Friday, August 28, 2015

Hammerfest Time Trial on a Tandem

Last summer my friend Dave approached me with the idea of riding the Hammerfest Time Trial on the tandem he and his wife own. I said yes, of course, because it sounded like fun. And it was going to be a completely new experience for me since I had never ridden on a tandem. I'd seen several, and even touched a couple, but I'd never pedaled one.

My excitement grew every time we talked or messaged about teaming up for The Ride. I even drove to Dave's house so that he and his wife, Deb, could set the seat height just right for me. And I do mean "just right." Saying that Dave is meticulous would be an understatement. Dave acts according to well thought out plans. Determining and then recording my preferred seat height was important for our performance during The Ride, so Dave made sure that it was done correctly.

We tested the seat height by cruising around his subdivision. We powered up to speed as he told me what to do. "Keep your helmet in the middle of my back," he yelled. I quickly realized that meant "stare at my butt."

Dave gave instructions for easing off before entering a turn. I was a tad slow in responding that day and found my effort pushing against a nearly immovable force. Let me make this clear: Dave Kuykendall has extremely powerful legs.

 We entered the turn and my first thought was Dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into? I tend to do things on the edge of my abilities, on the verge of catastrophic failure, and at the limits imposed by physics. (Note: I tend to bleed a lot!) During that first turn on a tandem, when I was staring straight down at butt, bottom bracket, and moving asphalt, my mind flashed back to what my friends call "The 1:03" TT ride in the Eagle Grand Prix in 1984.

During that record ride I took the corners on an old IU Little 500 bike at stupid speeds. I had not learned a damned thing from the two crashes the year before when the bike slid out from under me on those turns. It was as if I was trying to will the laws of physics to obey me or at least make them reveal their limits as I tried to maintain speed because I lacked the power to accelerate as quickly as at least one other rider.

During that 1:03 ride I managed to skirt the edges of a friction coefficient I didn't know existed while rounding four ninety degree turns and one hairpin turn. Resisting the urge to brake going into and during the hairpin turn sent me up the final rise at a high rate of speed. Time seemed suspended while I felt both tires slide outward toward a big blue mailbox. The front tire grazed the curb as I passed that mailbox.

Simply put, I was out of control during that turn. The ensuing momentary fear caused goosebumps that quickly dissipated as I peddled to the finish line. I can still, and just did, get that chilling sensation while recalling my lack of control during that turn. And that is how I felt as Dave steered us around my first turn on the back of a tandem: out of control and unsure of the outcome.

Those moments created an incredibly intoxicating adrenaline rush! There has been much written about why some of us seek those moments and how addicting they can be. I'll save that for another post. For now I will just focus on what I have been calling "The Ride."

Ultimately, I was not able to ride the Hammerfest with Dave last year. Leading up to the event my left leg became so weak that I was dragging it while walking. A check up told me that I needed to rest and avoid sitting positions and movements that seemed to irritate the nerve since both the neurosurgeon and I preferred to hold off on surgery. That led to twelve weeks of not running and thirty one weeks off of the bike. It was a long Fall!

Dave once again brought up The Ride this year. I once again jumped at the opportunity. And, unfortunately, the nerve acted up again. However, it was not as severe and I was able to complete some monster climbs in the San Juan Mountains during July. I then took two weeks off before concentrating on some quality bike miles in the two weeks leading up to the August Hammerfest (Sadly, almost seven weeks off from running). I didn't have my best form, but I was fit enough to give Dave some of that Giddy Up he always talks about. Dave, meanwhile, demonstrated his Giddy Up by completing 330 miles in the CASA 24 Challenge less than two weeks before The Ride.

A late parent at the end of cross country practice set me behind, so I arrived in Hatfield a few minutes before the first rider launched. This, I'm certain, had Dave running and riding around in circles like a puppy anxious for a walk. He didn't show it to me when I arrived. It was, as it always is with Dave, all business. And rightly so!

We took his 45-pound Trek beast out for a five mile warmup ride. Dave had already been out on his road bike. When he asked me how far I usually warmup I gave him the truth: one or two miles at most. He promptly turned us around and steered us back to the start area.

The course for August was the original course, which had been abandoned due to chip and seal that seemed to always be in the chip phase. However, the newer and slightly faster course, a straight out and back with a nice little loop u-turn, had recently been chipped. That sent the race crew looking for a completely different site before settling on the original course. This meant that the August course required us to ride the first three miles on loose gravel. No problem, right?

Dave barked out the commands as we rounded that first turn one hundred meters into the ride. He braked to just a few miles per hour. I wasn't sure why then, but I soon found out. The gravel was not yet sealed into place. Once we straightened out we started pressing hard on the pedals. I was trying to pedal hard, but not so hard that I was working against Dave and not so easily that he would be working against me. I was trying to achieve the same resistance I felt when riding solo. This, I quickly learned, was not an easy goal to achieve when gears were being changed.

We accelerated up to 28 mph fairly quickly despite the gravel and a crossing headwind. Within seconds I watched as the rear tired began to slide back and forth in sync with our pedal strokes. I had no control over the steering and Dave was quickly losing control. I was trying to decide how I could best avoid ripping my Polar race suit while twisting my feet to unlock the cleats. Let's assume Dave is braver, or busier, and that no such wardrobe worries (or even tandem bike slide trajectories) crossed his mind. We stopped pedaling and slowed down. Dave dropped a couple of gears and we continued north at roughly 25 mph for that first three miles.

As with every turn we slowed a lot and powered back up on the rolling chip and seal roads that made up the course. I was digging deep and sweating so badly that my downward tunnel vision became painfully blurred by salt. We passed several other riders. And a couple of vehicles passed us. Those passes startled me since I didn't know they were coming and they were only visible on my blurred periphery. Dave, I'm trusting you and the Lord on this one!

We crossed the finish line for the 12.1 mile (by Jones Counter measurement) course in 27:34. It was not a fast time, but it was the fastest time of the day. Given the strength of the field, we knew that we had dropped the hammer. Still, we were ten seconds shy of the time Dave had ridden with another buddy, Tom, last year. Dave and I both wanted to best that time regardless of the road conditions or number of turns. I believe that I let Dave down by not coming in as strong as I could have been. The nerve injury gets on my nerves when it effects other people (as it also did in the R2R Relay earlier in the year).

Time aside, I must admit that The Ride with Dave is now my favorite of the many Hammerfest events I've participated in. Dave is an incredibly nice guy who fuels any gathering with his enthusiasm. He is also a strong rider whose strength resides in his legs and his mind. It was an honor to ride with him. (Note: I could not see his tushy during The Ride because he had something in his jersey pocket. What was that, Dave?) Hopefully, another fast ride on the tandem beast is in our future.

Photo credits to Deb Kuykendall and Southern Indiana Triathlon Team

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Colorado's 14ers: La Plata Peak Ascent

Because I am an Indiana boy who lives below 400 feet in elevation and who drives 2200-3200 roundtrip miles to climb the tallest peaks in Colorado each summer, I am a proud member of the 14er community. The term "14ers" refers to both the mountains having summits that sit above 14,000 ft in elevation and to the people who climb them with hopes of reaching all 54 of the official summits. Though many of the people I meet on the rocky slopes are 14ers who reside in Colorado, I have been fortunate enough to meet and climb with people from all over the US, and from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. Even a few of the foreigners consider themselves 14ers because, like me, they travel yearly to climb a handful of summits.

I started climbing Colorado's 14ers in 2005 with an ascent of Longs Peak. I was immediately hooked despite the fact that the preferred serenity of a mountain trail experience was illuminated by the one hundred plus headlamps I passed in the night and despite the festival-like aura created by the dozens of triumphant climbers who joined me on the summit during my ninety-five minute stay.

Over the next five summers I managed to climb 49 different 14ers. Though I have not yet summited those last five "official" 14ers, I have reached 14er summits another 35 times. Twice I've been turned back by weather. (I don't start up if the weather is questionable) I've also climbed nineteen 13ers. Many of the initial climbs were completed using sometimes hard to find trails that ended on alpine boulder slopes that had to be negotiated in order to reach the summits. The 14ers Trails Initiative has created and maintained newer well developed single track trails leading to cairn-guided boulder paths near the summits. Most of the repeat summits were achieved by using more technical routes such as rocky ridge lines instead of trails. I used the Ellingwood Ridge route, which I accessed from Hope Pass, during my second and most adventurous ascent of La Plata in 2010.

It is worth confessing that after I caught the 14er bug on The Narrows near Long's Peak summit I became a "peak bagger." I've heard the peak bagger defined in several ways and most of them are derogatory. Worse yet, I was a peak bagger with high endurance and an even higher pain threshold. That led me to climb two or three mountains in a single morning and to climb eight to ten mountains in four or five days. It became more sport than play, adventure, or fun. (Still, what I did was nowhere near the incredible effort put out by Andrew Hamilton in July 2015 when he climbed to all 58 14er summits in less than nine days and 22 hours.)

Oh, I enjoyed myself and absorbed nature with every gasp and glimpse, but I climbed with a single mission of conquering all 58 14er summits. (Note: There are 58 summits above 14K feet, but four of them to not meet the "rules" dealing with proximity and saddle height.) My attitude changed on the morning that an irresponsible climber 800 feet above me on the steep scree descent from the Mt. Columbia summit knocked a dozen football to beachball sized stones loose. Several of those stones careened and crashed all the way down the mountainside. They reached me at 35-45 mph, passing over and around me as I dove several times to avoid being hit. A quick inventory of my bloody body was followed by the realization that I could have been killed. And that mind opener preceded a whistle, an "I'm OK" overhead wave, and an emotional double bird. The run through the valley leading to my car allowed me to assimilate a new approach to 14ering. (Ha! Now that's a word to me!)

Every climb since has been more enjoyable and rewarding. I still push myself hard sometimes, but my focus on coming to "know" the mountain I'm ascending/descending allows me to experience a relaxing nature walk - even at 95% of my maximum heart rate.

I climbed eleven mountains in five states this summer. Four of them were CO 14ers. The last mountain I climbed was scribbled onto my "must do" list when I changed my itinerary while sipping a stout at Fargo Brewing in Fargo, North Dakota. A third ascent of La Plata Peak had suddenly become an important adventure for my summer travels.

A month later I shouldered my summit pack while standing in a gravel lot next to CO 82 under a dimly lit clear blue sky just after sunrise. It was sure that rain would come as it had every day for more than a week, but that blue sky added some pep to my step as I jogged up the gravel road to the trailhead of my favorite 14er. Having carefully packed an incredibly large nutrient and energy laden cookie from the BVRoastery surely added good vibes to the ensuing walk.

Before reaching the trailhead I encountered two young ladies. I asked them if they had been on the summit at sunrise. They glanced at each other with raised eyebrows before one of them told me that they had been forced to turn around - by a damned goat! Both of the ladies carried on about how the "crazy goat" blocked the trail, snorted, and butted its head at them for fifteen minutes before they finally retreated back down the mountain. They also said that I would soon encounter two guys who were turned around by the goat.

I couldn't help but laugh along with them. Nevertheless, I found myself agitated about the prospect of an encounter with a "giant" goat which seemed to claim proprietorship of MY favorite 14er. I didn't know the behavior of goats to predict how to act, but that didn't stop me from coming up with and mentally preparing myself for a few scenarios. And I smiled thinking about the added adventure that might be standing high above me.

Several people have asked me why I like La Plata above all of the other 48 14ers I've summited. Some thought on the matter made me realize that I like this mountain climb for its varied terrain which ranges from a lush stream-side forest to numerous switchbacks up two near vertical slopes to the negotiation of a boulder field. The views of the surrounding Sawatch Mountains and ridge lines add to the lure of this mountain. Then again, perhaps it was due in part to the experience I had during my first climb of La Plata.

I used the standard route during my first ascent of La Plata ten years earlier (almost to the day of this year's climb up the same route). I found myself alone on the trail that day as it was a weekday and the weather was threatening with storms already on nearby peaks. Upon reaching the boulder field I found little evidence of a clear route, so I directed my path toward the highest point in my view.

While hopping across a gap between boulders I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. My startled adjustment nearly made me fall. Then I was pleasantly surprised again when I realized that I'd seen movement of a woman's head. She was going around the rocks I was bounding over. We exchanged hellos and I slowed to continue up with her. Honestly, I was worried about her since I had not seen anyone and quickly learned that the other car at in the trailhead lot was hers.

Before we reached the summit I also learned that she was a 78-year-old nun who had retired from teaching. She, too, was a 14er who planned to summit all 58 peaks. The woman I first saw as a fragile elderly woman turned out to be a powerful and sure-footed climber. I was in awe. Note: We took a selfie with a camera from another era but I can't find it in that giant box of photos. If/when I do find it I will digitize it to post it here and on other media,)

I did not meet a nun this year, but I did meet some interesting people. They included a retired couple who live in a motor home and write about their travels, a caregiver and his young client/friend, a couple of fellow midwestern flatlanders, and a goat. Most of us got along just fine.

It is hard to put the emotion of this hike into words. (I'd received good news from home the day before while at the BVRoastery) It is just as difficult to distill the experience into a few pictures. Below you will find my attempt to capture the aura of the experience in some of the photos I took along the trail. It was a magical day for me. Hopefully you will get a glimpse of why that was so and why I keep climbing those piles of rocks. ST

A solid bridge to cross a stream near the trailhead

A makeshift bridge to cross another smaller stream

Evidence of the 14ers Initiative
At home that heart rate is achieved with a six minute per
mile (10 mph) pace

Ah, now I see you, my friend!

The sub-alpine switchbacks
The guys who were turned back by the goat as they
descend the tree line switchbacks in the chute
Still higher on those switchbacks
Gerber can tell us which peak that is . . .
Finally topping out on those switchbacks with mouth of the narrow
chute from previous shots in the center of this one

That is not a 6x6 stone! More like 8x8.
Finally in the upper switchbacks.
See the trail as it descends to lower switchbacks? (What goat??)
Storms are a brewin'
The boulder field leading to the false summit 

Rocks . . .
A trail leading up a big ole pile of rocks!
Hmmm - I'll take the rocks at right
Getting high in Colorado - the best way!
Summit selfie of the Polar V800 - my everything computer
"He smiled, but behind him a storm was taking shape."
The damned goat. I met him as I ran the descent to escape a pending storm.
He stood tall enough on the trail to look at me eye-to-eye. When he snorted,
lowered his horns, and moved toward me I growled like a bear and ran at
him. This shot was of him turning back at me after fleeing the trail.
A shamed goat who lost at a game of chicken (Whew!)
That track is where I planted my butt and glissaded several hundred meters.
The clouds in the background are forming around La Plata's summit.
Lightning storms be damned. This is a photo op.
Running down - Do not trip. Do not trip. Do NOT trip! (Whew!)
Lightning strike victim
The BVRoastery summit cookie. There was a third one waiting in the car:)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

During three previous Colorado visits I ventured into the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Each of those visits were timed poorly. Because the dunes area of the park offered no swimming depth water it was simply too hot, over 90F air and 150F sand temperatures, to take a leisurely hike over the mountains of sand. So I came to know the visitor center, Medano Creek, Big South Canyon, and the Mosca Pass Trail.

Visiting GSDNP was on my "B" list list of things to do this year if weather in the San Juan Mountains flushed me out early. It turned out that a sunrise ride across Monarch Pass (last post) left me with plenty of time to reach the dunes for an afternoon visit. And, thankfully, the weather was absolutely perfect!
Polar V800 GPS mapping of a 3.4-mile barefoot hike
I reached the park entrance just after 5 pm. The photos that follow provide a glimpse of a tranquil, blithe, enchanting visit that culminated with an introspective sunset walk along the highest windswept sandy ridges. This unplanned walk turned out to be one of my favorite experiences from thirty three days and ten thousand miles of traveling. Check out the photos, click on the links to learn about this unique park, and then plan your own visit to this enchanting sandy landscape. Btw, the current cover photo for this blog was taken while crossing Medano Creek as the hike ended. ST

Striated approach: Clouds top the Sangre de Cristo Mountains while
a desert crop field seems to hold the great sand dunes
Medano Creek and the surrounding wet sand must
be crossed before ascending the dunes
Medano Creek, the dunes, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Dozens of people play, hike, and "surf" on the dunes.
Shoes off - it is time to climb
Looking back at the visitor center and the mountains
Climbing closer to some of the clouds that dropped heavy
rain and hail all around the dunes  
A ridge path to High Dune?
Storms all around my sunny sand wonderland
It appears that many have taken the high road of late . . .
Reminiscing about summiting those mountains
Looking back at fewer footprints and High Dune

That storm produced hundreds of lightning strikes
Looking out over almost thirty square miles of sand piles 
Another storm in the mountains (Crestones) to the north while the dunes
and me still cast shadows
Glancing back at a lone set of footprints tracking toward the setting sun

This pinky nail sized beetle shows why the sand seemed soft -
Tiny prismatic particles

The star gazers have arrived!

This Mocha Stout helped fuel the first of two 14er ascents after leaving the dunes
Yes, it is really a blend of mocha and stout