Sunday, February 12, 2017

ON NOV. 13, 2016, I BROKE MY NECK  
My latest adventure is having broken my neck. I started writing this in my first days in the hospital, and have added to it as this experience evolves. Writing helps me think more clearly about the emotional journey, because I don’t want to ever forget the details. And maybe someone will find it interesting reading.

It happened so fast. On Sundays, I often ride with a dozen or so experienced riders and racers from Roseville Cyclery. The pace lines are exciting; single file riding, about 1-2 feet behind each other, and the lead rider drops off after about a minute in front. The front rider is riding against the wind while the rest of the pack is drafting. It’s pretty fast, we ride pretty close, and attention and focus are required. No mistakes!

We returned to Roseville, riding slowly down Vernon Street toward the bike shop – the end of the ride! I looked to my right at a restaurant where we’d discussed having lunch, and saw a couple dining out on the patio. I looked forward again on the road, and a few guys had stopped in front of me. I hit the brakes.

I recall this moment clearly – the urgency to stop, hitting the brakes, and the feeling of going up and over the handlebars. Not down, but up and over. This was the “uh-oh” moment, and I knew I was going to hit the ground, hard.

I don’t remember landing, but I remember lying on the road, and immediately the center of a LOT of attention. I didn’t lose consciousness. In fact, I was very aware that I was injured, needing to do some assessment and make some decisions. I wiggled toes, flexed ankles, fingers, and arms – and everything worked. Lying on my back, I was quickly surrounded by the faces of people there to help me. I had a general sense of pain, but nothing jumped out as particularly damaged. I just hurt all over.

My instinct was to get up, brush myself off, and let everyone know “I am OK”. I’ve don’t that many times before – “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”. That’s what I wanted to do. In spite of that instinct, I had a moment of great clarity that I’ll be forever grateful for. It wasn’t emotional, it was clear, a “do the right thing” moment, and it wasn’t even a choice. I told the guys that I need a backboard and a cervical collar.

It came from the first aid and first responder training I’ve had. The rule is “protect the spine”. I was lucky to be intact at this point, but any wrong movement could cause damage, so I laid still. “Protect the spine” was what I’d learned in caring for another victim, and here I was applying it to myself.

At this moment I prepared for some new issues about to envelop me – I was giving up control over everything. I would be strapped to a backboard, and have little, if anything, to say about anything for the next several hours. I’m a little claustrophobic, and I genuinely dreaded the next steps. A LOT. It was more than just discomfort, it was the sinking reality that I wasn’t making decisions any more, about my comfort, my whereabouts, and perhaps major decisions about my health.  

The fire department crew installed a neck brace and rolled me onto a backboard. Then came the straps. THE STRAPS! First my arms and torso, then over my forehead. I knew I had to be immobilized, but began to panic at having NO control over anything. There was no discussing it - I had to deal with it. I took deep breaths, and had a conversation with myself that this was for my own good. That helped – it was logic over emotion. Oh, the panic and fear were still there, they just didn’t overcome me, with my rational voice reminding me that I HAD to do this, and it was only temporary. I still shake about this as I write, several weeks later.

I was placed on a gurney at ground level, and the legs raise up to roll into the ambulance. This created a new, very lonely perspective. At ground level, I could see and talk with people as they came into my limited field of view. At this raised level, I could only see the sky. There was conversation, but I could not see anyone and had no perspective of the activity around me. Then I saw the end of the roof on the ambulance, and recognized that I was being slid into the vehicle. Staring at the roof of the ambulance, there was a lot of activity in the area, and I could see none of it. In these moments I had never felt so alone in my life.

Then there was Haley. She’s the paramedic who sat next to me and took control. She was magic. At my worst emotional challenge, she moved her face into my limited field of view, introduced herself, and asked if I needed anything. She looked right into my eyes, to connect, and to show that she understood my private hell. She spoke to me, not at me, and explained the circumstances in a calm, gentle voice, and told me what we were going to do and what to expect. She did most of the talking, always making sure I could see her face. As she spoke, she was answering questions before I’d even asked. In the midst of all the chaos and activity, she took the time to make it personal – that she understood my fears, and that I was in very capable hands. As much as I hated being strapped to the backboard, her professional skills and demeanor allowed me to relax.

This wasn’t the kind of sympathy offered by an acquaintance; holding my hand and telling me everything would be OK. This was a professional who knew what I needed, anticipated my fears, and addressed them directly, that made me comfortable, and grateful for her help.

She also knew that this would affect others. She asked if she could call anyone for me, and of course, I needed to inform my wife, Pam. I suggested that it would sound a whole lot better if she heard it from my voice instead of Haley’s. I told Pam I would be OK, that there was no particular urgency, but to meet at the emergency room when she could. Haley took the phone and gave Pam the details.

A CT scan made it official: I had a double fracture of the C-1 vertebrae – a broken neck. New information for me – there are 7 cervical vertebrae (C-1 through 7), 12 thoracic vertebrae (T-1 through 12), and 5 lumbar vertebrae (L-1 through 5). My particular fracture occurred in the very first, the top vertebrae, just below the skull. It was cracked in the front and in the back.

The neurosurgeon examined the scan and determined that a neck brace would be required for a three-month healing period. As uncomfortable as that is going to be, that’s REALLY lucky. I’m not dead, or paralyzed. I didn’t require surgery or a halo. He said just a neck brace, immobility for three months, and I should heal 100%. I came here as a precaution, not expecting a serious injury. Three months of immobility sounded horrible, but framed against a variety of other possibilities, I was incredibly happy to be alive, and pledged myself to be a great patient.

He fit me with a special neck brace, to be worn 24/7, and explained I’d have to be very careful. I took this as great news. He said I could go home that night. Wow, I know I was incredibly lucky.

Worried about my students for Monday, I called my department chair at ARC (College) to let her know I would probably be out of commission for a day or two, and asked that she communicate with my students. Yes, I’m an optimist.

But go home? I couldn’t move. I was very sore (everywhere, really, as I had other injuries), and I couldn’t even sit up in the electric bed. Pam was with me now, and she could see that I could not move at all, let alone get up, to the car, or into the house.

The ER doctor agreed and sent me to the hospital. All through this I had been alert and conversational, but three days later I could still barely move. The doctor who makes the daily rounds visits in the morning with a “how you doing?”, but had little more to offer. Finally I asked if it’s possible that I have a concussion. He said “possibly”. I asked what the symptoms are of a concussion. “Pretty much what you’re experiencing” was his reply. I had to ask what the treatment was for a concussion – “pretty much what we’re doing”, he said. So this is the first time I’ve heard about the concussion, but it explains my pain and inability to move.

After 5 days in the hospital, I went home with Pam. I was a bit conflicted in being SO happy to be alive, but still so debilitated. The concussion was my primary battle – it was worse than hangover that won’t go away. I could talk and think clearly, but my head hurt terribly. It really overshadowed any neck pain I might feel. Slowly, I regained some mobility, and could walk with a walker for short, but increasing journeys. Getting better, but slowly.

It’s challenging to confront “what if” scenarios, which we often do in the abstract. It’s a very different perspective to address these possibilities when really confronted with them. I’ve learned that there are many more layers of complexity than I thought, that put quality of life, burden upon others, selfishness, selflessness, and other concerns at odds with each other. They are difficult to address, and to share intimately with those who also would be affected, and to be absolute in conclusion.

After my accident, we were aware that my prognosis could have been much different. And I (we) still felt very fragile and vulnerable. “What if” my condition worsened? Would Pam know my whishes? Was I really clear on my wishes? If Pam had to make a difficult decision on my behalf, could she make it with clarity and comfort, or would doubt affect her for the rest of her life? What if others disagreed with her choice – would she have the clarity and conviction to make choices against other, well-intended influences?

This was very different from a traditional healthcare directive, which my family has. Those choices are articulated in pretty traditional language, and we choose “yes” or “no” for different scenarios.  This conversation was much more intimate, and required a discussion of not only how it would affect me, my family, and others, but also how each of us determined that balance in quality of life, burden, commitment, and love. We had that conversation, exploring the possibilities, and while it was incredibly difficult, we found it very comforting that if placed in a situation of difficult choices, that Pam would have the clarity and strength to know what “the right thing” would be according to OUR choices. In hindsight, perhaps we were being overly dramatic about things turning bad, but it was a worthwhile process to go through, and discover new depths of the partnership and understanding that we have for each other. 

After two full weeks the effects of the concussion wore off, and I was able to walk with a cane and lost the “hangover’. Now I could feel the neck pain, but I was SO encouraged to see progress. I spent most of the days in a reclining position, but could sit upright for short periods each day. Eventually, I could spend a few minutes at my computer, then back to reclining on the couch. Longer periods upright each day, and progress is very visible and encouraging.  I went from 12 pain-killers a day to just three.

As I write this, it’s been six weeks. I’ll be in the neck brace at least six more weeks, and while I’m kind of used to it, it’s very uncomfortable and very restricting (I can’t drive with it). I recline much of the day, but can work at my desk for an hour or so, a couple of times a day.

Christmas Eve was my first day out of the house, to spend a quiet evening with my parents (they don’t drive, so they hadn’t seen me since the accident). For our larger family dinner on Christmas with cousins, aunts, and uncles, I stayed home. In part because a lot of movement is still very uncomfortable and painful, but also because I see other people and things as “tripping hazards”. Please don’t tell them! I’m committed to heal, perfectly, so come sacrifices are necessary.

I’m committed to heal perfectly, which means “taking it easy” every day, all day, for three months. The doctor has said I’ll be OK for some limited classroom time when school resumes in late January. The collar comes off February 13!

But I‘ve discovered an odd perspective of time. Each day is one step in my progress. Each day is one more “X” on the 3-month calendar, and I’m counting those “X’s” toward the end my confinement.

The doctor appointments are important benchmarks, too. I need good news at regular intervals. After some new dizziness symptoms, I went in for a CT scan on Christmas. It was comforting to have an intermediate diagnosis that everything was in alignment and healing as it should. I really needed that, and am focused on my next visit. 

For my FB friends, look for my next post when the collar comes off in February. Until then, I’m lying low and HEALING. I’m not looking for visitors, and I know you all wish me well, so leave a post if you like. I'll be back when it's the real ME. Then, in February, the real therapy begins – my muscles have atrophied and I have to retrain them. I’ve got some big projects planned in 2017, so watch and see what I have in store with my family, and my adventure partners. Then you’ll know I’M BACK!

Sunday, July 24, 2016



It was a bit unceremonious as my lovely wife (and cycling domestique) left us at a gas station parking lot just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. And we felt a brief sense of abandonment as we watched her drive swiftly to the freeway onramp heading back toward Seattle. That didn’t last long as Lee and I felt in total control of our destiny again, with nothing to do but pedal our bikes for hours and arrive at our destination before dark. 

This was part two of our west coast adventure. In 2015, Lee and I, friends since high school, along with our 3rd Musketeer, Rob, plotted to ride the entire west coast in three segments. That year the three of us rode from the Golden Gate Bridge to San Diego, some 650 miles later. It was a perfect trip – California coastline, surf, beach cities, and bronzed beach bodies to keep our attention. Our approach was light and fast – typically 100 miles per day on our lightweight road bikes, with full gear support from the very supportive Mrs. J. We even threw in one 200 mile day, starting at 4am by headlamp, riding through Malibu, Newport Beach, and eventually to Rob’s Jacuzzi and refrigerator in San Clemente.

But this was 2016, and part two begins at the Canadian border today, and ends at the central Oregon coast some 600 miles away. The demands of life and a career prevented Rob from joining us this year, so we Two Musketeers looked around the gas station for a road that would lead us, well, south! But not before exploring the Canadian border, which was literally 100 yards behind the gas station at “Peace Arch Park”. A big arch between the north and southbound lanes of I5 signifies the friendship of our two countries, and a few border markers make a great backdrop for photos. And now, it’s time to ride!

We’re north of Seattle, on the coastline of the straits and bays between Washington and Vancouver Island. We didn’t plan to “island hop”, as is common bicycle recreation here, but one island and a ferry was mandatory. So we rode along the coast and on to Whidbey Island, where we could take the ferry to Port Townsend, our destination for the day.

The details of riding include scenery, hills, and very long, flat stretches of smooth road with a nice shoulder. These flat stretches are where we can pedal hard and fast, take turns in front to create a draft, then rotate to the back to rest in the draft. We rotate “leads” every two minutes or so. This fast-paced coordination is really fun, and requires some focus to stay about 24” behind the wheel of the leader. We cover a mile in about three minutes. We like this!

The Washington coast is shallow, and we pass oyster beds, and oyster farms everywhere. There are huge piles of crushed oyster shells waiting for disposal. Not at all like the beaches of Southern California. And people just seem to live on the beach. Modest homes and an occasional double-wide – far from the exclusive coast neighborhoods of California.

We’ve mapped out the ride in general, but we don’t really know what to expect until we get there. A little help from Google Maps shows us alternate local roads, and we almost always choose the road closest to the water (except residential roads). It seems every choice we make is perfect – smooth riding and beautiful scenery. We see F-16’s landing at the military base on Whidbey Island, and arrive at the ferry by late afternoon. Arriving at our motel in Port Townsend, Mrs. J has prepared a cheese and meat spread for us, and our first tasting in our week long assignment to taste-test Italian Prosecco’s (sparkling wines).  It’s a perfect way to end our first day on the road.

Each day we spend about 7 hours in the saddle. Through Olympic National Park we see the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula, but we are distracted by the unending parade of logging trucks. Lee starts counting, and we are passed by over 50 of them on day two, on our way to Forks, WA. Another beautiful day for riding, until mile 60 when it begins to rain. It’s a warm, steady rain, so we just continue to ride, until it eventually downpours to the point we put on our lightweight windbreakers to stay warm (but not dry). It’s kind of fun riding in the rain, but we work to avoid the painted lines on the road which become very, very slick.

Mrs. J (her name is Pam, by the way) calls me around 1:00, sort of asking if the motel I booked might look like a crack house. I explained that the photos weren’t so nice, but a crack house? It was the only motel available on when I booked it. We agreed to take the loss if Pam could find a more suitable motel that met her comfort standards. The new hotel was pretty basic, but no crack-heads here.

The Prosecco ritual became something we all looked forward to. And, by the way, our favorite was Zonin Prosecco, available at Trader Joe’s. But something about drinking a sparkling wine after 100 miles in the saddle just makes it so much more refreshing.

The last 4 miles into Astoria, our entry into Oregon, was on a long, narrow bridge. Bridges are windy, and tricky riding, and this one ascends about 600 feet in the last half-mile. And Lee thinks we should go faster. I stick to his wheel, our speed increases, as does my heart rate that shows on my monitor. The last 100 yards my legs and lungs are burning, Lee is still accelerating, but knowing it’s the end of the ride and we’re just minutes away from our next bubbly makes it worth the extra effort. And it is, as our room overhangs the water in the marina, and we can see in profile just how steep that bridge is. And tonight a special toast to Rob, who should be with us, and we miss him, especially tonight.

Oregon roads are much smoother than Washington chip-seal roads. And Oregon coastal cities are more charming and “beachy” in a way we like. There is still a lot of oyster shucking going on, so I start ordering the local fare at dinner each evening. Oysters in a shot glass with vodka is a good way to go. 

A tail wind helped us for the next couple of hundred miles, which makes for really, really enjoyable riding. But nothing helped so much as a wonderful partnership of riding adventure between Lee and I. Friends since high school, and roommates in the 80’s, we have a lot of history to discuss. It’s fun to recall “back then” when we were young, optimistic, very naive, and had no idea how our lives would turn out. We both acknowledge that in a lot of ways things are better than we might have hoped for. These rides give us time to talk a lot  – about why we ride (an ongoing conversation), the major choices in our lives that led us to where we are, people in our lives that have made a difference, and plans on how we want to spend the next 20 years!  We finish each day with a lot of gratitude: for our good health, our lasting friendship, and our remarkable families. I love riding with Lee! 

Thursday, June 30, 2016



Like many of my adventures, it started out in a casual conversation – “have you heard of this mountain bike trip from Telluride to Moab where you stay overnight in huts?” Of course that sounded interesting, so with a little help from Google, I was soon staring at all the details: 250 miles, 7 days/6 night, fully-stocked huts for parties up to 8 riders. Information in hand, I went on a “recruiting” effort, and within 3 days we were a group of four. “I’m in” was all I needed to hear, from Mark, Scott, and Lee. I do a few adventures with these guys, and I know them to be great partners. And reliability is an important characteristic for an adventure partner – these guys are the best.

And so it was planned. Not a lot of questions other than “when”. So we picked some dates around Mark’s planned trip to Colorado. We’d actually leave a week early, do a little climbing in Boulder, Colorado, and a little cycling and touring in Vail. I love a good road trip, and this one required that I bring gear for three different sports: Road biking, rock climbing, and mountain biking. Plus some nice clothes for dinners out with Lee’s lovely wife, Kathy.

Lee in the "backseat" of
Marks Sprinter
We load up Mark’s Sprinter (luxury van) for the cruise across Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Our “hut to hut” is foremost on our mind, and we realize we don’t really know that much about what we’re getting into. We don’t care, however, because it’s ALL good, and we have a great group of guys. Mark is the best climbing partner one could ask for - several trips up El Cap, Half Dome, the Bugaboos, and all over the West. Scott is his nephew, who is a great friend and a Cat II bike racer (that’s fast). Lee and I went to high school together, I introduced him to his wife, and we’ve done some amazing road bike rides together in Colorado and the coast of California. Late in the game, Rick, a friend from grad school heard about the trip and immediately signed up.

After some climbing and riding in Denver, Mark, Lee and I head for Vail, and the “Go Pro Games" - slack-lining demos, kayak racing, and bike racing. And gear! We really like gear!

The next morning we’re off to Telluride, a beautiful ski resort in southwest Colorado. It sits in a most beautiful box canyon, surrounded by very dramatic high mountains. This is the most European-like landscape in all of the US. This is unique and invigorating, as are the adventurous souls who live there. And everyone seems to own a dog.

We have maps, our bikes, and some clothes. The huts have everything else – food, sleeping bags, and for an extra $48.50 each they put some beers and cans of wine in the huts for us. We roll out of Telluride, excited and full of anticipation, and search for the trail. We start at 9,000 feet and will climb to over 11,000 today, which is our short day at 18 miles. The views of the nearby San Juan Mountains are truly spectacular. The scene is the exact picture that appears on the Coors beer label. The hut is simple, with bunks for 8 people, with shelves stocked with all the goodies you might buy by the case at Costco – canned chicken, Top Ramen, and a huge bag of peanut M and M’s. The ice chest has eggs, bacon, and cheese. Did I mention Spam? At 11,000 feet after riding, Spam is versatile and quite tasty!

Day 6, crossing from Colorado into Utah. 
Each day was a full day of riding – some dirt roads, and hopefully a lot of single track. On day 3, in search of one of the cherished single track options, we headed downhill, then found our trail off to the right. There were a few cows, and the mess they left behind on the trail. Then a few more cattle. Then a herd. It was nuts – I’ve never seen so many cattle, especially up close and personal. As we walked along a disgustingly messy trail, they moved slowly out of the way, then filled in behind us. It was so completely ridiculous, being surrounded by 500 enraged cattle that I kind of enjoyed it (I’m a little twisted). Mark suggested we head back, which was a very practical (and smart) idea. I suggested we continue on our adventure, and soon regretted it when a huge bull came running down the trail toward us. Lee jumped into the creek bed first, then Scott next, and me on top. I imagined my funeral where they would say how brave I was to have protected my friends from the goring that resulted in my sacrifice. It’s a nice sentiment, but I was simply in the wrong place and jumped last. But what’s an adventure without a story, right?

There were a few more stories, which I won’t go into detail. But we enjoyed some incredible landscape as we saw the terrain change from the high altitude mountain forests near Telluride to the high-desert technical-mountain-biking red rock of Moab. We saw a remote resort for high paid CEO’s in the middle of nowhere, and the dope smoking (legal in Colorado) retired mountain guide who toured us around some place we didn’t even know was on the map. We all took some falls, and I’ll share mine because I think I won the “gold” in this contest: a simple but technical downhill on a side slope, and I got a little too far forward, went over the bars at a very slow speed, and landed/rolled into a small ditch. Mark rode right by me and did not see that I was under a lot of brush and my bike, but he heard me moan. I don’t moan easily. So he came to rescue me as I lay there checking my extremities, and hoping that at least I had my helmet camera on. Well, the limbs, torso and head were OK, but the camera was off, so you'll just have to believe me! 

More than ever, this trip was less about the riding and more about time with some guys I really enjoy and admire, and feel lucky to spend this time with. We’re not guys who make fun of each other, or call each other names, or joke about our wives. Rather, we spent a lot of time talking about how lucky we are – to have our good health, and active lifestyles with lots of interesting things to look forward to, and beautiful spouses that make our lives more enjoyable and rewarding. We talked about what we look forward to in the future, our next adventures, and how we plan to “ramp it up” during retirement. I learn a lot from these conversations, and mostly a sense of calm that I’ve always got these great people I can rely on , and share excellent adventures, and who always expect the best of me but are quick to forgive when I don’t give it. And if a bull came running after me, I know any of these guys would jump on top to save me. I think . . . .    

Thursday, August 2, 2007


2:00 on Friday afternoons is the unofficial start time for the “he who dies with the most toys, wins” contest. Heading south on Hwy 99, my cruise control kicks in and I see some serious contestants - kayaks on roof racks, mountain bikes on trunk racks, canoes, and ski and fishing boats. Undoubtedly there are coolers full of beer, and salsa and chips as well-earned rewards for successful weekend performance. I won’t place very high in the “toys” contest this week. Heck, I don’t even need a rack to support my habit this weekend – just a pair of running shoes, shorts, and a case of GU (energy packets), all which fit comfortably in the passenger seat of my Durango.

My partner in adventure (and true renaissance man), Mark, turned 50 this year. That’s a big number. It’s divisible by 5, and 10, and 25. It’s halfway to 100. We have currency in this exact denomination – both coins and paper. Heck, even the Romans had a separate numeral for 50. It’s a big number, and it requires a big celebration. Mark is not the type to drink 50 beers, or eat 50 of much of anything, the kinds of things reserved for males in recognizing a special anniversary. No, as I said, Mark is a renaissance man, so he has given this considerable thought. So it comes as no surprise to me when he invites me to run 50 miles to welcome this impressive benchmark. It was a bit of a surprise how easily I said “yes”. I assume if Mark can do it, well, I’m his outdoor adventure partner; I can do it. Right?

Almost as hard as training for a 50-mile run was picking a day to do it. Between swim meets, and kids birthdays, and family commitments, a lot of summer weekends get booked. At first what sounded like a conflict quickly became a good idea for me – July 28, just two weeks after the Death Ride. It may not be a simple transition, from cycling to running, but my legs and lungs will be in shape, so “OK”. It’s inked in my calendar. The look on Pam’s face is priceless – it says, “Is that a good idea? Are you kidding? 50, that’s a big number” – but, like usual, the words that pass her lips are “OK, that sounds great, honey”. All the encouragement I need.

So, a week before the Death ride (see previous blog), I’m really done training for that event, so it’s “time to start running”. I’ve done the occasional 6-miler up to now, so I’m ready to step it up. I hear it's 15 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley. The girls drop me off at Sugar Bowl and we agree to meet 3 ½ hours later at the Starbucks at Squaw. Pam wants to know what the cutoff time is – when she should call Search and Rescue. I assure her I get cell reception at the top of the pass and not to worry. “5 hours”, I say.

I don’t consider myself a runner, so much, as a guy who can use his legs to keep moving forward for hours. I’m not fast. At 6’3” and 200 lbs, I don’t look like a runner (except my calves which look exactly like a 130lb marathoner’s). At some organized races I’ve entered I was able to sign up for the “Clydesdale” category; that is, for guys over 190lbs. In fact, I’ve placed 3rd in my category on several occasions, owed less to my speed and more to the fact there are usually only 3 “Clydesdales”. But the bagels are free and the people are nice.

Arriving in Tuolumne Meadows later that Friday evening, Mark and I dine. We feast actually, at the best restaurant on the east side of the Sierra’s. It’s Matt’s “Whoa Nellie Deli” at the Mobil Station (yes, a gas station) in Lee Vining. Really. They host weddings there. There is a semi-permanent trapeze/high-wire contraption there for Cirque du Soliel wannabees. If you take nothing else from this blog, take my restaurant advice and get gas, Yosemite souvenirs, and some of the best damned, non-pretentious-but-served-in-an-attractive-manner food you’ll ever have. They serve wine. You eat outdoors on a picnic table on the grass, with 100 other diners and live music. The fish tacos are to die for; so on this eve of our optimistic effort to be young ultra-marathoners, we feast.

We also revise our plans, which originally included 3 of us on a very remote, high alpine trail. Dan backed out, and for the safety of just 2 runners now, we revise our plan to a loop trail beginning and ending in Tuolumne Meadows. It’s only 38 miles now (isn’t this a great “trick” to get excited about running 38 miles – “at least it’s not 50”). It begins, however at 9’500 feet elevation, crosses two passes over 11,000 feet, and one pass at 12,200 ft. We’ll climb a total of 6,000 feet, and descend 7,000 on this run, and all but the last 4 miles are above 9’500 ft. It’s no longer 50 miles, but Mark is comforted when I do the math in my head to keep it related to the number 50, and tell him it’s more than 50k, in fact it’s 60k.

After organizing GU, ibuprofen, and water bottles into my fanny pack, it’s time for early bed. We’ll get up at 3:30 and be running at 4:00. In the light of a full moon I fold down the back seats of the Durango parked discreetly off the road near Tioga Pass, and crawl in for a few hours sleep. A key selling feature of the Durango was that the rear cargo space is 6’3” in length, and this night, it serves me well.

Those early morning alarms are annoying, and usually earn a couple slaps of the “snooze” button. But I wake right up, excited by the still of the morning and the prospect of participating in the sunrise. Mark is up and we shuttle the cars to the start and finish spots. It’s cool, but we’re comfortable in shorts with light, long sleeve shirts. We start our watches and begin running easily over a well-worn trail in the glow of our headlamps (we own many of these for specific climbing purposes). It’s quiet, and I focus on consistent breathing, a sustainable heart rate, and the next 8 feet.

The black sky slowly lightens and we begin to see outlines of the trees, and the peaks beyond. The trail is mostly flat, with a little uphill. It begins to steepen as the morning sky takes shape. We talk a bit, but mostly it’s still settling in on breathing and heart rate. This feels comfortable, and we enjoy the beautiful scenery that opens up before us. Our first major pass is in the first few miles, noted by the steeper trail. It’s Parker Pass at 11,100 feet. We make our way to the top – to the edge of Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has really nice directional signs, hand-carved out of local trees. We enter Inyo Forest land, where their sign-maker is skilled with sheet metal and a blowtorch. We’re on the right trail, and it is now daylight. It’s incredible to see such a lush, green meadow at this elevation. We’re above tree line, and I’m amused by the steel sign saying “no fires above 10,000 feet”. Not much of a threat up here.

We feel on top of the world, with spectacular views of the high alpine Sierras all around us, recognizing some of the peaks we’ve climbed together - Mt. Conness and North Peak. Well not quite the “top” of the world, as we recognize our next challenge is to the 12,200 Koip Peak pass. Yeah, that’ll be the top. We’re above tree line, surrounded by spectacular granite peaks and several glaciers on the north-facing slopes. This is water at its source, and creeks, and streams, and waterfalls surround us. The practical value for us is our insatiable need to hydrate, which we force ourselves to do often. Giardia is a water-borne microscopic parasite that has infected the waters in California, even up this high. So after filling our water bottles (we each carry 2 on a hip belt), we must treat the water with chemicals and take well-deserved breaks.

12,200 feet is spectacular. The trail up here was all rock with just under one million switchbacks. It goes up a ridge with views of June Lakes, way, way off in the distance. We can see the forest cutouts of the ski resort there. And I am a little lightheaded from the altitude. We can see the pass up ahead, and another “no fires” sign greets us, but we’re welcomed by an impressive view of the next valley below and the happy prospect of a long, gentle downhill. It’s getting warm now, so we change into lighter weight shirts, ingest a couple of GU’s, and continue to sip/drink/gulp water.

We met very few people on the first half of the run, on a fairly unused and remote trail. There was a pack team, that is, campers who come in on horseback. “Light and fast” is not their mode, as made obvious by the smell of bacon and the invitation for a stack of pancakes. “Thank you, but no” I reply. Somewhere about halfway we intersect with the Pacific Crest Trail and begin meeting backpackers who are out for 20-day trips. Some look like the Clampetts (Jed, Granny, etc.) with shoes, water bottles, and women’s foundation garments hanging off of every strap on their over-filled 70 lb packs. Others are very streamlined with the latest in lightweight technology and the ability to “make more with less”. Mark asks them their “base pack weight” (total pack weight minus food and water), as it’s almost it’s own sport to carry less than 15 lbs of supplies for a month-long trip.

And so it goes. We run, and run, and walk, and fill our water bottles, and add iodine tablets, and start running again. It’s beautiful to be so far into the wilderness, and amazing to feel so responsible for ourselves. We’ve stepped up to something very challenging, and we’re enjoying every minute of it. It never got tedious. We always felt on schedule. We appreciated the quiet time of running in silence, listening to our lungs and hearts, and feeling cooled by the evaporation of sweat. We’d sit on the grass, or a rock to refill our water bottles, and we had conversation with other adventurers. We finally hit our last pass at 11,050 feet (I carried an altimeter), and with 11 more miles to go, it was downhill the rest of the way. We were still on schedule, and one of the hikers we ran into at mile 31 said we looked “fresh” for having gone such a distance. We smiled, and while not feeling fresh, we felt lucky knowing we could continue and finish in good style, which we did.

We were out for over 13 hours with 10 ½ hours of running. The only time it “hurt” was the last 5 miles, partly because we were tired, but mostly because it was flat. You see, the ups and the downs provide some variety to your stride. On the flats, like this, it’s just turnover, and that repetition is so much more taxing. The elevation, too, was taking its toll.

The finish was anything but anticlimactic – a cold Gatorade, some whole wheat corn chips from Trader Joe’s and a killer roasted pepper guacamole. Then came the “removal of the shoes” ceremony, and finally, a celebratory feast at, you guessed it, the Mobil Station. By our account, it was a perfect day.

So Happy Birthday, Mark! Congratulations on reaching this benchmark year, and accomplishing your special goal in great style. And thanks, thanks a lot for including me in your celebration. It makes me look toward 60, and 70, and all those other big numbers with great anticipation. That is a great feeling.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Death Ride

To call it a "bicycle ride" sounds so pleasant. It's called the Death Ride for a reason, and "pleasant" doesn't factor into it at all. It's been going on for 25 or more years, designed to be a very hard bike ride for those who like such things. Apparently, I do. And it delivered.

It starts in Markleeville, a tiny mining town on Hwy 89 south of Lake Tahoe. I go through Markleeville on my way to Tuolomne Meadows a few times each year, except in the winter because the 8,350 pass is closed due to snow. It's high elevation. That pass is called Monitor Pass, and it'll factor into this story. Markleeville is where the ride begins, and ends 129 miles later. This ride includes 5 similar high passes, for a total vertical gain of 16,000 feet. That's like going from Sac to Donner Pass, twice, then back up above Auburn. It sounds hard. It is. So those are the stats, 129 miles and 16,000 vertical feet. They're proud of these stats. It's on everything - the shirts, the hats, coffee mugs, the rider numbers. There is also a skull/skeleton logo that appears everywhere too. OK, we get the message.

If you know me well, you know I like this stuff. Hanging out on El Cap for 5 days, going for Half-Dome in a day, and agreeing to run 50 miles with my pal Mark for his 50th birthday, well, these things appeal to me. Probably some latent psychological issues haunting me from my troubled youth. But I'm not savvy on such things so I just go for it and leave the explaining up to Pam's pals. I really don't want to know.

I won't bore you with all the training, well, because it's boring. Pam and Hannah politely kiss me goodbye on Saturday mornings, and I return several hours later, having achieved increasingly longer distances on long, tedious hills. Boring. Suffice it to say I did a lot of repeat laps on Donner Pass Road, and a trip up Tioga Pass Road into Tuolomne Meadows. These are hard rides (still boring), but they are under my belt and helpful in the preparation. I think this is good training - I'm ready . . .

Friday the 13th (my lucky day) is check-in day. I drive up by myself, as it would be painfully boring for Pam and Hannah if they joined me. Actually, I kinda enjoyed this alone time, with the iPod at full volume with Tom Petty singing "I won't back down". As I approach Hwy 89, everybody has a bike rack, and I'm no longer alone. And I'm amazed how many damn ways there are to strap a bicycle to a car. The road there seems rather hilly, but I'll worry about that Saturday. Today, I turn in my release ( I didn't read it but I'm sure it said 129 miles, 16,000 vertical feet, and nothing is their fault) , get my bib and bike numbers, and a bag full of free stuff.  But it's really about the ride. I hit my vagabond motel, with Francis and a pack of Virginia Slims running the check-in desk. "Are you one of those bicycle people?", she asks, careful not to drop her ash on the recently swiffer'ed floor.

Sleep comes hard when you're trying, but I set 3 alarm clocks to make sure I'm up at 4:00. I can start riding anytime after 5:30. It doesn't matter when you start because it's not a race - just get on the course and go. Cool! You know, it's dark at 4:00 am. At 5:00am too. I've been busy getting my bike ready, and sorting my clothes. It'll be cool/cold to start, and warm/hot when I finish. I've got an REI's worth of technical clothing in my possession - I'll find the right stuff. Other cars are leaving the motel parking lot, with several thousand dollars worth of fancy bike racks attaching their days ride to the car. Mine too. Headlights on and little traffic, I feel in the company of a lot of friends on the road. I search for Tom Petty again on the iPod - "I won't back down".

You park about anywhere you want on Hwy 89 near the "start". Some poor guy pulled off the road, found a small ditch, and rolled his car onto its side. The bike, on and expensive Yakima roof rack, looked OK. Did he ride, and fix the car later? Hmmmm. I park on the right, after a wide spot on the margin filled with family members in Winnebegos and a bunch of poor people who just set up their tents right on the side of the road. Dedication!

It's about 5:30 now and cyclists are on the road, riding past my parking space. There will be 3,000 cyclists today. And even more who wanted in but weren't lucky in the lottery. It's happening. I get my bike ready, make decisions about clothing, and food, and click in. I set my odometer to zero. There is no fanfare for this start, but the sun is now on the horizon, and my legs are pedaling. It's the Death Ride, and I'm rolling!

I came up alone, and now share the road with 3,000 people I've never met. But we're no strangers. It's easy to start a conversation. It's morning, we're on our way to the first of 5 mountain passes, and everyone, everyone, is psyched. We're all very different people, retired cops, hippies, triathletes, State workers, engineers, and a guy in a Lyon Real Estate shirt (I pass him with conviction up the back side of Monitor Pass). I see old guys with ponytails to their waists, and young women with shaved heads. I see at least 2 riders under 16. There are 3,000 people here, from every walk of life. But today, we share the one unusual trait, of being, well, unusual.

The first pass is hard, but we're all fresh and we're all happy. We're bicycling and watching the sun come up. That's exciting. If you've ever been to the top of Monitor pass, you know how exciting the view to the east is - unless, that is, you have to ride back up it. Geez, that's a long way down (translation: that's a long way up). But this part of the ride is free. I lock the legs in, tuck the arms, and put my head down. It's steep. That means it'll be steep when I come back up. But now, I still have serious business keeping my skinny, little 20 lb bike following a safe line. I rationally decided to keep my speeds under 40, but it would be easy to be doing 55 (mph). I focus on two things - the next 60 feet, and my front wheel. It's 21 mm wide (my wheel), and that's just not a lot of aluminum between me and the pavement, so it's easy to "feather" the brakes as I approach 40mph. Damn, I'm on the brakes and that's still fast. I'm quickly reminded of the immortality of youth, as several younger riders pass me. I want in, but I remind myself it's not a race. Ahhh, the wisdom of age.

I've described the beginning of the ride - and it just continued for many hours. It really didn't change much, so there is not much to write. Some people did 3 passes, some 4, but I was going for the whole enchilada. So I rode long and steep up each pass, then down. It was hard. There were a lot of people like me. I'd talk to someone for awhile, but we'd be at a different pace and it wouldn't last long. I'd pass a lot of people, and a lot of people would pass me. I recognized a lot of people from all that passing, back and forth. I can't explain the excitement that goes with something so tedious. The passes were all steeper than anything I trained on, and the uphills were long and relentless. But through that odd psychology that I enjoy but don't understand, I was right at home, with all my new friends.

I expected to take about 12 hours, and 11 would have been really nice. But I finished in just under 10 hours. I credit that extra hour to the pure joy of being surrounded by people like me, who can do this, and enjoy this, and can grind for hours up a relentless hill and still converse with a spark in their voice. It's called the Death Ride, but the fact is I saw more life, more human energy, from everyday people, people who go to work, and love their families, and who live in anonymity among the masses. It's an incredibly powerful force, and on this day I witnessed it in mass, and it motivated me, and I can't wait for the next opportunity to see what this kind of energy can do to people.