Monday, February 19, 2007

Sinkhole Pioneers: Mohonk Mountain House in upstate NY

I spent the weekend as my girlfriend’s guest at the charter school world’s equivalent of a Star Trek convention. The convention was held at a castle-like hotel/lodge deep in the heart of the most secluded section of upstate New York. The lodge had been, at one point in its history, a ten-room building, but subsequent additions had increased its size to six floors and about 1,000 rooms. The lodge’s tack-on growth gave it a disjointed feel: hallways were illogical and sometimes dead-ended suddenly, sound carried through walls and between floors, the carpeted hallways had small undulations in them that initially caused me to stumble about, and the lodge’s many carpeted stairwells were difficult to find.

Although my plastic-sheathed nametag listed me as a “significant other,” it only took a few minutes for me to realize that this somewhat overstated my importance in the eyes of the convention planners. After eating an early breakfast with my girlfriend and hundreds of charter school gurus in a large formal dining room (jackets required), my girlfriend was whisked away for ten hours of presentations, role-plays, and panel discussions. On my fancy convention agenda sheet, from the hours 8:30am to 6:30pm, a single word was printed: freetime. I took advantage of my "freetime" and explored the far reaches of the near-empty (everyone else was in the conference room) rambling lodge and became familiar with the idiosyncrasies of its layout and its staff.

While I am not usually especially sneaky (my ankles crack when I walk), having all the time in the world allowed me to stake out areas and let my prey come to me. As I sat in the library pretending to read, I overhead two of the staff members make a pact to ignore “Mabel.” While clinging to the side of the pool and catching my breath during a pause in my swim workout, I heard one lifeguard tell another that she couldn’t wait to get "blitzed” later that night. And while dozing on a couch on the landing of a secluded stairwell, I heard one bellhop say to another, “I can get along with anyone who isn’t easily intimidated.”

The rest of my day was spent shooting racks of straight pool in the billiard room, snowshoeing through the surrounding wilderness, and setting all the time trial records on the N64 Mario Kart that I found hooked up in the game room.

By dinner, I was actually was looking forward to rejoining my fellow humans, but after the day-long grind the conference-goers were zombie-like and mostly incapable of holding normal conversations. So I kept myself entertained by taking two unofficial polls:
Question #1: Can you name the title of any show that has ever aired on the Spanish-language television channel Telemundo?
Question #2: Can you name any American distance runner, past or present?

Of the 37 people I polled, 3 were able to name a Telemundo show (all three referenced “Betty La Fea,” the show that spawned “Ugly Betty”). Zero of the people polled where able to name an American distance runner.

I found this fascinating, especially since the greatest run in the history of American distance running may have occurred just last month when Ryan Hall, running without the benefit of a pace-setter, beat the American half-marathon record by one minute and twelve seconds. Hall’s first mile was in 4:38. His time, 59:43, was the 9th fastest all-time. (Incidentally, if you look closely at the picture of Hall finishing, you can see where he wrote his split times in ink on the back of his hand. Who needs a GPS watch when you have a BIC pen?)

At a time when even the casual sports fan knows so-called fringe-sport athletes, such as Lance Armstrong, Michelle Wie, Travis Pastrana, and Tony Hawk, American distance runners are virtually unknown. In an effort to educate, here are five other long-distance running performances that might also be considered the best in American history:
1. Craig Virgin, the little known contemporary of Steve Prefontaine, won the World Cross-Country Championships in 1980 and 1981.
2. Billy Mills won the gold medal in the 1964 Olympic 10k. His winning time of 28:24.4 was almost 50 seconds faster than he had ever run before and set a new Olympic record for the event.
3. Bob Kennedy was the first non-African to break 13:00 in the 5k (12.58.21).
4. Two years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Khalid Khannouchi won the 2002 London Marathon in a World Record 2:05:38, becoming the first person to break 2 hours and 6 minutes in the marathon.
5. Seven years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Mebrahtom "Meb" Keflezighi won the silver medal in the marathon (2:11:29) in the 2004 Olympics. Meb also holds the American 10k record (27:13.98).

After dinner, my girlfriend and her convention-mates, with nametags askew and matching robin’s-egg-blue folders in hand, funneled back into the main conference room for their 7:30pm - 11:30pm night session. I stayed behind in the now-deserted dining room and methodically ate all eight of the mostly-untouched lemon sherbet desserts that remained at my table.

Some additional post-dinner exploration turned up a small basement room with a comfortable couch and a 42inch flatscreen TV, and I settled down to watch Phil Mickelson lose to Charles Howell III at the Nissan Open. I was disturbed only once, when a staff member entered and asked if “everything was okay.” I recognized him as the Mabel shunner, and I said, “No, everything is not okay. My life has gone to shit since you stopped talking to Mabel.” He left the room looking exactly like the scared twenty-year-old he was.

I felt bad for spooking him, but after having been alone for most of the day, I was beginning to believe that isolation was something worth protecting, and like my Sentinelese brethren, I felt it necessary to shoot arrows, verbal or otherwise, at intruders. After the staff member left, I went back to attempting to maintain an interest in a Tigerless, early-season professional golf tournament, but found my mind wandering to other things, such as how Florida's impending submersion will affect 1. the game of golf and 2. the dwelling place of my parents.

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