Charleston Islands: February at the Beach and my Not-So Olympic Gold

Charleston, SC – February, 2018

James Island:

I wasn’t used to watching the Winter Olympics accompanied by an open window and a warm breeze. In fact, I associate the games with being snowed into a college apartment during Vancouver in 2010.  Roads were impassible so several of us made our way to the beverage shop, which of course in Athens, Ohio remained open during the knee-deep snowstorm, and passed time with a drinking game involving Bob Costas’ narration.  Four years later I was living in Cleveland during one of its coldest and snowiest years on record.  The wind chill dropped below negative thirty degrees Fahrenheit earlier that winter while athletes and commentators complained about Sochi being too warm.  Following the Pyongchang games without Bob Costas and frostbite advisory was a tad bewildering but, I enjoyed watching a gecko slink up a palmetto outside while Chloe Kim tore up the half pipe on television or trying to understand curling in an apartment with sand all over the floor.  Lauren and I spent most of our nights in Charleston in this manner, winding down from the day’s exploring.

I had my own trial of athletic prowess one morning, though on a scale so much smaller that the comparison stops there, if in fact it began at all.  The Sharing Hope Race for Life, while the cause noble, was hardly a competitive field.  I even chose the shorter of the two distances, the 5K as opposed to the 10K, and we drove to James Island just after sunrise.  Incidentally, I was very early for the race as I didn’t realize the longer race began substantially before the shorter.  No matter, it gave us a chance to explore the park. 

James Island is a flat, not-quite-barrier island located between Charleston proper and the traffic-choked Folly Beach.  For most of the year and most of the day that traffic comes one way through the island, bringing with it wide-lanes and chain food along its main road.  But at this time of the morning and this time of the year James Island was tranquil.  And as soon as we ventured off of Folly Road, it became one of the more pristine examples of the low country.  Magnolias and palmettos mingled with grassy meadows that were brighter than I thought possible this far north in February.  A few of the trees were just beginning to flower, causing a pleasant clash with the massive deep green live oaks that drooped over the lane.  Marshes and shrubbier trees began to take over as we drew closer to the edge of the island, in this case the salty Stono River.  As we turned back into the park, a tiny coyote scurried across the entrance and into the bushes on the opposite side.

This was a small race.  I began near the front after being told that any time under twenty minutes would put me in the top ten percent and that there were a lot of walkers.  Most of the more competitive runners opted for the 10K and even then, there weren’t many.  I stood at the starting line next to a young guy with coiffed hair who called himself Johnny.  He was sharing some secrets to a woman on the other side of us who wanted to win the race.  (For a small 5K the prize money was actually quite decent.)

“After the first turn you want to be on the left side.” Johnny said. “Basically for the rest of the first mile you’ll want to stay there or you will get blocked out.”

He turned to me. “Except you.  You stay on the right.”

“Hey man,” I said.  “I live six hundred miles away, you could tell me everyone runs this race backwards and I’d probably believe you.”

The race began and I stayed on the left.

The front of the pack took off and my first mile was faster than I would normally go for the opening mile of a 5K, at least these days.  It was sunny for its entirety and actually quite humid, so my effort surprised me.  We ran around a pond that looked man made and I was looking forward to diving into the forest that surrounded the park.  About halfway through the course I got my wish and the moment included some added perquisites as I caught up to and passed a struggling Johnny Goodhair.

Since beginning longer distance running, 5Ks have become more difficult if anything; time slows down and I am able to feel every painful step and every labored breath.  The third mile of a 5K is worse than all but the last three or four of a marathon.  You feel like you can’t let up for a second lest you be passed, which in a long race doesn’t matter but in a 5K feels like a provocation.  Contrarily the race on James Island went by quickly, and I passed the two mile mark in what seemed like minutes.  I wasn’t feeling strong, and my second mile dropped a little from the first but mentally I was having no problem getting through it.

My calves began tensing during the last mile, the muscles that I recently retaught how to hold a flip flop after four months of northern cold.  Yes, that’s the excuse I was going with.  Regardless, I was getting close to finished, in more ways than one – this was going to be my slowest mile yet.  Positive splits – Coach Donovan would be furious.  I wished this were like the Olympics, that they would just take our best mile of the three and discount the others.  When half-pipe skiers know their position is intact they can have some fun on their third run, attempting tricks they haven’t quite mastered or attempting to pad their victory.  If I could throw out the second and third mile maybe I would run backwards like I told Johnny I would.   My mind was taken off of my lead legs for a moment as I caught up to Lauren – she was running the outside of the course after the first loop, hoping to see me pass.  I was alone when I saw her, and hadn’t seen anyone for about a mile.  It felt like we were out for a run through the woods ourselves.

I was alone when I saw the finish line, too, when it unexpectedly appeared out of the woods when my watch read 2.80.  I crossed and had no idea what place I was in, or what pace I had run, given the watch issue and lack of clock at the end.

A volunteer informed me that I was fourth overall, and first in my age group.  I balked at this, the age groups were wide and I figured that at least one of the speedy three had to be in their twenties but alas, they were all either younger or older.  Now, I’ve placed before, second and third many times in big races and small races, but discounting a local trail run where my entire age group consisted of my friend Brad and I, I had never finished first.

“Make sure to stick around after for your gold medal” she said. 

Gold Medal? Yes, please I’ll stick around.  I needed to milk this one.  I needed to stand under a palm tree and bite that thing like I’m Shaun White.  The three stick figures running over the words Race for Life weren’t quite the Pyeongchang 2018 insignia but they’ll do.  I have dozens of race medals, most of which were plenty more attractive and complex than this one, for accomplishments that were much more difficult than waking up, having coffee at Sweet Belgium, and running for almost twenty minutes.  For age group placing I have won ribbons, gift cards, hats and a mason jar.  But never a medal.  Cue up the National Anthem, it’s as close as I’ll get.

Sullivan’s Island:

Somehow, Lauren and I had made it seven years into our relationship without going to a beach on the ocean together. We originally had this week set aside for a beach trip, somewhere further away from the cool, soggy Cincinnati February – Somewhere like the keys or even further afield.  Timing became a tether and the trip was relegated shorter and moved substantially up latitude, up past even Savannah where we had been in late winter a few years back and needed a jacket.  So when our entire time in Charleston turned out to be about twenty degrees above normal temperature, well over eighty and cloudless, we decided to recoup one of those lost tropical escapist days.

We went early to Sullivan’s Island, said to be the least crowded and most natural of the area beaches.  Located on a barrier island about five miles southeast of Charleston, this was the beach frequented by locals while the spring breakers were tripping over each other and hiding their alcohol over on Folly.  It is mostly residential save for a small strip along Middle Street, and has neither a parking lot nor a public restroom save for the curb and the sea.

The beach was every bit the idyll it was described.  It wasn’t empty by any means but everyone was spread across the sandy expanse, well over two miles from end to end and several hundred feet from tide line to the reed covered dunes.  Unknown to us prior, it was also the only day of the week that pets were allowed, and we enjoyed watching dogs of all sizes bound along the beach and chase sticks into the water.  We brought books but barely opened them, content with watching everything around us – People and animals and water.  The horizon was punctured every so often by the hazy silhouette of a cargo ship heading into Charleston.  The waves were sizeable for a calm day, and their rhythmic splashes were like nature’s metronome.  With each one, a flock of tan colored sanderling birds would run into the wet sand, stick their little beaks down hoping for a snack, only to come up empty and retreat before the next crash of water before the process repeated itself.  Their feet didn’t hop like most birds but rapidly stepped like those of a speed walker.  Most of the time they managed to escape high and dry but occasionally the more intrepid of the birds would get caught in the surf after treading too far out and then would stand there with a doltish and panicked look on its face until the water once again adequately withdrew.  Never would they use their wings unless a Frisbee flew in their direction followed by a careening dog.

I kept a pattern of my own, in which I would lie on the beach until the sun became uncomfortable and then cancel out its effects in the still cold Atlantic.  The sun would then return the favor after several minutes in the February waves.  After several cycles of this I began to feel a bit like the sanderlings myself and we temporarily packed up to walk through the small commercial part of the island.  We came up to an Edgar Allen Poe themed tropical bar with a long queue waiting for the host.  Two in the back of the line were griping about the wait.  Lauren asked the hostess how long it would be for two.

“If you’re ok with sitting outside, we can take you now” she said.  Considering it was perfect weather we didn’t need to discuss it and we were soon looking at menus.  My chair faced the long line of people waiting for tables inside.  I felt bad for maybe a minute, but when I was halfway through a fish taco before the people in front of us walked inside, my empathy waned.  And when a breeze blew in from the ocean and the palmettos fanned each other making a sound indiscernible from the waves, I could scarcely imagine a better place to have lunch.  Eventually we were joined by an unexpected dining companion, a green lizard climbing up the brush next to the table and we enjoyed his company.

After lunch, we walked much of the beach to the west, toward the harbor.  An increasing amount of No Swimming signs presented themselves the closer we got to the end of the island, and with good reason as the two ends of Sullivan’s Island, Fort Moultrie on the west and Breach Inlet on the east have some of the most dangerous currents in the area, which combined with sudden drops in depth make it a place even the strongest swimmers shouldn’t tread.  We remained beached as we made our way to the fort.

Fort Moultrie is much older than its famed counterpart, with which it shares the Fort Sumter National Monument.  It was built to protect Charleston and was attacked by the British Navy six days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The outer logs of the fort repeatedly absorbed blows from the royal ships, causing cannonballs to bounce off the walls instead of bringing it down.  Without the ability to collapse the fort, the British were forced to retreat with heavy damages.  Later, the state of South Carolina honored the battle with an image on their flag of the tree that saved Charleston as the war for independence was just ramping up – the palmetto. 

Several of the famed trees grow on the grounds of the fort today, which is now a park that is free to enter.  Despite this it was nearly empty.  Having a bit of fort fatigue after Sumter earlier in the trip, we walked its perimeter and carried on.  Our one beach day was complete as quickly as it started and we were back watching winter sports by sundown.

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