29 June 2011

Water Bugs and Dragonflies

I heard my Mom's voice again today.

Not in the sense that I have a recording and "heard" her -- but rather, I read her words and I heard her.

It was as though she were sitting next to me, reading them herself.

See, back in the winter of 1989, a young girl was born to a family we knew from church. Lauren's heart didn't work, and her prognosis wasn't good: She was born on December 22, and doctors gave her three days to live ... three days before Christmas.

Through some very fortunate circumstances, I was able to help save her life. I was one of just a few folks who had blood she could use, and on New Year's weekend my parents willingly drove me 50 miles each way through an ice storm, into the city, so that I could donate. I think she was one of the youngest heart transplants ever at the time, and miraculously she survived! I still have the local newspaper from then, their family's cover photo on the Algonquin Countryside.

Last spring, Lauren reached out to me -- along with others involved in her now 21 years of life. She's in college now, and was writing a book of her experiences. She wanted to include the stories of those around her, the perspectives of the people who have given her the greatest gifts. I wrote a short piece I've been meaning to write for years and sent it off.

I didn't hear back for a while, and in fact didn't really think about it until I saw Lauren's mom at Mom's service. The book was caught up in editing, but was progressing along -- Mrs. Aggen and I talked for a bit about how difficult the publishing business can be, and how once a work is submitted it becomes "property" that is not always your own. I filed it away that day, more focused on other things.

Fast-forward to last month or so, when another friend of mine -- whose mother is Lauren's godmother -- posted on Facebook that she was reading Lauren's book. Austin's Gift had finally made it to print, and "even though I know what happens," she was reading it with tears in her eyes.

What I didn't know is that Lauren had reached out to my Mom too. In what was probably one of her last bits of creative writing -- the contact from Lauren came just two weeks before my Dad was injured -- my Mom related her side of the story, how they couldn't find me because although I was grounded I had snuck out of the house while they were at a holiday party, and how we were waiting and hoping and praying for a successful outcome at the hospital.

And that's when I heard her. My Mom's voice is there, captured in Lauren's book. Her cadence, her tone -- it's preserved forever. When I read those words, which Lauren combined with mine to re-tell the story of that night, I can hear her again.

But here's the irony: Lauren is deaf. The drugs they administered to keep her alive when she was first born destroyed her auditory nerves. She can't hear, and so never knew my Mom's voice. But through her writing, I can. I never asked, nor never expected, to be repaid in any way for being able to help give Lauren the gift of life so many years ago. But that's exactly what she's done, repaying me with the gift of memory.

When she was born, our church pastor gave Lauren's parents a small book called Water Bugs & Dragonflies. Its subtitle is "Explaining Death to Young Children" -- they were given the book in preparation for telling Lauren's brother Dave that his new little sister wouldn't survive. In another crazy connection, after Mom's service, I found an old copy of the same book in her bedroom -- I think it was given to me by our minister when I was 9 years old, when my grandfather -- Mom's dad -- passed away. In the book, Lauren's mom recounts receiving the booklet, and I can just see in my mind's eye Rev. Miller's face, the pale brown/manila color of the book, and the drawing of the dragonfly on the cover as he gave it to her. Thankfully that day they didn't need it! Soon, though, I think it will be time to sit down with Kate and tell her about how her Nana was a waterbug just like all of us, and now she's a beautiful dragonfly, flying high above the pond.

27 June 2011

Bookends

7 a.m. Saturday
Kitsuma > Point Lookout > US-70 > Old Toll > Heartbreak Ridge > Mill Creek > Kitsuma > Point Lookout > US-70

Saturday we had our first of what will hopefully be many Cane Creek Heartbreak rides -- perhaps the only thing more awesome than having a coworker who lives in Bent Creek is having a coworker who lives literally on Old Toll! I hadn't been on Kitsuma since last summer (pre-trail work), and decided to check it out on my own before joining up with the group for the climb up. And by up, I mean way up. The ride opened with a 2,750 ft., boulder-strewn climb for about 11 miles, followed by one of the best descents in Pisgah: 3,100-plus feet in the next 5. I've ridden Heartbreak a few times now, in all sorts of conditions, and I can say that it doesn't get much better than Saturday's mid-70s, low humidity, and beautiful skies revealing amazing views. I can't wait to go back! Along the way we picked up a couple more folks, who it sounds like executed a rescue for one of our group who had double-flatted (the same wheel) and needed to save a family member in distress ... Needless to say, this won't be a ride we soon forget!

Just for good measure, and to confirm my initial impression, I rode Kitsuma again. And ... I don't like it. At all. The trailwork is not sustainable, the tread nicks -- intended to shed water -- are the only things that collect water on the entire trail, the backslope is shoddy, and I predict major carnage there come ORAMM. It's just open enough now that a novice or intermediate rider can get some speed, only to hit one of those nicks and lose a front wheel -- the results of which would include cartwheeling off the side of the mountain like a rag doll at 25 miles an hour. No thank you.

7 p.m. Sunday
Hatchery > Davidson > Cove Creek > 225 > 475B > 276 > 477 > Club Gap > Black > Clawhammer > Buckhorn Gap > 477 > Buckwheat > Club Gap > 477 > 276 > 475B > 225 > Cove Creek > Davidson

One end of Pisgah to the other; one end of the weekend to the other. I'll admit, I was pretty beat up after Saturday, and welcomed the opportunity to sleep in a bit, enjoy a 5-year-old birthday party at a lake house, and even get a man cave project complete before grabbing some dinner and hitting the trail. Sure, it was a school night, but with a month to go before I race through the night, what better time to try out the new lights and get everything dialed?

When I first moved here, I wasn't a big fan of riding out of the Hatchery -- now, a year and a half later, I'm in love. That side of Pisgah has some of the best singletrack around -- none of it is incredibly long, but full-throttle, techy descents, challenging climbs and beautiful scenery abound in the Davidson River valley. I still avoid Pilot Mountain Road as much as I can, but that's a post for another day ...

I crested Rich Mountain right at dusk, enjoying a quick snack before firing up the lights and pointing the way downhill. Club had gone better than expected (I'm beginning to "like" that trail!), and I knew how thrilling Buckhorn Gap would be. Black > Clawhammer just cruising, and then deep into the forest ... I kept my feet dry, which slowed me down some, but before I knew it I was slogging my way back up 477 -- and oh, man did it hurt. That's a long climb, longer than I remembered, and I debated bailing on Buckwheat all the way up. But I know how much fun Club is going downhill, and so the push up the knob wasn't all that horrible, with good times ahead ...

The descent didn't disappoint, and I was surprised at how good I felt by the time I hit 225. With a bit more time I would have liked to have headed over to Daniel Ridge, but Cove Creek is a super-fun, super-fast drop in its own right, and not a bad compromise. Davidson flew by, and before I knew it, I was back at the car and headed home ... quite a late night, but worth every minute!

23 June 2011

Homophonic

Dear fellow Bloggers ... and posters, and tweeters, and anyone else who writes stuff:

The English language is full of homophones. Which, in many cases, are also heterographs. This has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation or Ancient Egyptian history, and everything to do with how you describe your activities. To wit:

I, too, rode my road bike, on the road, to two stores.

Now, I can forgive uneven use of the serial comma, or the odd splice or two, and I even get away with mix-and-matching grammar conventions myself now and then. But when I do it, it's for effect -- I know the rules, and it's my little way of getting my due for years of systematic programming. What's critical, though, is that when you do it not on purpose, you either change the meaning of what you're writing, or you put a sentence together that makes absolutely no sense. I realize not everyone is a trained writer, but it pains me when even college edumacated folks write about their rode (road) ride, or how they like such-and-such a bike to (too).

The English language is a pain in the ass, but one of its beautiful qualities is that it assimilates. It's a living, breathing organism, and the English we know today will be different in some respects in 100 years. Certain conventions, though, are there for a reason, and that reason is clarity -- I'm hopeful that the shorthand/shortcuts we've become accustomed to thanks to Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, etc., does not lead to a complete degradation of a system that can be so precise in its conveyance of meaning.*

In the meantime, I'm going to go right about that their caret I need to eat.


* This is a fun one for me. Or rather, not so fun. As with verbal communications, it's up to the sender to ensure that a written message is understood by the recipient. By all accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a master at this, and is why we continue to study his speeches to this day. I, on the other hand, sometimes find myself embroiled in debates as to what I "meant" when I write -- the popular appeal and access granted by the interwebs make this a constant, no matter the subject. It's interesting to me to discover what meaning an audience will read into a statement -- I think because of my background, I tend to think in terms of "this is what the words say, therefore this is their meaning;" quite often, that seems to have led to offense where none was intended. Regardless, I always try to find the right (not write!) words for the job.

20 June 2011

Masochistic

I try really hard not to sound like I'm bragging when it comes to some of the rides we do in Pisgah, but let me tell you, it's hard. It's a fine line between "This is what I did this weekend" and "Don't you wish you were with me, doesn't it sound great that I get to do this?"

This weekend was a little brag-worthy. It was ... painful. In so many great ways.

It started when PMBAR and DoubleDare partner Greg texted that his wife was working all weekend. The kitchen pass was signed, and all we had was starting coordinates and time. Game on.

NMR > 5000 > Trace Ridge road > Never-Ending Road > Middle Fork > Spencer > Big Creek > Sassafras > Laurel > Pilot > Slate Connector > 1206 ... and then because I couldn't get enough, solo 5051 > Yellow Gap Trail > North Mills River > Fisherman's in a raging thunderstorm that didn't hit until I was already well up on 5051.

Couple of things to note: First, Never-Ending Road does, in fact, end. You get to a point way out there where it becomes a wildlife corridor and is off-limits to bikes. Second, the new Pisgah map should be explored. Third, and closely related, Greg and I had a long conversation about whether Sassafras is legal. The story goes, it was once but has been decommissioned, but in checking out the USFS database, the new Pisgah map folks found it was still in the GIS registry and included it on the map. So though we share a strong dislike for poaching, we wanted to see what was what and decided to check it out in the least-destructive manner: Up. That's right, we went up to Laurel. Ho. ly. Crap. First I began riding like a small child on Spencer (I always do, very weird), and then we climbed on foot for nearly 40 minutes. It's been a long time since I stopped for a rest during a hike-a-bike; this time I stopped. Twice. Ouch.

Needless to say, the rest of the day was spent recovering. Thankfully, it went well ...

Sunday dawned with storms over Bent Creek and Mills River, but a mostly-dry Brevard showing pretty on the map. Greg decided to take it easy, so I headed out solo, parking at the Fish Hatchery and starting with no real route in mind. Only then it hit me: Why not do a SWANK?

475 > Davidson River > Cove Creek > 225 > Daniel Ridge > 475 > 471 > 471D > Butter Gap > Long Branch > 475 ... and then because I was feeling sassy and inspired by Mr. Janes, 5003 > 140 > 5031 ... which put me right at Farlow as the thunder rolled in and the rain started pounding, for a very treacherous Farlow Gap > Daniel Ridge ... on a suspect rear brake, and where it was sunny at the bottom for 475 > Davidson as quick as I could to meet my honeys.

It being Father's Day and all, the Ks came out to play, and we hiked to the Daniel Ridge waterfall and played in the river by the bridge before getting ice cream on the way home. It was a fantastic way to spend the afternoon, and it was fun to show Kate how to skip rocks just as my father showed me many, many years ago.

So today I'm feeling it, and my planned bed time keeps creeping sooner and sooner in my mind. I really, really need to re-bleed that rear brake, and empty the dishwasher, but you know my legs are like lead and my head is kind of foggy right now ... yawn ...

Late edit: Took a break from spraying booze all over the bike (only the Champagne of Beers will do for Avid, btw) to really look at the map. And ... no Sassafras. Damn. I'm really upset -- I absolutely take the high road when it comes to poaching; I don't even like "gray area" trails. Sustainability is way too important to me, as is our very fragile relationship with the USFS. Chalk one up to ignoring hearsay and carrying the map for myself.

16 June 2011

Searching for a memory

The insomnia is back.

Not as bad as it was in January and February, but it's back -- off and on the past couple of weeks, on for a few days before I just shut down and switch off for a long night or two of rest. But then it comes back. It always does.

On nights like tonight, when I'm keyed up from a hard evening ride and I just want to relax, my mind starts to go. It used to be that I would just think about work, or racing, or sometimes family -- but now, there's really only one thing I think about. Especially today, when thanks to Facebook's long chain of messages, I found myself looking back on notes written in January to a very dear friend of mine who knew my Mom for a long time. She was one of the first people I called that week in January, when we were still fighting. And she was one of the first people I called when we lost.

For years, I had a great trick that would calm me enough to fall asleep: I used to visualize the start of races. Especially endurance mountain bike races, which typically start Le Mans style, with a run of some distance before we start jamming on the bikes. I'd set up the scenario in my head -- 24 Hours of Nine Mile was always a favorite -- and sure enough, by the time we rounded the corner, throwing elbows and trying to stay upright on our carbon-fiber wondershoes I was growing drowsy; by the time we hit Checkpoint Charlie I was fast asleep. I'm not sure I ever made it to Flower Trail.

That trick has eluded me for some time now. Instead, I find my mind wandering, and I find myself trying hard to think of a happy memory of Mom. I know that if I can find that one memory, I can hold onto it, and I'll be able to use it over and over on nights like tonight when what I find instead in my mind are sterile hospital rooms and beeping monitors and tubes that kept her alive but was it really alive? Or worse, that awful moment when Kim and I sat in the waiting room, the only ones there at the moment, and the door opened and the nurse asked for "The Strout family." Damn it! It was not supposed to be for us!

Or worse, much worse, the dark hours that followed that I try not to remember but can recall with exacting certainty. The hours -- the minutes -- when we had to say goodbye.

So I look for other memories instead. I'd really like to find one with Kate, because I know that after years of waiting, the surprise of another granddaughter took my Mom's breath away. Dear lord, did I really just write that? But you know what, it did. The first time she held Kate ... there. Finally. There's the memory. That's what I needed.

Good night.

15 June 2011

Blue Dot Junkie

It's hard to believe it's been 3 years. I mean, here I am, 3 years later, living a whole new life, but still sitting at a computer, still spending my mid-June watching the blue dots make their way south from Banff to Antelope Wells. I can't imagine what it's like for Mary (now with a son!), Matt (now with two children!), Mike (filming again!) and the rest of the inaugural peloton that set out to rewrite ultra-endurance racing history.

The blue dots are funny. Each one represents a person, each one represents a unique journey outside the scope of what most of us can imagine. We can come close -- Ride the Divide captures so much of the story -- but ultimately will we ever test ourselves beyond the limits we impose on ourselves? To the point of near death?

I had the privilege of seeing Ride for the first time with Mary, racer/producer Mike Dion and director Hunter Weeks a year ago. I admit (to Kim's relief), this style of racing isn't for me. But the story they captured on film, the lasting images of a few brave souls making their way from snow-covered Canadian bear country to the baking heat of New Mexico, was inspiring. Awesome, in the full sense of the word. Unreal.

And so here I sit. In a year with a record number of participants, I count among the pack several close friends and many acquaintances. The leaderboard is open on a separate tab in my browser. I refresh on a regular basis -- but really, what's a one-hour refresh on a race that lasts 20 days?! I cheer on my friends from afar; I curse the satellites that don't update fast enough. I listen to the call-ins, I read the message board and blogs.

I am a Blue Dot Junkie.

10 June 2011

Not wearing yellow

I took off my yellow Livestrong wristband the other day.

This may not seem like a big deal to you, and you likely abandoned yours a long time ago. But for me, it represents a pretty big change in my way of thinking, and I’ve struggled with the decision for a while now.

Because here’s the thing: Cancer sucks.

I’ve been a cancer “survivor,” in the broadest sense of the term, since my grandfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old. Given six months to live, he managed to fight for six more years, traveling the world and getting to know his grandsons before he died. By then I was 9 years old, in the fourth grade, and “Bubba” was gone.

Let me put it another way: I have never known life without knowing cancer.

Three of my four grandparents had it. Both of my parents. Other family members. Family friends. Personal friends. Loved ones. Some have fought and survived. Too many have not.

And so when Lance Armstrong founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, charged with the mission of supporting cancer survivors, I was on board. I was excited that here, finally, was an organization focused on the living – plenty of really smart folks were fighting the fight against the disease in laboratories around the world; for the first time, here was a group aimed at the individuals and families who were fighting the fight just to survive each day.

And when Nike introduced the Livestrong bracelets, I walked more than a mile through a late May downtown Chicago heat wave to make sure I got one, straight from the Nike Store on Michigan Avenue. The demand was huge, the buzz was bigger, and the money they were raising was going straight back to the people who needed it most. And except for a brief spell when I succumbed to peer pressure a while back, I’ve not removed my band for any reason for the past 7 years.

Until now.

See, there’s another side to the yellow wristbands: They’re inexorably tied to Lance Armstrong, the man. When folks (especially industry types) saw me wearing the band, they automatically made an assumption that I supported Lance, that I was a “Lance Fan.” I even remember a particularly thorny conversation on the way to Moab one year, in which I debunked that thought in rather strong language to someone whom I thought knew better. Because although I thought it was cool that U.S. Postal, and Lance, figured out the winning combination to Le Tour, I never really liked Lance the person: I thought he was a pretentious prick before cancer, and I don’t believe people change that much, even when faced with a life-threatening illness as he was. To me, Lance 2.0 just couldn’t have suddenly become Mr. Nice Guy.

So when doping allegations began to be heard – they started as early as 1999, remember – I dissociated my support for the LAF from what was happening in the peloton. I’ve been following bike racing – and in particular Le Tour – for the past 30 years, and quite frankly, nothing I heard surprised me. My annual support of the LAF continued, even as the whispers about Lance himself turned into a roar. And when the bracelets were introduced in May 2004, I bought mine not because of Lance, but because of the Foundation and what it stood for – to me, a very big difference.

Throughout all this, I raced my bike. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and I attacked it with passion. Eventually, I got to a level where yes, I was racing against dopers. Where I was getting chased down by folks who tested positive just weeks later. Where I would line up against people just back from suspension, only to have them get suspended again a year or two later.

Instead of getting bitter, I developed my own take on doping in the peloton: I was never going to succumb, and all of those folks racing dirty just forced me to work harder. Do I feel cheated? Yeah, somewhat. But let’s face it: My results in some no-name crit in Madison weren’t going to get me a contract. Eventually, I walked away from road racing in part because of the people and the culture that was all around – each week, each race, I felt I was surrounded by folks who were OK with the omerta, who were on the inside of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge that takes place at that level. It was toxic, and I was through with it.

I also developed a theory on the toxicity itself. If you follow the cycling media, it doesn’t take long before you come across some bizarre disease you’ve never heard of, contracted by an otherwise healthy professional racer. Or you read about this rider or that absolutely destroying themselves physically, sometimes years after they have retired. I have no scientific basis for it, but my thought is that the doping products racers take to succeed wreak havoc on their bodies, opening them up for opportunistic infections, joint destruction, cancer. It happens too often to be a coincidence.

And that’s where Lance comes in. Yes, he’s “never” tested positive. Yes, he’s “never” been busted. Yes, there’s no “proof.” But I’m not that na├»ve, I’ve been around racing way too long, I’ve seen everyone around him get caught. I’m not stupid. I had a personal interaction with a member of Lance’s Tour squad several years back that gave me pause, made me think it wasn’t as red-white-and-blue as it seemed to be on the TV. The junior program Lance and many of his eventual teammates were a part of was dirty as hell, and in my mind, it’s the reason he got cancer in the first place.

But OK, even if that’s the case, we all engage in risky behaviors. I smoked for 10 years – if or when I get cancer myself (I’m a walking genetic time bomb after all), do I reject outright any good I might be able to do? No. So if Lance got cancer because of doping, does that mitigate the influence of the LAF? No – to me, they were separate things. One does not in any way forgive the other – LAF may be good but it does not apologize for Lance being a doper. In my mind, I could support one without the other.

Until now.

It really started for me when I read Bill Strickland’s latest essay in Bicycling magazine. Bill has been a Lance supporter, to some extent, for a long time. But in a recent issue, he finally admits that he’s been swayed: He believes Lance doped. An inside source made it pretty clear to him. And so Bill drew the line.

Simultaneously, media coverage of the Novitsky investigation picked up steam here in the U.S. 60 Minutes ran a piece in which Tyler Hamilton, a convicted doper himself, says he saw Lance dope. Even more damning, and yet to be refuted, is that CBS also reported that George Hincapie – Hincapie! – testified against his former team leader to a grand jury. Everyone so far has been an admitted doper themselves – Andreau, Landis, Hamilton – and may have had an axe to grind against Team Lance, but now, Big George may have come clean. And Lance lawyered up – he already had a legal team in place, but all of a sudden his representation took on a criminal-experience edge. He’s getting ready for battle, even if their first salvos have fallen pretty flat.

There’s one more piece here that makes it personal. There is one more Postal Tour team member who has testified against Lance to the grand jury. He has yet to be named. I think I know who it is, and he’s not a big enough personality that the media would grab onto it. But if I’m right, I’m sure this guy would tell the truth. And while that may be hearsay from a law point of view, to me it would be the final word. And that word is guilty.

So what changed my mind about the yellow wristband? None of this is proof, none of it is really anything new for that matter. Why now?

Oddly, it came down to a comment on a VeloNews forum. I can’t even remember the article it was referencing, but the commenter made a valid argument that got mixed in with my own and mutated. So I changed my thinking – or rather, I finally made up my mind. I reconnected the two entities: If Lance doped, not only did it give him cancer (in my mind at least), it also enabled him to win the Tour a record 7 times. AND – and here’s where I changed my mind – it was that winning that gave him a platform to start the LAF. It was his ill-begotten fame (notoriety?) that allowed him to raise millions toward cancer survivorship support. With that connection made, all of a sudden that feels like blood money to me.

I need to do some more thinking about my feelings toward the LAF. But in the meantime, the wristband has come off – oddly, the most difficult part is that I’m really superstitious, and I’ve had a run of amazing racing while wearing it. That short time I didn’t? The riding didn’t go so well. I hope this time will be different – at least this time, I’m doing it for myself.

I’m sad that I have to write this. I’m sad I have to think this through, to this extent. For 35 years now, the specter of cancer has held sway over me and my family, and I’m sad that I feel doubt toward an organization with a mission as important as the LAF’s. Maybe at some point I’ll change my mind, and be proud to show my support in some way. Maybe another organization will step up.

But for now, I’ve taken off my yellow wristband.

07 June 2011

Signs you are (or are becoming) a Pisgah local

Random thoughts from my romp through Pisgah on Sunday. I'll add to this list from time to time, I'm sure.

SIGNS YOU ARE (OR ARE BECOMING) A PISGAH LOCAL
  • You carry extra "required" equipment in your Camelbak on all rides, no matter how short, just in case there's a random gear check.
  • You have ridden Curtis Creek Road for any reason on any day other than the second-to-last Saturday in July.
  • You name your children after famous trails. ("Laurel," "Trace" anyone?)
  • You know where the secret beer stashes are located.
  • You can figure out Clay's adventures based on the photos he publishes, even when he's being sneaky.
  • When you see a baby bear, you don't think "awww, cute" ... you think, "oh, crap, where's momma bear?" and immediately scan your surroundings.
  • You know that Charles Frazier writes fiction, but you also know exactly the location of every place he describes in Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons.
  • To you, "Squirrel" is not an animal.
  • But Wes is.
  • "Bent Creek" is not Pisgah. "Mills River" is not Pisgah. Only Pisgah is Pisgah. And you know what that means.