikes Peak Marathon, which contains about 7,000 feet of climbing and descending, and is advertised as the toughest marathon in the known universe, or something like that.  Now double that distance and double the climbing and descending.  Now you have something approximating the difficulty of the Jemez 50 mile race.  Luckily for me, I would only have to climb about 1,400 feet and descend about 3,300 feet in the final 14 miles of the course.  I was to be spared the most difficult parts of the course, it seems.  Why my 14 miles of pacing seemed downright, uh, normal compared to the first 36 miles of the course.  I admit to being a little nervous about trying to keep up with "Mr. October" while I paced him, but I would give it my best shot all the same.

Now I must confess that I did not leave Santa Fe at 8:00 am, as indicated in the email exchange.  After briefly consulting the internet after my cousin’s graduation party the prior evening, I realized that I would only need about one hour to get to Pajarito Ski Area from Santa Fe.  So I left at 9:00 am, blasted some Sepultura on the car stereo to get pumped up, and arrived in perfect time at 10:00 am.  I was there in plenty of time to await Nick’s arrival.  I checked in with the volunteers.  “Have any of the 50-milers been through yet?”  Nope, came the reply.  In fact, only a handful of the 50-Kilometer runners had passed through this checkpoint at 10:00 am.  Jemez was hosting a 50-K race at the same time, and a half marathon as well.  I sat down and watched the 50-K runners arrive one by one.  The aid station volunteers rang cowbells and cheered them all in and out of the checkpoint.  I didn’t know exactly when Nick was going to arrive, but I figured I had some time to prepare.  I ate a cliff bar and some fruit which I brought myself (pacers are not allowed to use the aid station food and water), and made sure I had all of my gear.  Wind-breaker.  Check.  Hand-held water bottle.  Full of water, even.  Check.  Little one-ounce Gu gel pack for me.  Check.  Super-giant five-ounce EFS gel flask for Nick.  Berry-flavored.  Check.  Pom-pom (for extra motivation if needed).  Check.  Sun-screen.  Applied.  Check.  Garmin GPS Watch.  Check.  Watch working.  Un-check

Oh great.  I must have forgotten to power down my Garmin after I went for a run in Santa Fe the day before.  I do that all the time.  My watch had no battery life left in it.  Usually it beeps at me when I turn it on, and it’s not even doing that.  You know, part of being a “pacer” is the ability to relay the “pace” to your runner during the race.  And Nick doesn’t actually run with a GPS watch, he runs with one of those Highgear altimeter watch things instead, so my ability to convey real-time pace information would actually be of some benefit here.  As is the case with most trail runs, Jemez doesn’t have clocks on course, or mile markers on the trail, or even actual trail in some spots, so having some sort of independent pace verification mechanism is particularly handy.  I’m officially the Worst Pacer Ever and I haven’t even started pacing yet.  Well a dead watch isn’t going to do me any good on my wrist so I decide to run back down to my car and put it away.  I’ve got to be speedy, though, in case Nick comes through while I’m down at the car. 

Then I notice something strange about the garmin when I take it off my wrist.  My garmin is missing the little plastic loop on the band that holds the band in place, and this garmin has its loop quite intact.  Is this, in fact, my garmin?  Suddenly I remember seeing a box at my cousin’s house for the exact same garmin product.  I must have grabbed the wrong garmin from their house last night when I was packing for the run.  A frantic search through the car produces my watch, which is, happily, fully charged and ready to go.  I am now the Best Pacer Ever, and I haven’t even started pacing yet.

Watch procured and dialed in to the satellites, I now turn my attention to my next task.  Namely, where to put Nick’s giant EFS gel flask.  Nick was very adamant that I would bring with me a flask of his EFS super-gel for him to consume on the race.  Hey, no problem, he’s the boss, I'm happy to help.  He gave the gel flask to me in Fort Collins, and I brought it all the way with me to Los Alamos.  The race has drop bags but Nick didn’t want to waste time rummaging through a bag for this stuff, so he gave it to me instead.  The EFS gel flask is huge compared to most running gel products.  It contains 400 calories in its 5 ounces of berry-flavored goodness.  400 calories?  What’s this stuff made of, anyway?  Berry-flavored Butter?  Soylent Purple?  And the size of the plastic flask is obnoxiously large.  I’m suddenly keenly aware that I have no place to put this thing.  Wait, my windbreaker has a single breast pocket that will hold the flask.  I now look like I have a single flask-shaped boob (left side), but, you know, anything for my runner.

I end up meeting another pacer, a nice lady named Tina who is waiting to pace her friend who is racing the 50-K race.  We engage in typical runner chit-chat (races, injuries, shoes, food, etc.) while I keep one eye on the ski slope above us.  Nick will be coming down that slope – like literally straight down the slope, on a trail that defies all sense and logic – so I will have plenty of time to get ready for him after I see him coming down.  It is 11:15 and I don’t see Nick coming down, so I decide to make one last quick stop to the bathroom before he does show up.  That way I’ll be completely ready to pace and won’t need to make a potty break during my run.  I ask Tina to watch my hand-held water bottle and I saunter on inside to the ski lodge bathroom.  While I’m in there I hear an enormous cheer from outside.  This is no ordinary 50-K runner cheer, this is a 50 Mile runner cheer.  This is a Nick Clark cheer and I’m stuck in the bathroom.  Worstpacerever.  I burst out of the bathroom and run out onto the deck just as Tina is running into the lodge with my water-bottle in her hand. “Your runner just came through!” she says, handing my bottle to me.  I grab my bottle, say thank you, start my watch, and take off at a dead sprint across the deck onto the trail, in hot pursuit of one of the fastest trail runners in the country.  So much for a warm-up.  Depending on how far ahead he is, and how fast he is going, there exists the grim possibility that I will not catch him for the next 14 miles.  I re-double my effort and kick it into pain-mode.  It won’t be the last time I have to do this today. 

But the agony is thankfully short-lived.  After about one tenth of a mile I can see Nick cruising through the trail ahead of me.  I’m gaining on him, I am going to catch him, it’s all good.  “Mr. Clark, I presume?” I ask as I settle in beside him on the jeep road.  We’re tacking mostly uphill, it’s a gentle grade, and on my fresh legs I can keep pace, and actually push the pace a bit.  I’m all excited and blabbing on about god-knows-what.  Nick is quieter, to his credit doesn’t give me crap about being in the can when he came through the aid station.  I’m thankful that Tina was there to tell him that at least I was in the general area and not completely AWOL.  But I’m here now, and I’m pacing.  Oh I’m pacing the hell out of Nick and this race.

We continue along in good form, and about a quarter mile from the next aid station (pipeline, for those keeping score at home) Nick hands me his empty water bottle, and instructs me to run ahead of him to the aid station and fill the bottle with flat coke and ice.  This I now do.  I take off at a solid clip in order to make sure that I can get this accomplished before Nick arrives, so that he doesn’t have to stop at all at the aid station.  I barrel on into the aid station and start bellowing out “Coke!” and “Ice!” to anyone who will listen.  A nice lady finds an open bottle of coke and starts pouring it into the bottle.  It is not all that flat, but it is all there is.  Then we go in search of ice.  All the while Nick is rapidly closing the distance.  This is taking too long.  The ice is in a cooler under a bunch of stuff.  Nick is here.  The nice volunteer plops a few ice cubes into the bottle and hands it back to me.  Nick is leaving the aid station.  Once again I have to sprint after him, this time while trying to screw the cap back onto a very fizzy bottle of coke. 

We’re heading up a rather steep uphill section, and I am able to catch up to him quickly.  I hand the bottle back to Nick which is oozing coke foam from the lid and literally squirting foam out of the top, and rather stupidly point out that “the coke isn’t all that flat, but it’s all they had”.  I think I’m back to Worst Pacer Ever.  Nick is once again very charitable and does not complain.

We find ourselves on what turns out to be the last significant climb of the day, and the only significant climb of the day for me.  I guess its called powerline, and it’s a straight-shot up a fairly loose and rocky dirt road.  I don’t really know, I didn’t study the course that much to be quite honest.  All I knew about my part of the course was what Nick told me; 14 miles, mostly downhill, not too technical.  I have no idea how many more aid stations there are, or the distance between them, or anything.  Say it with me now:  Worst. Pacer. Ever.  My usefulness seems to be confined to comic relief and exploding bottles of coke at this point.

It is clear that the prior uphill bits of this course have taken their toll on Nick.  Remember that he has already climbed over 10,000 feet today, so his legs are understandably fatigued at this point.  But Nick is willing himself to keep running, however slowly, and we pass several 50-K participants on this stretch who are walking this same hill.  So the fact that Nick is still running at all at this point is rather impressive.  I decide to offer some sage advice at this point about “running from your glutes (butt) because you won’t need them on the downhill”.  Yes, I am dispensing running advice to a guy who wins ultra races.  I don’t think I could possibly be a bigger jack-ass.  Well whatever, I stand by what I said.

And clearly Nick followed my advice because as soon as we crest the top of the powerline hill and start down the other side, Nick decides that it is time to lower the boom, and he jets off down the hill like Keith Richards, wait, strike that, like Aldus Snow chasing down a Swedish bikini model with a handler of vodka in one hand and a joint in the other.  Seriously it’s all I can do to keep up.  We’re crushing this steep downhill jeep road.  One slip and it’s all over.  There’s no way I can keep this pace up. Jeez, exactly how fast are we going? I glance at my watch; 5:40 per mile.  Ouch, that’s fast.  I shout out a pace check to Nick as he begins to gap me by a few feet.  Well, it was fun pacing him for 3.5 miles, I guess.

Blessedly the downhill section ends and we start back up another, shorter hill, and I am able to bridge the gap.  But it was a wakeup call to me.  Seriously, who drops sub-6 minute miles 39 miles into a 50 mile race?  The course then leaves the jeep road and turns onto a lovely stretch of single-track trail through the forest.  We’re going downhill again but it’s not quite as steep, and the trail is somewhat more technical, so the pace slows up a bit.  We realize that we’re about 10 miles from the finish, and Nick does some “race math” and figures that if we can average 7:15 minute/miles from here to the finish, he can break the course record.  The trail dips below the trees into the burned-out zone from the massive fire that hit Los Alamos in 2000.  It’s pretty interesting to see the new forest starting to emerge from the remains of the old, and the lack of foliage provides a couple of advantages, but one disadvantage.  First some advantages; one can see farther along the trail, which is nice because we can anticipate the terrain a little better.  Particularly when climbing uphill, it is nice to know where the hill ends so you can gage your effort accordingly.  Also it makes it easier to see runners ahead of you.  Like I said, Nick at this point is leading the 50 Mile race, but we are passing quite a few 50 Kilometer racers at this point.  I am actually able to serve a useful purpose here; although I’m running behind Nick on the single-track, I am able to call out ahead to the 50-K runners in advance or our overtaking them so that they can gracefully step off the trail and let us pass.  They are all very courteous and encouraging as we go by, and I return the favor.  It’s one of the many things I like about trail racing.  Participants are very supportive and kind to each other.  Passing each 50-K runner is like getting a little boost, a little ray of sunshine if you will.  The only disadvantage to the loss of forest is that there is an abundance of real sunshine, and it is starting to warm up a bit.  But because it is sunny and clear out, and the terrain so delightfully clear of obfuscating foliage, I can see 50 miles across the Rio Grande valley back to Santa Fe and the mountains beyond.  It’s an impressive view.  “Wow”, I blurt out, “the view is amazing up here!”  Then realizing that I’m supposed to be pacing, and not sight-seeing, and should also probably be encouraging Nick to watch his footing and not the enchanting landscape, I correct myself and add, “I’ll look for you, you watch the trail.  Trust me, it’s nice up here.”  There.  That’s how you pace!  I’ll do anything for my runner, including enjoying the beautiful terrain, just so he doesn’t have to do it.

Nick was very sure-footed on the single-track, I only remember him stumbling one time over a rock.  We were not hitting those sub-6 minute mile paces anymore (thank God) but we were motoring along at a pretty good clip.  The first mile after the “7:15” estimate was a 7:19, which was very speedy all things considered, but not completely insane.  We keep descending the mountain, and the miles peel away.  We are hitting the splits.  We don’t even bother stopping at the next aid station, we just keep plugging away.  I ask Nick if he wants that giant EFS gel flask, which is still in the breast pocket of my jacket. My jacket is now tied around my waist, and the gel flask is positioned perfectly such that it acts like a tiny fist that is pounding my groin at every step.  Seriously, why such a large freaking flask of gel!  I keep having to rotate my jacket around to protect my, uh, nether-regions from grievous harm.  Stupid EFS gel, I don’t care if you are berry-flavored, I hate you.  And of course he doesn't want it yet, Nick still has one of his own that he's halfway through.

As we keep descending and keep getting closer, the temperature keeps rising.  Heat is no one’s friend, and we’re both getting low on water.  There is one more aid station between us and the finish; the Rendija Canyon aid station at mile 48.1.  About one mile before that I see Nick taking the top off his Coke water bottle (he’s carrying two bottles).  I think he’s trying to get the last drops of coke out of the bottle, and the screw cap is giving him some trouble, likely because it is rather sticky from all the coke foam detritus from my last bottle-filling adventure.  Nick tugs it off and the cap slips out of his hand, and it hits the ground and starts rolling down the dusty trail beside him. Nick slows to pick it up.   “Keep going,” I say, “I’ll get it.”  I deftly swoop down (oh, yes, deftly.  You should have seen it) and grab the cap as Nick sucks down the last drops of coke.  I grab the now-empty bottle from Nick and move to screw the cap back on.  I’ll hang on to the bottle and re-fill it at the last aid station.  But the cap is filthy, covered in dirt both inside and out.  Crap, now what.  I can’t just refill the bottle like that, I’ve got to clean off the cap somehow.  I’ve got some water left in my hand-held bottle, not a lot, but enough.  I could stop for a minute and clean off the cap, but I’m barely hanging on to Nick’s pace as is; any delay could be the last I’d see of him.  So I have to clean off this cap on the run.  I’m carrying two water bottles, plus one detached cap, and I’m trying to figure out how to do this.  My brilliant solution?  Suck in a big ‘ol mouthful of water from my water bottle, and spit it out all over the sandy, dirty cap. And repeat until the cap is reasonably clean.  Yes that’s right, make that cap literally spit-shine clean, soldier.  Why didn’t I just squeeze the water from the water bottle onto the cap?  I can only answer that by asking you to not judge too harshly decisions made in the heat of battle.  Or the heat of Jemez.

Now in retrospect it turns out my GPS watch was measuring short.  Meaning, when my watch said we had gone, say 10 miles we had actually gone more like 10.4 miles.  Ultimately this gave us a pleasant surprise but it nearly killed me in the intervening miles.  You see, having successfully, if not entirely sanitarily, cleaned Nick’s water bottle, I was now instructed to run ahead again to the next aid station, the one at Rendija Canyon, and re-fill it once again with coke and ice.  Nick told me that the aid station was 1.9 miles from the finish, and I looked at my watch and was informed by it that we had about 1 mile to go until reaching the aid station.  I started to make my move and get ahead of Nick, which was not an easy task by the way, since we were descending a series of sandy switchbacks and he was already running them at a sub-7 minute mile pace.  I put in a huge effort and start to gap him ever so slowly when I see a sign for the aid station indicating that it is only about a quarter of a mile ahead.  I thought I had about three-quarters of a mile.  I am so screwed.  I immediately take off, once again, at a dead sprint down the switchbacks in order to gap Nick as much as possible.  My legs are screaming, my heart is pounding, I have no idea how fast I’m going but I think it’s the fastest I have ever run.  I want to look at my watch but I fear if I take my eyes off the trail for even an instant I am going to tumble down the switchbacks the fast way and land in a heap of hurt at the canyon floor.  I come barreling into the aid station hoarsely shouting “COKE!  ICE!  HE’S COMING!  WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”  Actually I don’t shout that last stuff.  I probably didn’t shout any of it.  Once again the helpful aid station volunteers find the bottle of coke and start pouring.  There’s no time for this.  As fast as I have ran Nick is right behind me.  I’m certain he picked up his pace when I did.  That’s not fair; you’re supposed to give me a chance!  Slow down!  I hate you!  Nick is through the aid station before the ice can be located.  The volunteers, god bless them, are carefully putting ice cubes one-by-one into Nick’s bottle as he starts up the other side of the canyon.  I can’t wait any longer; I grab the bottle, only half-filled with coke and ice, and take off once again at a dead-sprint up the canyon wall to catch Nick.

I manage to reach him but my legs are shot, I am totally spent with the effort.  I don’t feel anything recovering as we plod up the canyon, and we’re not really going that fast.  I hand Nick his bottle and inform him that if he gaps me, it’s ok, I might not have enough to keep up with him anymore.  And I’m ok with that.  I’ve paced Nick for 12 miles out of 14, I think I’ve done more good than harm.  I think he can handle the rest.  Let’s revise the equation:

Nick - (48.1 miles * 11,600 feet climbing * 11,800 feet descending)
Slush - (12.1 miles * 1,000 feet climbing * 3,100 feet descending)

Nick hands me his EFS gel flask for me to carry.  As soon as he hands it to me I see a cardboard box cum trash can, and I toss the half-empty gel flask into the box.  Wait, did he say carry or toss?  “Uh, did you want my to hang on to that thing?”  I ask.  Because I have a full one giving my crotch fusillade broadsides at every step, you know…”Yup”, he says.  I run back down the hill and grab the flask, and fall further behind.  

Nick isn’t saying much anymore, by the way.  He’s pretty spent, particularly on the up hill bits. And who can blame him; he’s less than 2 miles from completing a 50 mile race, from perhaps setting the course record to boot.  But it seems as though the victory is in hand at this point.  Earlier Nick told me when he was at mile 14 or so he was 10 minutes ahead of the guy in second place, but neither of us know what that gap is now.  As it turns out, the gap was about 90 minutes between Nick and Brendon Trimboli, the gentleman who finished second.  Of course at the time we didn’t know that the gap was so large, and more importantly Nick had is eye on a more prestigious goal.  He was racing against history now.

Back in 2007, in the second running of the Jemez 50 mile race, a young 22-year old named Kyle Scaggs showed up and ran this brutal course in 8 hours and 9 minutes.  8:09:39, to be exact.  The following year in 2008 he came back and beat his own time, running it again in 8:08:15.  Later that year Kyle went on to set the course record at the Hardrock 100 mile race (which is to the Jemez 50 as the Jemez 50 is to, say, the Pikes Peak Marathon), with a preposterous time of 23 hours and 23 minutes, a record which to my knowledge still stands.  These results, particularly the Hardrock race result, were “game changers” in the sport of ultra trail running, seen as pretty much unbreakable.  As I mentioned, in 2010 Nick came down to Jemez and won, with a time of 8:26.  Of course he could have ran 8:26 again this year and won again, but Nick felt like he could make a go at Kyle’s 8:08 this time around. 

Now with one mile to go, course records and Kyle Scaggs and all that are about the farthest things from my mind.  Somehow I was able to finally recover from my aid-station sprint and bridge the gap between Nick and me, but I was feeling pretty used and abused by this point.  We were clipping along at a low-8 minute/mile pace along a nice wide dirt trail.  Although I was pretty fatigued, I was enjoying myself.  Record or not, it was a very nice way to finish the race.  Of course never having never ran this race before, nor studied the map, I had no idea what last little bit of fun was in store for us. 

With less than on quarter of a mile to go, the trail makes an abrupt turn to the right straight up a rock wall.  Seriously?  That’s it, I’m out.  This is about the most uncalled for thing I can think of.  I am sick and tired of uphills, and rocks, and climbing, and trying to keep up with this maniac.  We start marching up the steps hewn into the rock, and although I don’t really know how much farther we have to go, I know we are close because all of a sudden there are spectators cheering us on.  But I’m done.  I give Nick one final piece of advice, “Pour it out!”, and let him gap me once and for all.

Cresting the rock wall the trail makes another turn to the right and into the finisher’s chute.  In my opinion it is bad form for pacers to accompany their runners through the finish line, so I courteously slide off to the left and jog up the road parallel to the finish.  Honestly at this point I had no idea if Nick was close to setting the course record.  Like I said, we weren’t talking much at the end of the race.  I thought he may have been mad at me for committing any or all of the following crimes:  a) spitting all over his water bottle, b) handing him an exploding bottle of coke, c) throwing away his EFS gel (later recovered, so, not too bad), or d) not even being there at the ski lodge when he passed through.

Ahh, but victory glosses over all faults, and as I jogged up the road I could see Nick crossing the finish line, and I could also see the official finish line clock, and it said “8:07:45”.  Course record, baby.  Nick beat the course record by 30 seconds.  Holy crap that's awesome!  He did it!  Victory and course record, you just don't see that every day.  And by a scant 30 seconds.  That’s not a very big gap.  It’s a difference of one-tenth of one percent.  Unbelievable, dramatic, exciting, inspiring.  I’m proud to be a part of it.  I can't tell you how inspiring it is to run with Nick and watch him put in the effort to win and set the record.  I learned a lot running with him, and I know he was totally psyched to pull it off.  And I’d like to think that I helped him pull it off as well.  Somehow I got Aldus to the Greek, baby.  Now really any pacer would have probably spurred Nick on to the record, and I think a more well-qualified and well-prepared pacer may have helped Nick to an even greater victory, but even if all I did was save him 31 seconds at the aid stations, then I did just enough to help him make it happen. 

Nick is running the Western States 100 in June, and also taking a crack at the Hardrock 100 in July.  Based on his result in Jemez he has to be seen as a favorite in both races now, if he wasn’t before (which he was, but whatever).  And I’m offering up my services as a pacer to anyone looking to break course records.  Just don’t ask me to carry your EFS gel flasks.  And don’t expect me to actually show up on time, or know the course or anything.  But don’t worry, we’ll get it done one way or another.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Man this is weird.  I’m sitting in the living room of one Mr. Patrick Achempong, bank security guard and taxi cab owner, middle-class (for Ghana) Koforidua resident, and his wife Mary, and their three daughters Vida, Patience, and Doris.  Just me and the Achempongs.  Patrick speaks a little English, as does Vida, the oldest daughter, but the others, not so much.  Mostly we sit and smile at each other.  Mary busies about the kitchen making supper, and they offer to let me play my cassette tapes of American music.  What would they like?  I only brought two tapes with me for my three-day visit with this family; one cassette with the Indigo Girls and Van Morrison, and the other with David Bowie and The Specials.  I select the Indigo Girls and press play.  
 The stereo is cranked super-loud, and for some reason plays the tapes ridiculously fast.  Why it’s like listening to a whole new band!  Let’s slam-dance to the Indigo Girls!  I can’t tell if they enjoy this hyper-caffeinated, totally-blown-speaker version of “Airplane”, but I find it oddly appropriate and amusing.  I start to laugh.  They have no idea why I’m laughing.  That’s the second biggest thing I miss most about home; I don’t share a sense of humor with the Ghanaians.  (First is the food)  Well they seem to be tolerating the Indigo Girls at least.  Or they’re too polite to tell me otherwise.  The Achempong family is religious.  Evangelical Protestant, I think.  I wonder if they think we’re listening to a religious song.  Is this a religious song?

"Up on the airplane
Nearer my God to thee
I start making a deal
Inspired by gravity"

Well they say “God” there in the second line, so, you know, close enough.  And the Indigo Girl with the “pretty” voice is taking lead on this one, so that’s good, that’s helpful.  The other one might scare them.  Heck she scares me a little, and I’m American.  An American boy, mind you.  I always feel like I shouldn’t be listening to the Indigo Girls, like I’m peeking in on the girl’s only clubhouse.  But I’m a sucker for harmonies and lyrics.  The lyrics on “Airplane” are about traveling, being away from home, so although I’m not currently on an airplane I find the song quite appropriate. 

I wonder if they have a song about complete communication breakdown?  That might be more appropriate as we all sit and stare at each other.  I didn’t bring my copy of Led Zeppelin I with me to Ghana.  Seriously I have no idea what to say to these people.  I’ve been in Ghana for almost two months now.  Our in-country training is wrapping up and we’ll be sent to our volunteer sites in a week or so.  In fact just this day I found out where I’ll be living and teaching for the next two years.  I’ll be moving to a little town called Boso, in the hills on the border of the Eastern Region and the Volta Region.  Not too far from Koforidua, actually.  But first I must survive my home stay with the Silent Achempongs.  I realize that I’m a bit of curiosity, being all, you know, the white Obruni American and everything, but their curiosity is limited, apparently, to the non-verbal kind. 

I am temporarily saved by supper.  And it is really quite good; beans and rice, and plantain, and soda! They offer me an Orange Fanta soda.  The soda here comes in glass bottles.  The bottles are not merely recycled but actually re-used, over and over until they literally break.  Then I presume the broken glass is used to make beads or finds some other use.  They really don’t throw much away.  Food waste goes to the chickens in the yard.  Trash is mostly limited to scraps of paper, which is frequently burned in the back yard.  I’m told now that trash is more of an issue in Ghanaian cities, which is really too bad.

My Orange Fanta is not cold but it is very delicious.  And after supper they offer biscuits!  Not American biscuits, flaky and covered in gravy, but English cookies.  They call them biscuits here just like the English, and they come in little sleeves, and I think that they actually are from England, and they are just about the most delightful things I can possibly think of.  Little shortbread biscuits.  I eat like 12 biscuits and consider supper a grand success. 

I have my own room in the house, furnished simply with a bed and a strange green fluorescent light on the wall, and a wooden chair, and a print of Jesus – hazel-eyed, chestnut-haired White Jesus, mind you – and that’s it.  The bed mattress is foam, covered in plastic with a sheet above the plastic, so it squeaks whenever I move.  I try to lie still on my back and sleep.  I’m low to the ground and there’s no ceiling fan so it’s pretty hot in there.  I always find it awkward to sleep too low to the ground or too close to the ceiling, so I sleep fitfully on my low bed in the heat of the night, and wake up on my own before 6 am, to the sound of roosters crowing and Mary sweeping the porch with a rough whisk broom.  I’m not really sure when I’m supposed to wake up, much less where I should brush my teeth, even where to use the toilet – there doesn’t seem to be a bathroom in the house, or a sink?  I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone so I decide I’ll just wait to do those things until Patrick takes me back to school, where I’m teaching summer-school students.  Problem solved?  Sure; if the problem you’re trying to solve is “how to survive in Ghana without figuring out how Ghanaians do things.”  I realize I’m sort of mentally shutting down on my host family and the longer it goes, the worse it’s going to get.

I get dressed and enter the living room.  I realize when I am presented with breakfast consisting of a warm Fanta, and a plate of English biscuits thoughtfully laid out in a circular pattern upon a plate, that I may have shown a bit much gusto when demolishing all the previous night’s biscuits.  Hey, I’m a stereotype!  An Ugly American with awful, and expensive, eating habits.  Now I feel pretty stupid.  What, I inquire, are you all eating for breakfast?  They don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for English biscuits as do I.  Cold beans and rice leftover from last night.  Well ok, that makes sense.  I should refuse the biscuits and Fanta.  But I really want them.  And they’re already out of the package, and it would be rude to refuse their hospitality, so, ok.  Fanta and biscuits for breakfast it is.  If you’re going to be a spoiled brat, at least get some biscuits out of the deal.

Eventually I was able to overcome my problems with Ghanaian food, and I did end up eating local for most of my meals.  However the one meal of the day I refused to “go native” was breakfast.  Every morning at my site I would cook up oatmeal, mix it with powdered milk, and eat it with fresh-squeezed orange juice and bananas.  Ghanaians didn’t eat much dairy, and the powdered milk was marketed almost exclusively to mothers to make baby formula, so I’m certain they thought me strange for buying gigantic tins of powdered milk during my stay there.  But breakfast remained the one meal of the day I had to have all to my own.

But on the home stay you are at the mercy of your hosts.  After school Patrick and Vida picked me up in his taxi, and we went back to his house for Friday night dinner and church.  During school on Friday I toyed with the idea of feigning an illness to get out of the rest of my home stay, but ultimately I was ashamed of myself for thinking such things. I resolved to stick it out and try to enjoy my stay with the Achempongs and try to learn something about them.  Church was quite enjoyable, there was lots of singing.  Traditional western hymns mostly, some in English and some in Twi.  I like singing; it’s my favorite part of church, actually.  Of course I was a bit of an object of interest at the church, and many people wanted to say hello and shake my hand. 

Around this time I began to notice that Vida, Patrick’s oldest daughter, and a young woman probably 2 or 3 years my junior, seemed to always be positioned very near to me.  I began to harbor suspicions that The Achempongs might be trying to set me up with their daughter!  Oh boy.  My suspicions grew throughout the next day when we all went to a funeral for the day.  Nothing sows the seeds of love like a good funeral, I always say.

First thing you need to understand about Ghanaians, at least the Akan people, is that funerals are a big deal.  Funerals are the social event of the week.  Akans spend obscene amounts of money on funerals.  I’ve mentioned this briefly before.  The Ga people in particular like to make customized fantastical coffins for their dearly departed.  Coffins in the shapes of cars, alligators, airplanes, guitars, kenke, you name it, they’ve made a coffin out of it.  And the funerals themselves are lavish affairs, lasting all day typically, with dancing, and speeches, and more dancing, and food, and palm wine, and did I mention the dancing?  It is important to them to send out their dear family members in style.  It’s too bad the object of the funeral is never around to enjoy the party, because I think they would enjoy it.  One of life’s little ironies, I suppose.  Or death’s, depending on your particular role in the whole affair.

The Achempongs dressed me up like a real African for the funeral, with a proper funeral outfit.  This consisted of a gigantic toga, if you will, of brightly colored cotton cloth.  Probably three or four yards of material all told, expertly wrapped around my waist and body and shoulder.  I was wearing naught but my underwear underneath, and only sandals on my feet.  I had a picture of the event which I can no longer find, and I can not begin to tell you how white I looked in that outfit.  I appreciated that they wanted me to experience the funeral as a real African, but I felt rather self-conscious and curiously naked, like I was wearing a towel around town all day.  And my shoulder got a nasty sunburn, because bring Africa and all, it was rather hot and sunny out.

But the Ghanaians seemed to appreciate the gesture, even if it didn’t originate with me, and the Achempongs seemed pleased that I was “their obruni” for the day.  As mentioned, we sat around the funeral for several hours, and I watched the dancing and listened to the speeches, well the ones in English at any rate, and generally enjoyed myself.  I didn’t even know who the funeral was for.  And Vida was a more-or-less constant companion.  She kept bringing me things to eat and I think she would have danced with me with great pleasure had I been brave enough to try that.

I had mixed feelings, at best, about being “set up” with Vida.  On one hand I was flattered.  Vida was a nice-looking young woman, and what man doesn’t like the attentions of a pretty young woman?  But I couldn’t shake the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the entire reason Patrick Achempong agreed to a home stay was to see if he could introduce a nice, or more importantly rich, American to his lovely daughter.  Ha ha, joke was on him, I was neither nice nor rich.  Insufferable and dirt poor, more like it.  But this offended me somewhat.  In retrospect I don’t know why I was so uptight about being set up, maybe that’s just the way things are done in Ghana?  And really, who can blame Patrick for trying; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most handsome man out there, but I do have one thing that sets me apart from all of Vida’s assumed young Ghanaian suitors; American citizenship.

Basically I was a potential lottery ticket to the Achempongs.  If they could get me to fall in love with sweet Vida, and marry her and take her home to America with me, then the Achempongs would be set financially.  I could send money back to the Achempongs, or maybe even bring them all with me back to America.  Patrick was just looking out for his family, and it’s difficult to fault him for that.  But I did fault him of course.  I was offended that he would view me as just a ticket to prosperity.  That’s not how things work in America, buddy!  We don’t marry for convenience; we have to agonize over potential soul-mates, and compatibility, and chemistry.  Marriage isn’t a career choice.  Not for most of us, at any rate.  But Americans are by and large wealthy, and we can afford to care about such frivolous things like love and happiness.

And I just couldn’t see myself being in love with Vida, poor girl!  And why not, you ask?  Was she ugly?  Far from it.  Vida was quite pretty, actually.  Ghanaians on the whole, in my opinion, are some of the most attractive people I have ever seen.  They are athletic and fit, they have fantastic skin, and nice smiles.  They’re certainly among the most attractive Africans, and I don’t think I’m being biased, but I probably am.  And Vida was a nice looking young woman.  A nice looking young Black African Woman.  And therein was the problem.  How can I put this without sounding racist?  I can’t, really.  I wasn’t attracted to Vida, in part, because she was black.  There, I said it.  Don’t hate me.  I’m not a bad parson.  Everyone has a type, right?  It’s biological!  If Vida was an American, I still don’t think I would be attracted to her, even though objectively speaking, she was pretty. 

But being American probably would have helped her cause.  The other big problem was that Vida was Ghanaian.  Or more properly speaking, Vida was not American.  We didn’t share the same culture.  Things I found funny she did not find amusing.  I don’t think Vida found anything amusing, actually.  We didn’t talk much.  I think she was nervous to be around me, she wanted to make a good impression, she didn’t want to offend me.  I prefer women who speak their mind, who laugh loudly, who are intelligent and know what they want.  Vida appeared to be none of those things, at least while she was with me.  And remember, as an American, I can afford to care about things like compatibility and chemistry.

The whole experience was sort of miserable.  The funeral lasted for hours, and it was hot, and I was positively boiling sitting there wrapped up in 4 yards of brightly-colored toga, and I was on some sort of blind date that I had no intention of pursuing any further.  I felt bad for Vida but I didn’t want to lead her on, so I remained polite but distant.  Vida probably had a miserable time as well.  Even across cultures she had to sense that I was not interested in any sort of relationship with her.  She probably felt like she was letting her family down, because she, for reasons unfathomable to her, was not good enough for me.  Heck, maybe Vida wasn’t attracted to White American Men, and was not happy to be set up with me either.  I didn’t ask to find out.  That would have been an awkward conversation.

And I was annoyed that I was not able to just be myself and enjoy the weekend.  I felt like I had to maintain my guard at all times, so as not to let them think that I was interested in Vida, and wanted to take her back to America with me.  Which was stupid really, and probably a convenient excuse to remain aloof and detached all weekend.  I began to second-guess myself.  Maybe this whole match-making thing was all in my head?  Was my ego that big to presume that they wanted to set their daughter up with me?  There really was no way to ask directly, I suppose.  I was best to assume the worst, just in case.

I found out I was right, by the way, a couple of days later.  I was back at the school, and it was after class.  Us Peace Corps volunteers were playing ultimate Frisbee against the Ghanaian school kids.  We were hopeless playing soccer against them, and the Frisbee game employed similar strategy, so we found that ultimate Frisbee was a more competitive game.  Anyway as the game was finishing up, one of the school kids came up to me and said that there was a man to see me.  I walked to the edge of the field and there was Patrick, standing next to his car.  He was alone.  He had a gift for me, a sleeve of biscuits.  Remember, cookies.  Delightful English cookies.  Patrick gave me the biscuits and asked if I would like to come and have dinner with his family again.  I declined.  I told him that it was very nice to meet his family, but that I would be leaving Koforidua soon to go teach at another school, and I needed to prepare for my new assignment.  I mean it was true that I was leaving soon, but believe me, there was nothing I could have done to properly prepare for Boso at that point.  I felt like I was breaking up with the Achempongs; I could certainly see the disappointment on Patrick’s face.  I knew I was right, but it didn’t make me feel any better.  Somehow it made me feel like a big jerk.  Particularly since I was planning on taking the biscuits anyway.  We shook hands and Patrick drove away, and I never saw him, or Vida, or any of the Achempongs again.  I guess I got more home stay than I bargained for, but not as much as Patrick would have liked.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Greg Mortenson Speaks

After writing my post about the Krakauer vs. Mortenson scandal, I started reading several articles that tried to defend Greg Mortenson and/or discredit Jon Krakauer.  I read the articles with great interest, and thought that perhaps I had been a little too tough on Greg.  After all, his organization did build a lot of schools in Pakistan, right?  And what if Mr. Krakauer had it all wrong?  I started to feel that maybe, just maybe, I was piling on Mr. Mortenson a bit.  So in the interest of being fair and telling Greg’s side of the story, allow me to present an interview with Greg Mortenson, and my comments pertaining to the interview.

Greg gave an interview on his web site regarding the “60 Minutes” television piece and the Krakauer articleYou can read the entire interview here (click here).  I’ll summarize for those of you who would rather read the short version.

First of all, Greg addresses the allegations that the stories in the book “Three Cups of Tea” are fabricated or at least stretched.  In my last post I mentioned the story about Greg getting lost and wandering into a remote village half-dead, and another story about being abducted and imprisoned by Taliban-esque tribesmen.  There were other alleged fabrications, but these seemed to me to be the most interesting.  I came to the conclusion that these fabrications, if accurately denounced by Krakauer, were ultimately fairly benign in the grand scheme of issues presented.  And that is more of an indictment on the more serious issues than an attempt to sweep the stories under the rug.  But some people I’ve talked to were quite annoyed by the thought that Greg would “stretch the truth” in order to make his book more exciting and compelling.  And I can see their point.  The alleged fabrications diminish his credibility, which in turn makes one look more suspiciously at the other, more serious allegations.  So it’s a good place to start.  So, were the stories made up?  Well, sort of.  To quote Greg from Greg’s interview, 

“What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes [for the book], you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?”

Literary license? 

“Yeah. So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.”

(Note that I'm not sure if I can quote from the web site, so I may have to take these quotes down at some point.  I'll try to keep the quotes brief but I want to be as truthful as possible to what Greg actually said.)

Ok, so Greg is admitting that the story is not 100% factual.  He also seems to be saying that maybe the co-writer David Oliver Relin had more to do with the fabrications.  Which again, I can accept to a point.  But let’s get down to brass tacks:  Was the story about getting lost and ending up at Korphe/Khane truth or fiction?

But you stand by the Korphe story as it was written?

“Well, there are discrepancies that, again, have to do with compression of events.”

And I’ll paraphrase the compression of events from Greg’s perspective.  Greg did in fact wander into Korphe, not Khane, making a wrong turn as he approached the village of Askole.  He stayed in Korphe for the afternoon and then continued on his way to Askole.  About a year later he went back to Korphe and decided to build a school there.  So it wasn’t quite the dramatic near-death-school-building-revelatory experience, but a slightly more drawn-out-mundane-gradual-realization experience.  Not a compelling story.  I’m a little bored just paraphrasing it for you.

And no mention about the Khane village thing, wherein Krakauer accuses Mortenson of promising to build a school in Khane, and then reneging on the deal and building one in Korphe anyway.  That’s the more distasteful part of this whole story, but Greg doesn’t get asked that question. 

On to the “Taliban” in Waziristan.  In “Three Cups of Tea” Greg claims to be abducted and imprisoned.  Krakauer claims nothing of the sort happened.  The reason this is important is that if false, it indicates that Greg is willing to invent a “bad guy” in order to make his message more urgent.

Greg’s response:

“Anyway, that whole story [about being abducted, etc.] is pretty much accurate. I was detained during my time there. My passport was taken from me, my money was taken from me, and when I was moved a blanket was put over my head. Initially, the first two days, I got really depressed because I didn’t know what exactly was going on. I didn’t try to run away or anything, but I did try to be very kind and befriend the people.”


“I wasn’t allowed to leave, and I was kept in a room, very small, with one window and a burlap sack and a bed in it. I always had one or two armed guards with me, smoking a lot of hashish.”

What Greg is saying may be technically accurate.  Maybe he was initially detained and then was able to talk to and work with his captors and guards, once they determined that they could trust him.  Maybe he was detained at a particular checkpoint for some time.  Heck that kind of stuff happened to me in Ghana from time to time.  Maybe he had to be hidden for a while for his own good, either to conceal his presence from other locals or even government officials.  Having admitted to using some literacy license already, one has to wonder exactly how much is made up.  The question is, as a potential donor, as a reader of the book, does it bother you?  Does it matter?  If you knew going into the book that it was “mostly” factual, or even “basically” factual, would you be more willing to accept that maybe not all of these things actually happened, would you still get something out of the message?  I think it’s a fair question to ask, and I think it is totally fine to be on either side of this divide.  Personally I'm more willing to accept the fabrications but others are less willing, and I respect that.

Greg then goes on the offensive a bit, which I like to see.  The interviewer and Greg spend some time explaining how Krakauer and 60 Minutes basically ambushed him for interviews at the last minute, while Greg’s health was (and remains?) poor, and did not give him a fair chance to respond to the allegations:

“On April 13th [2011, Krakauer] sent me this email saying, I’ve been trying through a mutual friend to get in touch with you, you’ve avoided me, never gotten back, and now I need to meet you by Saturday or Sunday, because we have a story coming out and it’s really important that I talk to you.”


“I was at a gathering called the Community Service Leadership Convention at a Hyatt hotel, mostly with college and high-school kids. I got done and was at a book signing with two or three hundred kids, with some adults, too.

Out of the blue, there’s a rush by Kroft and two cameramen. They got on both sides of me and I looked to my right and he said, “Steve Kroft.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, I’m Steve Kroft and I’d like to talk to you and can you give me five minutes? This was all on film, so perhaps my exact words here, from memory, are not verbatim.”

The point being that according to Greg, neither Krakauer nor 60 minutes gave him enough time to respond to the allegations presented before publishing the article and airing the TV broadcast.  This is a bit of he-said-she-said, since Krakauer, for his part, did claim to be trying to reach Mortenson well before his article was published.  The idea here is to try to provoke some sympathy for Greg.

But all of this is kind of irrelevant, the Jon-said-Greg-said stuff.  The truth is illusive.  Financial statements are a little less open to interpretation, however.

The things I found most disturbing about Krakauer’s article were that less than 50% of the money coming in to CAI was going to what I consider actual charity work, and that the primary reason for that low percentage was that CAI was footing the bill for Greg’s speaking tours and actually using charitable funds to purchase copies of “Three Cups of Tea” at retail cost.

What does Greg have to say about those allegations?

“Using charter flights, which I only started doing in 2009, allowed me to pack in many more cities. I get about 2,400 speaking requests a year. About 400 of the ones last year were offering to pay money. So I mix them. And, since January, I have totally paid for all my own travel.”

You pay all your own travel now?

Yes, since mid-January”

That’s progress, at least!  One problem I see is the inherent conflict of interest present between the book “Three Cups of Tea”, whose sales benefit Greg and his co-writer only, and the charity, whose donations benefit Greg also.  Since the book is sort of the mouthpiece of the charity, it is difficult to separate one from the other.  And while it may not be illegal, it seems odd to be spending CAI money to promote and purchase a book that is pretty much about CAI and its mission, but the proceeds of which do not come back to the charity directly.  And Greg understands this now as well:

CAI, Three Cups of Tea, and Greg Mortenson are pretty much all part of each other. As much as it would be great to separate everything, we’re all intricately woven. They said CAI needs me, and I’m really the only reason CAI can exist right now.”

I’m not sure if the final statement is true but having said that, really the next logical step is to either completely separate the book and the charity, or sign over the royalties to CAI.  Seems like Greg is opting more for the former strategy by starting to pay for all his own travel.  Hopefully this also means that CAI will no longer by purchasing books with donated money.  But Greg didn’t go that far.  In fact, when asked why less than 50% of CAI’s money goes to building schools, Greg offers this defense:

“much of the [money that didn’t go to building schools] was spent on CAI’s other charitable programs, which include domestic outreach and education about the need for the schools. Our education mission includes both educating young people in Pakistan and Afghanistan—especially girls—and educating the American public about how promoting education in these countries contributes to peace. CAI has been setting aside funds, now totaling over $20 million, that will be restricted to provide scholarships, teacher training, and maintain the schools and their programs for years to come.”

Domestic outreach and education sounds like traveling around the country and spending lots of money on copies of “Three Cups of Tea”, to me.  Granted I get that charities need to spend some money on domestic outreach, or marketing, or something to bring in the donations, but it still seems like CAI is spending way too much money on these sorts of things.  I think a good benchmark for administrative expenses for a charity is probably 25%, or less, depending on the type of charity.  I know that CAI doesn’t see domestic outreach as an administrative expense, and I suppose that is where the divide exists.  If you are willing to accept that a core part of the mission of CAI is domestic outreach and speaking engagements, then you can accept that CAI is spending donations appropriately.  If you think that those activities, even though they might be worthwhile, are not the raison d'ĂȘtre of CAI, then you must conclude that CAI is not spending donations appropriately.

I come away from the interview thinking that Greg understands why people might be upset by the allegations, and that he is trying to address some of them and improve how CAI and Greg himself do business.  Greg probably didn’t think anything he was doing was all that offensive or wrong, and I doubt he’ll change completely.  It remains to be seen if 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer have successfully prosecuted CAI and Greg Mortenson in the court of public opinion.  I would say that most people I have talked to about this affair have concluded that Greg and CAI have been performing poorly and spending inappropriately.  But some have defended Greg, and will continue to do so.  Personally, I’ll give my money to another charity, thank you very much.