Saturday, February 14, 2015

Running, Travel, and the Art of Exploration

I slipped out the front doors of the Park Central Hotel before the sun rose, and in the semi-darkness I could see that San Francisco was already wide awake. Turning left onto Mission Street, I dodged business suits and skateboards, a dog walker juggling a trio of tiny pooches, and pungent, dingy bundles of sleeping homelessness. I moderated my pace in time to the flow of traffic, taking advantage of red lights to whip out my camera phone and play the tourist.

By the time I got to the Embarcadero, San Francisco's wide pedestrian boulevard running alongside the wharf, the sun was just rising over the Bay Bridge, and I was running headlong into a perfect February day.

I've made it a habit to bring my running gear along whenever I travel, even if I'm only in town a day or two on business. Running has become my way of connecting -  instantaneously and quite intimately - with my host city.

I came to where Mission ends at the Embarcadero and slowed my pace a bit. My run isn't so much about sticking to a workout (or steering clear of a dismal hotel gym) as it is a way to get a sense of what it would be like to live in this strange new world. As I passed an inlet full of moored sailboats bobbing gently in the early breeze, sea lions bayed on a pier somewhere where I couldn't see them. I thought how it was so much like/unlike hearing the bark of some neighbor's dog in my world back home. I wondered:  if I lived in San Francisco, would the sound of sea lions ever become commonplace?

Hitting the pavement for an hour or so lets me experience my surroundings with all my senses.  Walking accomplishes the same thing, but with my typical time limitations it's simply too slow a mode for proper exploration. I like to be able to take in as much as I can and cover as much ground as possible, even if that means getting up extra early and starting out before the sun rises.

Of course, wandering around an unfamiliar city has its risks. There are always opportunities to get lost, twist an ankle, wander blindly into a less-than-ideal neighborhood. But by employing a basic level of smarts, as well as a healthy dose of situational awareness, the rewards win out.

I never, for example, use any device that prevents me from hearing the world around me (and, besides, I prefer to hear the rhythm of my surroundings any old time). I'll start my run with a general idea of where I'm going (subject to change), and if I find myself in a place that gives me an odd sense of unease, I don't hesitate to turn around and hightail it out of there.  It often helps to ask a hotel concierge for suggestions on where to go, or stop someone in running gear for a route recommendation. I keep my eyes open and my brain focused on where I am and how long I'm out, etc. - which is a lot different from running in familiar places, where I can let my mind go wander about on its own. Travel running requires keeping your head in the game - and I often do that by stopping for photo ops along the way.

Sometimes I'll carry a SPI (Small Personal Item) belt to hold my hotel key, a credit card or cash, and my cell phone - the phone mainly for its camera function rather than to feel safe. I have never felt unsafe in any of the cities I've run through in recent travels: New Orleans, Charlotte (NC), Las Vegas, San Jose.

On my way back up Mission, I had my eye open for a good place to grab a quick breakfast before I had to start a long day of work. I found a great little place with a line out the door and rustic tables set up along the street for al fresco dining. I put in my order, grabbed my steaming bowl of coffee, and found a spot on the rail to watch San Francisco go about its morning.  I felt like I belonged here.

The Grove restaurant

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pursuing Happiness

Before I took that first step onto the trail that would lead me to the Colorado River, I was carrying a lot of baggage. My pack was heavy.

I really don't like to write (or read) sentimental pieces, so I'll try to keep this one brief. And if you want you can skip the existential musings and go right to the end of this post to see some photos from the trip.

There are things that we all carry around with us that we really shouldn't: emotional baggage, dark stuff that can suck the life out of us if we let it. The day before leaving for Arizona, I received some news that just added to my dangerously heavy pack. I'm more than happy to carry some extra weight in my pack when I know that what I carry will somehow serve me, but this wasn't serving me. At all.

Most of us have some bullshit that we've been hauling around for so long that we've almost gotten used to it. It becomes our 'new normal', and we simply learn to live with it even as it snakes through our well-being and silently erodes our foundation. 

And then when there is a fresh new fallout, we suddenly remember that the old stuff is still there, stuffed deep inside.

Years ago, I made the only New Year's resolution that I would ever really repeat, over and over. It was simple: Be happy.

The hard parts about that resolution are the things I have to do to make it real, like:
1. Jettison chronically unhappy people
2. If that's not possible (i.e. the chronically-unhappy person is related to you) then practice detachment and limit exposure.
3. Figure out - quickly- when something threatens to steal your happiness, and run like hell away from it. 

If this seems like escapism, so be it. If it's immature, well, I'm OK with that, too. We all deal with things in our own way. My way almost always involves immersion into wide open landscapes and beautifully desolate spaces. 

Something about being in a place with so few artificial distractions helps me see things more clearly. That's probably why I love disappearing to the wild places every so often. 

With my fresh clarity and the cold morning Canyon air in my lungs, I decided I was gonna leave all that crazy stuff out on the trail.  The days and months and years of quiet and determined denigration were over as of right now. Those pieces of myself that were lost (given away?) in the days leading me here were just gonna have to stay lost. I didn't need them anymore.

On the third day of this journey, on a precipice off the Bright Angel Trail, I got a sense of the power of the rushing muddy river below me and it felt as though something were being pulled out of me, like ectoplasm, or snot. I know it sounds a little new-agey, but I could almost feel my existential angst being pulled down by the energy from that roaring river, to be dissolved into imperceptible bits and dissipated into the sea. 

It was surreal - almost like a mystical experience if I believed in that sort of thing. More likely a manifestation of my own imagination, but, hey, it was cool.

I'm hoping that this new mindset prevails into the new year, and beyond, and I hope that you can approach the new year with the same sense of lightness. Surround yourself with people you love (and who love you back), spend time doing the things you love to do, in the places you love to do them. Don't waste too much time on those things that suck your energy and steal your happiness. And, if you ever feel your pack growing a little too heavy,  I know what you can do to unload some of that baggage.

Bright Angel Trail

No shortage of drop-dead gorgeous

The mighty Colorado, viewed from the Silver Bridge

Near the Canyon floor

Dave outside of our Phantom Ranch cabin, Christmas Eve 2014

Dave at the Silver Bridge

The trail just below the Plateau

Desert view

The trail flattens out a bit near Indian Garden

Cottonwood, Indian Garden

Bumped into this guy, Iohan Gueorguiev, on our way out of the Canyon on Christmas Day. He's on an amazing adventure. Look him up at

Approaching Indian Garden on the way up

Having a cup of coffee and hat hair!

Me and Dave upon arrival at the South Rim

I carried this down the 12-mile trail in my pack, because it was soooo worth it!

Phantom Ranch cabins decorated for the holidays

Canyon floor ranger residence

Cottonwoods and warm temps at Phantom Ranch

That trail leading to the tip of the Plateau is a fun day-hike (Plateau Point). Our trail veered off to the right, just beyond that green streak that is Indian Garden.

View from our room at Bright Angel, South Rim

Clear Creek Trail, accessible from the North Kaibab trail, offers amazing views of the river.

The Silver Bridge

Sunset on the South Rim

This portion of the Bright Angel Trail out of the Inner Gorge is known as 'The Devil's Corkscrew'

Maple tree, Phantom Ranch

Friday, December 19, 2014

Back to the Grand Canyon!

My love of the Grand Canyon goes deep. We have a longstanding relationship that started when I was a kid and continues to flourish over the years. Our love never gets boring; it never gets old.

The Canyon reveals itself to me slowly and over time, always offering up something unexpected every time I'm there. It gives me a reason to come back again and again. And in a couple of days, I'll be back there again!

I wrote about my last visit to the Grand Canyon, in December of 2012, in this blog. And as I re-read that blog I realized that the words I wrote back then hold true today, and so I won't be repeating or revisiting those same themes. Instead, I'm going to try to answer some questions that I've been asked about this upcoming trip, and the Grand Canyon in general.

Q. Where is the Grand Canyon?
A. It's in Arizona, near the northern border. The South Rim is accessed from the Flagstaff area, the North Rim is accessible from Utah. For the love of pete, the Grand Canyon is NOT in Colorado. It never has been and it never will be.

Q. How do you get to the Grand Canyon?
A. The South Rim is about a 4 hour drive from either Las Vegas or Phoenix. Getting to the North Rim is a little trickier, and a longer route.

Q. What's the difference between the North Rim and the South Rim?
A. The North Rim sits at 8,000 ft elevation, is more wild and secluded (and less busy) than the South Rim, and is inaccessible from about early December until around May, when deep snow blocks the only road in. The South Rim sits at 7,000 ft elevation, is more developed, and is open all year.

Q. Is it going to be warm there at Christmas?
A. No, and yes. At the rim, there will be snow and it can get very cold. As you hike into the Canyon, the temperatures begin to rise and by the time you reach the Colorado River it should be around 50 or 60 degrees during the day.
Near the start of the South Kaibab trail, December 2012
Phantom Ranch, later that same day

Q. Are you riding your bike in the Canyon?
A. Bikes aren't allowed below the rim of the Canyon for all kinds of good reasons. There are mountain bike trails around the Canyon rim and within the park boundaries, and you can always ride a road bike on the main drive. But if you never hike into the Canyon, you're not really experiencing it.

Q. How long is the trail? What's at the bottom?
A. There are a bunch of trails that travel from rim to river. From the South Rim, the two most popular rim-to-river trails are the Bright Angel (9.9 miles) and the South Kaibab (7.4 miles). The Colorado River is at the bottom, of course, but there is also a campsite and rustic lodge for overnights. Phantom Ranch is set up to accommodate a little under 100 overnight guests (camping  + dorm/cabin).

Q. Did you ever hike in and out in one day?
A. No, and I don't intend to ever do that. I like to think of hiking here is more of a privilege and a spiritual experience than an endurance event.

Q. Can you get lost in the Canyon? Can you fall over the edge?
A. Only if you're stupid.

Q. How many times have you hiked to Phantom Ranch?
A. I'm guessing 10, soon to be 11. I've hiked it many times with Jackie, once or twice with my brother and our friend Matt, once solo, and now this will be my second time I've hiked with Dave. I've hiked in every season of the year, and on every one of the three main trails (the two mentioned above as well as the North Kaibab, from the North Rim).

Q. What do you do once you're at Phantom Ranch?
A. Not much. If you're there for more than one night, you have the opportunity to explore some of the  Canyon floor (which we'll do this time around). In the summertime, it's always nice to hang out in the icy cold Phantom Creek to cool off after a long hike in the hot sun. And go 'scorpion hunting' with a blacklight flashlight (scorpions glow white under black light. It's creepy cool!). At this time of the year, however, you don't get more than about 6 or 7 hours of daylight within the inner gorge of the Canyon. So once it's dark, most overnighters will congregate at the Canteen to hang out and meet each other over dinner and (limited) beverages.

Q. Do you have to carry a lot of stuff with you?
A. Only if you plan to stay in a tent. If you've got a spot at Phantom Ranch, you don't need much besides what you might take on any other overnight trip. What I carry in fits into a small backpack. In the warmer months, you have to carry a lot more water than is required when hiking in winter.

Q. What do you have to do to get a spot at Phantom Ranch?
A. Reservations open up 13 months ahead of time, so plan way in advance. You can also try calling for reservations closer to the date you intend to be there and hope that a cancellation has opened up a spot for you. Or, you can take your chances for a walk-up reservation on the day you want to hike in. There's almost (but not always) a cancellation, but often only one or two so this doesn't work so well if you want to hike in with a group of friends. What Jackie and I often do is simply call the main number and ask what the availability is for two people, and we book our trip around those dates.

Q. How do you get a cool Pink Rattlesnake patch?
A. You have to earn your Junior Ranger status while you're at Phantom Ranch, but you can only do it in the summer time, when there is a park ranger in residence.

Feel free to post any other questions in the comments field. I'm always ready to talk about the Grand Canyon, and to share my photos and stories. I hope to have more of those to post here in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The party is over - for now

Mountain bikes are happiest when they're covered in filth.
My last day of four weeks of 'Transition' ends today. Tomorrow, the hard work starts up again, the preparation for a new journey into what I want to accomplish in my athletic season next year. It's going to be different from my usual racing plan; I'm ready for some new challenges. (No, I'm not switching to surfing. Not yet, anyway.)

I hardly need encouragment to do what I want, except when it comes to my training plan. That's where I tend to be rather compliant (because I need to be). Having a month of days where the plan is essentially 'go play'  feels like someone just unclipped me from my leash and left the gate wide open.

Day-Before-Thanksgiving ride with Angie. We LOVE this cold weather!

Angie and her new CX bike

Thanksgiving Day ride in the snow, with Dave 

What you get when the snow and ice melt off

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Just Say NOvember!

'Cross practice in the backyard this morning, with Angie.

I secretly love November.

I love the smell of leaf rot,  the shocking cold mornings, the hint of fall-into-winter bleakness (that I'll be entirely sick of a month or two from now).

But what I especially love about November is that it's time to PLAY!

There's a weight-off-the-shoulders quality about knowing that the racing season is over until next spring.

This is the one month out of the year where I can abandon a strict training structure and just go with the flow. November is a month-long reprieve from hard intervals, expectations, and racing.*

For the record, I don't plan on spending the next four weeks curled up on the couch with a bottle of tequila and the entire 4 seasons of 'Game of Thrones'.  November is really more a mental break, and I won't be slacking off TOO much - just enough to feel rejuvenated by the time training starts up again, December-ish.

So, whenever your season ends, give me a call and let's meet up for a ride, or a trail run, or some 'cross practice. No destination, no obligation. I'll even buy you a coffee when we're done.

*CX doesn't really count as 'racing' for me, as you already know. If you've ever seen me race 'cross, you'd know why. 

Getting ready to get lapped...