Day 23: Camp Nelson, CA to Lake Isabella, CA

September 25th, 2012

65.7 mi / 5:32:34 time / 11.8 mph avg. /4344  ft. climbing
Staying at Boulder Gulch National Forest Campground

I was dumb enough to schedule some stupidly difficult days into this trip, but luckily I was smart enough to surround them with easier days where I could have a chance to recover. This was one of those easier days, so I lazed around and didn’t hit the road until 8:30, padlocking the bathhouse on the way out to prevent the deer hunters from coming by and taking all the toilet paper and stuff (really? Apparently all the people in Camp Nelson aren’t as awesome as the ones I met.)

Ok, so it wasn’t an easy day at the beginning. Of the 6200 foot climb I began yesterday, I had 2300 left to go today. But it’s remarkable how much easier a climb is when you don’t already have 77 miles under your belt, when it’s 40 degrees cooler, and perhaps most importantly from a mental perspective, when you know that you aren’t in a race against nightfall. So I knocked out the first 1500 feet without stopping, and then only took a second break because I saw a pretty meadow.

At the top is Ponderosa, another town-in-a-building that seems common in this area, where a restaurant, bar, general store, gas, and maybe motel are combined in a single complex. It was after 10:30, but the cook was nice enough to still make me some breakfast (the usual French Toast and sausage, which I don’t think I’ve had since Tahoe).
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The rest of the day, 50+ miles, was basically a roll downhill. I stopped for a bit at The Trail of 100 Giants to see some more giant Sequoias, and found I could actually ride my bike down the asphalt path which was nice. I didn’t do the whole thing, which is good, because just after I got back on the road, as I passed a cow that I said “moo” to, I saw a road cyclist coming the other way. We gave each other a big wave, but he suddenly slammed on the brakes and turned around. Well, I guess cyclists of any type aren’t common here (heck, vehicles of any type aren’t common!) and maybe he has some interest in long-distance touring. Only then did I notice that he was another tourer! Jeremiah was the first that I had seen in the 12 days I’d been on Adventure Cycling’s Sierra Cascades route. The reason I didn’t notice at first is because his setup is totally different than mine. His bike is a road bike, with tightly stuffed bags suspended and extending fore and after from the handlebars and seat, and a backpack on his back. In all he said his total weight is 70 lbs., so not a whole lot less than me, and he acknowledged that panniers may be in his future. I also wonder if shoes different than the Vibram Five-Fingers are in his future. He’d started 11 days ago at Tecate, Mexico, and it sounded like he planned to do the Sierra Cascades route to Canada, then come back down the Pacific Coast Route. We shared info about the road ahead for each other, he got my photo (don’t know why I didn’t get his), and wished each other much luck! If he has as much as I’ve had on my trip, he’ll be ok.

A bit more screaming downhill, and then I finally crossed into the Kern River Valley. Unlike the other Sierra rivers, which basically flow west into the Central Valley, the Kern goes straight south, and in its upper reaches (which I would not be exploring) are surrounded by some tremendously tall mountains, as it basically cuts the Sierras in half lengthwise. It also must kill a lot of people, judging by all the signs warning of danger (and even the Camp Nelson bartender had mentioned its treachery). There definitely were a lot of rocks and tumbling water, but I managed to find a quiet spot to dip my feet, and wash all of yesterday’s salt out of my shirt.
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In Kernville, I reached the destination I’ve been waiting for since Oregon: the Kern River Brewing Company. Kernville is admittedly the largest town I’ve been through since Lee Vining outside Yosemite, but that’s not saying a lot, so it’s still a surprising place to find a brewpub, and I vowed to do my best to support their continued existence. I started with their new Dirty Hippie Imperial Red Ale, and a 3 taco plate, both of which were so good I went with a second round of both, their IPA, and three more tacos (swapping out the fish for tri-tip this time). And lucky for me, Monday just happens to be Taco Special Night! The only thing missing was WiFi, but I had decent mobile reception, so I did some Internetting there while waiting for the afternoon to cool and my wits to re-stabilize.
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I don’t think I’ve done an early-dinner-followed-by-short-ride-to-campground this whole trip, and that’s something I always enjoy. Everything seems easier in the cooler weather, after a break, and with a belly and brain fueled by beer. So in another 8 miles I was in the campground, actually going a few miles further than planned for the first time, partly on Jeremiah’s recommendation.

I think I’m going to make it!
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Day 18: Yosemite Valley, CA

September 20th, 2012

10 mi / time / mph avg. / ft. climbing
Staying at Lower Pines Campground

Today, the first and only off-day scheduled in the trip, was a day to rest. And a day to eat. Maybe the latter being more of a priority than the former. I put down a quick 1600 calories before I even left the tent in the morning. Apple juice, banana, yogurt, 2.5 bagels, and a frosted cheese Danish.

Most of the campground seemed pretty accustomed to the “rising with the light” thing I’m used to, and if they weren’t, the explosive slams of all the dumpsters being emptied by the garbage truck woke up any stragglers. But hardly anyone was out in the park when I hit the trail at 8am. Which was unfortunate for them, because the temperatures were perfect, the light was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else out there.

Yosemite Falls, the spectacular waterfall seen from the valley floor, has stopped running by this time of year, so I went to see two year-round waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada. Vernal is a thin ribbon that drops right down the face of a sheer cliff into a round pool, as if it wasn’t expecting the road to end. So it’s a bit similar to Yosemite in that way (but not in scale). Nevada is more of a gusher, falling wildly and then splaying out on a granite slope halfway down. The trail gives a view of both falls from below and at the top, so you definitely get your money’s worth on the loop that hits them both. Vernal had this really cool Emerald Pool at the top, and then a Silver Apron, which is basically the world’s most-tempting, all-natural Slip’n’Slide flowing across a sheet of granite. There are signs all around warning that swimming isn’t allowed there, because of course this Slip’n’Slide ends in a fall to your death.
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At the top of Nevada Falls at 10am I took a break for 1000 calories of 2nd breakfast, consisting of the last 1.5 bagels from the 6-pack, some mini-donuts, and a can of sliced peaches in heavy syrup (and that’s the key, the store almost tricked me with some “lite” garbage!) The trip back was via the John Muir Trail, and luckily the stupid mule train headed down another branch just before I caught up to them. Around noon I rejoined the section of trail I started out on four hours earlier, but this time, it was crammed with people heading up, in the full heat of the sun, with the harsh light not doing Yosemite’s crags any favors. Maybe that’s why, yesterday, I felt like a lot of people I saw coming off the trails in the late afternoon had pretty grim looks for people hiking in such an awesome place. Start earlier, people!
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So a 7 mile hike that took me up (and down) 1900 feet might not exactly be “easy”, but I was done 5 or 6 hours before I’d normally be done riding. I lazed in my cool, pine-shaded campsite for bit, then hopped on the unloaded bike to see if there was anything interesting at Yosemite Village or the Lodge. There really wasn’t, and surprisingly, the lodge isn’t quite the architectural centerpiece that it is at many other National Parks. But I picked up some groceries for another 2000 calories back at camp. Ham sandwich on ciabatta, hummus, carrots, a load of chips, and a Limited Edition Mammoth brew featuring wet wild-grown hops.

Eventually the sun moved around a tree and began shining on my picnic table, but I wasn’t done eating yet so I grabbed my beer and bag of donuts and walked down to the river, found a nice rock to sit on, and put my feet in the cool, clear, flowing water. Ah, now that’s the stuff. When I finished my donuts and eventually mustered the energy to haul my ass off the rock, I took off downstream, just tromping right through the shallow water. I climbed on top of a big old stump, I walked down the length of a huge fallen tree and discovered at the end that it bounced like a diving board, I walked under a bridge and listened to my voice echo with a little girl playing there, and on the other side found a deep emerald pool where I finally couldn’t resist anymore, took off my shirt, stashed my phone on a rock, and dove in. Oh, so cold. And the sun so warm. And Half Dome watching me the whole time. It was perfect. It seems kind of dumb that my best memory from Yosemite will be not some epic climb up a cliff, or visually soaking in an otherworldly scene, but simply playing around in a river. But that’s what it is!
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I dried up, did some bike maintenance, then headed over to Curry Village’s Pizza Deck (which seemed to have an even higher German percentage visiting than the rest of the park that already seemed half-German). If I lowball my 8-slice sausage/mushroom pizza (plus yet another Mammoth beer) at 2000 calories, that puts me at 6600 calories for the day. The crazy thing is, it probably still wasn’t enough! I noticed lots of people with their phones out sitting on the deck at the building across the way, and hey, it’s because they have open WiFi! And the only power outlet I’ve seen in the whole park, and shockingly, no one was using it. I totally didn’t expect it to work, but it did. Service was a bit dodgy, which meant my return to camp was a bit longer after sunset than I wanted, but I managed to upload the last couple days’ entries. Back to work tomorrow! (no, not that work, the work where no one pays me and my accomplishments exist only in my memory!)
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Day 14: Sierraville, CA to Lake Tahoe, CA

September 16th, 2012

60.1 mi / 5:11:15 time / 11.5 mph avg. / 3816 ft. climbing
Staying at Fallen Leaf Lake National Forest Campground

Today was the closest thing I’ve had to an Oregon day since we were actually riding in Oregon. Similar distance, similar total amount of climbing (ok, maybe a bit more), similar style of climbing (achieved it all with no single hill greater than 800 feet), I slept in and didn’t hit the road ’til late, got into camp at 4pm, and I even had a bowl of clam chowder! The main differences we that my base altitude was over a mile above sea level, and I had some really strong winds to fight. Oh, and Joel seemed to have gone missing.

The first 10 miles continued on that beautiful new asphalt. It was shoulder-less, but traffic was light and not a single logging truck was seen today. That might be just because it’s Saturday, but prior reports indicate the route should get better anyway. When crossing from Sierra County into Nevada County (yes, really!), the road suddenly turned to junk, but luckily that county didn’t last long. In the rich-looking town of Truckee, through which I-80 passes, and which is thoroughly obsessed with traffic circles, I bypassed the fancy-looking bakeries and natural foods stores and spas and instead stopped at the library. It was closed, but its WiFi was open, which is good enough for me. While sitting there, I first noticed the explosive winds. Really, it was like someone dropped a bomb every few minutes causing a burst of 25 mph wind to blast for 20 seconds and then stop.

The explosions became more constant as I headed into them towards Lake Tahoe. The road headed up the Truckee River, perhaps only a 1% average grade, but my speed was probably less than 10mph over that stretch. At least I had an 8-foot-wide newly-paved (actually not-yet-finished) shoulder all to myself, so I didn’t have to devote any energy to traffic awareness. And it’s pretty good to ride for two weeks and only now really whine about wind for the first time.
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It was in this section that I began seeing all the kitted-out road cyclists on their pricey bikes flying by in the other direction. Yeah, good for you, you can ride your bike fast going downhill with a 25 mph tailwind! For some reason none seemed to be going my way. Speaking of cultures and tribes, just like I might be 90% of the way to being a dirty brown transient hippie, I paradoxically might also be 90% of the way to being one of these road-bike warriors. And again, I cling to that last 10%, because I really don’t want to have to put on the matching spandex, inexplicably emblazoned with the name of some European bank, just to go on a bike ride.

As usual, most ignored the loaded-down traveler on the other side of the road (my shirt only mentions an American bank, which I guess doesn’t rate with them). But that made it all that much sweeter when one guy yelled out “Nice!”, followed half a second later with “Oh my god!” as his brain finished processing what he was seeing. Close to Tahoe I dropped down onto the bike path, which more closely hugs the river. Totally different tribe of bike people there, though probably the most noble of all of us since they aren’t even aware that there are different tribes of cyclists.

Entering Tahoe City, I reached the lakeshore along with the crush of weekenders. Lunch was at Bridgetender’s, where I ordered a beer, a bowl of clam chowder, and a chicken Cobb salad. The soup was a good size, but the salad was absolutely ridiculous. The waiter said “I’d like to see you finish all that!” Unfortunately I failed him, leaving maybe 15% of the salad. I felt like an embarrassment to bike tourists everywhere. 🙁
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Though as an excuse, I’ll say my appetite decreased mid-lunch when I discovered that my day might be less-relaxing than expected because the campground I was headed to (and all others in the area) were fully booked. I guess I should have factored in how many people would come to Tahoe on a beautiful September Saturday! My plan was to ride on and get to my general destination as early as possible to maximize my options.

The lake is pretty amazing, colored with deep blues and greens that I’ve never seen in a lake before. Emerald Bay is the much-photographed highlight, and there were swarms of cars there overflowing the parking lots to prove it. Most of the 25-mile route down the west shore of the lake had no shoulder and was packed with traffic. There was a bike path in sections, but it wound about stupidly and had lots of bumps, so I mainly stuck to the white line like all the roadies were doing. The lanes were actually wide enough for two cyclists and two cars to pass in opposite directions, and speeds were generally under 35 mph, so it wasn’t too bad.
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There was one absolutely insane section when the road began dropping down from the 600-foot height above Emerald Bay. The land already had been dropping steeply to the Bay on the left side, but suddenly the right side disappeared too, similarly dropping 600 feet to Falling Leaf Lake. And directly ahead was the main body of Lake Tahoe. The road was perched right on the narrow spine, with no more than 5 feet to spare on each side. It was very much like the Hogsback near Escalante, Utah, except here there was water below wherever I looked, almost as if I was dropped from a parachute over a single, giant lake.

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Simulation of me on the ridge

I decided to check out Falling Leaf Campground, just in case the Internet was wrong, but no, the sign said “Campground Full”. I decided to roll up to the booth anyway just in case the sign was wrong, but no, the woman in the booth confirmed it was correct. But, then she offered that I could stay in her site where she has her RV parked, she has plenty of room. Awesome! Well, at least I think so, I had actually started to think a motel wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But I was already here, I had a generous offer, and she wouldn’t even take any money for it, so that settled it. And yeah, she definitely has plenty of room, you could make just this one site into a hiker-biker site for 5, and that’s with her RV, two large tents, and birdbath already taking up a bunch of space. 150 sites of a similar size make this the hugest campground I’ve ever been in. I paid $1 for a shower, and holy crap, I didn’t get cheated at all on that. In the 3 minutes the firehose of a shower head must have blasted at least 50 gallons of water at me!

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Day 10: Burnt Ranch, CA to Redding, CA

September 12th, 2012

72 mi / time / mph avg. / 4500 ft. climbing (estimated)
Staying at Oak Bottom CG, Whiskeytown Lake NRA

My alarm woke me in the dark at 6am, after 9 hours of sleep. I finished the loaf of raisin bread followed by a banana and apple juice for breakfast in the tent, and was packed and on the road as soon as it was light enough.

Eight mostly-downhill miles later, with half a water bottle as my only remaining liquid after a waterless camp, another National Forest campground appeared. Darn it, this is where I should have stayed: I could have easily made it there, it looked like a nicer campground, and most importantly, it had water. But for some reason it wasn’t on my list. Further recommending itself, while filling my water bottles, I had a pleasant chat with Britt, who had just rolled out of her sleeping bag. She’s a rafting guide in the Sierras, and was here with friends where the only people they had to guide would be themselves. The Trinity River that I’d been following for the last 30 miles had seemed surprisingly fast-flowing and full of whitewater so late in the season, and now I learned why: they were opening the dams upstream for the fish runs. That’s exactly why this rafting crew was here, to catch this last whitewater wave of the summer. She also mentioned the fruit coming into season on my route tomorrow, which sounded like useful advice!
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Today was another day of two big climbs, but also with a lot of relatively flat riding along rivers. The first climb, to Oregon Pass (yay!), some 1700 feet, was a dreaded “exponential climb”; it got continually steeper the farther along you went, cruelly reaching its steepest point at the very top. For the final stretch I was in my lowest gear and pushing hard, which means it was around 9% or more. This time I followed a logging truck down, which not only gave me full use of the road, I also had to get on the brakes pretty hard to stay back from him, and must have hit at least 40 mph.

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I'm going up there


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I came from down there

After the descent was the town of Weaverville, a much prettier strip than yesterday’s Willow Creek and less-filled with vagrants. I spent a long lunch at the wonderful Mamma Llama, a cafe/coffee shop/performance space/music store. Had to settle for bottled beer, but beer was had nonetheless (Sierra Nevada Torpedo, even though I’m not quite there yet), along with my spicy bagel sandwich. When I made a stop for groceries at the end of town, that’s where I found all the vagrants lying about. At least something seems to keep them out of the nicer part of town here! A not-totally-unkempt hitchhiker recognized me from the day before, after I jokingly told him to hop aboard when I grinded past him and his dog on the side of the road at 5mph on the way out of Willow Creek. Maybe he should have taken me up on the offer, since I beat him out of Weaverville!

Roaring monstrous logging trucks had been barelling by me the last two days on a road with an intermittent shoulder, though only one felt it necessary to lay on his horn when going around me. CA 299 is well-marked with bicycle “Share the Road” signs, and is far from the worst road I’ve been on, but I might not recommend it to first-timers. In Weaverville I finally saw where all those logs were going: onto an incomprehensibly enormous pile of logs at a lumber plant where giant sprinklers were wetting down one end (to keep it from spontaneously combusting in the blazing sun?) That was good news because from now on the empty trucks would be going my way, and they’re a lot more maneuverable.

I had another scary moment earlier in the day, when all of a sudden I heard a clattering on the hillside above me as I rode along at 18 mph. Surprisingly I was able to see the two grapefruit-sized rocks tumbling towards me, but in the second I had to guess, it was impossible to tell whether to speed up or slow down. One bounced past in front, while I heard the other ricochet off my rear wheel. Luckily no damage was done to the bike or me!

The second climb of 1800 feet, taking me to a new high of 3213 and the top of this mountain range, came in steps of varying grades, so was much easier. A woman in a pickup working for some fire agency, stopped at the top and offered me some Gatorade (have I mentioned the predicted high today was 100 degrees?) On the way up a few dozen pieces of fire equipment went past me, labeled from parts all over the state, presumably going to help out at a fire a bit north of my route. There was smoke near Weaverville, but I learned for the moment my route ahead should be clear.
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The following descent was the best so far, filled with a myriad of beautifully arced curves, perfectly banked to lay into, and with great visibility. Unfortunately I had to stop for construction halfway down, and get carried in the pilot truck for the 2 mile stretch. I’ve been through half a dozen one-way construction zones so far and had been allowed to ride through all of them, so it was ironic that I was stopped at the one where I could have easily kept up with the line of cars.
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A few more miles and I made it to Whiskeytown Lake, a dammed river, at about 4:30, over 9 hours after I started. My string of $8-or-less campsites is finally over, as this one is $20. It’s nearly desert here, so after a week of fearing the forbidding cold waters of the Pacific, I completely flipped and made a beeline for the lake and a swim. Oh god that was awesome. The free (cold) showers, soap dispensers, hot dry air, and many tree/bush branches made it an ideal spot for hobo laundry, so I took care of some of that too. Finally got to cook my macaroni, ate another half loaf of raisin bread, and am now munching on a Mamma Lamma blueberry scone as a bedtime snack.
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Food list:
Half a loaf of raisin bread (670 calories)
Banana
Apple juice
Chocolate milk
Blueberry muffin
Last oatmeal cookie from Mom
3 large handfuls of peanut M&Ms
Spicy bagel sandwich
Tortilla chips
Beer
Banana
Raspberry Danish
650 calories of pasta
Another half loaf of raisin bread
Blueberry scone

Day 3: Lincoln City, OR to Waldport, OR

September 5th, 2012

47.9 mi / 3:28:10 time / 13.7 mph avg. / 1982 ft. climbing
Staying at Beachside State Park

Another morning dawned grey with fog, but in the time I entered the bathhouse and the time I left, the entire sky above had turned blue. That was short-lived however, because as soon as we got out on the road, the fog returned. It was a nice lazy morning for a nice lazy day: a stop at a coffee stop got us muffins and a scone (and a second sighting of Ryan Kain’s bike-touring doppelganger) , but nothing to drink (Joel already had his coffee in camp with Chika’s zucchini bread). So it was another quick stop at the IGA for juice and milk and bananas.

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We played leapfrog with the Canadians we met yesterday throughout the foggy morning, seeing them at various viewpoints and overlooks. Eventually the Oregon Coast Route took us off Highway 101 and on to Otter Crest Loop for a stretch. It was easily the best part of the trip so far. The skies blued up again, we were the only traffic on the road, and we were surrounded by devastating beauty. From the high bluffs through the tall trees we alternately glimpsed views of narrow coves and wide-open ocean stretching out below. And ominous high wall of fog lay across the sea like an army poised for battle, but so far the sun to the east seemed to be holding it at bay.

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By noon we made it to Newport and across the treacherous bridge to the Rogue Brewpub, where of course we had to have lunch. The emphasis is clearly on the “brew” as you have to wend your way past forklifts and warehousing and towering stainless steel brewing vessels to reach the tucked-away restaurant. We both got 4-beer samplers (plus one on the house as a starter) which went well with our lunch and our now-customary cups of clam chowder.

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A bit more and the never ending north breeze brought us to Waldport, the last town before our campground, before 3 o’clock. It took some convincing, but Joel finally believed me that we could find food we’d enjoy at a grocery store that we’d eat in camp. And we did pretty well there, including beers of course.

Luckily Beachside campground is not too close to the beach, because the fog had returned and brought a 55-degree chill with it, and the wind had never left. We found a well-sheltered spot within the hiker/biker area, next to our Canadians, who, despite their claims of slowness, somehow managed to beat us here. Our early arrival and the weather meant it was a perfect night for a fire, and Joel did a good job of getting it going on the first try, so we enjoyed that for a couple hours. The have some good-smelling wood here in Oregon. I thought it might be a good way to get the solo bike-touring girl the next site over to come hang out, but alas, she seemed to disappear after setting up camp.

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Day 5

September 8th, 2010

I usually stay pretty out of touch on bike tours, but I talked with my parents about my job situation, or lack thereof, and I’m glad I did.  Thanks for being there for me mom & dad!  Saw a shooting star while on the phone with them, and I’m happy to latch on to any remotely good omen that passes nearby right now. 

Slept pretty well considering the circumstances, until a strong wind began whipping the pine trees high above and dropping pine cone bombs on our tents.  It sounded like the wind that comes seconds before rain pours from the sky onto our uncovered tents, but luckily the stars were still visible, as they have been this whole trip.

The ride today was down hwy 113/13, to the tip of the DelMarVa peninsula. We crossed from the “Mar” into the “VA”, where, across the road from the official state welcome sign was an establishment with a giant Stars’n’Bars, and the slogan “The South Starts Here.”  Indeed.  Actually, the roads and drivers in Virginia, and everywhere else we’ve been, have been surprisingly awesome.

Dennis again did a good job of following in my wake, so he could take it easy on another long (88 mile) and windy day, while still making it to the 20 mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in reasonable time to be driven across in a pickup.  Then on the Virginia mainland, a short ride to a good Mexican dinner, and then to First Landing State Park.  Before even setting up camp, we made a quick dash to the beach just in time to watch the sun set over Chesapeake Bay.  And then we couldn’t resist taking a dip, especially after such a long hot day.  I think it may be the first time I’ve been in the ocean, and I have to say, it ain’t half bad.  Nothing could wipe the stupid grins off our faces.

Maybe this is just me, but if you’re going to lose your job, I highly recommend being in the middle of a bike tour when it happens.  I don’t want to say that we’re in denial, because we talk about it a lot, often with black humor when we see something that reminds us of our situation.  For example, a planned stop at 77 miles aligned us with an extremely doubtful “Fabric Outlet”, and we just had to get a photo, because what better place to get a job using my newly-developed sewing skills?  So it’s not denial, but maybe “deferral”?  When you have to ride 88 miles between two campgrounds, you are simply too busy with so many other duties and thoughts that there really isn’t much time to dwell unhealthily on the job situation.  Surely it will be a merciless dragging back to reality when we return home, but hopefully we can even ease that transition over the next week and a half on the road.

Actually, on a tour as good as this one has been so far, I think I could take a baseball bat to the gut every few hours and still feel like I was the one walking away a winner.  Not that we need to test that theory.

Day 4

September 8th, 2010

After Dennis did most of the work yesterday, I took the lead today, simultaneously to do my share of breaking the wind, but also to keep us at a relaxed pace for another easy 60 miles.  10 miles in we got breakfast at a cool little counter+porch, sharing a table with a couple cute girls from Toronto. 

Half the ride (to Ocean City) was along the coast on Hwy 1, and I think we may have been in a side-scrolling video game or cartoon.  We would pass mini-golf, a beachwear shop, and a restaurant. Then mini-golf, a beachwear shop, and a restaurant. Ad infinitum.  There was a sweet bike/bus lane the entire way though, and since I’m pretty sure they run only one bus a day, it made for nice riding for a commercial area, and there were tons of cyclists out.

The second half took us inland, through more rural areas.  Along the way, we were getting text message updates from our manager at work. Eventually we made it to Goff’s GreatVALU in Snow Hill, Maryland, where, after stocking up on lunch and groceries, we sat down on the sandy concrete outside with my phone plugged into an outlet, one headphone in each of our ears, and dialed into a conference call.

And that’s when we got a kick in the gut, from 1000 miles away.

Our entire Chicago office was being eliminated.

No fucking way.

When we hung up, we were both pretty dazed, and weren’t really sure what to do next.  At the moment, we’re continuing on as planned, but reserve the right to change our minds as we cycle through the series of emotions and moods that will surely wash over us in the next couple days.  At the moment I think we’re doing pretty good, and in some ways it’s nice that we’re together in this boat, as we obviously know what the other is going through.  And hey, a bike tour with a friend is probably more fun than one with a co-worker anyhow, right?

Day 3

September 7th, 2010

Woke to a surprisingly cool morning, but that was nice for getting in the early miles, again through some quiet forested areas. Dennis was feeling strong, so I was happy to let him lead the way into the mild but noticeable wind. We were heading to a ferry, and trips were scheduled to depart at 2pm and 3:30.  At the pace we started at, we would be so very close to making the 2, but I figured there was no way we could maintain that pace over 60 miles, and we pseudo-agreed to just relax and get the 3:30. However, even at “relaxed” pace, Dennis was doing a annoyingly good job at keeping the 2pm in play.  But after his knee started complaining, we finally came to our senses and shut it down a bit.  And a good thing too, since we ended up getting there just before the 2:30 ferry departed. 2:30? Yeah, apparently I read the schedule wrong. D’oh.

In addition to not inventing fake deadlines, I need to convince Dennis that he’s probably the fastest loaded touring cyclist the world has ever seen; even at 50% effort, he’s faster than me, and I’m pretty damn fast myself.  But the psychology of bike riding is very weird, at least for us.  Even for me, if Dennis is cruising at 17mph and I’m happily following in his wake, I think, “when I take the lead, I’ll back us down to an easy 14mph.”  But then I somehow find myself up front cranking away at at least 16mph.  So we need to get control of our minds, and that will keep our bodies in shape.

The ferry took us and a boatload of cars into a new state, Delaware. It was a bit slower than the NYC ferry, but a nice relaxing ride on another beautiful day.  At short ride then brought us to our campsite at Cape Henlopen.

One of the reasons I’d had trouble letting go of the mythical 2pm ferry was because I had made plans for us to visit Dogfish Head’s brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, one of my favorite breweries.  We would be meeting some old friends of mine, Heather and Matt, who live nearby.  Not only were they nice enough to come out on such short and poorly-planned notice, but they even picked us up from the campground!

I filled myself up with three fine Dogfish Head creations (Palo Santo Marron, DFH Ale, and Chateau Jihau), and they were great, but sharing the evening with good people made it truly special.

Then, on the way back to the campground, Dennis and I got a chance to take the “shortcut” from town, walking straight down the beach. This is another bit I’d had planned in my head for months, so I was glad Dennis was game and we could squeeze it in. The 4-mile hike began on the lively boardwalk (where we gained firsthand experience of the unusually high concentration of Russian immigrants in the area), continued along the edge of the roaring surf, and ended with Google Satellite View and GPS leading us across the beach in total darkness to the trail back to the campground. Quite a memorable night.

2009 Chicago Marathon

February 13th, 2010

In 2008, I noticed I had several marathon-running friends. During their training, I gave plenty of unsolicited advice, drawing on my vast experience as a mediocre high-school cross-country runner a decade-and-a-half prior. Eventually I realized that was an insulting position to be giving advice from, so I decided to remedy that slightly and acquire some fresher knowledge and experience by running a 10K. It would be a way to remember what running felt like, to relate in a small way to my friends and their marathon training.

I had done no serious (or even unserious) running for a decade, so I thought I should train a bit before trying a 10K, with the emphasis on “a bit”. Over a three-week period, I went on three runs of about 2 miles apiece. Then on October 4th, a week before the 2008 Chicago Marathon, I measured out a 10K course at a local park, started my watch, and ran it. I think I had a vague hope of breaking 48 minutes, so I was pretty happy when my watch read 44:44 at the end, even if I had to lay on the grass for half an hour before I could hobble home. Later on, I came across the McMillan Running Calculator, punched in that time, and it told me I could run a 3:30:00 marathon. Huh.

Jump ahead six months to late April, where, two days before registration closed, I signed up for the 2009 Chicago Marathon. No, I hadn’t caught the running bug. I hadn’t run a single time since that 10K, and wouldn’t start again until June. Due to the ever-growing marathoning culture I had become familiar with, the marathon had simply become a goal I wanted to check off my list of lifetime achievements. And I thought there would be no better year to do it than 2009: I was about to head out on a month-long, 1500-mile bicycle tour through the desert canyons of the American Southwest. Thirty days filled with six hours per day of intense cardiovascular effort ought to be a good launching point for marathon training.

So two weeks after returning from the bike trip, I started in on Hal Higdon’s 18-week Marathon Training Plan, Intermediate 1. Of course, I was doing nearly everything “wrong”. Everyone (myself included) will tell you that it’s stupid to start into a marathon training program from nothing; ideally I would have been running regularly for at least a year beforehand. On top of that, I was leaping right over the Novice training programs, and going straight to one for experienced marathoners. On top of that, I was training with a goal time (3:30:00) in mind. Everyone will tell you your only goal for your first marathon should be to complete it; thinking about time can lead to failure, and that should wait until at least your second marathon.

I had a good reason for violating these three training rules, but it was because I was violating a broader cultural rule: there would be no second marathon for me. I had no interest in becoming “a runner”. I would be a mere interloper in the running community: a running poseur, donning the mantle for a single, unsensible-but-fashionable event, and then calling it quits. Thus, I needed to throw everything I had at this race and the limited training time I had allowed myself, so that I could achieve a result I would be proud of. My imaginary lifetime-checklist doesn’t merely have a yes/no check-box next to “Run a Marathon”. It also has a line for my finishing time. My worst fear was finishing with a disappointing time, because that might require me to abandon my one-and-done plan and invest in a whole new cycle of training. That fear of a new commitment ended up being my strongest motivator.

So in the second week of June, I began the 18-week Intermediate 1 training program. One important thing that drew me to the Intermediate 1 plan over the Novice 1 plan was the inclusion of runs at marathon pace. Since I had a time goal for the race (even if it was totally irrational), it seemed like a requirement to have time goals during training as well, otherwise it would be impossible to predict how I might fare in the race. My marathon pace (and thus, fastest training runs) would be 8:00 minutes per mile, which initially sounded pretty reasonable since my 10K-with-no-training had been at 7:12 pace.

For the first four weeks, I stuck with it pretty well, though I got slower as time went on; I quickly learned that running sub-8:00 pace may not be too hard when I was completely rested, but it was a whole different story when suddenly running five days a week. Week 4’s 11-mile long run produced my first injury (foot) 9 miles in. Over the next week I only ran a total of 8 miles, partly to let my foot rest up, but mostly because I did a duathlon (my first organized event since high school) and I switched over to training on my bike for that period. I finished in the top 30% in the duathlon, which was encouraging, because that’s where I’d need to be in the marathon to be in the ballpark of 3:30:00.

The next two weeks went fairly well, until Week 7’s 14 mile long run, which had to stop short of ten miles because my knee completely froze up. That had been happening for a few weeks, but this was the worst by far. That’s when I realized that two back-to-back tough runs on the weekend were more than my body was willing to handle, so I backed off to the Novice 2 plan. Novice 2 keeps the pace runs of Intermediate 1, but moves them from Saturday to Wednesday, giving an extra day of rest around the weekend long run.

Again, the next three weeks went fairly well, until week 10’s 17 mile long run, where my knee once again froze up after 14 miles. This was really starting to concern me, since everyone says how important the long run is to marathon training, and I’d now failed to complete three of them. But my self-diagnosis of IT Band injury seemed to be correct, and I finally came upon an effective self-treatment, so for the last eight weeks of training, I nailed every single run at the correct distance and pace, including two 20 milers.

Thus, as the end of training neared, I was pretty confident in my ability to cover the 26.2 miles, but I was seriously doubting my ability to do it anywhere near 8:00/mile pace. Sure, nearly every Wednesday morning I’d been doing a 5-to-8 mile run at that pace, but that always felt like it was right at the edge of my ability, and the idea of keeping up that pace for 26.2 seemed insane. The best I had done so far was a 13.1-mile training run in an accidental 1:45:00 (8:00/mile pace), inspired by the idea of beating a friend’s half-marathon time. I’m not much of a fan of organized events, but in retrospect, I should have done that one officially, because it would have qualified me for Start Corral C, ahead of all the slower people, which would have been a big help on race day. But the knowledge that I was good enough to be in a Start Corral was a huge confidence boost, at least until I remembered that a “half-marathon” is still only, well, half of a marathon.

I searched a lot of forums, looking for any evidence that my goal wasn’t insane. Everyone simply said “trust the taper”: the three weeks of decreasing mileage before the race would allow my body to rest up and make that 8:00/mile pace suddenly seem easy again. But I wanted data! Almost everything I do is very tech- and data-focused, and marathon training was no different. I used Google Earth to map and measure my training routes, did every run with my G1 Android phone in an armband, running GPS and BuddyRunner software to record pace and distance, and also using it to play music. I kept a log in a Google Spreadsheet, including distance, pace, weather, and occasional heart-rate info. So I was looking for race results from people who had trained similarly with a time goal in mind, to see how much I could really “trust the taper”. Unfortunately there wasn’t much data to be found, but I don’t know that I had any options besides “just go for it” anyhow.

Race day was freezing cold, about 36 degrees, so if I was forced into a second marathon, at least it wouldn’t have been because of the weather. The first 10K had me swerving around crowds of people to pass, so I started out a touch slow, but it was easy. A pace that nearly put me at my limits a few weeks before was just a comfortable cruise now. So yeah, the taper works, it’s kind of amazing. I pretty much hit my marks as closely as I could have hoped, and crossed the 20-mile-marker exactly on pace. After that, things started going a little less well. I began feeling a little worse, though I never felt like I hit a “wall”: it seemed like I was pretty much going through the same motions, but the clocks revealed that I was going slower and slower. Still, at that point I could do 10-minute miles and finish faster than 3:45:00, which would have made me plenty happy. Then as I turned onto the Roosevelt Rd. hill, I attacked it with a bit too much excitement, and my right hamstring cramped. I walked for a step and a half, briefly terrified that even 10-minute miles would be out of reach. But luckily I was able to get back to running, and soon reached the finish. Time: 3:35:30.

I was completely blown-out. It took me nearly 30 minutes to shuffle from the finish to the meet-up area, where I spent the next 30 minutes sitting on the ground trying to fight off hypothermia. And it couldn’t have been more perfect. If I had come away with anything left in the tank, it would have allowed a seed of doubt in, thinking that I could have done better, which is the last thing that I wanted. So even though it wasn’t 3:30:00, my time was still within 2.6% of the goal I had recklessly picked a year earlier. I’d say the training plan worked amazingly well; I would have had no chance at achieving that time if I had simply let things fall where they may. Setting an aggressive but sensible goal made me believe I might be able to go that fast, which is a hugely important part of actually going that fast. I was completely happy to write “3:35:30” on my checklist, and had absolutely no problem declaring my retirement from marathoning.

New Pictures

May 10th, 2009

Capitol Reef, Bryce, and stuff