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Writing Exercises 

Vermonters recall their most memorable fitness moments

Published January 15, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

Dr. Charlie Houston: retired physician and mountain climber

"We had walked for a month to get to the base of the mountain and climbed for three weeks more to reach 26,000 feet," Charlie Houston recalls. "We were within reach of the summit, we thought, when a fierce storm struck us, imprisoning all eight of us in our tents. The storm raged for 10 days. On the second or third day, Art complained of pain in his leg. I managed to examine him and found blood clots had formed. He could not walk. He could not possibly climb down the difficult route we had followed." While the storm continued to rage and the climbers grew weaker, Houston and his companions had to decide what to do. Some choices were out of the question. "We could not leave Art. We would have to try to get him down."

When the storm slackened slightly they bundled up Art, semi-conscious, and started to lower him down over rocks on a new route they had not seen before. The steep slope they had climbed was now an avalanche trap. "After four or five hours of labor, in blinding snow and wind, we lowered him over a small cliff, secured him by rope to one member of the party and tried to climb down. One of us fell, pulling everyone else off. By some miracle, our rope tangled with the rope by which Art was belayed. By an even greater miracle, Pete was able to hold the six of us falling."

They retreated to one side, but when they went back to bring Art with them, an avalanche had swept him away.

"Next day, all of us slightly injured, we managed to find our way down. It took four days to get back to security and safety at base camp in Pakistan."

Brian Tyrol: co-owner of CAD Cut and skillet-thrower

Brian Tyrol and his family were visiting relatives in Conway, Massachusetts, at the time of the Fall Foliage Festival. There was a parade with new fire engines and old citizens -- Dot, 102, and Louise, 95 -- followed by exotic foods and a belly-dancing demonstration by Cindy's School of Dance.

But the highlight of the day was the skillet-throwing contest. Though Brian was reluctant to enter, he bowed to family pressure. "You can just imagine the other entrants," says his wife, Adelaide. "Huge, shaved-head motorcycle guys in black leather; strong, silent dairy farmers, 20-year-old body builders and a few enormous women of unknown vocations, though I know one was a cop."

The event lasted an hour and a half. When Brian's turn finally came, says Adelaide, "My man threw that freakin' slab of iron out of the park." Brian's brother brayed, "Free drinks at the Conway Inn!" Life was glorious. About 12 more contestants threw. Brian not only beat the record that day but bested the previous year's champion as well. The contest was over and the family was heading out to collect kudos and the prize, people shaking Brian's hand along the way, when they saw a huge, Nordic, 25-year-old demi-god striding across the battlefield.

They stopped. The demi-god approached the booth and asked if he could add his name. Though entries had closed an hour earlier, the officials conceded. The man walked up to the line, flexed and threw -- poorly. But a bystander said he had overstepped the line and should re-throw. He did, and beat Brian by a few inches.

Brian won a pair of scissors. There were no free drinks at the Conway Inn. But the Tyrols still keep an old iron skillet in the boiler room for pre-fall-festival workouts, just in case.

Chuck Courcy: Rock Point property caretaker and kayaker

When Chuck Courcy isn't patrolling the cliffs and trails at the Rock Point Episcopal Center in Burlington, he's out skiing, hiking or mountain biking. The former U.S. Navy submariner also enjoys being out on the water. Kayaking with a more experienced friend down the Huntington River one day in early spring, Courcy capsized.

"It was only the third or fourth time I'd done whitewater kayaking," he says. "And it was a little sketchy. We didn't really know if the river was navigable." The water temperature was between 35 and 40 degrees when he flipped over into it. "I was heading toward an overhanging branch. I heard my buddy say, 'Don't touch the --' and I was underwater instantaneously." His wetsuit kept him somewhat insulated from the cold, but it didn't help him breathe. "I was stuck under a tree, and I had all this water pressure pinning me down," he explains. "I was definitely running out of air."

Courcy estimates he spent 30 seconds submerged before he managed to free himself, at which point he retrieved his boat and kept paddling down the river. Courcy has since given up whitewater kayaking. "At least until my daughter's old enough to try it," he says. "Then maybe we'll take lessons."

Cris Toomey: math curriculum coordinator and hiker

It wasn't exactly the Grand Canyon, but the 300-foot-deep rock chasm in Arizona seemed challenging enough to Cris Toomey a decade ago. The Burlington native, then a Prescott College junior majoring in outdoor and environmental education, was one of two "orientation leaders" guiding 10 fellow students on a required three-week "canyoneering" trip.

"The ground was dry, but September is monsoon season in the desert," recalls Toomey, now 31. "It had rained, so flash flooding was a possibility. As we descended along a small wash, half of our group stopped on a little ledge about a half-mile from the rim."

That's when they heard what sounded like wind. "But we looked up and the trees weren't moving," Toomey explains. "We shouted, 'Get up high!' Everyone scrambled. Seconds later, a five-foot wall of water and debris came crashing down. We could've been killed."

For almost four hours, the torrent kept those escaping the ledge separated from the others, who had taken shelter about 100 feet away. "We couldn't cross until it subsided," Toomey says.

Although she now works in a less hazardous setting as the math curriculum coordinator for a Williston grade school, Toomey's springtime vacation plans include canyoneering in Utah with 15 friends.

Arthur Kunin: retired internist and swimmer

After running for about 30 years and competing in half-a-dozen marathons, Arthur Kunin found the cartilage in one of his knees deteriorating. "I had one of those fancy arthroscopic procedures," the seventysomething retired M.D. relates. When the orthopedist warned him against hitting the pavement again, Kunin opted for a less punishing fitness regime.

For the last year or so, about five days a week, the former med school prof has been swimming at the UVM pool. "It's wonderful to slip into the water," Kunin rhapsodizes. "It might be a little chilly at first, but it doesn't matter what the stroke is: It's just glorious. Your hands are in this warm fluid and you can feel yourself being propelled by your arms and your palms not forcefully, but very gracefully moving along." He compares the solitary experience of swimming laps to being in a vast, Pre-Cambrian sea.

Kunin's specialty, nephrology, attracted him because he was fascinated by the problems of salt and water. "The kidneys are the most remarkable organ of homeostasis," he explains. "Most diseases are really a distortion of what ordinarily should be a constancy of the internal environment."

No wonder it's been so easy for him to get in the swim of his new fitness plan.

Ken Picard: Seven Days staff writer and former park ranger

For about four years, Ken Picard worked outside of Austin, Texas, as a park ranger on the lower Colorado River in an area known as Pace Bend Park: 1500 acres of limestone cliffs, sandy beaches, thorny mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus, white-tailed deer and drunk Texans. The park was a popular destination for water-sport enthusiasts, as well as Austin teenagers who tested their testicular fortitude by hurling themselves face-first off the cliffs to see who could survive the fall. As an Emergency Medical Technician, Ken was expected to mop up the sorry souls who lacked a self-preservation gene.

"Among the few perks of my otherwise tedious, low-paying job were the county's training sessions, which were often as pointless as they were fun," says Picard. "My most memorable class required that I suit up in fins, wetsuit, life vest and climbing harness, then climb aboard the skids of a helicopter and learn how to deploy into the lake. The exercise is known as a '10-and-10,' or leaping from 10 feet at an air speed of 10 knots. The odds that I would find myself in the county's rescue helicopter suited up for such a task were about the same as if I put a bit in my mouth and won the Kentucky Derby. No matter. This was a hoot, so I played along."

Moving helicopters are mind-numbingly loud, so all commands involved hand signals. When his "commander" gave the thumbs-up, Picard unclipped his harness, turned outward, clutched the family jewels as directed by his instructor, and leapt. "Unfortunately, my commander failed to inform the pilot that he was ready, so we all hit the water from a higher altitude at a faster speed. Ten feet and 10 knots it was not."

With the wind knocked out of him, he waited as the county Jet Ski approached to drag his limp frame to shore in a rescue basket. Then he got in line for another turn, which never came.

Louise McCarren: Fletcher Allen Board of Trustees chair and marathoner

Years ago, Louise McCarren used to swim every day. "At 5:30 in the morning," she says, "you have to remember to bring everything with you. One day -- when I happened to have an important hearing -- I reached into my bag and realized I had forgotten a blouse. I did have a yellow T-shirt, though. I put on the T-shirt, and the pearls, over a gray wool suit. But no one said anything about it. No one is going to say anything when you are chair of the Public Service Board."

Josh Bridgman: parking garage attendant and playwright

"The most 'sports' I usually do is chess," says writer and actor Josh Bridgman, who prefers a rumpled overcoat to a sweatshirt any day. Though the 33-year-old bespectacled parking garage attendant has never played on a sports team, he fondly recalls a basket he made during a basketball game in junior high.

"Once, when I was in gym class in the seventh grade, I threw the ball and it went into the net." Bridgman, who wasn't even trying for a basket, scored from the right-hand corner of the floor. "I remember being very scared," he says. "I was being chased... I was surrounded, too, by the opposing team. I just threw it. The hand of the gods took it and dropped it into the net. Everybody was surprised. They were like, 'How did you do that, Josh?' It was one of those, like, next-to-impossible things that happen. Kind of quantum, in a way. It ended up winning the game."

A customer at the Burlington City Parking Garage recently handed Bridgman a free pass to a local gym. "I might try it," he says, sounding skeptical. "But I might break my back or something."

Jennie Davis: food security coordinator and runner

Jennie Davis runs between three to six miles a few times a week. "But I'm not one of those biking-hiking-craziness-all-the-time kind of people," she insists.

Last May she signed up as part of a relay team for the Burlington City Marathon. She planned on running five miles. But then her teammates started dropping out of the relay. "One woman was sick, and one woman called me on the morning of the marathon and said, 'I don't feel like running.'" Davis decided to run anyway, and see how far she could go. Though she had never run more than eight miles at a time, Davis finished the entire 26.2-mile race in four hours, 29 minutes. "I just felt like I could keep going," she says. "All the people on the sidelines were cheering, and the people I met while I was running kept saying, 'Come on, you can do it!'"

Davis says all the encouragement helped, but she isn't sure what kept her going. "I have no idea how I ran it," she says. "The funniest thing is that a friend of mine had been training from January on, and I came in 11 minutes after him."

John McKone: Ski Rack sales associate and bike racer

John McKone was part of a team in a multi-day race called the Cascade Cycling Classic. One "stage" was a 90-mile race that involved 8000 feet of climbing and multiple mountain sprints. "After the first two sprints," he recalls, "we knew that we weren't going to place in that stage. But still looming before us was a 25-mile climb up to the top of this mountain pass at 4000 feet."

McKone knew he was in for a tough day when he saw one pro get off his bike and run into the woods to get sick. "I came around another turn and one of the elite climbers had his legs over his bike in cramps. I've never felt that bad -- the tank was empty. I had tunnel vision, I was seeing spots, and I still had to finish an hour and a half of climbing. I would have made a deal with the devil at that point to get off the bike."

Don Eggert: Seven Days art director and non-rower

Freshman year at Middlebury, Don Eggert decided he was going to join crew. In high school he'd been mediocre in sports, and he'd heard that rowing was a good way to get buff. The only catch was that new members had to pass a swim test.

The test took place on a weekend: two laps, any stroke, then 10 minutes of treading water without touching the bottom. "It was just a formality," Eggert says. "But I've never done laps. Ever. I did the first lap okay. The second lap I kind of doggie-paddled. I'm sure I touched the bottom a few times. Then I had to tread water. I did it in the shallow end, and I kept cheating, touching the bottom when no one was looking. When the 10 minutes were over, I went over to the side of the pool and tried to get out. I was aching all over. Going to the locker room, I was hunched over and almost crawling. I could hardly even lift my legs to change."

Finally, he stumbled out onto the college green. He could see the health office in the distance, and knew that he had to make his way there. "I took five steps, fell to my knees and threw up all over the green." An older student who came to help assumed he'd been drinking, Eggert says. "I felt compelled to tell him the truth: that I was a crew-loser who couldn't handle a swim test. I ended up never doing any sports in college.

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