Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Reviews - It's Not About The Bike and Every Second Counts

I've always been drawn to Lance Armstrong's story for his struggle against cancer, rather than for his Tour de France wins. So despite the revelations about Armstrong's drug use over the past year I'm still fond of his books, although not as much as I was in 2007 when I published this review on my old blog.

It's Not About The Bike

Lance Armstrong, with Sally Jenkins

Every Second Counts
Lance Armstrong, with Sally Jenkins

Every cyclist has hills to climb. Sometimes they are small, like the hills in my hometown. Sometimes they are large, like the hills on the Tour de France. And sometimes they are the climb of your life.

In 1996 Lance Armstrong thought he knew about hills. He'd climbed a lot of them riding his bike as a child in Texas, and then as a professional cyclist. But it wasn't until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that he fully understood what it was to climb, and by his own admission, truly be a man. He proved himself by conquering his disease, and returning to life and to cycling changed physically - 15 pounds lighter - and as a person. It's Not About the Bike is the story of Armstrong's metamorphosis.

I know people who survived cancer and yet the sheer horror of living through chemotherapy didn't hit home for me until I read Armstrong's detailed account. The author's bravery extends to not only beating the disease and returning to cycling but also to his nothing held back recounting of his illness. Even details that some might find odd in a sports biography - what athlete openly discusses his sterility, for instance? - work in this context. Perhaps we didn't need to know how his first child was conceived, but winning is about excess, isn't it?

Armstrong and his co-author Sally Jenkins reunited for a sequel, Every Second Counts, continuing Lance's story. Unfortunately it's not just Hollywood that has problems with sequels. Like a novel protagonist without an obstacle to overcome, Every Second Counts becomes a second serving of Lance's life and career highlights. Sports fans will read it for just such matters, but impressive as seven Tour jerseys look framed on the wall, for me it reads as a long afterward to the real event. Lance won his victory when he returned to life after cancer. Would all such climbs had a triumphant finish.

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Book Review: The Memory of Running

I've expanded and revised this review from its previous publication on my old blog.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

Smithy Ide doesn't have it easy. He's 279 pounds, 43, a smoker, and drinks too much. He's stuck in a boring, dead-end job in Rhode Island. He has no social life. And then he loses his parents the same week he discovers his beloved but insane sister's body lies unclaimed in a morgue in Los Angeles. While drunk, he starts to clean out his childhood home, finds his childhood Raleigh bicycle, on a lark decides to coast on it to the end of the driveway, and..... well, I won't go further with details. I want you to read this warm-hearted novel, and not just because it's a tale well-told.

One of the themes the author plays in the book is something that anyone who has worked to lose a lot of weight will recognize. The Memory of Running is what might be called a "travel novel", meaning a work in which the protagonist embarks on a journey physical and spiritual. The author makes this point by emphasizing that Smithy is on a "quest." Both Twain's Huck Finn and Voltaire's Candide, two other quest-followers, come to mind as distant cousins of Smithy; indeed, Candide and Smithy share empty-headedness as a feature of their personalities. However, unlike Huck and Candide, McLarty's hero is trying to work out his physical problems as well as satisfying their quest. And like many people who lose weight, Smithy, as he travels and his weight changes, grows as a person. Often fat people, trapped by their girth and their lifestyle, live the life of passive despair that Smithy 'enjoys' at the start of the book. McLarty's use of this 'weight loss trope' is subtle; he's helped here by having the clueless Smithy narrate the book.

Finally, the bicycling references in the book are modest; the bike serves as escape, transportation from Smithy's past and present, and as a symbol of that past. However, McLarty did his homework; the route Ide rides through Pennsylvania, for instance, roughly follows PA Bike Route S.  But the book's not about the bike. Nor is it about weight loss. But anyone who is fond of bicycling or has at some time had a problem with obesity will find this novel entertaining.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, Canal Fulton, June 2011

Following the abandonment of my 2011 bike tour across Ohio and Pennsylvania, I stayed with my friend Peter near Akron and did day rides. The first was on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, north of the town of Clinton. And the ride set the tone of the rest of my vacation - warm, sunny weather, good trail conditions, and something to see every mile.

And that started in the first mile. The O and E towpath trail, unlike others I've ridden, has been reconstructed and planned for the visitor, not for a canal horse. In other words, there are overlooks and plantings and boardwalks and many other signs of thought for the cyclist, hiker, and walker. The trail surface varied from pavement to fine gravel to something a bit coarser, but overall the conditions were very groomed.

I passed through the historic town of Clinton, where I purchased fluid and took photos. I was particularly struck by the drive-through store selling beer and other drinks. I've never seen a drive through store in PA, and especially not one selling alcoholic beverages. (Pennsylvania has very strict and odd rules about the selling of beer and other drinks. But that's a discussion for another time....)

Then I rode down the gravel path to Canal Fulton. I rushed to make the last ride of the day for the canal boat, and just made it. The visitors center held my bike for me while I spent an hour going up and down the canal four miles round trip. It was a warm day, and I felt sorry for Dan and Prince, the 'motor' of the boat. I hope they both got hosed down and some nice oats afterward.

The towpath surface became rougher as I went on. The rains this spring caused some washouts, and the trail surface had a messy 'patch' job. After riding further down the towpath I crossed the river and road and took the parallel Old Muskingum Trail into Crystal Springs hoping for better conditions. My new choice wasn't much better than the old as far as the surface went. However, it was more dirt and less gravel, and the dry weather left the ground hard and smooth.

I crossed the river back to the towpath on the High Bridge in Crystal Springs. This historic span is closed to motor vehicles, but remains open for access to the Old Muskingum Trail.  A week later I'd be floating a canoe under it.

I stopped at seventeen miles and more than 100 photos for the day, at Bridgeport Quarry trailhead.

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Getting RAAM'd - Bike and Hike Trail, Akron, Ohio, June 2011

After making a last minute decision to take up my friend Peter's offer to host me in Akron, OH, following my abandoned cross-Ohio and PA tour, I decided to set up day rides during my stay. On learning Bike Forums poster Homeybe was passing through Ohio on his way back to California, I contacted him and set up a time to go riding. Since he had a road bike, I searched for a suitable route. However, I was handicapped by my lack of knowledge of good roads in the area. Finally I selected Akron's Bike And Hike Trail, one of the oldest rail-to-trails project in the state.

Homeybe arrived about 2 PM and we were at the trailhead about 2:30. Or so we thought. It turns out we stopped short of the entrance to the bike trail. So we headed a mile or so down the road to the next park. After circling it, we couldn't find the trailhead. So after checking at the entrance we'd discovered we were still a little short. Another mile down Ohio Route 91 and we climbed onto the trail.

"Climbed" is the right word. Most rail trails have a flat or near flat grade. The Bike and Hike has rollers like I've seen on PA roads, but never on a trail. I learned the name "Akron" is derived from the Greek words meaning "high place." The rail-trail designer had to have majored in Greek and excessive literalness. I had a hard time keeping up a conversation with my co-rider. After one climb I had to pull over. "I have to catch my breath" I huffed and puffed.

"It's over there waiting for you" said Homeybe.

We resumed and coped with the trail, which uses a combination of rolling bike paths and city streets. I pushed myself pretty hard to keep up with Homeybe, who is an ultracyclist and veteran of RAAM and the Furnace Creek 508. It wasn't only to stick with him, however. I've too often been described as someone who 'tools around with a camera' on rides, and I wanted to give my all to show people, including myself, what I was capable of.
At one point we stopped and talked about my physical condition. I was probably too apologetic about my weight, my back, my knees - I enjoyed my friend's company, but I felt embarrassed to be riding with someone of his abilities. I don't aspire to race, but I do want the stamina and ability one finds in an athlete. I know what I don't have, and I work around it to make my goals. But I still know what I don't have.

My friend assured me that HE was working when riding, that he wasn't in prime riding condition at the moment, and he was enjoying the day. At one point he told me "there's only one great cyclist out here today, and I'm riding with him." I quickly scanned the trail before I realized he was talking about me.

And the ride resumed. Roller after roller. Finally we turned south on the homebound section of the loop. As we passed along a major Akron to Cleveland highway, Homeybe said "it looks like that's the last of the rollers."

We then crested it and saw more of them. I stopped and swore. But I got on again.

I was running low on water, and at one point I pulled over and sat down for a few minutes. I'd almost crested one more hill, but didn't quite make it. After ten minutes we pushed on. Five minutes later I began to have dry heaves. The coughing made me dizzy and hurt my back. I stopped and dismounted unsteadily as Homeyba held my bike. I sprawled on a lawn, helmet off, rolling over on my side. The homeowner came out and brought me a pop - what in PA we call soda - as I tried to get myself together. The pop and some more water down, fifteen minutes later I was up and riding the final four miles or so back to the car. It helped there were only two serious rollers on the route. The final mile and a half back to the car I wound up walking near half of, since my legs were spent and I was still feeling ill. Homeybe took care of putting my bike on the rack while I sat in the car cooling off. 

It was a mixed bag of a ride. The route gave both of us more of a workout than we expected. I'll never say Ohio is flat again. I'm disappointed I failed to avoid bonking - since I do bike touring I should be able to recognize the symptoms before I redline. Yet, I still think I did OK. I may not be able to ride like a RAAM participant, or climb like Contador, but like them I'm able to give everything I have to the job. Now that I have straight legs and knees that function normally the task before me is to have more to give....

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Canoe and Bike, Massillon, Ohio, July 2011

On my trip to Ohio in 2011 I finally did something I've wanted to do for years: I paddled a canoe. With the help and hire of Ernie's Bike Shop and Canoe Rental I went solo six miles down the Tuscarawas River north of Massillon. My arms felt spent the next day, but the effort was worth it.

The Tuscarawas is a gentle river, about 4 feet deep this time of year. Still, I was so nervous at the idea of canoeing that I was wearing the PFD in the van taking me to the put in spot. After five minutes instruction from the driver, I was afloat. Here I'm approaching the pedestrian and bike bridge in Crystal Springs.

I had only one difficult spot during the trip, and its shown in the photo.  I was warned that due to the river level being so low and my weight that I could get caught up on rocks. Success went to my head as I'd managed to avoid getting hung up. I was so intent on navigating the ripples ahead I missed the overhanging tree to the right. I lost my baseball cap, and almost lost my glasses. Oh well. A small price to pay. And despite running into the branches of the tree trying to avoid the shallow water, I still got stuck. However, I turned the boat around and let the current pull me free, rather than try to get out of the canoe.

At the start and end of the trip I needed assistance. Getting into a canoe wasn't too bad, but getting out provided to be a small challenge. Fortunately the shop had someone there to help me, and I was standing on the bank soon enough. I hope to repeat my journey on the water during my Ohio vacation next week.

After getting out of the canoe and changing into riding gear I rode the Ohio and Erie Canal towpath trail for about ten miles or so. Here's the nice part, before the mess that is Massillon.

A couple of miles past here the trail deteriorates to detours, broken glass, and youths throwing firecrackers on the path. Turn around and head back north!

I considered riding the connecting Sippo Valley Trail. But there's not much of a connection at the moment. A bridge on the trail was burnt down by arsonists a few years ago and never fixed. I decided one set of detours was enough and returned to finding the towpath. When I found it, I also found rougher trail conditions. While navigable, it was a bumpy ride.

My travels for the day ended at a small trail park south of Messillon, err, Massillon. The highlight is a sculpture of Ohio native and American hero John Glenn. There was still light, and the towpath continued south, but I'd had a full, exciting afternoon, and I was so euphoric I felt I was in orbit.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

About the tip jar.....

I received a question about the tip jar I've added to A Taste for the Woods, and I thought a fuller explanation is in order. But first, let me state what the tip jar isn't - its not a tin cup. I'll be outside, and writing about the outdoors, even if the jar is empty.

That said, writing is both an art and hard effort. If you like what you read on A Taste for the Woods, and feel inclined to say thank you in a tangible way, the button for the tip jar leads you to PayPal. Buy me a cup of coffee or a spare tube. If you like the blog but don't feel like leaving a tip, that's OK as well. Leave a thank you in the comments section if you are moved to do so.

Upcoming Rides: Ohio Trails, Roads, and a Possible Cross State Tour

Much of my upcoming vacation should be in Ohio, and I'll have my bike with me. My plans are up in the air, as my friends are the large determining factor in what I do. That written, the rides discussed include the Holmes County Trail, the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, the North Coast Inland Trail, and the Western Reserve Greenway.

The Western Reserve Greenway figures large in my plans at the moment, as this 43 mile stretch of flat, traffic-free, North to South pavement is a sizable chunk of a route from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The total distance is 115 miles between the waters at Ashtabula and East Liverpool, and the bulk of it is on rail trails - the Greenway, and two other trails near Youngstown and Lisbon. If I can figure out lodging arrangements, I could complete my first bike tour since 2010. I have unfinished business with Ohio, having been defeated on my abandoned 2011 tour.

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Upcoming hike: The Raven's Horn, Golden Eagle Trail, Slate Run, PA

I will be on vacation starting the end of next week. While many of my plans are unset at the moment, one has been decided. I will be hiking up to the Raven's Horn the first weekend in August.

The Raven's Horn is a rock outcropping off of the Golden Eagle Trail, near the town of Slate Run in the Pine Creek Gorge. The view is spectacular. I don't like poaching photos from other websites but a search for "Raven's Horn PA" brings up some impressive images. Anyway the hike up to the horn, according to the man I'm meeting to hike with, features about 700 feet of climbing and fewer rocks than most Pennsylvania mountain trails. It will be tough, but I feel I can make it.

As far as gear goes, I'll be wearing my usual fishing shirt, along with a pair of hiking pants I'd picked up at Cabela's a couple of years ago but never worn. The guy I am hiking with offered me a set of his good hiking poles, so I'll use those instead of my cheap poles from Target. I'll be carrying a cheap drawstring pack and lots of water.

I'm debating between wearing my Asolo hiking boots or my Brooks Cascadia trail runners for the hike. I like the Brooks, but I spent a lot of money on the boots and this seems a situation made to use them. Also, the boots might help with should I step near, or on, one of the residents of the mountain. I will be in the land of the Eastern Timber Rattler, and the woods around the Raven's Horn is supposed to be thick with them.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Memories of Roscoe - Hickory Run State Park, May 2013

Among the first posts to A Taste For The Woods were accounts of hikes with my friend Mike.The Texan is a long-distance truck driver, and while he had a layover outside Hazelton I took him on some short hikes in Hickory Run State Park. But Mike wasn't alone; his traveling companion Roscoe came with him. The three of us had a great time, two men and a dog.

Yesterday morning Mike told me Roscoe had died. I'm sad for my friend's loss of his companion on the road, but I feel a small tug as well. Roscoe was a delightful dog; well-behaved but high spirited, good with children, and loyal to his owner. He behaved himself when he was in my car by himself, let children pet him when we walked by a family picnic at Sand Spring Lake, and followed Mike everywhere. We may never know what first brought man and dog together as friends, but it happened. And in honor of Roscoe's friendship with Mike, here are their photos from our day at Hickory Run.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Chris stalks a deer

During today's ride on the Perkiomen Trail my buddy Chris observed a deer feeding just off the trail. He puts his hunting skills to work in the above YouTube video.

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Heated Debate on the Perkiomen, July 7, 2013

Chris and I met at the dog park in Monte Clare for the day's Perkiomen Trail ride. I chose the Perk because its shaded for much of its length and the temperature was heading for 90 degrees. We agreed that we'd wing the distance after I insisted I wasn't going to spend all day out in the heat. We eventually settled on twenty miles, which turned into 22 when I suggested we turn around at the first big bridge over the Perkiomen.

The first stop was in Lower Perkiomen Valley Park. As Chris pedaled up he asked "Why are we stopping here?"

"I need to get a photo of you on your bike. Whenever I post pictures of you on my blog my pageviews soar."

"Wow! I'm special!"

Just off the trail, down a side road, we went into the woods when I heard water flowing over stone. I'd never known there was an old dam on the creek here, but there was the Indian Head Dam. With the recent rains the creek was swollen and the volume of water was impressive.  Nearby were the remains of an old mill, and we poked around in them. I spent ten minutes walking on the rocks along the creek photographing the dam, while Chris patiently waited and sweated in the shade. Note in the first photo there's a man cooling off in the creek.

Once out of the park we were on gravel and under tree cover. We both felt cooler, but it was still hot. However, as we were moving we cooled off. We both kept hydrated - I estimate I consumed over 120 ounces of fluid during the ride, and I can't imagine Chris drank much less.

On the way up, I decided to put on my Captain's hat for Team Clydesdale, and spoke with Chris about training. "How fast can you made your sled go?"

"I don't know. I'm happy with the speed I have. I should be fine for the MS City to Shore."

"But sprinting will make you faster overall by raising your top speed. As your maximum increases your average will go up."


"Do it, fatso!"

And Chris took off like a rocket. A big rocket, but still, he took off, and I only caught him when he ran out of steam a mile later. Chris is super-obese, but unlike me when I was the same weight, he's physically active. He has enormous leg muscles, muscles built up from carrying his mass around. Those muscles were put to work on the bike, and it was impressive.

I know interval training doesn't work immediately, but doing the sprint seemed to improve Chris' speed during the rest of the ride. While I still rode faster overall, when I waited for him to catch up, I waited less and less. Perhaps the sprint developed his confidence?

After the turn around at the bridge, I felt hungry. I saw signs for Iggy's Pizza a mile from the turn around, and when I saw they had water ice, I decided we should stop. It was worth the visit; Iggy's is a small shop, but the pizza is great, and so is the water ice. And the air conditioning felt good too. 

The only drawback was that it gave Chris and I the chance to talk. My friend could fall asleep in a public meeting and on awaking argue with whoever was speaking. Normally I can resist, but I was tired from the heat, and so when Chris dangled a political hook in front of me I took the bait. I won't attempt to reproduce the entire exchange, since I have no desire to compete with Reason or National Review for readers, but here's a sample:

Chris practicing for his stemwinder at Iggy's Pizza.
"Even if Texas' Constitution doesn't have a specific clause allowing it to leave, the right of secession is protected for the states" said Chris.

"Sorry, its not. What are the first words of the Constitution?"

"We the People."

"The next bit, please."

"We the People, in order to form a more perfect union-"

"More perfect that the Articles of Confederation, a document that bound the states to each other in perpetuity. The Constitution was designed to replace the Articles and improve them. Hence, no leaving."

"That's just your interpretation....."

We had the staff of the pizza shop listening to every word. But when Chris started an extended discourse on the Tenth Amendment with one of the shop guys I exercised my right to secede and left. Chris finished his speech along with his water ice, and caught up to me at the Collegeville trailhead twenty minutes later. One side effect of my departure from the impromptu session of Libertarian pillow-talk is that Chris had to hustle to catch me. In other words, more interval training.

The ride back was uneventful, save for the final three miles, which saw Chris decide he liked interval training and riding ahead of me. He was off gravel, and back on pavement, so he turned on the rockets - figuratively, not literally - and reached the car ten minutes before I did. We were both disgusting sweaty messes. We had a good time.

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Pyamtuning Ride, Pymatuning State Park, OH and PA, August 2010

One day on my 2010 tour of Western Pennsylvania my friend Judy and I headed to Pymatuning, Pennsylvania's largest lake and the only state park that straddles the Ohio border. But it was more than just the lake I was driving towards. I'd planned a ride with another Clydesdale.

The idea for the meeting started on Sunday as I waited in Emlenton, at the end of the Allegheny River Trail,  for Judy to pick me up. As I sat in an Internet cafe reading a bicycle message board I used to frequent I came across this posting discussing the eternal struggle of the fat cyclist with his weight:

"I need to tell you folks about all this so I feel accountable to someone besides myself. I kind of feel like this is kin to quitting smoking. Keep trying and eventually it will stick. I started quitting smoking in 1998 and it finally stuck in 2000. I have a renewed motivation from reading the posts on this forum, and you clydes and athenas are my support system whether you now it or not. I feel good knowing that I am not alone in this struggle. Special thanks to The Historian for his honesty and dedication as well..... if anyone wants to go for a ride with me, give me a shout. Thanks again for letting me get this off my chest."

I was moved when I read this. I'd been called many things on that message board, some of them even complimentary, but I'd never been called "honest" before. Also the author, who went by the name "the stoutdog", sounded like a riot to ride with. I determined to call thestoutdog and see if he'd join me at Pymatuning for a ride. Putting forth the hue and cry brought a telephone number, and we set a time for the ride.

We met about 1:45 at the park's visitor center. Thestoutdog, also known as Aaron, and I hit it off immediately. Soon enough we were rolling down the road, stopping at the Jamestown campground entrance to meet Judy, who had straddled her upright bike to join us. She kept up with us for a couple of miles, but soon enough turned around before we crossed the Ohio border in our trip 'round the lake.

Pymatuning is split north to south by the state border, but its also divided north and south by a road. Its fascinating to observe the change as the roadway crosses this miniature inland sea; once the road crosses into Pennsylvania, it sprouts a shoulder and becomes PA Bike Route Y.  Aaron played along with my childlike sense of fun, as we both posed with signs at the border.
The ride from the campground into Ohio was largely flat, and the roadway across the lake was the proverbial pancake, but once on dry land in Pennsylvania the roads became rollerish. Not genuine hills, but enough work that the tightness in my knees I'd noted the day before became a concern. This second day of knee discomfort was the sign that the Euflexa treatment I'd received a few months before was wearing off, and my diseased joints were continuing to deteriorate. I was much more cautious in my cycling and hiking for the remainder of my trip. We finished with 24.5 miles of riding, which included a wrong turn at one point and backtracking to find the right turnoff. 
After I'd returned home, and finally saw the photos my new friend took on the ride, I was shocked. I knew I was fat, and I knew I was knock-kneed. But SEEING it in the photo to the left was the catalyst for change, at least of the one thing I could change. I dropped 30 pounds until my knees became bad after my second 5k in December, and I had to give up activity while my joints recovered. Aaron helped me get through the stress my condition triggered. Isn't it strange how friendships form? I wanted to help someone who was stressed about his weight, and he winds up helping me? All part of the miracle of friendship. None of this ride had to happen - and it did.

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Oh No in Oley! - July 6, 2013

Not much to be said for this ride. A group of four riders started out from the churches on Covered Bridge Road in Oley Township. Oley is scenic, but since the township is largely agricultural the roads aren't tree covered. Leaving at 10:30 AM didn't let us beat the heat; instead the heat beat us. Eight miles in we stopped for drinks at a gas station, and noted the temperature was 95 degrees. I conked out before mile 12, when I became nauseated and couldn't pedal up little rises. I waited to be picked up at a shaded recreation area along the Manatawny Creek. The rest of the group struggled too; only two of us completed the planned twenty some mile route, and one of those riders was running on fumes by the time he was done.

I think my problem on the ride was due to a combination of factors. The heat, of course, was one of them. And while Oley isn't hilly, it has more elevation change than the rail trails I've been riding. But the biggest factor is that I simply hadn't gotten enough sleep. My day job isn't a day job, its in the afternoon and evening, and morning rides can be very tough for me. Add in the heat and climbing and it was too much for me with my present level of fitness. Until this extreme heat breaks I'll have to be careful when riding, and perhaps defer long rides to another day.


A Taste For The Woods: 2013-07-07

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A Taste For The Woods