Today I read a story in a Runner’s World special issue (unfortunately not online, though excerpted here, and not unlike this other RW story on the race) about the Dipsea Race, a 7.5 mile trail race every June in Marin County, California, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach – up and down and up and down and up and down the hills between that town and the ocean. The route sounds like it makes for a phenomenal run, and an even better race, thanks to a unique handicap start system that, in 2010, saw an 8-year-old girl and a 68-year-old woman vie to be the first one across the finish line. The little girl won!

I’m adding either the run or, better, the race to my list of must-do athletic endeavors. A great video on it:

Feeling Bad about Giving Away Money

I spent the morning serving with three other Northfielders on a panel convened by the area United Way to allocate some of the UW’s 2010 campaign funds. The community campaign was fairly successful, though it didn’t reach its half-million dollar goal. (Full disclosure: each fall, I help run the Carleton campaign, which last year raised a record-setting total of $80,276 on 237 pledges and gifts.) Our panel reviewed applications from four organizations focused on early-childhood education and development. All four organizations submitted excellent applications, and – it almost goes without saying – all four were immensely deserving of United Way grants for every cent they requested.

Unfortunately, we could not fund any of the applicants at the full level. There simply isn’t enough money to go around. This isn’t news – or rather it’s the main focus of news these days: budget cutting, deficits, “austerity,” and all that. While I was disappointed to be unable to help fund the community organizations at 100% of their requests (hell, even 75%!), I was also troubled by three interrelated facts.

First, many of these organizations’ needs are so great now because state and federal funding is declining or even disappearing. Second, many of these organizations’ needs are ludicrously tiny relative to the resources we use on campus – much less the relatively large sums used by public entities (city, state, and federal governments) or, worst of all, are outright wasted by bloated private enterprises. Third and worst, many of these organizations are serving the most vulnerable people in America – and doing it with a bit of money and a ton of effort.

It’s infuriating that our obscenely rich country is so goddamn terrible at providing its citizens with what they need to survive, much less to thrive.

Crashing Is Riding

Today I was heading back home at the end of my ride when I came up on three guys riding along at roughly my pace. With my race coming up in just under three weeks, I need to get some practice riding in more or less proximity to others, and this seemed like a good low-key chance to do that. So I rode along with them for maybe ten minutes, keeping pace and staying a bike length or two behind the third guy, who kept glancing back at me every few minutes.

As we wove through some twisty curves at the edge of town, I slowed down to give them even more space. Just as we came out of the curves, the guy in front of me – now maybe ten feet ahead – looked back again. As any rider knows, it’s tough to keep a straight line when you look behind; you naturally pull the handlebar a bit in one direction or another. His wheel wandered right and tapped the rear wheel of the guy in front of him. Instantly, the guy crashed, hard. His bike skittered ten feet and he bounced a couple times on his back.

I screeched to a stop and ran over to him. “Are you okay?” I asked. He rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah. That was my fault. Bad riding.” True enough, but I wasn’t going to agree with him. The second guy had by now come back to us, and he kinda freaked out, insisting that the crasher not move, that he straighten his legs, et cetera. Crasher laid there for a couple minutes, explaining what had happened to his buddy, and then slowly stood up. He looked to be in some pain, but everything functioned and he said he’d be able to make it home. I apologized for the crash and headed off on my own. I hope he took megadoses of ibuprofen today. He’ll need it.

Four Weeks to 100 Miles

Today starts the four-week countdown to my first event of the new racing year: the Almanzo 100, a 100-mile race in southeastern Minnesota. I’m a little bit frightened of the event, since I’ve only completed one “century” ride (a solo effort last fall), but I’m a lot excited to try this one. The Almanzo 100 is a “gravel grinder,” a low-key event that’s free to enter, that’s held almost entirely on dirt and gravel roads (as versus either pavement or off-road trails), and that’s “self-supported” – meaning, as the saying goes, “you are responsible for you.” There’s no sag wagon, no bag drops, not even aid stations with water and food. The organizers give you a map, and then you’re on your own for food, drink, repairs, etc.

Well, not completely on your own: this year more than 400 riders have for the Almanzo 100. It should be quite an event! I’ll be happy if I a) don’t crash and b) finish in less time than I needed to do last year’s gravel century – 6:53. Between a heavy training load this spring and the effect of riding with others, I’m optimistic I can hit 6 hours. I’m eager to find out.

To mark the start of the last phase of training for the race, I rode two hours to and from Cannon Falls. Here’s my turnaround spot. Note the snowy fields.
40th Avenue, Cannon Falls MN

Thanks to the melting snow, the roads were hellaciously muddy. My derailleur got so caked with mud that it stopped shifting:
Muddy Derailleur

And I’m not sure what I’m going to do about my shoes, which were once blue:
Muddy Shoes

Falling My Way Home

Bike Crash
Bike Crash

I had my bike tuned up yesterday, which always makes for a great ride the next day. A perfectly tuned bike is a pleasure to ride. Heading home from work this afternoon, though, my rear axle slipped ever so slightly out of alignment, which happens if it’s not remounted just right. Usually it’s not a big deal: I just stop carefully, open the quick release, set the wheel back into the exact right spot, close the QR, and head off.

Usually. This time, though, the axle popped out as I was riding through the busiest downtown intersection. I hit the brakes and aimed for the nearest curb, popping my left foot out of my pedal. Unfortunately, the mis-mounted wheel was making me lean right, and I could not get that foot free before tipping over sideways, right in front of Bridge Square, which is full – at 4:45 p.m. on sunny spring days – of loafing teenagers. I’m pretty sure their cheers were ironic.

The Value of School

As we traipsed around the halls of Julia’s elementary school on Thursday, enjoying all the craziness of the “Beyond Words” literacy festival, I was more and more impressed by the quality of the materials that the students had prepared for the festival – from Julia’s poem poster and other written work to woodblock prints and other kinds of art. (The girls here are standing next to Julia’s poster. They’re supposed to be holding hands, but it looks like Vivi is the campaigning politician shaking the hand of a constituent.)

The students’ stuff was impressive on its own but also as proof of the really amazing teachers at Sibley – and, I’d say, at most public schools. Working with a hugely varied group of kids, the teachers manage to encourage, induce, coax, and compel the students to learn an immense amount – and in addition to acquiring the three Rs, to create a lot of really wonderful, beautiful work.

All of this goes to demonstrate one of the towering stupidities of American society: that the teachers who are literally responsible for shaping the next generations of Americans are grossly undervalued, both in absolute terms and in relative terms. I don’t think it’s excessively hyperbolic to say that any one of those elementary-school teachers does more good for America in a week than a Wall Street banker does in a year.

Stuck at Church

We went up to Moorhead to attend a party honoring my father-in-law, who has just retired from his position as a chaplain at a hospital in Fargo. The party was held at the church where he had previously been a pastor for many years, a tiny rural parish that literally becomes an island when the Red River rises. The date of the celebration was subject to change, in fact, depending on whether the Red was so high that the roads to the church were already impassable.

As luck would have it, the river hasn’t crested yet, and so the party was on. Before we drove out to the church, which is a few yards from one of the Red’s smaller tributaries,we were warned that the parking lot was very muddy. I initially pulled up on the sidewalk next to the church so that Shannon and the girls could get out, but then I had to park further away so that others could do the same thing. After church, I tried to pull this trick again, but I was defeated by the mud:
Stuck in the Church Mud
A nice parishioner with a four-wheel-drive truck and a tow cable managed to pull me out.

Springing Back on the Bike

Today was my first outdoor bike ride of the year – a relaxed hour’s ride south and east of town. Going out was tough, thanks to a stiff southerly breeze, but then again going back was really easy – 22mph without even pedaling hard, thanks to that breeze. All in all it was a good start to the “off-season,” which will have an early peak for me on Sunday, May 14, when I’m going to do a 100-mile gravel-road cycling race, the Almanzo 100. I’m a bit freaked out by the race, since I’ve only ever done one ride that long, but I do have a few days to train – 56, but who’s counting?

There was a bit of yin/yang to my ride today. On the one hand, this was a typical sight. All of this will all be green in a month, but it’s pretty bleak right now.
First Ride of the Spring - 1

I tried to cut home across the still-snowy Upper Arb, but it was impossible to ride through three inches of icy snow – not least because my brake pads literally froze up:
First Ride of the Spring - 2

Keyed Up

A couple weeks ago, I noticed that I’d lost one of my office keys from my handy-dandy key wallet. I checked the pockets of all the pants and jackets I’d worn in the days before this annoying discovery, ransacked the box where I keep my wallet and suchlike every night, and carefully checked both my office and garage floors. I found nothing.

Loathe to call Carleton’s Facilities office and get dinged for the replacement key, I decided to wait till the snow had retreated from around the bike rack – the one outdoor spot where I use my keys – just in case it had fallen out there. This afternoon, walking over to get some coffee, I glanced down at the skirt of wet concrete around the bike-rack snowbank, and there it was: the missing key, muddy and bit rusty, but usable. Sweet!

February Films: A Whole Bunch

I’ve fallen behind in my posts about the movies I’ve been watching all month, so here is a capsule summaries of everything since the 19th, when I watched The Town.

2/20: Pond Hockey: This is a great documentary about outdoor “pond” hockey in Minnesota – as much an examination of the State of Hockey’s love for the game, especially on outdoor ice, as the story of the 2007 National Pond Hockey Championships, held in Minneapolis.

2/21: Ghostbusters: Hilarious and brilliant. The only bad thing about it is the terrible theme song.

2/22: Foreign Correspondent: A great 1940 Hitchcock thriller about pre-World War II political machinations. A bit over the top now (especially at the end) it’s nonetheless really entertaining. The stunts are especially great.

2/23: Man of Aran: On my boss’s recommendation, I watched this “fictional documentary” about life in the 1930s on the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. (As he said, “Next stop, Boston.”) Almost wordless, the film offers a set of sketches about the brutal life of the islanders. “Hardscrabble” doesn’t begin to describe it.

2/23: Lost in Translation: the 2003 dramedy with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it held up well to my nth viewing. I can’t think of many other works of art that so effectively set and maintain a mood: Radiohead’s OK Computer album, some great science fiction novels, maybe The Wire TV series…

2/24: District 9: A brilliant science fiction movie in which the disgusting aliens come off as much better creatures than the humans. It’s also very funny and full of action.

2/25: Manufactured Landscapes: Ostensibly a documentary about the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, this is even more a movie of his photographs, which depict the “manufactured landscapes” of the industrialized world. The photography is gorgeous, and the narratives they explore – factory work and the Three Gorges Dam in China, shipbreaking in Bangladesh, and so on – are almost shocking. I was amazed by the stark counterpoint between the human-intensive production of relatively high-tech products and the ultra low-tech, even more human-intensive process of recycling those products.

2/26: Gosford Park. I’d seen this when it came out, in 2001, and remembered being impressed by the level of detail, the slow but not plodding pace, and the intricate plot. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. On the surface, it’s a period piece, set on an English country estate after World War I, but below that it’s funny, alarming, and suspenseful – just plain good.

R.I.P. Old Red (Or, Me in My Underwear)

Getting dressed for skiing tonight, I accidentally tore the cuff off my favorite pair of “baselayer bottoms,” Old Red. (Yes, I called them that – but only in my head.)

Old Red
Old Red

Old Red was real “long underwear.” I got them in 1994, when my parents, in what must have been a huge splurge, gave them to me as a gift. I had just started cross-country skiing then, and the polypropylene fabric was a huge improvement over the white cotton waffle-knit long johns that were then ubiquitous – but that were (and are) awful to wear during exercise.

I dunno how many kilometers of skiing were eased by wearing these long johns over the last 17 years, but it must be in the thousands by now. I wore Old Red both times I skied in the Michigan state championships, and in a dozen other races. Through it all, Old Red held up very well, getting a bit thinner every year but always doing its job.

Because of all that, I am a little bit sad to have to retire Old Red. My sadness is mitigated by three things, though. First, I’m going to cut Old Red up and use the strips to clean my skis when I wax them. Second, I still have Old Red’s partner, a great “baselayer” turtleneck that I wear when skiing in the coldest temperatures. Third, it’s very silly to be sad about long underwear.

February Films: “The Town”

Tonight’s movie was maybe the most mainstream of all the flicks I’ve seen so far this month: The Town, a heist movie starring Ben Affleck as a sort of criminal alter-ego to the character he played in Good Will Hunting. I had very low expectations for this movie, so I was very happy to discover that it’s pretty good, with interesting characters, an engaging plot, and plenty of action, including an excellent climax. I highly recommend it. Plus and so: Rebecca Hall.

February Films: “Client 9”

I watched Client 9, the documentary about Eliot Spitzer’s rise and fall, tonight. I expected this movie to be rather superficial – more a recounting of Spitzer’s prostitution scandal than a serious investigation of it – but I was happily wrong about that. To the usual straightforward backstory, the documentary adds a series of amazing interviews with major figures in the scandal, including Spitzer himself, several aides, various members of the financial elite whom he attacked as attorney general of New York, and the call girl whom Spitzer preferred (though her “interview” is done off-camera and then voiced by an actress, interestingly).

Nobody in this movie comes off well. Spitzer, first and foremost, looks like a hard-driving bastard who was nonetheless genuinely concerned with curbing the excesses of the Manhattan bankers. The bankers present themselves as horribly entitled, deeply greedy plutocrats who were offended at Spitzer’s attacks, though not badly hurt. As the film points out, those bankers’ avarice nearly wrecked American capitalism just a few months after the scandal toppled Spitzer. The only glimmer of redemption comes near the end of the movie, when Spitzer simply and clearly admits that he was wrong to hire prostitutes, that he had betrayed literally everything he represented: probity, incorruptibility, public service, his family.

This admission comes only after the documentary draws some pretty clear lines of cause and effect between Spitzer’s attacks on financiers and the subsequent scandal. In seeking to weaken the financial class centered in Manhattan, Spitzer created many extremely powerful enemies, some of whom speak on camera about their desire to retaliate. In his brief tenure as governor of New York, Spitzer created more enemies, this time with politicians who quickly aligned themselves with the financiers to create a cabal of rich right-wingers with deep interests in finding a way to bring down Spitzer. It’s shameful and fitting that he gave them that opportunity by foolishly choosing, at the height of his power, to become Client 9.

The Bratlanders Ruined My Balance

This is a story about a man, bad ears, and good music.

Last night I went to downtown to see some music at a nice little pub. The Counterfactuals – recently named Northfield’s best band – played first, doing their usual great set of pop tunes. They sounded fantastic, due (I think) to more rehearsing and gigging and to a sound system that had been set up exactly right. The night’s second act was the Bratlanders, Northfield’s unofficial best band. The Bratlanders were awfully tight, thanks again to more rehearsing and lots of recent shows, and they weren’t shy about playing loud – which was a-okay to me. I was sitting just about as far up front as I could, but thanks to the magic of my hearing aids, the sound never got overwhelming: the aids contain microchips that automatically adjust to ambient sound and feed me an appropriately balanced sound signal. It’s like wearing robot earplugs – pretty slick.

The next morning, an hour or two after getting to work, each hearing aid’s battery died, owing to the extra work they had done the night before, dampening the Bratlanders’ sonic assault. With the two dead hearing aids plugging my ears, I discovered that I didn’t have any spare batteries at work, so I took the devices out and tucked them away until I got home.

This created all kinds of trouble. First and foremost, I’m pretty deaf without the aids in my ears. I can only hear really loud sounds (train whistles) or sounds very close to me (a person sitting a few feet away) – and the latter only if their voice is pitched just right. So I spent all day in a not-unpleasant bubble of quiet and/or asking pretty much everyone, “What was that you said?”

Second, my balance gets bad when I don’t wear the hearing aids – some complex relationship between hearing and equilibrium gets thrown off, and I wind up tottering around. At one point late in the afternoon, I just about took a header as I tried to negotiate a right turn on the stairwell in my building. Classy.

It was a huge relief to get home at five and put new batteries in the hearing aids. The full range of sound! Decent balance! Next time the Bratlanders play, I’ll make sure to have spare batteries with me.