Daily Tanka: The Grant Report

It’s a random Thursday in March. Why not start a writing project? A tanka a day!

The Japanese tanka is a thirty-one-syllable poem, traditionally written in a single unbroken line. A form of waka, Japanese song or verse, tanka translates as “short song,” and is better known in its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form.

The Grant Report

Much thinking today
Writing a long grant report
Write, review, revise
How did we spend that money?
How will we spend all the rest?


Our seasonally gray weather broke this week, which inclined me to alter my route to work to include a mile or so of the trails through Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum. I wound up taking a slightly different path each day, enjoying the late-winter beauty of the last snow, bare but awakening trees, bristlingly dry grasses, and blue sunlit skies. The snow faded each day, and disappeared entirely before my afternoon ride on Saturday, leaving a thin layer of mud on the trails, fields, bike, and boots. 

Wednesday morning
Wednesday morning
Thursday morning
Thursday morning
Friday morning
Friday morning
Saturday afternoon
Saturday afternoon

Sprwinter Ride

I haven’t been on my bike in a serious way since the Arrowhead. Partly, I needed the break from riding – physically and mentally. Judging by my shitty efforts at the gym over the last six weeks, my body would have rebelled at a long ride. Partly, I enjoyed the laziness of not going riding two or three times a week. I have done a lot of reading! And partly, I couldn’t imagine going for a ride in little old Northfield that compared in any way to the winter’s racing. I mean, no outing here could possibly include six hours of riding I can’t recall!

But damn if lying around all weekend wasn’t getting to me. Rather than feeling physically rested, I felt tired and wasted. Rather than feeling mentally refreshed, I felt bored and crabby. So today, motivated by the winter storm warning, I decided to go out for an easy ramble around town, hitting favorite spots like the St. Olaf Natural Lands and the singletrack trails on the west side of town. 

The outing was easy and fun and so gorgeous. The trails near St. Olaf were especially pretty as the snow started sifting down, with Heath Creek burbling quietly below the blufftop trail. 
Riding, I appreciate the way that any dirt gets painted white by the snow. Makes it easy to follow the trail – and to review your lines on the second pass! 

If this is the season’s last chance to enjoy the feeling of snow in my face, I’m happy to have ended on a good note and to have a full “off season” in the offing.


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.


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