Friday, August 1, 2008

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

Or, what Nick does on his day off...

So I often suspect that my tangential blog titling tends to screw up the searchability of my writings. Given my odd range of interests, this entry is as likely to be about an obscure German cryptosystem as it is to be about Aerojet's AMBR high-performance 890N deep space bipropellant engine, something which I have recently decided is an Important Part of my personal space program.

In this case, however, it is actually about something I did physically. Shocking, I know. There will be thoughtful musings on everything from gloves to the design of bike trails, but for the most part it will be a story of physical effort and, above all, physical woe. It will also, briefly, mention my groin, though I will give everyone fair warning if they want to avoid that part. It is a style of recounting-an-adventure that is familiar to readers of Erica's fitness blog.

Having realized that my "family vacation" centered month of August was upon us and that, between Erica's triathlon addiction and, even more dramatically, my increasingly complex work schedule, the "family vacation" value had been effectively reduced to three days, I took today off from work. I approached my boss and, very nicely, asked her for time off. She very nicely granted it. I love my job.

We decided to go for a bike ride, to try the Interurban trail from Edmonds (actually from our front door) all the way up to Everett. A distance of something like twenty miles each way. The motivation was that this was (1) very different from what I usually do on a weekday and (2) the Interurban was a place that would be hard to ride with Bella in tow and (3) that going on an adventure is a long standing tradition in our relationship and something we hadn't done in a while.

So off we set. I had three eggs (fried) and two cups of coffee. The scanty breakfast was motivated by my vision for the ride: a European cyclo-perambulation. The sort of thing I picture people in the Netherlands or other bits of that lovely collection of small countries in the Northwest corner of Europe doing all the time. Riding along in nice travelin' bikes, stopping periodically in caf├ęs to enjoy coffees, sandwiches, beers, and moules frites.

The first part of the ride was the hardest. Something like 250 feet of elevation gain in what feels like 250 feet. So I admitted that I wasn't up to it and just walked it. Then things got easier -- a little in the gentle undulation department and then we hit the entrance to the Interurban.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with the Interurban, it is a little like the Balkans. As in "Balkanized." The idea is of a trail that runs from Seattle to Everett, along the old Interurban trolly line. This would work great if all of the little communities on the way had gotten with the program and started building an actual trail before land development came along and swallowed up some stretches of the old line. Edmonds, I am sad to say, has an Interurban stretch on its N-year plan, but it always appears to be N years out.

So we hit the trail, right by a discarded shopping cart from the Ranch Market nearby. The trail was fine and fun, gently rolling and pretty well paved. It was punctuated by an irritating number of stops for crossing streets that involved varying degrees of slowing, stopping, and chicaning around bollards and horse gates of various descriptions. "Whee, my speed is getting up, I'm feeling good...and I'm slowing down..."

This was great for Erica who wanted to work on her shifting/starting/stopping/clipping drills, but was a little irritating for me who was trying to deal with my more-out-of-shape-than-I-thought-I-was issues. Momentum is the cyclists friend...

Then, with an almost cinematic lack of warning, we were at the Alderwood mall, or very near to it. Here, things got ugly. Someone thinks that the stretch of 200th Street SW that runs right by Buca di Beppo just before it turns into the Alderwood Mall Parkway is a bike trail. Presumably, this person has never ridden a bicycle outside of a spin class, if that much. The sidewalk is about three feet wide and punctuated by huge chunks of disturbed concrete where tree roots have pushed it up, entrances to parking lots, and various kinds of cryptic electrical boxes. Don't go calling me a wimp and saying I should have ridden on the street. Two fast turning lanes with no shoulder, lots of patches, and angry youths driving pickup trucks (I'd be angry if I was a youth driving a pickup truck and had to pay for my own gas, what with the salary of the average Red Robin busser...).

So we walked. Which was fine, but I'd actually been feeling pretty good. Bikeridus interruptus continues. Then there was an overpass -- nice gentle up, nice gentle down. And by that I mean ridable up and 28.5 mph down while pausing to drink some H20. And I'm riding a flat bar hybrid, mind you, so aero forces were definitely in play.

Whee fun and then that tossed us out right by Greg's Cycle where Erica picked up some new fingerless gloves (and gave me her old fingerless gloves which had stretched and become too bit) and some of some miraculous substance 135px-Caffeine-3D-QuteMol.pngcalled Shot Blocks which have nothing to do with basketball but are instead not only the best tasting thing I've ever had (we got the black cherry) but are full of lovely electrolytes and the glorious giving power of caffeine.

You may notice at this point that my Eurocycling dream is fading in preference to scientifically designed energy foods. Well, Shot-Blocked and with new gloves we got back on the trail which suddenly got lovely. Yes, it was alongside a freeway but it was on nice pavement and was, for the most part, screened by some nice trees that kept the freeway noise down. A little.

First there was an awkward struggle up a Long Hill that took a lot out of me. In fact, at one point, I decided to pause and walk for a bit to catch my breath and get my rebelliously angry muscles back under control. Unfortunately something comically awkward happened. I couldn't get my left shoe out of my bike. It was stuck. I twisted and twisted and it turned out that the show twisted but refused to release from the cleat. Velcro is wonderful. I just got out of the shoe.

So we poked and prodded at the bike for a while and eventually determined that one of the Allen screws that holds the cleat fitting to the shoe had come off and the result was that the thing was just spinning around the one remaining screw. Somehow Erica gave the thing one godalmighty wrench and it came free. Much torque was then applied to the remaining screw so that it would hold. Suspense killer here: it did fine.

This part went fast. A lot of it went fast in a way that made me think "this will go slow the other way..." But I chose to not focus on dreading the future. I can be irritatingly-grounded-man enough as it is. There was a nearly terrifying interlude where we had to ride until it seemed like we were going on to a freeway onramp rather than a bike path entrance, but other than some poor signage (note: signage on the interurban is variable at best) this worked out fine.

Whee, this part went fast. Why is it that the fun part goes the quickest?

Hitting south Everett, we started to run into more Urb. Clearly, the sweet spot on this trail runs from the Everett Mall at the north to, ironically, the Alderwood Mall to the south. For your shopping pleasure, no doubt. For a few miles past the mall, where the kind folks at the Great Harvest Bread Company filled our water bottles for us. More trails, mostly nice, but again lots of this chicanery. Now with big metal poles to stop cars from squeezing through. I'm not sure if this stretch is newer or they have more problems with vehicular intrusions up north.

Another (and more terrifying) stretch where we got tossed out onto surface streets for a few miles because we missed a sign. This whole trip definitely had some fun navigation moments. Map reading, clever improvisation, turning around, all the good stuff. Actually, that adventure was part of what we wanted and it was one of the real joys of the trip.

Things sort of trended down here -- more stoppages, more street riding, and then suddenly we reached a point where the trail just ended. Not with a sign that said "you made it!" or a statue of some guy riding a bike, or even with a nice park where you could sit on a bench and eat Shot Blocks and hydrate. No, it just ended at a four way intersection, two lanes each way on each side. Fast food restaurants were present.

So we turned around and headed home after our own little congratulatory hi-five. We'd been thinking of stopping to get food at some place along the way. Remember the Eurocycling vision, right? Then the wind hit us. We'd noticed the wind at home, how much the trees were moving. But without really noticing, we'd been riding with it the whole trip so far. Suddenly my speed took about a 40% cut, and that was with me putting everything I had into it.

So we rode. Erica asked if I was waiting for her to catch up at one point after one of these crossing things. I gasped that I was going as hard as I could. So I rode and rode. I was starting to feel significantly not-so-good, but we had time against us: Bella's school would be ending in three hours and at current pace we'd need every minute of that time to get home, get the car, and pick her up.

We waved off getting lunch, but at one point around 2:00 our hunger was just too much and Erica wisely pulled us into a gas station to grab some grub. I wolfed a banana (I hate bananas) and 3/4 of a really bad sandwich. Erica wolfed the balance of the sandwich, a power bar, and her own banana. At this point, the romantic dream of moules frites was entirely dead, standing in a gas station parking lot wolfing a bad sandwich.

Getting back on the road, the humilitory lowpoint of the trip happened when I came up to a stoplight, unclipped my left foot, and promptly fell to the right. Result: scraped right knee, scraped left elbow (from the bike hitting it, actually), scratched bar ends. Back up, back riding.

Now the payback was really hitting us as we were going up the nice hills that had made the initial journey so fun. And we were upwind. I was hurting. The tank that is Nick was getting very, very empty. I think part of it may actually have been my body's brief distraction with the task of digesting that sandwich. I found even mild slopes were killing me. I have this image that I looked like those super-hillclimb guys in The Tour do when they are pushing up some "Beyond Categorization" climb in a breakaway with the peoloton screaming up behind them.

And so I fell. My muscles just decided that they were going to start making some of the executive decisions around here, thank you very much, and decided that pedaling was on the list of tasks that they were just going to set aside and worry about another day. The practical result was that I pretty much went straight, fell over, and landed supported in an odd semi-sitting position by a chain link fence. My bike was half on top of me and half tangled up in me. It felt very heavy. I pushed at it desultorily a little while watching Erica ride away around a corner. It was very, very heavy, and I couldn't quite figure out what to do with my legs. I took a nice break, cried for a short while, and then finally succeeded in crawling out from under it. Suddenly, without my deadweight on top, my bike felt manageable. I pushed it up. Then I climbed up. I found that I could mount and even pedal. And so slowly and carefully I did just that.

In my defense, I will say that by this point I'd ridden a few miles past the 25 mile distance that marked the longest single bike ride I'd ever taken. So I wasn't feeling horrible about myself, just horrible.

In just a minute or two I came across Erica riding back towards me, wondering where I'd gone. I related the story and for the next couple of hours we took things a little more slowly, a little easier, and just gave some of the pace away in the interest of long-term health. It was actually wonderful -- riding together and having the spare breath and energy to talk and chat. It was wonderful. And I'm not sure if it was the lower pace, a changed attitude, or what, but things started to feel better. The quick lunch might have caught and started to actually help instead of distracting the few resources I had left.

We rode up and through the Alderwood mall, back down the final few chicanes. I was playing it cool and walking a lot of hills that I felt like I probably could ride. But there was a bit of a technical excuse for that -- something in my 2nd crash had torqued my rear derailleur and I couldn't reach my lower three gears on the cassette. The chainring was shifting gimpy too, so getting down low without some nasty dragging sounds going on was tough.

So I walked up and rode down and didn't feel bad about it at all.

We made it back with about twenty minutes to spare, and Erica kindly went to pick up our kid while I staggered around the house looking confused for a while. Then I fell asleep and, forty minutes later, woke up feeling like I actually understood the words that people were saying to me.


One of the big hits of the ride was this stuff called Glide that Erica ritualistically rubs herself with before putting on a wetsuit. It is intended to cut down on chafe for any sort of repetitive athletic motion like biking or swimming or running. She offered some to me and I went for it -- for the groinal area that even the most effective set of bike shorts seem unable to prevent from experiencing at least a little frictional rub.

The stuff works great. Even at rides of 25 miles I always had far more post-ride chafe-induced pain. Given the time and the distance, I'm absolutely thrilled at how little collateral damage I've suffered -- soreness in the back and shoulders, chafe, etc.


40 miles in 3:55. Fifteen miles further than I've ever gone and easily the longest single athletic exertion I've ever done for as little break time as I had.

Now I'm going to eat sushi. A vast, vast amount of it since I burned somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories on that ride. And I'm going to have a beer, because I've earned it. It may not have been quite the idealistic ride I sought, but I'm happy as hell and I'm going to celebrate!

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