Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tour

gwinnThis past Friday, my son Harrison, daughter-in-law Kasi and I went on the Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tour. The inn was built in 1915 as the town’s hospital, retains some of the old time hospital ambiance—wide doorways to accommodate gurneys and steep ramps where staircases might otherwise be—and is rumored to have ghostly visitors.

At the suggestion of daughter Jenn (who lives in the Seattle area), I downloaded an app called Ghost Radar on my phone.

gwinn2Our guide Marnie was delightful, dressed in Victorian garb with her hair pulled up in the fashion of the era. She had not heard of Ghost Radar but was happy to let me run it during the visit.

I’m not going to reveal any spoilers—you need to take the tour yourself and learn about the history of this remarkable building—but I will share a bit of our experience.

About a half hour in, while on the second floor, a young blonde boy appeared from around a corner. It was a scene straight out of “The Shining.” He looked about eight years old, and stood stick straight and mute. Marnie smiled, and asked, “Would you like to join us?”

He said, “Yes, but I need to ask my mom,” and disappeared behind the corner.

A few minutes later, the boy, his mother and slightly older sister caught up with us. Marnie cautioned that if anyone became scared and wanted to leave, they could. As we walked along the hallway, the boy stuck his index fingers in his ears and intermittently squeezed his eyes shut. His mother chuckled. His sister rolled her eyes. Marnie asked if he wanted to leave the tour. Fingers still in ears, he shook his head.

Ten minutes later, he’d had enough. His mom allowed her daughter to stay with us and escorted the boy away. Marnie asked the girl her name.

“Hazel,” she said.

“Hazel!” I said. “Whenever I’m asked my name at Starbucks, I say Hazel.” The girl humored me with a giggle.

The tour continued for several minutes before the boy and his mother reappeared. As frightened as he was, he couldn’t seem to help himself—stories of the inn drew him back. He remained until the end and smiled with relief. We congratulated him on being so brave.

Ghost Radar picked up a number of spirits sprinkled throughout the building, making the experience both satisfying and creepy.

Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tours are available through Halloween: Thursday-Saturday 12:00, 2:00, 4:00 and 6:00pm; Sundays 1:00 and 3:00 and 5:00pm. To reserve a spot, send an email to or call 707-964-0640.

I promise you’ll enjoy it.gwinn6

The Bing Crosby House

I recently returned from a family gathering in my hometown that I would have not been able to imagine as a child.


When I was nine or so, my dad was a middle school teacher and studying for his doctorate. He often spent Saturdays at the Bing Crosby Library on the Gonzaga campus in Spokane, Washington. These sessions ended with his crossing the street to drink at the house of a friend. On some Saturdays my mom insisted he take a couple of his five kids with him—to relieve her burden and possibly keep him from drinking too much.

bing20I was infatuated with Gonzaga. In the sixties, the campus was home to some fine-looking young Jesuits. I remember them as well-trimmed blondes in slim gray slacks and light blue cotton shirts with the unfortunate clerical collars signaling they were off limits to my desire. In contrast, the flocks of formidable-looking nuns, their copious black robes rustling in the breeze as they left Mass, made me quiver in fear. I imagined the church, Saint Aloysius, to be a replica of heaven itself.

Later in life, my dad claimed, “I raised you kids to be independent.” I couldn’t argue. His neglect was sufficient to keep us from ever thinking about depending on him. Such was the case whenever he took his two oldest—my brother and me—along with him to Gonzaga. We followed him into the Crosby Library and were told to meet a few hours later at his friend’s house. My first stop was always the Crosbyana—a small room filled with Bing memorabilia the singer/actor had donated to his alma mater.

bing12My favorite pieces were the framed gold record “White Christmas” and his Oscar for Going My Way (which I recently discovered is a replica). I remember the room as quiet, cozy, and rather dark, but recent pictures—that I cannot show because they’re copyrighted—reveal it to be light and airy. I curled into a plush chair and imagined it was my room, a den perhaps in the mansion that was my home.

Afterward, running around campus with my brother, I marveled at the coeds and longed to live in the Madonna Hall dorm when I went to college. Unbeknownst to me, my future husband was a student at the time. I never went there, but 40 years later our son Harrison would enroll and live his first year in that same dorm.

My last surviving Spokane relatives—a brother- and sister-in-law—moved to Phoenix a decade ago, but live in a cabin on Newman Lake, near Spokane, during the summer. This past spring, I thought it would be fun to have a family reunion with them, our kids and grandkids. Their cabin isn’t big enough to accommodate many overnight guests, but the overflow could stay in hotels and spend days at the lake.

Harrison suggested I look for a vacation rental on Coeur d’Alene Lake where we could all stay together. Many of the cabins available online are rustic with photos that hint at large spiders and mice. I found a couple of luxurious places that, when split four ways, were affordable, but not available on our chosen weekend. I grew frustrated and hateful.

I backed off and let it go for a few days. One morning, I girded my loins to try again. I expanded the search to include Hayden Lake, a few miles north of Coeur d’Alene. Lo and behold, up popped the Bing Crosby House! Bing Crosby, the inspiration behind the Crosbyana Room, the oasis that had comforted me as a child.

My fingers trembled as I clicked the link. I found a 3,000 square-foot log house built in 1955, lovingly kept in its original condition by Bing’s heirs (including the kitchen appliances). With four bedrooms, three and a half baths, and a stone deck running the length of the back facing the lake, it was perfect. But it required a five-night stay. Given everyone’s busy schedules, we could only eke out three nights to be together. I emailed the owner (Bing’s granddaughter) and asked for an exception. She agreed. I was beside myself with excitement.


bing19Entering the circular driveway of the Crosby House, I got chills. It doesn’t look like much from the front, but upon entering I was awestruck by floor to ceiling windows spanning the western border with a magnificent view of the lake. In the expansive great room, the walls were made of bleached paneling and logs that stand vertically.

bing3The entryway had a framed page from an American Home magazine article written, I assume, soon after the house was built since there was no year is on the cover. Subsequent framed pages line the hallway. Each room holds a page about that particular room.

We took great delight in these. A highlight: as a rough and tumble kid in Spokane, Bing often got in trouble for fighting, most notably beating up a “boy who called his sister tubby (she was).”

bing18We fell in love with Mrs. Lemmon, Bing’s dowdy French cook who was cordoned off in the kitchen and, unless the swinging door was open, could not be seen from the living area. According to the article, whenever she heard Bing’s car enter the driveway, the tiny woman stood on her tippy toes, looked out the window above the sink and cried, “Mr. Bing, God bless him!”

bing16To me, the most unique feature of the house was the original draperies. According to the article, “Bing’s famous theme song, ‘Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,’ is motif on the living room draperies, done in square Gothic notes from 15th and 16th century parchment panels of church music that hung over piano. In his bedroom, [the] tune changes to ‘Home Sweet Home.’”

It was thrilling to stay in Bing’s house, a place custom built for him, where he and his kids spent summers fishing and golfing. This was the perfect setting to gather a family who enjoys spending time together, a family far more wonderful than my childhood fantasies could have conjured all those years ago when I nestled into that plush chair in the Crosbyana Room.


Stevie Drake-Scudder

stevie2Roundman’s Smoke House (motto: “We’ll Smoke Anything”) is the highlight of my weekly shopping routine. The aroma of wood smoke evokes the feel of autumn when fallen tree branches and leaves are raked into piles and reduced to ash before the winter rains. The store is packed with an array of smoked meats, cheeses, all-natural meats, and best of all, their fabulous bacon. (When my son left for college 12 years ago, he claimed the only thing he’d miss about Fort Bragg was Roundman’s bacon.) The employees are friendly, helpful and have great senses of humor. I always enter and leave the shop with a smile.

Roundman’s has been part of Stevie’s life since her father Steve Scudder became co-owner with Steve Rasmussen in 1995. It employed her during high school, college, and in lean times during her film production and massage therapy careers.

stevie4Stevie has lived in Portland, San Francisco, and Vermont. The bonds of family, friends, and the beauty of the Mendocino Coast (along with the family business) have brought her home time and time again.

She was raised on a “commune” in Albion—a collection of her dad and his friends who bought land in the seventies and built houses where they still live nearly forty years later. Throughout her childhood, her parents said, “You can do anything you want, you just gotta do it.”

She worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to Pacific University outside of Portland, Oregon. “It was just far enough away that my parents couldn’t pop in for a weekend visit.” She laughs.

Her dream to become a doctor was squelched when she struggled through organic chemistry and calculus. “In my senior year in high school, I was told I had dyslexia. It’s no wonder I had problems with those courses.” She discovered a love of photography and film. A professor convinced her to major in film production.

With her lovable three-legged dog Sailor.

“After graduation in 2001, I worked as a film editor in Portland for six months before moving to the Bay Area.” She worked for post-production houses in San Francisco before landing a job in the equipment department at the Academy of Arts College. “One of the perks of that job was free use of the film equipment. I worked with others to make short, silly pieces and low budget features. It was a great time, but eventually the combination of the job, film making and the go-go-go of city life stressed me out. I was raised to be more chill. After seven years, I knew it wasn’t for me in the long term, forever way of thinking.

“I did a one-eighty and enrolled in massage therapy school. When I was a kid, I don’t remember going to a doctor very often. Instead, my parents took me to Faith Graham, a gifted, spiritual massage therapist. She was my inspiration.”

Stevie returned to the Mendocino Coast in 2007, worked a bit with Faith and at Roundman’s while building her own massage practice.

stevie6A few years later, she met boyfriend James Todd. “He was born in Mendocino on July 4, 1979. Many people remember the date because it was the only year his parents weren’t at the parade.” When he was two, his family moved to Vermont.

“A friend from high school Josh Tsujimara moved to Vermont and happened to meet James. In 2009, James decided to explore his birthplace (he had not been back since he was a toddler). James wandered into the Tip Top and there was Josh working as a bartender.” A short time later, Josh introduced Stevie to James.

By 2011, James missed his hometown of Middlebury, Vermont, and Stevie agreed to move. “The small town feel is similar to here, but there’s no ocean and the weather can be harsh.” She worked as a massage therapist and an assistant manager at a natural food co-op. “The cost of living was high, but the wages were low. We both had to work two jobs to make ends meet. In August 2014, the family business called us home. After 20 years, Ma was retiring and it was time to come back.

“It was an adjustment. I wondered: What am I doing here? What’s my role? Everyone fully embraced us. I realized how much a part of me this business is—it’s truly my family.”

Her dad still works 12-hour days, James is a butcher, and two friends from Vermont were recently hired. “Roundman’s has an amazing crew, provides a livable wage, and treats everyone like family. We’ve grown from four employees to seventeen. We encourage everyone to create their own flavors—like Jasper’s Famous Bacon Sticks and Jessie’s Famous Corned Beef Bangers—and continue to learn about flavor profiles from our younger employees.”

stevie5What Stevie loves most about her job is working with her dad Steve. “He’s the best man I know. He and Steve Rasmussen found this little gem at the right time in their lives and at the right time for the coast. They’ve created an environment where everyone supports each other and plays on their strengths.”

What she likes least: “Meat is a male dominated business. I sometimes feel a lack of respect from customers who insist on getting their questions answered by one of the guys. I know as much as the guys about most things meat. When I don’t, I ask.”

As the Owner In Training (or OIT as Steve Rasmussen calls her), Stevie carries a lot of responsibility for running the business and has a hard time turning her brain off. A year after her return, she started dabbling in massage again, mostly with friends and family, on a very part-time basis. “I realized how much I missed it. Body work allows me to do something I love while helping people. I feel the same way about bacon.” She laughs.

Stevie imagines a bright future as co-owner of Roundman’s. “The coast has grown and there are a lot of people I don’t know, but nothing compares to waking up to the beauty of our surroundings. I hope the area doesn’t grow too big, that we stay rooted in the small town feel, to honor the way of life that brought a lot of us back.”

Stevie is happy to have returned to the loving arms of family, friends, coworkers, supportive customers, and fellow business owners. She envisions continuing to sign her Roundman’s emails for years to come: “Stevie and the Steves.”


Heidi Kraut

heidi1When Heidi left the Mendocino Coast for Texas A&M University in 1996, she envisioned becoming a cowgirl on the open range. Her qualifications included having been a 4H kid most of her life, owning a pair of cowgirl boots, and plans to major in agriculture and political science. It didn’t take her long to realize she was more interested in politics than agriculture. She kept the boots and began stumping for political campaigns. She had no idea that one day she’d return to the place of her birth and run her own campaign.


After college, Heidi stayed in Texas and sold real estate for a couple of years. “During that time, I realized College Station was a great place to be a student, but I no longer fit into that category.” In 2003, she moved back to her parents’ home in Caspar to regroup and figure out what to do with her life.

She worked for Sallie Mac and Frankie’s and took art classes at College of the Redwoods. In one of those classes, she met her future husband Todd Sorenson. “He’d graduated from the [College of the Redwoods] woodworking program in 2002 and was asked to return for a semester to teach a class.” They started dating and talked about moving out of the area. “We were never ready to go at the same time. When I was ready, he was involved in something he didn’t want to leave and vice versa.”

heidi2In 2008, they decided to stay and bought a house in Fort Bragg. “Every other year we do something exciting,” Heidi said with a laugh. In 2010, daughter Sadie was born. They married in 2012, and two years later had daughter Mara. This summer, Todd was appointed shop manager of the woodworking school.

Seven years ago, Heidi was hired to manage the Hospice Thrift Store. “I was given the keys to the small a-frame building across from the Botanical Gardens, many bags of clothes, and told to open the store. Thankfully I had a lot of great volunteers who helped.” In 2011, the store relocated to an expansive, bright space in the Boatyard Shopping Center.

“I was pleased by the strong community that formed among the volunteers—most of whom are in their seventies and eighties. Some people work as many hours as I do and others once or twice a week. They’re such an inspiration—living to the fullest every day and giving to others.”

heidi3Heidi strives to discover each volunteer’s passion. “Someone pointed out that our vinyl records weren’t marked with prices. I said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the captain of the Vinyl Department!’ Another said our picture frames were stacking up and looked disorganized. ‘Congratulations, you’re the captain of the Frame Department!’”

In 2013, Heidi ran for and won a seat on the Fort Bragg City Council, serving out the year and a half term vacated by Dan Gjerde. “It took a lot of time away from my family and my job, but it was exciting and important work.” She often took her young daughter Sadie to committee meetings. “One day Sadie placed stuffed animals around a little table in our living room. I asked if she was having a tea party. She said, ‘No, we’re having a meeting!’ I’ve either ruined her or set her up for something great.”

While serving on the council, Heidi witnessed Fort Bragg citizens become increasingly involved in expressing their opinions. “It’s so exciting to see a full house at meetings. People usually attend because they’re stirred up and afraid. They want to say no to a particular issue and that’s important. But it’s also important for people to attend when they want to say yes, they think something is a good idea.”

In 2014, Heidi ran for a second term on the council, but was defeated. She now serves on the Planning Commission. “A recent example of citizens saying ‘yes’ was when the proposed business Overtime Brewing was on the agenda. Dozens of supporters packed the room and made the commission’s job of approving it easier. It’s vital for public officials to hear the opinions of citizens.”

Heidi acknowledges that the transition to a tourist-based economy has been difficult for those whose lives were affected from the mill closure and decline in fishing. “We’ve gone from being a company town that assured fulltime jobs to a place where fulltime work sometimes has to be pieced together. People make it work, but it’s hard.

“Many people in Fort Bragg are dedicated to building a community to attract visitors who will spend money. The more we improve what our city has to offer, the greater chance we have of growing businesses to employ people and allow them to live here.”

Prime examples of these improvement efforts are the coastal trails that have been a huge hit with locals and tourists. “The Noyo Center for Marine Science is just getting started and doing amazing things. It will eventually attract links to universities. The North Coast Brewing Company has grown to where it’s bursting at the seams and they’re urging people to apply for jobs. Overtime Brewing is in the works, owned by people who grew up here.”

When Heidi returned to the coast in 2003, she was plagued by the mindset suffered by many in her situation—to come back means you’re a failure. “It took me a few years to realize it’s a good thing to come from a small town, a real accomplishment.

“There’s a perception that young people can’t make it here. That’s not true. There’s a great energy going on right now. In the past five years, I’ve seen a number of people return to buy beloved businesses to keep them intact. They’re buying houses and starting families. We’re living in one of the most exciting times I’ve ever seen in Fort Bragg.”

heidi4Heidi is a true gem. I could have talked with her for hours. However, I realize that no interview with a public official is complete without asking some hard-hitting questions.

How do you explain the rumor that you don’t cook and subsist on a diet of candy bars?

“I do love to cook—and even started eating vegetables a little bit. There were a few years though, in college, when I might have eaten Hershey bars and peanut butter for one or two meals a day. The peanut butter is very nutritious. The fun size Hershey bars can be used to scoop the peanut butter right out of the jar, so there are no spoons or dishes to wash. This saves both time and water.”

Do you still have your cowgirl boots?

“I think the ones I had in high school are gone, but I have a nice pair handed down from a friend that I sometimes wear when neither sneakers nor high heels fit the outfit/occasion.”

And what occasion might that be—running for a seat on the city council?

“Off the record….”

Dang! I can’t reveal the answer (unless enticed with large sums of money).

Inspecting the bounty on her micro farm.

Inspecting the bounty on her micro farm.

Sheila Struckmeyer

sheila5Sheila was raised on an organic farm in Fort Bragg and learned to make soaps, facial scrubs, and lip balms. She never imagined this knowledge would allow her to earn a living. As so often happens in life, one thing led to another and here she is—the owner of Bella Mia, a petite treasure tucked into the back room of Understuff on Main Street.


Born in 1976, Sheila grew up with a large extended family on the same property where her mother was raised. In addition to farming, her dad was a woodworker. “My family was self-sufficient. The attitude was if you want to do something, just do it. There were few limitations.”

Her mother had a passion for growing the unusual—like kohlrabi and currants. “In the early eighties these were novelties. Margaret Fox and Chris Kump (then owners of Café Beaujolais) were on the culinary edge and used uncommon ingredients in their dishes. Whenever I’d go on a delivery with my mom, Margaret would feed us something yummy.”


The effervescent Sheila welcomes visitors to her beautiful store.

Sheila’s formal education was a mixture of private, public and home schooling. “For a while I went to a Hippie school where no outdoor shoes were allowed inside. We had to change into Chinese slippers, and call teachers by their first names.” As a teenager in the early nineties, she wanted to go to “normal” school and wear designer jeans. She went to Mendocino High for a year before enrolling herself in Fort Bragg High. “They asked, ‘Where are your parents?’ I said, ‘Why do they need to be here?’” She laughs. “I was taught to take charge of things on my own. I never asked them to come with me.”

After graduating from high school at age 16, Sheila drove to Washington State with a boyfriend and lived in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.


She laughs. “My parents felt if that’s what I wanted, I should do it.”

After a year, the boyfriend and island living lost their appeal. She drove back to Fort Bragg.

Alone? At seventeen? Before cell phones?

Sheila employs a local soap maker to create these fabulous bars.

She laughs. “I never felt unsafe. There were plenty of rest stops along Interstate 5 that were clean and well-lit at night. When I got tired, I’d pull into one and sleep in my car. At each stop, there was a group of women volunteers—I think they were nuns— who handed out cookies.”

After a year of waitressing, she worked for the Village Toy Store in Mendocino. “The owners, Bill and Susie Carr, changed my life. They encouraged me to have a career, taught me bookkeeping, and how to run a business. I started saving for retirement at the age of 18. I consider them family and we remain close.”

The toy store job sparked a love of working retail. After the Carr’s sold their business, Sheila worked for a number of stores. A job at Sallie Mac nudged her to open her own business. “She carried an exclusive line of skin care products from a French company that required all sales people to go through extensive training in order to present them properly. I learned a lot about how these are made and why certain ingredients are chosen.”

Sheila combined her knowledge of organic skin care products with that of aromatherapist friend Melanie Knox and made gifts for friends and family. They eventually expanded their operation to sell at craft fairs.

“Our first craft fair was the opening day of the 2008 Whale Festival—the one that had the worst weather ever on that Saturday morning. There was thunder, lightning, hail, and torrential rain. We set up in the Company Store and I worried we wouldn’t sell a thing. But we sold out in five hours and made $1,000. We were so excited.”

sheilaWhile traveling the craft fair circuit and working for her mother (who owned a nursery), Sheila contemplated opening a store. Her husband Michael wasn’t sure it could be successful. They’ve been married 10 years and come from very different backgrounds. “I have a sense of no limitations while he’s more conservative.”

They met at the Tip Top one night when she was the sober driver for a young friend’s twenty-first birthday. He lived in Sacramento, but his family had a house on the coast that he’d been visiting most of his life. “We dated for a year. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, exactly a year after we met, he proposed to me in the place we had our first kiss—his parents’ house on Todd’s Point.” He moved to Fort Bragg and works for North Coast Plumbing.

Drawing on the can-do spirit in which she was raised, Sheila spotted a “For Rent” sign on Laurel Street in 2012 and 15 days later opened Bella Mia.

In 2013 her mom was diagnosed with ALS and died two years later. Helping her mom through her illness and mourning her death took a tremendous emotional toll on Sheila. “Creativity and grieving don’t go hand in hand. I felt like I couldn’t make anything or go to my shop and make chit chat. I had lost my mom, so what else mattered? My lease was coming up in April of this year. I wanted to close the store. Hilary [White] had lost her father six months before my mom died and knew how I felt, but was concerned that I’d regret that decision. She had an empty room in the back of Understuff and convinced me to move in. I’m so grateful to her.”

sheila2Like other business owners, Sheila works long hours, but enjoys being her own boss. “If I decide to do something, I do it. I don’t have to discuss it with anybody.” She makes her products daily. My personal favorite is her Mendo Rain soap. Imagine standing on the Mendocino Headlands on a crisp, clear morning after a storm. Take a deep breath. Sheila has captured this pure, clean aroma in her liquid soap. (If you live out of the area and can’t get to the headlands, order it and you’ll see what I mean.)

“I like the creative process of making things. I can be focused and completely present in the task—Zen.” This Zen quality is manifested in her store—it feels harmonious and, even though well stocked, has a minimalist feeling, allowing for a relaxed shopping experience. She’s proud that most of her customers are locals.

Sheila hopes someday Fort Bragg’s economy returns to a balance between business and tourism—where businesses are created to help young people stay here. In the meantime, she continues to do what she can to add to the economy while generously sharing her joyful spirit.sheila3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part II

spartan5It was a cool gray morning at Giants Stadium by the Bay. I shivered not from the cold, but from utter terror as I watched Spartan participants run up to the very top deck of seats. I’m terrified of heights to the point where I start to hyperventilate. I could not do this. What was I doing here?

My brain ping-ponged for a solution. I stood behind my teammates, hiding my anxiety. Yvette had the logo “Bald Hill Cattle Company” printed on the back of her shirt. I did something I rarely do—asked for help. She agreed to stay directly in front of me while we traversed the stairs. I would focus on that logo, not on the vast distance between the elevation, the playing field, and the endless stretch of water beyond.

In that moment, I surrendered. I accepted that it was okay to be the laggard of the pack. Others could take the lead. I was content to follow.

spartan2It was time for Team Mendo to queue up. Bethany (who had finished her competitive race in under 40 minutes) announced she would run the course again with us. She had been the key force behind getting us to this place. She was going to see us through to the end. We walked around a corner to encounter our first obstacle—a four-foot fence to scale before we got in line.

I chuckled. Here we go.

Participants were released every minute or so in sets of 20. As each set waited, an emcee got the group jacked up by yelling, “WHO ARE YOU?” to which the group responded, “WE ARE SPARTANS!” My mind whispered, “I’m a scared little wieny.”

We were off and running down the lower deck of stadium stairs, into the basement to the Giants’ locker room where we were to perform 20 pushups. Halfway through my set I noticed the room smelled like years of embedded sweat. I found it funny that this place belonging to a major league baseball team smelled like any high school boys’ locker room.

The obstacles blur in my memory, but a few stand out. The first wall we encountered was eight feet tall. As I contemplated failure, Bethany rushed up and hunkered down with her fingers laced. “Put your foot in here,” she commanded. She boosted me up and I lurched over. Some obstacles later, we repeated the same move. Near the end was a six-foot wall. I turned to Bethany, like a child to her mother, and said, “Help me.” She said, “You can do it.” And by God I did—with a running leap I was up and over.

It was thrilling to accomplish obstacles I didn’t think I could do—like pick up a 50-pound concrete cylinder, carry it 20 feet, put it down, do five burpees, pick it up, carry it back, and do five more burpees. A shot of adrenaline propelled me onward where I got another shot and another until I was halfway through the race, shouting, “This is fun!” and meaning it.

My fear of heights was put to the test early. I kept my focus on Yvette’s “Bald Hill Cattle Company” logo and used a hand as a blinder to block out the scenery far below. Up to the top deck of seats and over, down and over, up and over again, I refused to let my gaze waiver, concentrating only on taking the next step. I nearly cried with relief when it was over.

spartanraceAbout ten obstacles later, we were told to pick up a 20-pound beanbag and go out to the stands. I’ll be damned if on the other side of the stadium—the side I hadn’t seen earlier—we didn’t have to repeat a mirror trek to the upper deck. By then I was a full on adrenaline junkie. I’d done it before, I could do it again. This time I didn’t have to rely on “Bald Hill Cattle Company.” Instead, it was “Hell yeah, bitch—I got this!”

Spartan rules dictate that when you fail an obstacle you must do 30 burpees. I only missed two—the rope climb and the spear throw. I didn’t even attempt the rope climb—in training for it, I’d hurt my back. I missed the spear throw by an inch.

The last obstacle was the monkey bars. I’d tried it a couple of times in training, barely able to hold myself stationary for more than a few seconds before feeling my arms were going to rip from my shoulder sockets. I headed toward the burpee area when Yvette said, “I’ll help you.” I jumped up and grabbed the first bar. She clutched my legs and literally carried me across. Between her and Bethany, our other two team mates also got across.

spartan8When it was Yvette’s turn, Bethany tried to assist. A Spartan monitor appeared, yelling, “You can’t help her.” Bethany said we were a team and we’d been helping each other all the way. He barked, “You can’t help her on this one.” Bethany countered, “We just helped three of our teammates with this one.” He stood firm.

In retrospect, we should have jumped him and beat the crap out of him. Instead, we watched as poor Yvette struggled halfway through before dropping. Disappointed, she prepared to do her burpees. The team told her to stand aside—we’d each do eight for her.

spartan7I rose from my final burpee and looked into the stands to find my son Harrison, daughter Laine, and her boyfriend Jeff smiling at me. (My husband Gary and daughter-in-law Kasi couldn’t be there.) I raised my arms and jumped up and down. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our team ran through a series of punching bags to the finish line. We linked arms and crossed together. On the other side, our necks were draped with a ribbon holding the heaviest medal we’d ever received. We laughed and hugged and posed for pictures.

We are now part of that crazy cult called Spartans.spartan3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part I

I’ve never considered myself a competitive person—unless you count growing up with four siblings and competing for the attention of my overwhelmed parents. During my first five decades on the planet, I also never considered myself an athlete or remotely fond of physical activity.

earth dayOn Earth Day 1971, I was a junior in high school. My sister (a sophomore) and I decided to honor the day by walking instead of driving the five miles to school. We stopped for three cigarette breaks and once to smoke a joint. At the end of the day, we walked eight blocks, decided the trek home would be too arduous, and stuck out our thumbs to hitch a ride. Our Spanish teacher picked us up and gave a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking until he deposited us on the curb outside our house. We crept to the backyard to enjoy a smoke before going inside.

I smoked off and on for the next 30 years, entertaining myself during the off years with Dance Aerobics in the eighties and walking my dogs in the nineties. At the age of 50, my teenage son needed me to sign consent for him to join a gym. Before I knew it, I’d also signed up. I’ll admit I fell for the sales pitch of the family discount, but also hoped that exercise classes might help shed the 15 pounds menopause had piled on and make me feel less like a sausage packed into my clothing.

photo(1)My friend Kathleen and I took classes, worked out on our own, and eventually, with a personal trainer. We grew stronger and, I dare say, a little cocky. Six years into this regimen, she suggested we do a triathlon. I agreed before I fully knew what it meant (or how to spell it)—a half-mile swim, 22-mile bike ride, and 5k run. We worked out six days a week, and created a motto: To finish is to win.

We finished.

This race taught me: (1) I’m more physically capable than I think I am; and (2) I will never do it again (the open water swim was terrifying). But the experience was a tipping point—it made me yearn to challenge my body and expand my capabilities.

I started entering local 5k races. The year I turned 60, I won first place in my age category in two races—not because I’m fast, but because I was either the only woman in that category or the few others were a lot older. The year I turned 61, I ran five races, motivated by the fact that my friend Sandy would turn 60 the next year and she’s much faster than I am. That would be my last year to collect ribbons and medals. (I got four.)

spartan1This past January, a group of fellow gym rats—Beth, Yvette, and Jan—invited me to join their Spartan team for the May race at AT&T Park. My personal trainer Bethany had done a number of these and always came back battered and bruised, but high on accomplishment. I watched a YouTube video and told the group, “What kind of crazy would do such a thing? I’m 62 years old for God’s sake. I work out four times a week and run 5k races. Leave me alone.”

They kept me on their email thread. A few weeks later, I asked Bethany if she thought, with proper training, I was capable of the challenge. “You could do it today,” she said.

I signed up.

Fear of failure and letting my teammates down became major motivators. I was two, eight, and thirteen years older than the other three members of my group. I pushed myself—strength training and running six times a week. I won’t lie, training wasn’t easy. For example, I’d never run more than 3.10 miles (5k) in my life. Each quarter mile beyond that was exhausting, but I kept at it until four, four and a half, and five miles wasn’t so bad. Six point two miles (10k) was—and still is—a bitch, but I know I can do it and I’ll do it again.

I grew stronger, but no matter how hard I trained, I was the slowest and weakest of the team. In many areas of my life, I’ve excelled or been at least average. It pissed me off that I’d slipped to the lower end of the bell curve. I tried to avoid bitterness and accept my weaknesses. I succeeded about a quarter of the time. Many days I wanted to quit, but kept going. It felt good to be part of a group working toward a common goal.

Panic-in-Needle-Park-WinnI had four months to obsess on the Spartan Race. Each time I thought about it, a bolt of fear struck my heart, ricochet down to my stomach, and left me feeling nauseated.

This held true until the morning of the race as my team and I watched young hard-bodied competitors rush through the course while we waited for our 9:30 start time. We’d arrived early to watch Bethany run the competitive race. (We weren’t considered competitors—we were “fun” runners.)