Monday, August 25, 2008

The Hound and The Furry

A shrill whistle pierced the air and awoke him from a deep sleep, a slumber that comes only from a fifteen hour work day that starts with milking Holsteins followed by toiling in the autumn harvest with time only long enough for breakfast of steel-cut oats, a hearty dinner and a supper of tomatoes and beans.

The promise of that whistle signified that this day was going to be special.

Before his cold feet hit the floor, John could hear the anxious whining and tap dancing of their dog Rex on the maple stoop outside the screened door a floor below. He yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Jerry and Joe were both sawing logs. Jim rolled over and mumbled something incoherently. A freight train couldn't wake baby brother Mike. John knew better. While he would get a reprieve from today's morning duties, his brothers would pay for their slothful indulgences in milking cows and sundry chores later.

As John hopped out of bed, the late August sunrise was struggling to burn off the cool mist lingering at the tree line of the Murphy farmstead in Crawford County just north of the home of Gideon's Bible in Boscobel, Wisconsin. He pulled his bib-jeans over his shoulders, grabbed a trusty but threadbare denim shirt and his rugged boots before bounding down the hardwood stairs. Through the murky window pane he could see they were beyond the weathered picket fence; his father Vince with his 22 and Rex gingerly picking a path through the cornfield's discarded chaff while steamy breaths dissolved into the azure-to-crimson quilted sky. With trembling hands John pulled up those worn leather Sears and Roebucks by the bootstraps and then ran like the wind to catch up to them.

As if sensing the excitement, Rex bolted away from him at a full sprint towards the creek that ran through their farm. Vince was stoic, glancing toward his son briefly before turning and walking resolutely toward the creek. At about 20 paces, he stood in his tracks while Rex barked and thrashed in the bushes dotting the stream. A furry rodent suddenly blasted out of a dirt cloud and the near-fatal ensnarement of Rex's canines--snapping shut a fraction too late. Up a cottonwood tree it went while Rex leaped at its bushy tail.

Stepping over that old cottonwood's gnarly roots exposed by erosion and time, Vince paused momentarily to give Rex a pat on the head, then lifted the rifle with a steady hand and took aim with his piercing blue eyes.


Squirrel meat never tasted so good.


Results from some black squirrel hunting I did this past Saturday while accompanied by Katherine, Grace, Shannon and Craig. Thanks for cheering me on!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Confession of Compulsive Joy Ride

In light of recent anti-theft posts by Bike Snob NYC, I have a confession to make.

At the bike rack a few weeks ago, I noticed a late 1990s Cannondale CAAD3 left unlocked outside of work. Granted, it's Omaha and theft isn't very common. But still, for goodness sake lock your bike! Don't you know that you're asking for trouble?!

At first I was surprised by how cavalier the owner was about this bicycle, leaving it unlocked and such. I guessed that s/he forgot their lock and was playing the safety in numbers theory. But when I rolled up on the second day and found the bike was unsecured again, I became alarmed. On day three I laughed. Day four: irritated. Day five: angry. By day six I was incredulous. This was reckless!!

Admittedly, I can easily become attached to a bicycle: mine, yours, whoever's. This had certainly become the case for the CAAD3. And so it followed that I fretted about it getting stolen. I acknowledge having a problem with this attachment disorder, but I rationalized that there were worse forms of obsessive compulsions. To cope, I popped an imaginary happy pill and let the gripping anxiety break away like the peloton at the end of a furious club ride.

It wasn't but a few days before I found myself itching and scratching around that unlocked Cannondale again. I couldn't take it anymore. Something in my mind snapped as allowed myself to become deeply lustful of that butterscotch bomber.

Originally an aluminum road bike, it had since been reconsigned to commuter work with a mishmash of road, mountain and cyclocross parts. Its allure was in its unashamed nakedness and exotic blend of components that made it stand out among the big box store mountain bikes and roadies.

I couldn't stop myself from thinking about it. I just had to take a ride. Just one spin around the block, I reasoned, wasn't going to hurt anyone...

So the next morning, I boldly slipped that CAAD3 out like a thief in the early morning light. The flaws of the bicycle were immediately noticeable -- the rubbing brake pads against a front rim in desperate need of truing; a rear derailleur that sounded like it was thrashing wheat -- but I didn't mind. It was simply delightful to give into my desires.

The sparkling sunlight danced off of the smooth asphalt tarmac as I sped away from the stresses of work, deadlines and dreary project meetings. With each downward thrust and quick circling motion of the crank, I became more engaged in this covetous act. I rode past the first city block without a thought of stopping. I breezed through a handful of intersections while sweat beads began forming on my brow.

Just ahead in the distance, a blinking hand at the crosswalk became a foreboding omen. The freewheel spun as I paused to consider that the responsibilities of work and life. Work or play? The hesitation was momentary. Jumping into a full sprint, I hammered through the intersection with rocketing heart rate. And as I coasted through the yellow traffic light and gulped in the sweet air, I swear I could hear the satisfactory hum of it's 700x38C knobby tires.

A good 20 minutes later, a funky patina clung to me as I returned the bike to the rack. It was more than simply angry bacteria festering beneath my arms. What stunk was my guilty conscience. I reeked of it. And while wisdom told me that the urges were momentarily satisfied, it would only be a matter of hours before the craving for another tryst returned.

I had to find a way to prevent recidivism. Acting quickly, I scribbled an anonymous note to the owner, mentioning the stuff about getting the wheel trued and lubing the drive-train. Closing, I underscored the value of getting and using a lock. As I slid the note between the brake cable and top tube, I said a desperate prayer that it would be taken to heart.

So there it is. I publicly confess to you, my steel-cut readers, that I've become attached another's bicycle and am in need of penance.

Sadly, it's been two weeks and that bike still remains unlocked. While I've managed to restrain my urges, my lecherous eye finds that chocolate dream long before Old Yeller's wheel stops rolling up to the bike rack. My diseased mind is fixated on it. I yearn for another ride.

Help me help myself!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The CCC 2008 Recap

Nebraska's Corporate Cycling Challenge (CCC) came and went yesterday. Billed as the Midwest's largest single day bicycle ride, it was estimated to have 4000 entrants. Apparently, it broke the attendance record. Perhaps it would have been higher if the price of gas remained around $4 a gallon, but at $3.50 I'm sure quite a few bikes returned to the dark recesses of the garage to await the next oil crisis. Still, a record is a record and 4000 bikes are a lot to throw on any street.

There's some 100 corporate teams that formed to raise awareness and funds for Nebraska walking/bike trails. There are three distances to choose among: 10, 25 and 42 miles. I opted for the latter and joined the big guns of UP that included Wes, Shim and Ed.

Road, mountain, hybrid, tandems and recumbent bikes were all in force. Even Munson had a little surprise by showing up on his new mount: a Gary Fisher Wingra commuter that he's been tinkering on at the wee hours of the night. This crouching panther has aggressive geometry, is lightweight (aluminum) and is black as night. While it came stocked with a flat bar, he swapped it for drops and has added a few special touches. One such add-on is a handle bar granny pack. The jury's verdict is still out on that one. I liked it, but I could tell that Shim nearly stroked-out when his eyes fixed on to that beauty. One thing's for certain: the air dam that pack creates at 25+ mph results in a massive low pressure vacuum that pops ears within a city block. Nice ride, Munson. Enjoy it!

Let's be frank, every year there are a lot of challenges in this ride, but the biggest challenge is in the art avoiding the plastic water bottles that are littered within a mile of the start. It seems as though freds who don't know any better accept hand outs from the freds (handing out the freebies) who also don't know any better and fail to advise them against strapping the ill-fitted bottles to their bikes. Complicating the matter is the route that winds its ways through an industrial area with two sets of railroad tracks and one of the worst maintained roads in Omaha by Carter lake. It's a recipe for disaster.

This year, I decided to avoid this hassle by jumping up to the front row. You'd think that no one up there - where Nebraska men with shaved legs and cycling jerseys are plenty - would make such a blunder. But alas, there I was on the Carter Lake "technical section" of potholes when I was nearly taken out by a Gatorade bottle ejected from a Serotta road bike with a rider wearing a full kit. Is no one immune to this pandemic?

Shim said that the another challenge was the long climb at the beginning of HWY 75. Apparently in years past, only a handful of riders remained together at the top of the hill. So with unresolved issues from a lack of hill climbing performance on Wednesday's club ride, I stepped up the pace with visions of a CCC KOM jersey in the mind's eye. After cresting the hill, Shim and another rider broke away from the group while the remaining fifteen of us formed a disorganized group. Attacks and poorly managed pace lines failed to catch the breakaway riders by the turn around point at Ft Calhoun. From there, I re-grouped with Munson and BikerBob for an up tempo ride back.

Citius, Altius, Fortius
Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger", this motto has been a theme of the Olympics since 1894. Perhaps the Beijing Games has driven a meaner, more competitive edge to the CCC this year than in years past. Bryan, who was absent from yesterday's ride, would have been happy to know that the Zorinsky hammers were out in numbers during the final drive into Omaha. Because of the staggered start, nearly all participants complete the ride together. That makes for a lot of traffic near the finish. For most, this is a time of prudence. I mean, there are very young children on Barbie bikes, burley trailers and such on the road. But for the thrill seeking, this just only ups the ante. Indeed, with freshly ejected water bottles from titanium bottle cages, the Z-hammers were lighter and more aggressive than ever. All of those days of training at Lake Zorinsky served the singular purpose of successfully navigating the humans-on-bicycles slalom course and pot holes at a blistering pace around Carter Lake. What a rush!

Next year, I'll be even more ready than ever for the the hills, spills and thrills of Nebraska's Corporate Cycling challenge.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hill Climber

Last night I was able to catch a group ride with the big guns from Trek Store Omaha (Midwest Cycling club). It was the second time I joined this weekly 6pm ride but the first time I was able to complete it with the group. Last time, Munson had one of those miracle flats right at Ft Calhoun, only minutes after a torrent pace with numerous attacks that resulted in cramping calf muscles for me. As a result, the group rode on without us and I didn't experience the full ride.

Yesterday, I was able to leave work early, but much later than I wanted, forcing me to TT through the hills of midtown Omaha to catch the group. But I managed to catch them as they entered the Keystone trail near NFM. I don't know very many riders in that group. Munson already told me that he wasn't going to be there. Bryan and Sean ride with another group. Fred? He's disappeared again into parts unknown. So that left Shim, Lucas and Eric as the only people I knew would be there among at least 30 cyclists.

For those of you who've never experience a big group ride, you're missing out on some good fun. The colorful jerseys and bikes, the camaraderie of working together in a pace line, the antagonists who attack and intentionally work apart and the exhilaration of the sprints are easily some of the reasons that keep 'em coming back. Omaha has a few of these group rides that leave from the following bike stores weekly: High Gear on Tuesdays at 6pm, the Trek Store and Bike Masters on Weds at 6pm. Typically, there are two groups and is an unsupported ride. If you'd like to join, it's a good idea to brush up on some group ride etiquette ahead of time.

The Trek store ride begins with a 15 minute easy spin north along the Keystone trail before hopping off at Fort Street and then continuing northwest through state roads towards Ft. Calhoun. By the time you see cornfields, you'd better be ready to step on it. It's then up-tempo, attacks and sprints until you see the gas station in 'Hoonerville (Ft Calhoun).

The return trip from Ft Calhoun meanders its way through some of my favorite riding in Nebraska: the Boyer Chute Reserve and Ponca Hills. Flat and wide as the eye can see, it's a good place to practice pace lines and such while enjoying the scenery. But don't get lulled into thinking it's gonna be easy. There's a pretty good climb into Ponca hills looming in the distance where the men separate from the boys. (To be politically correct, yesterday there were in fact no women on the group ride).

So while I'm riding, Shim's chattering away about Old Yeller. That and nudging me as to how to ride the pace line, as in "follow that guy in front of you and do what he does" sort of thing. Thanks Shim! As we approached the Ponca section and I'm drifting towards the back of the group, he says, "that hill climbing yellow bike aught to be up there in the front." Shim's referring to Old Yeller's rear cassette. He once implied that it was an easier, big-geared mountain bike cassette tailored to climbing mountains as opposed to a road bike's configuration for speed. For the record, it's a Shimano 105 road racing cassette. Anyway, I looked ahead and saw the group slowly pulling away. I retorted that there was a lot of hill yet to climb and felt smugly confident that I'd catch many that were pending blowing up but just didn't know it yet. I mean, I felt good and had no signs of fatigue that I was aware of. But when I started to spin up to reel them in, I simply didn't have it. It was like: clunk-clunk. What?! That's it?! Sure enough, I was toast as I saw the group putting even more distance between them and me. Then there's a longer gradual portion before the final steep ascent that I attempted to bridge the gap. I managed to pull within about 100 meters before the group punched it up the final portion and left me for good.


I am, I am Superman and I can do anything... What a wake up call. What hubris. Old Yeller may/may not be a climbing bike, but I didn't have the engine yesterday.

Thankfully, the ride re-groups at OJ's restaurant a few miles down the road for the overconfident riders like me. From there it's a few more rolling hills back to the Trek store for the group; I peeled off at 52nd ST and quietly limped home.

Still, what a ride! Looking forward to next time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Leg Hate Me

I'm not quite sure what Rod "He Hate Me" Smart thinks of this picture, but it's what comes to mind when I think about the Raven's Nest 5K Trail run I participated in this past Sunday morning.

My legs hate me.

A trail run through a hilly wooded section is part fitness, part finesse. You've got to be in good shape to take the extremely steep climbs and punishing descents. Your ankles and knees also need to be able to bear the pressure of running sideways along the pitch. And you've got to be to handle the sudden hairpins that is typical of switchback trails. It's more than just being alert. I believe it's having an uncanny ability to sense the trail and tread lightly upon it.

Multiple repeat winner of this event, Ivan Marsh, must be part Jedi knight. He looks the part (pictures Teri B - light saber's all mine). Maybe I'll ask Qui-Gon Marsh to train me next year for this race.

What you lack in grace your body absorbs. It's truly amazing what kind of punishment that the body can take. While stumbling over roots, rolling ankles on stumps and bounding down steep grades, my joints somehow managed not to break or snap off. I must be pretty flexible. Or have a lot of those midi-chlorian thingers in my blood. Anyway, I'm too old for Jedi Training.

While preparing for this race, I envisioned what a 5K would be like. Any 5K is short enough that there's no excuse not to run very near the red line. It's highly taxing to the cardio system. So the night before, I went through the mental imagery to put myself in a position to endure 15 - 20 minutes of torture that I imagine feels somewhat like suffocating. Since I've never done a trail run, I just focused on the gasping for air part.

On Sunday morning, I picked up my friend Mike for the drive out. This was Munson's second time at Raven's Nest. As a cyclist, Mike appreciates the running for its cross-training cardio burn. The Raven's Nest hill also provide a good quad workout. Anyway, we went through Starbucks drive-thru for a cup of coffee and got an ear-full from the super most friendly and chatty attendant Starbucks has to offer. You can't fool me, evil Starbucks Barista! I thought we were going to hit critical mass. I mean, here I was sitting in between nice/evil Munson and his Starbucks counterpart who was already buzzing on caffeine. It was the perfect storm. I quickly paid the bill and hit the road.

Joining Munson and I at the race was Bryan. When it comes to running, this is Bryan's element. Bryan's roots are in running. Before making the switch to focus on cycling, he's raced everything from trail races to marathons. He's done the Raven's Nest race every year since moving to Omaha. This year, he finished 6th. That was a day after a completing in the Cliff Drive cycling race in KC. Oh, and he hasn't run in like six weeks. Not bad, kid. After a brief warm up in which Bryan showed us the beginning and ending of the forest section, it was off to the start.

Shortly after the gun went off, I found myself leading the pack. That wasn't such a good idea, because anyone who's led a race at any given moment knows that only two things can happen: you win or lose. If you've haven't led, you don't experience the sensation of losing because you were never in contention to begin with. But there I was, a running fool, frantically tree-bashing through the woods. for a about a mile, I managed to hold off what sounded like a pack of wolves behind me. Then on one of the major hill climbs, the overall second place dude passed me. Shortly after, Ivan skipped by. The hills became like roller coasters: long steep ascents with perilous serpentine downhills. At the bottom were the sand pits of despair that ended up being more like doing the merengue than running. A final climb and exit from the woods brought the welcomed sight of the finish line.

Place: 3rd Overall
Time: 20:10

Afterwards, while I was vomiting gelatinous lime-green Gatorade within a stone's throw from the finish line, the events that just transpired came quickly into perspective. I've run 5Ks three minutes faster than that effort. I've also run many 10Ks at a faster pace than this. I saw my body twist and turn in ways I didn't know were possible. Heck, I haven't barfed after a race in over four years. Indeed, the Raven's Nest 5K was one of the most physically demanding run I can recall till date.

So allow me to be clear. While the race was extremely well organized on beautiful rolling, wooded farmland, I did not have fun running the race or throwing up afterwards. Two days later, I don't appreciate the reminder in the pain I feel in my feet and ankles. It's just not worth it. I appreciate my health.

So if I do it again, it will not be for speed, but to enjoy a run in the woods with friends.