S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G

Today the seventh grader (and two other Northfielders) represented her school at the regional spelling bee in Rochester. 


Though nervous, Julia did very well, getting through five rounds on humble, grotto, benefactor, isobar, and mantilla

I was amazed at the attrition: 12 kids – a third of the field – went out in round 1 and then a third of the remaining complement went out in round 2. Going into round six, only seven kids remained – a magic number since the top six would go on to the regional final bee, with the seventh becoming the alternate. 

High tension! Julia missed Samaritan, which I blame on her parents, who never exposed her to Bible stories. Another girl (one of the several Indian-American kids repping Rochester schools) also missed in that round, which set up a head-to-head tiebreaker to determine who’d be the alternate and who’d finish sixth. Julia got asterisk but then missed teriyaki – a word she later said she knew – and wound up in seventh as the alternate. 

Such is spelling bee life! We were very proud of her, regardless: her hard work preparing for the local and regional bees paid off very well. After all our practice, she’ll never forget how to spell Huguenot!

And as a lifelong nerd, I loved seeing these smart kids not only recognized for their smarts but challenged to use them. Being able to shoot a three-pointer is nice now, but I like to think that the skills embedded in being able to spell synopsis will probably get you further in life.

Arrowhead 135 no. IV

The temperature was only 9° F when my friend Bill and I rolled into International Falls around noon today, but I had a warm feeling. The plume of smoke over the paper mill and the banner over 3rd Street means that I’m back at the Arrowhead 135, which kicks off at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. The race tracker is online at http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead17

Two thumbs up for Arrowhead no. 4

 
I’m very excited to race the Arrowhead again, going for my fourth finish in four starts. Exactly three weeks have passed since I ended my adventure at the Fat Pursuit, and while I feel good in both body and mind, I can’t be sure I’ve recovered enough to tackle the Arrowhead. I would not be surprised, once I’m out on the trail tomorrow, to feel either terrible and then struggle over the course or to feel fantastic and then ride well, maybe even to a personal best time.* 
So I’m eager, in the spirit of experimenting on myself, to see what effects the Fat Pursuit has had in me: did it wear me down, or did it give me a big fitness boost?

Judging by how I felt on today’s short excursion down the trail, I think a finish in 24 hours is feasible – a good but not great time for me. Finishing in the dark, in 18 or 20 hours, would be phenomenal.

Besides the Fat Pursuit, though, several other wild cards hide in this year’s Arrowhead deck:

  • the trail: the Arrowhead Trail is in exceptionally good shape, with good snow cover and firm, fast tracks. The trail though could be affected by
  • the weather: the forecasts call for light snow all day Monday and relatively warm temperatures of around 20° F, which could mean, respectively, tracks that slow throughout the race and lots of sweating. Hydration is an issue because this year I’m racing in 
  • the new “unsupported” category: along with forty others, I have been allowed to race entirely on my own. I cannot accept any help from the race organization or establishments on the course: no food or drink at the checkpoints, no drop bags full of goodies at the second checkpoint, and above all no use of any of the three checkpoints to dry out or to warm up – no going inside! I didn’t use drop bags last year, so that aspect of the unsupported category doesn’t seem too daunting, but I’ll miss my cold Coke at the Gateway General Store and my hot grilled cheeses at Melgeorges. On the other hand, three weeks ago I went almost wholly unsupported over the first 126 miles and 36 hours of the Fat Pursuit, so I have some ground to feel
  • a sense of confidence: I’m not the fastest racer, but I think I’ve figured out many of the key issues with winter bike races. My fitness could be good, my gear is certainly dialed in, and of course the bike is ready – all key elements of
  • my race plan: I am carrrying enough food and drink to last 30 hours (about 6,000 calories of energy and about three liters of fluid [plus the ability to melt snow!]), I understand the Arrowhead course, and I have my eye on some fellow racers who usually go a little faster than me but who this year might be good rabbits to follow. 

Given all that, I’m eager to get on the Buffalo tomorrow and see what I find on the trail!

* My best time was 19:30, in 2015 – good for 26th overall (25th man). My best placing was 7th (6th man) in 2014, the cold year. 

Thoughts on Trump

I’d considered trying to write something long and detailed about our new president, but when Inauguration Day arrived, I didn’t have the stomach or time for it. 

My politics are pretty clear to anyone I know on social media, so I probably don’t need to say more than that while I hope he’s a good president, I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of that happening. Trump is not presidential material, which makes his current job even more colossally ironic. 

What really gets me angry today is how Trump mocks a set of illusions that I’ve built my life around. These illusions or beliefs are built on and reinforced by my own white male privilege, but Trump now gleefully disproves them – that for instance a good person will do better for himself and people he loves than a bad person, or that the combination of intelligence and hard work will beat assholery and privilege.

Grasping, tawdry, vulgar, and ignorant, Trump has nonetheless succeeded. He’s the most powerful person in the world.

I’m not going to jettison those illusions of mine yet, though. Maybe I’m a dumbass for not doing so. But I’ve read this novel, and I think I remember the ending. 

Spelling Bee Runner-Up

In a no-words-barred nerd battle at the Northfield middle school spelling bee, Julia took second place behind last year’s winner.


Julia spelled eleven words correctly, then missed on “gesticulation,” which the champ spelled correctly as well as “prestidigitation.” We’re so proud of the kid! Now she’s going to the regional competition in February!

Fat Pursuit Eve

I’ve been anticipating the 2017 Fat Pursuit for more than a year. Tomorrow, the race finally happens – or starts to happen. 

Today on the drive from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Island Park, Idaho, Ben and I talked pretty much continuously about the race – the course, strategies, equipment, weather…

I was almost relieved to get to West Yellowstone, Montana – at the northern end of the course – and finally be in the places where we will be riding our bikes. We drove past these flats south of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake, just west of “West,” for instance:
 

We’ll cruise over these flats at about mile 140 of the race, then start the climb to Two Top, the 8,710-foot peak at the left end of the highest ridge in the distance here:


Two Top should be the last big test of the course, around mile 150. I can’t wait to be up there, probably sometime Sunday, and then to ride off the mountain toward the finish. (I have a recurring dream about descending Two Top the last time I did this race, in 2015… The mountain left a mark on me!)

Lying here a cabin full of other racers – old friends and new ones – Sunday seems very far away, but I find this oddly appealing. I can anticipate finally getting going today and tomorrow, and then – after the race start at 5 pm on Friday (18:26 from right now!) – switch to enjoying my 40 or 50 hours of riding (and, honestly, to detesting some of it too) and especially anticipating the feeling of finishing

Winter Fun

People often express surprise when I say that I’m looking forward to one of my winter races, when I say that it’ll be “fun.”

Given the dislike or even hatred (not to say fear) that many people seem to have for winter, I guess I can understand their surprise. I would need many more words than I have in this post to explain all the forms that the “fun” of a winter race can take. But one kind of pleasure that I enjoy during the races, and during winter generally, is the pleasure of being in the snowy landscape. 

Even today, taking a completely ordinary ride home from the gym, I saw this wonderful view, looking east out of Carleton’s Arboretum:

Mix in some mountains and forests, like the Fat Pursuit does, and the views get literally breathtaking:


I’m looking forward to the fun of riding through these scenes again. Four days!

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 


Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 


When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Beastiful 

I don’t think I’ve thought about what it might be like to be an animal for decades – probably since I was a little kid. Well, maybe I do a little imagining now and then. Swooping down a long hill on my bike, I might wonder if I feel anything like how a hawk might feel as it dives out on the clouds onto a hapless rabbit. 

That imagining pales next to the deep and deeply weird imaginings and the even weirder doings that British writer Charles Foster describes in his book, Being a Beast. Concerned – obsessed – with the experience of being an animal, Foster states on the first page of the book, “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.” He not only tries to think about what it must be like to be a badger or a fox or a swift, but even tries to be a badger and a fox and a swift, going so far as to eat earthworms like a badger, to skulk through urban streets like a fox, and to – well, he can’t be much like a swift, which spends weeks aloft migrating between Europe and Africa. Mindbendingly bizarre, these experiences are also – thanks to Foster’s human command of language – entertaining examinations of the biology and psychology of being a beast (all of which include scores of engrossing facts about the natural world) and a set of cases in which Foster tries to be those different beasts. 

Charles Foster, Being a BeastIt’s safe to say, I think, that very few people – at least in the industrialized West, where we have so safely and brutally segregated our lives from nature – are willing to go to Fosterian lengths in imagining an animal’s existence. Hunters, as he shows in the red stag chapter, might come closest, trying to duplicate aspects of wolf-ness. I like certain kinds of extreme fun in nature, but I don’t think I’d sleep in a cave in a riverbank like Badger Foster, belly-surf down a river like Otter Foster, run through the fields like Stag Foster, or eat trash scavenged from a garbage bin like Fox Foster. 

Maybe because most of us aren’t willing to go one-twentieth as far toward animal-ness as Foster, Being a Beast serves as an extended essay on a wild kind of human eccentricity and a moving consideration of a human kind of longing for the wild. For many of us, segregated in our cars and houses, this longing is imagining the freedom that we think is at the core of animal experiences. Animals experience more than freedom, of course: hunger, exhaustion, terror, as well as satiety, restedness, calm – and maybe even a sense of happiness in doing the things that make them what they are. Foster writes:

I can’t always be in the wild. Sometimes I have to be in places that smell of fear, fumes, and ambition. When I’m there, it helps very much to know that badgers are asleep inside a Welsh hill, than an otter is turning over stones in one of the Rockford pools, that a fox is blinking in the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat, that a red stag is cudding among ghost trees by a stone circle near Hoar Oak, and that there’s a swift, hatched above my Oxford study, hunting, almost beyond human sight, in the high hot blue over the Congo River. That these things should be a comfort is strange. They should taunt. They should say, “You’re not there. Ha, ha, ha.”

This knowledge that animals are leading their unknowable lives while we lead ours is a comfort to me too. I find my own mind wandering, when I’m tired or stressed but also when I’m satisfied or calm, to visions – experienced directly, stolen from photos and films, and fully imagined – of bison, my favorite unknowable animals, out there in America, doing bison things. It’s a relief and a pleasure to know they’re there while I’m here. That there are wild beasts that I’ll never become. 

Teton Bison, January 2015
Teton Bison, January 2015

Arrowhead Stoke

Composing my blog post before last year’s Arrowhead 135, I had to sit far away from my motel-room window, which was entirely iced over in that year’s epic cold.

This year, we are prepping for the race in a too-hot room at the Falls Motel in International Falls, where tomorrow’s temperatures are forecasted to range from 15 to 35 degrees F, or about 50-60 degrees warmer than last year.

Room 137

Needless to say, I’m extremely excited for the race. I know the course, the weather and conditions will be good, the Buffalo proved itself in Idaho to be a great bike, and I should have a decent bump in fitness from the Fat Pursuit.

Or, you know, maybe not: maybe my legs are still fried! Either way, though, I’m happy and lucky to be here in I Falls ready to kick things off again. I enjoyed catching up with some old friends and meeting some new ones at the pre-race events this afternoon, and I’m very grateful for all the support and interest from friends far and wide – especially as always Shannon, who’s solo-parenting while I’m adventuring.

I’m hoping for a 24-hour finish, which is conceivable and maybe even realistic. My tactics, such as they are, include stopping as briefly as possible at the checkpoints and trying to follow the wheels of some racers whom I know are just a little bit faster than I am.

You can follow the race on the Trackleaders service used at the Fat Pursuit. The race tracking page is at http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead15. Since not all racers are using tracking devices, Trackleaders won’t provide a comprehensive view of racers’ times and placings. For that, check the official race results page, which will include everyone’s times at each checkpoint and the finish.

Yay bikes!

Waterfalls

We took our summer vacation trip to Hancock, Michigan – my hometown, and a great jumping-off point for all the cool stuff in the Copper Country. We don’t go back often, or often enough, but when we do, I really enjoy playing tourist at "home." Growing up in the Keweenaw, I don’t think I ever visited any of the waterfalls along the western side of ridge that runs up the peninsula. With my family and my mom, I saw two of them on Thursday. Like the U.P. itself, they’re outstanding in their modest way.

Eagle River Falls is right in the middle of the tiny village of Eagle River. A beautiful old bridge creates a perfect vantage on the falls and the remains of a factory that (I think) used the falls for power.
Eagle River Falls

Jacob’s Falls is a little further north, after a winding drive through a tunnel of trees.
Jacob's Falls

Jacob’s Falls is right next to an abbey and to a small shop – the Jam Pot – where the monks sell amazing baked goods and jams. (Thimbleberry jam is basically platinum in a jar: $14 for a tiny jar.)

The falls are really no more than especially arresting ways for water to get to the Big Lake. It was wonderful to soak my feet in the cold water
Feet in the Lake

And soak up the views of the endless shoreline.
Lake Superior on the Keweenaw

Thanksgiving Thanks (Serious Version)

Countryside South of Town

Ten non-frivolous things for which I’m thankful today:

1. Julia, an amazing third grader.

1. Genevieve, an amazing first grader.

3. Shannon, an amazing homemaker.

4. My wonderful job at Carleton.

5. That we can meet all of our material needs.

6. My wonderful friends, near and far.

7. Northfield, an excellent place to live.

8. The Carleton Arboretum, maybe the best part of Northfield.

9. Minnesota’s four distinct seasons.

10. That my family is healthy and happy.

Pool Time

Pool Time

The pool at the magic hour. #nofilter

The summer of 2012 was defined for me by trips to the city pool. I went with the girls to the pool at least 25 times this summer. If we averaged two hours per trip (a few trips were shorter, many were longer), that’s about two days worth of time at the pool, soaking up the sun and lounging in the water. Shannon probably took the girls to the pool at least twice that many times, so the girls probably spent something like 150 hours at the pool. Not bad for one summer!
Untitled

We went so often because the girls loved it. The summers of 2010 and even 2011 were a little rocky, since the girls were younger and less sure in the water. This summer everything came together. Julia is a really good swimmer, thanks to lessons and her own growing willingness to just get in the water and *swim*. She even started doing “laps” between various points int the pool, which was impressive.

Vivi quit her lessons last winter, but she picked up some skills from Julia and can motor around pretty well. Julia continued to jump off the diving board, a feat she accomplished first last summer, and Vivi decided to brave the board – and the deep water – this summer, too. She was always the smallest human in the line for the board, but by golly she jumped off like there was no tomorrow.

Swimming and diving were just part of the fun. The girls played endlessly with the friends who were usually at the pool with us, inventing all kinds crazy games with them or just horsing around.
Sadly, the pool's chlorination has left the girls unable to distinguish up from down.

They even did some poolside relaxing.
I guess they're done swimming.

And of course I played quite a bit with them, too – though not as much as they would have liked, which was 100% of the time. (Sometimes my old knees demanded that I get out of the water: all that crouching is hard on ’em.) The funniest part of the whole summer came today when I begged off of another round of “monster” (i.e., chasing them around the water and throwing them into the air when I caught them). The both protested, “Noooooo, Daddy! You have to stay in! We don’t want to play by ourselves!” I asked, “What do you do when Mama’s at the pool with you by herself? Doesn’t she come in and play with you?” The looked at me like I was crazy. “No, she just sits on the side and talks with the other moms.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m glad there’s a niche for me at the pool next year.
The pool at rest...

New Body Parts

Tonight while drawing at the kitchen table, Vivi had an itch on her back. She reached around to scratch it, then jumped in shock. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. Eyes wide but arm still reaching back, she said, “I felt something! What am I touching?”

I leaned over to look behind her, expecting her to have maybe squashed a mosquito or discovered a leaf stuck to her sweaty, sweaty skin. But no: she had discovered her shoulder blade, which was jutting out, like they do. I told her that she was just touching her shoulder blade, and she wondered in response, “Did I just grow it? Does everyone have them?” I pulled up my shirt and scrunched my scapulae to make them pop out. She touched them softly, perhaps worried they were going to bite, smiled, and reached around her own back to touch her own again.

Just wait’ll she discovers biceps (among other interesting body parts).

Reunion Seedlings

Carleton’s annual reunion is a huge deal, literally taking over campus for three days in the middle of June every year. The aftermath is always impressive: giant empty tents, scores of recycling bins, trodden-down grass… This year the aftermath included some new seedlings – maples by the look of the leaves – in a part of the Arboretum where the indefatigable Arb crew recently cleared away buckthorn and other underbrush. I think the seedlings look pretty cute in their little nets:
Seedlings

Seedlings