Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.
Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)
Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.
I traveled this week to Hamilton College in upstate New York for an annual conference of grant writers who work at liberal arts colleges like Carleton. This meeting rotates each year from one college to another, but it’s always both informative and fun, with good speakers and panels as well as tons of well-spent time with friends and colleagues.
Since the host is different each year, the program usually includes a campus tour, which I always enjoy. Colleges are almost by definition beautiful places, and I have a professional curiosity into what particular institutions emphasize in their infrastructure – and how they pay for their buildings and grounds.
Of all the tours I’ve taken, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one more than Hamilton’s. The guide – a senior economics major – was knowledgeable, funny, and extremely adept at walking backwards, and the campus was stunningly beautiful, both on its own and thanks to the gorgeous autumn weather.
A beautiful footbridge over a beautiful ravine that separates one beautiful side of campus from the other.
The "Rock Swing," a weird but interesting contraption that supposedly can be manipulated in such a way that it carries people standing on the yellow ring up from this basement spot to the second floor of its building. Seems dangerous, which is probably why it’s bolted down now.
The cavernous and gorgeous concert hall.
A memorial (and former gate?) to Kirkland College, a short-lived women’s college that Hamilton spun off in 1968 and absorbed in 1978.
The street-facing side of the amazing new Kennedy Center for the arts.
A dam! Better than Carleton’s dams.
Everywhere you looked on campus, you saw amazing trees like these:
A cool dining hall styled, I think, to look like an Adirondack lodge.
An arresting mobile in a corner of the science building.
The college’s science building was updated recently with a gorgeous new facade, which houses a functional atrium and looked damn good at dusk.
Even the old buildings like this residence hall looked amazing.
A well-situated statue of the college’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, a real bastard who would’ve visited the campus if not for that whole deal with Aaron Burr.
The bell tower of the college chapel.
A neat sculptural map of campus (as of the 1990s) that by tradition Hamilton students should not walk over, lest they curse themselves to never graduating.
Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.
I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.
As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.
The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.
All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.
I took the day off today to do a medium-length gravel ride, just letting the legs know that I’ve got big plans for them over the next four months – starting I hope with heavy training mileage over the next six weeks. Today, I just wanted to hit some of my favorite gravel roads east of town. To get a little more out of the ride, I rode all the hills twice, which turned out interestingly in that I rode each hill better the second time than the first. Getting a little descending practice was fun too. What wasn’t fun was a very achy back, but even that hardly detracted from the solid outing or the gorgeous autumn sights. I’m lucky to have enjoyed them.
Roster day is my fourth most-favorite day in the annual Arrowhead cycle:
5. Submitting my application each year.
4. Seeing the next race roster.
3. Seeing all the Arrowheaders on the Sunday before the race.
2. Starting the race.
1. Finishing the race.
After following the AH for about five years, having now raced it twice, and looking forward to a third attempt in January, I found this year’s roster especially interesting.
First, according to my review of the bike results from 2005 to the present, nine riders who finished on the podium in previous years will be racing again in January – six men and three women:
Jason Buffington (Minnesota; 2nd in 2011 but skiing in 2016)
Dan Dittmer (Minnesota; 3rd in 2011 and 2012)
Charlie Farrow (Minnesota; 2nd in 2009
Leah Gruhn (Minnesota; 3rd in 2012, 2014, and 2015)
Todd McFadden (Minnesota; 1st in 2013 and just 2s out of 3rd in 2015)
David Pramann (Minnesota; 2006: 1st in 2006 and 2008; 3rd in 2007 and 2010)
Jay Petervary (Idaho; 1st in 2014, 3rd in 2015)
Tracey Petervary (Idaho;1st in 2014 and 2015; 2nd in 2012)
Svetlana Vold (Minnesota; 2nd in 2015)
(I welcome corrections to this list!)
Second, none of the Alaskans who have reached the podium at the AH in previous years are apparently coming back to race this year: Jeff Oatley (1st in 2010 and 2011, 2nd in 2013), Heather Best (1st in 2011), Kevin Breitenbach (1st in 2012, 3rd in 2013), Tim Berntson (2nd in 2012 and 2015), Peter Basinger (2nd in 2010).
Third and interestingly, last year’s winner, Jorden Wakeley (Michigan), isn’t coming back to try to defend his title. (Or at least, he isn’t yet.)
In other words, the bike race seems pretty wide open! Place your bets anytime over the next 96 days. (Odds are very good that it’ll be snowy, somewhat less good that it’ll be super cold.)
At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.
I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.
Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.
Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.
On Friday, I helped chaperone a field trip by Julia’s sixth-grade cohort to the amazing [River Bend Nature Center](http://www.rbnc.org/) in Faribault, a half-hour south of Northfield.
Across the girls’ years of preschool and elementary school, this was maybe the tenth field trip I’ve taken to RBNC, and it was fun – orienteering, hiking, “fun challenges” like firestarting, archery, and slack lining, and generally being outside on a beautiful fall day.
We even got to see some goats that the land managers are using to control buckthorn!
Walking around all day, I decided I wanted to come back asap to ride on the trails, all of which are open to bikes and free to all users. Lo and behold, Julia was into it too, so we headed down this afternoon with our bikes.
Saturday’s weather was somehow even better than Friday’s, heightening our enjoyment – 70°F, breezy, sunny. From the parking lot, we headed to the remote trails on the south side of the Center, which we reached after going through a tunnel *and* over a bridge across the Straight River.
Just on the south side of the river, we hit a long hill that Julia needed to work hard to climb. She made it up without stopping, though, and after a short break we tooled around on the flatter, easier trails that ran to the far edge of the Center’s boundary. The narrow trails and changing foliage were beautiful.
Descending back to the river, I was happy to see Julia rip a couple steep downhills with no worry and considerable ease: she’d push her weight back, level her pedals, and then just drop in. Amazing.
Back on the northern side of the river, we headed to the Center’s big and gorgeous restored prairie, an expanse of browns and yellows draped over a gentle rise to the northern edge of the property. Riding now mostly on grass trails, we worked our way up to the Center’s high point, where (after a stiff little rocky climb) we enjoyed a gorgeous vista to the south:
A herd of buffalo would have improved this view, but I was more than happy to have spent 90 minutes riding with my favorite sixth grader. In true cyclist fashion, she was even game to take a couple laps around the parking lot area to bump up our mileage to exactly 8 miles. Not a bad afternoon’s work. I’m eager to go back again soon.
This year was the fourth time I’ve tackled the Heck of the North, Minnesota’s biggest last-season gravel race, and the most fun I’ve had riding this event. With my gravel bike now someone else’s gravel bike, I decided to ride the Buffalo again, and felt pretty sure that the fatbike would be a good machine for the race’s infamous no-road sections – miles and miles of super rough grass trails that are better suited to hiking, ATV riding, and (in winter) snowmobiles than to bikes.
Sunny and cool were the watchwords of the day: perfect riding conditions, after two consecutive years of tougher (or borderline awful) conditions. The rollout was fast and fun – a long loop out from and then – after a nice taste of some of the day’s trails – back through the start.
The fatbike was, as I hoped, wonderful on the roughest stuff. I didn’t have to dismount on any trail section (except for a creek crossing late in the race), and whenever we hit grass, caught and dropped riders who were riding lesser bikes – gravel machines, rigid MTB bikes, front-shock MTB bikes, even full-sus MTBs. The trouble, such as it was, came on the gravel and especially the pavement roads. I just had too much wheel to push! More than once I’d gap a group on a trail section, then have them sweep me up and drop me on next road. Oh well. I was having fun, feeling good, enjoying the day, and amassing some good training for my winter races.
I did get to ride, on and off, with my friend Minnesota Mark, rocketing along on his gorgeous titanium Salsa Warbird. A few hours in, after riding side by side for a while, Mark got away from me on the approach to another trail section. Just before we reached it, the leaders of the shorter “Half of the Heck” came blasting past us, then promptly took a wrong turn that put them onto the full-distance course instead of keeping them on the Half route. We laughed when we passed them back a bit later, standing in the middle of the trail and reading their cue sheets in confusion.
A little more yo-yo riding with Mark – and the always-humbling moment in the race when I encounter the leaders heading back north, a good ten miles and an hour ahead of me – brought us to a ruggedly fun singletrack trail down to the midway checkpoint in Lester Park at the north end of Duluth. Good bike citizens, we stopped at the start of this trail to stand up a race marker that had blown down in the easterly wind. This was, I didn’t know, the race’s way of telling me that things were gonna be different after the checkpoint.
I caught up with my friend Michael L. at the check. He’d had a brutal race in 2014, so I was happy to see him feeling and riding well this year. After several years in which many Northfielders came up for the race, he and I were the only racers from the 55057 at the Heck this year, so I had to take a photo of our bikes resting at halfway.
Michael and Mark left the checkpoint before me, so I set out a goal of catching them. I couldn’t hang with any of the gravel-bike riders (or the tandem riders) who came up on me after the checkpoint, so I assumed that my goal was out of reach. This assumption seemed well grounded when I started to hit some of the easterly stretches of the course, heading right into an increasingly strong headwind.
But the headwind was bad for everyone, and it helped me track Mark down again. He took some great pictures of me as we approached the hill where, last year, my bike literally fell apart.
This year: no problem. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crested that climb – after which Mark dropped me again for what I expected to be the last time, and we headed into the what seemed like at least 99 miles of easterly riding into the goddamn wind. The first and worst section was on a paved road. I watched Mark and some skinny-tired brethren head off up the road, steaming along in a unit. I could only aim the Buffalo into the wind and pedal, feeling slower and heavier as fractions of the miles ticked by on my computer. Oh god, I wanted some tailwind or just a crosswind.
Eventually the pavement gave way to the gravel of Fox Farm Road. Getting a bit foggy from the day’s effort, I’d misinterpreted the directional cues and thought that Fox Farm Road would get us out of the wind. Nope: it was just a “turn” off the easterly pavement and onto more easterly gravel.
I had had all I could take to that point. As soon as I hit the gravel, I stopped and laid the Buffalo down on the weedy shoulder. Take a leak. Down my Red Bull. Swallow some water. Stretch out my back, insanely tight. Pop a gel. Remind myself that riding bikes on a gorgeous fall day is a privilege and a mystery. Remind myself too that the Heck is a stepping stone to harder work this winter. Pick up the bike. Get back on the bike. Start pedaling in.
Fox Farm was indeed more headwind, and some intermittent washboard surface, and a false flat that rose and rose and rose at 0.05%…
As they always do, the break, the self-pep talk, and the Red Bull paid off. My pain in my back disappeared and didn’t come back till Sunday morning. The weight in my legs dissipated. The “oh shiiiit” attitude vanished, too, replaced by thoughts of riding this bike in these northwoods in a couple months at the Arrowhead. I even started reconnecting with other riders, which was both pleasant (company!) and pleasing (caught you!). Seeing just what was left in my legs, I pushed as hard as I could up each of the remaining hills. Each time, I had to sit down at the crest, muscles and lungs burning. Then, just a few minutes later, the burning died away and I felt good again. My no means was I riding fast, but I was at least riding hard.
And lo and behold, after what looked – on the cue sheets – to be the second- or third-to-last trail section, I came up on both Mark and Michael. It felt great to have fought back to them, and even better to think we could ride together for the last 10 or 15 miles – much of which would be trail, out of the wind. Thank the goddess.
From the previous year’s race, I recalled that the last trail sections were mostly flat but also pretty wet – bogs here, creeks there. A small group including Mark and Michael and me hummed along nicely through these stretches, taking turns leading into this bit or that one, but mostly riding together. Feeling good, I took a couple digs but couldn’t get away. Others dug too, but mostly came back.
Then, weirdly, the group fell apart. One guy tried to get away, and I went after him. I caught him and went past him without feeling too bad, so I decided to just put my head down and go as hard as possible to the finish. It felt so good (as I had near the end of the Inspiration a month before) to just focus on putting every bit of energy into every single pedal stroke – again and again and again. I couldn’t quite bridge back to a fellow fatbiker who’d escaped from our group a few minutes before, but I felt good about not limping into the finish, about finding a meaningful level of effort after 105-some miles.
After one last road crossing, I made the turn into the finish area, bunny-hopped the finish line (because why not?), and then literally collapsed when I tried to get off the Buffalo. I had no legs left, which was just where I wanted to be.
Mark and Michael rolled in a few seconds later, looking equally happy with their efforts. Someone who remmebered me from the previous year’s race and who had read my stories on fatbiking brought me a Coke, knowing that I love that poisonous shit. I chatted a bit too with my friend Charlie Schad, whom I’d seen in the lead group. He said he’d finished on the podium and that our friend Ben Doom had won on a late breakaway. Somehow knowing that these guys had done so well made me feel even better about the day’s work. I know the Buffalo felt good – dirty from bars to hubs and carrying not a little bit of the trail on it.
Today was a perfectly ordinary day full of perfect ordinariness.
It was a Wednesday with nice fall weather – sunny, warm, and mild. The workday included three different meetings: one in the morning on a community project, one at dinnertime on an academic project, and one in the evening for our townhouse association. Being out late at those meetings, I didn’t get to see the girls till nearly bedtime.
I did plenty of miscellaneous work in between the meetings, some of which I did at the office, some of which I did at home or the coffee shop. Some of the work entailed finally finishing lingering projects, some nudged along current projects, some started new endeavors, and some was just answering emails. I ate a sandwich for each meal (though not the same sandwich). During my dinner at the downtown sandwich shop, a kid in the next booth started to melt down because he had onions in his sandwich. He stopped when his mom pointed out that the “onions” were actually peppers, and then had an actual meltdown when he didn’t get an “ice cream fudge” for dessert. I went to the gym and did poorly in a hard workout but bantered enjoyably with the other people in the session and our coach. I didn’t get to ride my bike much, though back and forth to work counts for something, and I was pleasantly cold in the way to work. I made some plans for winter racing. I heard the same REO Speedwagon song twice. I remembered to watch my favorite TV show at 9. And to have the last beer in the fridge.
As great a race as the Heck of the North was, even more great and memorable was getting to the race. Being a wholly unworthy but lucky son of a gun, I had the chance to fly – like, in an airplane! – up to the race, thanks to my friend Michael, whom I met a few years ago through the Northfield cycling scene.
In addition, see, to being a great gravel rider, a fatbiker, and an IT entrepreneur (and the parent of a kid the same age as my oldest), Michael is a private pilot. I’ve enjoyed learning from him about this avocation: his desire and efforts to learn to fly, his membership in a flying club based at an airfield near Northfield, his adventures flying to places near (the big Oshkosh air show) and far (the Black Hills in South Dakota).
We’d chatted casually a few times about going up together sometime, but never actually made time for it – until Michael discovered, last week, that the forecast for Heck weekend included perfect flying weather. I was more than game for flying to the race – what a great story, right? – so we made the requisite arrangements, planning to head up on Friday afternoon from tiny little Airlake Airport in Lakeville (a.k.a. KLVN, a half hour or less from Northfield) to big ol’ Duluth International (a.k.a. KDLH).
Interested though I was to go up in a little propeller plane, I was surprised to find myself pretty nervous about the flight. Not because I doubted that Michael was a perfectly capable pilot, but because, you know, scary news stories like this one or major tragedies like this one. My unconscious even served up a vivid nightmare about being in an airplane crash, just to make sure I was cognizant of my unfounded terror reasonable concern.
Friday morning, I literally and figuratively gritted my teeth and said to myself, “Self, nothing bad is going happen. Face your fear. The flights will be fine.” And not only was that very much the case, but both of the flights – Friday afternoon up to Duluth, Sunday morning back home – were marvelous, astounding, indelible experiences.
Michael selected his club’s Piper Archer as the best plane for our trip: roomy enough for our bikes, bags, and selves, and more than capable of the 90-minute flights between KLVN and KDLH.
Michael did a great job with the pre-flight prep, from doing the mandatory checklists and offering basic facts about the airplane to briefing me on in-air etiquette and answering my questions about being aloft in “Archer 8414 November,” which looked amazingly (and a little disturbingly) like a station wagon. Getting set to go dampened my lingering worries, and participating in some of the pre-flight activities was engaging: turns out, one person can roll the plane out of the hangar – just give it a yank and it follows you like a dog!
Once packed into Archer 8414 November’s front seats, I put on headphones/microphone that muffled the rather incredible engine noise, let me communicate with Michael in the air, and looked, frankly, a little bit cool. I wished I had a long red scarf like Snoopy.
We taxied over to the runway, did a few final checks of the airplane’s systems, and then started down the tarmac. I expected the abrupt upward sensation of a jetliner on liftoff, but nope: Archer 814 was just suddenly six, then sixty, then 600 feet off the ground, soaring over Lakeville and points east. I was literally slack jawed – and we weren’t even really flying yet.
We headed mostly east first, then turned north and followed the beautiful blue St. Croix River for a ways.
An easterly wind meant that we could not just head straight north to Duluth, but had to fly over a beautiful swath of western Wisconsin, which was first a patchwork of fields and small cities.
About halfway into the flight, though, the farms and towns disappeared and the forests and bogs asserted themselves. Gorgeous.
Michael saw Duluth in the distance far before I did, but when I finally did pick out the white-gray smudge of civilization against the green-brown of hills and, behind, the deep blue of the lake, I enjoyed watching the Zenith City approach. Going far slower and far lower than a jet heightened my impression that I was immobile and the ground was moving under me – an exhilarating and fascinating sensation.
A swing to the west brought us around to the runway at Duluth, where Michael touched down without any problem.
On the ground at KDLH, I was amazed to learn of the existence of a whole industry that serves private pilots: guiding their planes to their parking spots, tying the planes down, fueling the planes up, handling baggage (even our bikes – cargo I don’t think our guy had ever seen come out of a tiny little plane), even driving us over to the car-rental counter… This is somewhat how the 1% lives, I suspect.
An hour later, we had finished the first part of our trip with a quick drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors. I would be lying if I said that I was then anticipating the race on Saturday more than the return flight on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we got our heavy legs to KDLH relatively early. In getting us to the terminal where Archer 8414 November had been waiting, I got to drive our rental car on the tarmac – yet another strange feeling, and impossible to separate from about a hundred action-movie scenes. Reality was far quieter: Michael took care of the pre-flight checks while I loaded the plane and returned the car.
As on Friday, takeoff was seemingly effortless, but Michael had the brilliant idea of flying further east, over Duluth and above the lake, before turning south toward home. The views were incredible. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the shores of Lake Superior, and some dozens of hours on the water, but I don’t think I’d ever been above the Big Lake. It was worth the wait – especially with the bonus of seeing Duluth from the air.
Heading back south, we retraced some of Friday’s flight path, flying over the St. Louis River south of Duluth, the massive forests and bogs on both sides of the state line, and finally the St. Croix again.
At one point somewhere over Wisconsin, Michael let me operate Archer 8414 November’s controls, which I did very, very, very gingerly. Again: astounding. Turn the yoke to the right, and the plane turns right! To the left, it goes left. Pull back on the yoke and the goddamn plane goes up. Push the yoke in, and ohmygod there’s the ground in front of us! I didn’t have the stomach to do much more of this “flying” and happily let Michael take the plane back.
As we approached home, Michael asked for permission to fly through the restricted “Class Bravo” airspace over Minneapolis. Since it was a quiet Sunday morning in the sky, ground control granted this request, and we flew right over Minneapolis, just to the east of downtown – you know, for the views. Which were amazing.
Just a few minutes later, we were back over Airlake, and then back on the ground, and then back in the car, headed home. I think I’m still a little high from the incredible experiences of those flights – and very grateful to have a generous and skilled friend like Michael. Should I even mention that I can’t wait for next time?
At the end of the school year, Julia decided to take up a big challenge put on by the public school’s basketball coaches for the summer: to take 10,000 shots and amass 24 hours of ball handling.
She had to really work at it, but last week she finished the ball handling and this afternoon she took her ten-thousandth shot, making a basket in our weathered hoop:
I was impressed all summer long with her commitment to this challenge. She went out there and dribbled and shot on hot days and cool days, in mornings and in evenings, in the sun and in the rain, when she was rested and when she was tired, when she felt like doing it and when she didn’t. I’m proud of her for finishing in style.
Saturday, I rode in my favorite gravel race: the Inspiration 100, run on the great roads through the beautiful lake country outside Alexandria, Minnesota. I know and like the race directors (and keep buying bikes from ’em!), which is a bonus, and they keep letting me in the race, so I keep doing it.
I approached this year’s race with a little trepidation. Work and domestic responsibilities kept me away from my bike for much of the summer, and I learned what that means at the Cheq 100 and Maah Daah Hey. But I did get in a couple decent-length rides in the month before the Inspo, and I worked damn hard at the gym all summer, and I made a few important tweaks to my bike, and I knew I’d feel comfortable on the course… I was in short reasonably sure that I’d be able to finish, and even dared hope that I could race hard all day.
This turned out to be exactly what happened – helped along by great companionship with Bruce and Scott on the drive up north, by a restful night at Charlie’s place near the start, and most of all by incredibly beautiful conditions: excellent gravel, a blue sky, moderate winds, and comfortable temperatures. Even at the start line – where I was the only racer on a fatbike (knife to a gunfight?) – I thought, “Yeah, this is going to happen.” I’d found out on the drive up to the race that I seem to have been admitted to the Arrowhead 135 in January, which provided a big jolt of motivation to race hard. But too, I enjoyed the laid-back vibe of the race, chatting with some other riders that I’d met at various other events and finally shaking hands with a guy I’d admired and raced with but never met.
From the gun, the field rode away from me, but I settled into myself and focused on enjoying the ride.
I was very careful to eat and drink correctly, I stopped to stretch my back when needed, I took a few minutes to take a picture of a course-side sight I’ve always wondered about
and I focused whenever I could on chasing hard – a task made easier by the course’s long vistas and the day’s superb conditions. (I caught this guy.)
Here and there (like after a relatively quick stop at the convenience store around mile 55), I rode with another racer or two, but mostly I made my way through the backmarkers, almost all of whom, I was pleased to see, were on regular gravel bikes – machines that, all things being equal, should go a lot faster than a fatbike with 4-inch tires at 20psi.
From one perspective, these catches were satisfying in kind of a lame way (who cares who’s passing whom?), but from another perspective, they also signaled to me that yes, I did still know how to race bikes, and that yes, what training I’d been able to do this summer had paid off. I was especially pleased to find (contra the Maah Daah Hey) that I could actually attack the climbs, which are short, punchy, and frequent on this course.
And while the rollers were a known quantity, the course’s two most (in)famous bits were going to be challenging in a new way. This year, the dudes who run the Inspiration decided that we’d ride the course in the reverse of the direction that we have the last three years. This meant that the race’s two “feature sections” came well into the race: a rough, washed-out “minimum maintenance road” at mile 66 and an even rougher grass two-track between two farm fields at mile 95.
I was looking forward to these secteurs, both because I love rough terrain and because I knew that the Buffalo is the best possible bike for them. Hitting the MMR in a small group of riders, I immediately and completely dropped them. It’s a wonderful feeling to not have to choose a line through the rocks and sand and tree branches, to be able to just ride the hell out of it. I worked over those two miles, pushing as hard as possible, and popped out at the end feeling pretty trashed but feeling good about the effort (and the gap).
Over the next 25 miles, I recovered and prepared myself for that second feature section, which I knew would be shorter and easier. I was feeling physically pretty good as mile 95 approached, but my mental focus was wandering badly. For instance, while I knew (from earlier in the race) that the mileage on my GPS was different by 0.7 miles from the distances on the cue sheets, I could barely do the addition or subtraction to figure out where the turn onto the grass section would come up. “The cues say it’s a right turn at mile 94.3. Does that mean my GPS will read 93.6 or 95.0 when I get there?”
To remedy this, I took my secret weapon: a super tasty, super-caffeinated gel. As I was washing it down, mile 94.3 went by and suddenly I was no longer seeing other racers’ tracks in the gravel. Son of a bee! I had missed the goddamn turn onto the two-track! I hit the brakes and doubled back to the corner where, sure enough, the trail ran off into the weeds. Yes! I turned right and started riding. Within a few minutes, though, the trail I was on ended – in someone’s yard. No matter! I rode around the edge of the lawn and picked up the trail on the other side, only wait… This wasn’t a trail, or even a path; it was just the open space between two rows of corn! Fuckityfuckityfuck.
I buffaloed through the corn and walked my bike back to the gravel road along the edge of the field. A quick check of Google Maps showed me that I was somehow about a mile and a half north of where I needed to me, and heading – had I not stopped – away from the finish line, which even my foggy brain could tell was probably not what you should be doing when you’re 89% of the way into a race.
Hop on the bike. Ride back to the corner where it looks like I had taken a wrong turn. Sure enough, here are my tracks from when I missed the turn in the first place, and here are my tracks making a right turn off the road and down the trail.
Oh wait a second! I had been heading the wrong way, so I should have made a left turn, not the right turn that the cue sheets indicated for jerks riding in the correct direction.
Sure enough, 40 pairs of bike tires had clearly made the correct turn, and I finally followed suit. The grass two-track was fun and easy to ride on the fatbike, especially as the caffeine soaked in. I caught a couple racers whom I’d caught much earlier but who had – in a very unsportsmanlike way – snuck past me while I wandered the corn fields, then a couple more who stopped at an impromptu aid station where the two-track ended – just about ten miles of more or less straight-line riding from the finish, all into a mild but insistent headwind.
Several rolling hills and maybe a mile ahead, I could see one rider – just a speck. I decided to try to catch him. I didn’t think I could, or would, but I knew that a chase would make those last miles go by more quickly.
Find a bigger gear. Keep the cadence high. Stand on the uphills. Find an even bigger gear to push on the downhills. Downshift again on the flat. After a couple rollers, distinguish his jersey from his helmet. Upshift, crank, stand, upshift again. Another roller or two and I could see the color of his jersey – a dot of orange.
Burning throat. Spit trickling out of my mouth. Keep the pedals turning. From the top of another roller, see him just a few hundred meters ahead – approaching what I guess (now that my wrong turns had totally fouled up my GPS data) is the last rise before the turn to the finish.
Push my biggest gear on the descent. Downshift for the flat. Make out the words his jersey now. No more downshifting. Get up on the pedals. Zoom past him on the rise, nodding once, and push as hard as possible to the crest. No – not the highway, just another roller, but at the top of the next rise, I see high-speed traffic. Pavement! Downshift once before my thighs explode, but stay standing. Watch for the shimmery black ribbon of the asphalt. Right turn, upshift for the downhill to the finish line, but don’t coast!
I crossed the finish line a few minutes before my quarry, and had maybe even had a sip or three of Lollygagger before he cruised through the finish area and one of the race directors told me that he’s 20 years older than me and just survived prostate cancer.
Okay, so maybe the chase wasn’t quite the victory it could have been, but still! Lying there in the grass, and then later stuffing my face with bratwurst and another beer, I was pleased to have put in that particular effort, and to have worked hard all day. The 2015 Inspiration wasn’t my fastest race, but it wasn’t my slowest (or a DNF) either, and most importantly the event confirmed that I am ready to kick off a big autumn of training for the winter’s races. It’s going to be fun!
This year’s Inspiration is, though, the penultimate edition. Because it’s not easy to put on a free gravel race, the RDs have already announced that the 2016 event will be the last one. The race date is already set: Saturday, September 10, 2016. Registration opens on July 1. If you have any desire to do a great gravel race, this is the one to choose.
The girls were busy all Saturday with a friend – a.k.a. our third daughter – so I hopped on the Buffalo and headed out to get a few miles in my legs. The Inspiration 100 is in exactly two weeks, and while it’s too late to really train, any riding now will help minimize the pain of being in poor shape.
I wound up getting a solid 40 miles, mostly on gravel roads but also on the two trails our local MTB club has created. The newer, more challenging trail at Caron Park midway between Northfield and Faribault was damp but rideable and fun. I rode two laps on my way south to Faribault in the morning and two more on my way back to Northfield in the afternoon. As a neophyte mountain biker, I’m still amazed at how exhausting pedaling at 5mph for an hour can b, especially when you’re constantly confronted by hub-high log obstacles. Oof!
The trail riding was even slower than it might’ve been because after a few pedal strokes, I had who knows how many ounces of mud and leaves packed into the treads of my Maxxis Mammoth tires. They’re great on gravel, but terrible on dirt.
As usual with gravel rides, the scenery was great. The clammy gray clouds in the morning accented the verdant fields and woods, and then the afternoon sun made the summery greenness into a visual roar. Riding the gravel shoulder of a long stretch of paved road early on my route, I collected quite a bit of pollen, which I then carried all over Rice County.
Just doing my bit to help the bees.
Since I was trying to ride continuously, I only stopped to take a few pictures, which meant I have just mental snapshots of the three surly wild turkeys who didn’t want to clear the road, of the dozens of lean horses and fat cows in the pastures, or of the many tiny wood frogs that hopped away from me. But I had to stop to take a shot of this gigantic hawk, looking down on me with a predator’s cold gaze,
and of this free-range vacuum, standing enigmatically along the highway just outside the city limits.
Last year, Julia had recommended that I read Connors’ first book, Fire Season, a long essay on his work at a lookout in a fire tower in a huge wilderness area in New Mexico. Both a reflection on a solitary endeavor and a historical and philosophical examination of the nature of wildness, Fire Season is exceptionally good, and well worth the time of anyone who enjoys memoir or nature writing.
All the Wrong Places is a kind of prequel to Fire Season, a partial explanation of why Connors abandoned a good life and career in New York City for the isolation and inwardness of the fire tower. In brief, the second book is the story of Connors’ efforts to understand how his older brother, Dan, came to commit suicide, more or less out of the blue. Connors tells this story in masterful style. As much as I loved his prose in Fire Season – which is studded with glowing passages on wildness, on the history of wilderness preservation in the U.S., on the difficulties and pleasures of living utterly alone for weeks at a time – I thought that Connors made huge steps forward as a stylist in Places.
He uses that gorgeous writing to advance a story whose climax we seemingly know almost from the start of the book, when he relates, with exquisite care and equal measures of pain and anger, the details of Dan’s suicide. In the rest of the book, Connors examines this act – selfish, pained, mysterious – from every angle he can, seeking to understand why Dan blew his head off. In making this investigation, Connors exhibits a good sense of his own selfishness, of his narcissistic desire to relieve his guilt at having somehow maybe contributed to Dan’s decision to kill himself. Connors weaves together many moving and often hilarious stories about the classic methods he uses to try to lift his sense of responsibility – talking incessantly with his parents and sister about Dan, drinking a lot, fucking whenever and whomever he can, working too hard. (His insider view of his journalizing at the Wall Street Journal is especially hilarious.)
In his effort to understand, Connors takes his forensic efforts further than most of us would; he interviews the coroner and others who examined Dan’s body and even obtains pictures of Dan’s corpse. But toward the end of the book, these increasingly morbid inquiries are overshadowed by a family secret that immediately seems both necessary and sufficient as an explanation of Dan’s decision to kill himself. A reviewer can’t of course reveal that secret or what Connors does with his discovery, but he can say that getting to that point is well worth a reader’s time, and that the real climax of this self-murder mystery is as gripping a moment as anything he’s read.
All summer, the girls have been enrolled in a mountain biking class sponsored by our local MTB club and run at the new trails that the club built right in town. Though I can’t say every class went smoothly or that the girls loved every second they spent in the classes, they did learn a lot about riding and dramatically improved their skills, developed their endurance, and built their confidence.
The culmination of the class was an overnight trip to the massive MTB trail system built on abandoned mines at Cuyuna, in central Minnesota. Cuyuna is a fabled place for Minnesota mountain bikers and fatbikers, the place you go for the toughest trails and the best scenery. I had never been up there, so I hoped that the girls would both show the skills to successfully ride there and the enthusiasm to go "up north" on a little adventure.
By the middle of July, I could see that they had both: serious abilities on the trails and great eagerness for riding. In addition to the class, we rode several times on our own over the last few weeks, outings which they both loved. And then they crushed some tough challenges at the last regular class, which they described as "the most fun thing ever!" on the ride home.
The scene was thus set for a good trip to Cuyuna. Shannon was rightly concerned about both the practical arrangements and the girls’ safety, but I mostly allayed those fears – and some of the girls’ – and headed out on Thursday morning along with six other kids and five other adults, including the class leaders. The three-hour bus ride to Cuyuna was enjoyable, despite the need to give half our seats to a big rattling collection of bikes:
We arrived up north without any problems and almost immediately headed back into town to ride at a "pump track" – a compact system of dirt trails with undulating terrain and banked turns that are laid out so that good riders can get all the way around without pedaling – only "pumping" their arms and legs. None of us could pull off that trick, but everyone had a blast riding around and around and around on the track. I loved watching the girls loving the riding – and rapidly getting better at the unusual techniques needed to conquer the track. Julia crashed once, but was back riding within a few minutes. Whizzing past me, they shouted, "This is so much fun!"
After about an hour of pretty continuous riding, we adjourned for ice cream at Dairy Queen. Back at the campground, we set up our tents and took a short out-and-back ride on an easy stretch of the regular trails, getting a little of Cuyuna’s famous red dirt on our tires.
Everyone cooled off with a swim at the campground beach,
then we destroyed a delicious dinner prepared by one of the instructors and his wife – folks who have serious camp-cooking chops! Throughout, I tried to let the girls enjoy themselves and handle things largely on their own, which they readily did: being smart about riding and swimming, choosing good dinners, making their own sleeping arrangements… It was fun to see.
Friday morning, everyone woke up eager to hit the trails. I stayed behind while the other adults went for an early ride on some more challenging trails, but all the kids were great – getting dressed, eating good breakfasts, riding their bikes around excitedly. Finally, around 10, we headed out for a loop that would include three different "easy" trails. The wild card was the weather: as we started, the temps were already near 80° F with very high humidity. I gotta say that I was nervous as hell about whether Julia and Genevieve would be able to ride so much tough trail in such heat and humidity.
Fifteen minutes in, I knew they would. Without any problem, we roared en masse to the start of our loop, and got right to it: red-dirt trails that wound through young birch groves, tricky but manageable ascents and descents littered with loose rocks and stubbornly immobile roots, narrow passages overlooking beautiful lakes…
Wisely, our ride leader stopped often so kids could rest and drink and eat – little pauses that kept everyone energized and focused. Whenever he or the other instructor, riding last in our file, asked if everyone was having fun, the kids shouted, "Yes!"
We weren’t even deterred by a few bee stings when we inadvertently posed for a group photo on top of a beehive.
Julia got a bad zap on a finger, but soldiered on! I rode as much as I could right behind the girls so that I could watch them buzz along the trails, blonde ponytails poking out from under their helmets. Near the end of the ride, I finally stopped wondering if they could climb that nasty slope, ride that tricky descent, or rail that loose corner. The answer was always "yes," so I just settled in and enjoyed the sight of them loving the sport I love too.
The ride ended too soon for me (and I suspect for the other adults), but at just the right time for the kids – 90 minutes and about seven challenging miles of riding. The girls were just tired enough to sit for a nice photo of us – with a loon on the lake in the background!
An easy paved ride back to camp brought us down from the high of the ride to our last few activities: a quick lunch, a bit more swimming, and then of course packing up. The bus ride home was sweaty, but pleasingly quiet and relaxed.
Though we haven’t been back on our bikes since returning, the girls are excited to go to some of the more local MTB trails before school starts, and I am too. I am elated to have them riding the trails with me!