Monday, September 28, 2015

Mr T-Dawg Goes to Washington

I had the unusual opportunity this week to go to Washington to talk to the esteemed Utah congressional delegation about environmental issues, and it proved to be pretty interesting in a few different ways.

Ostensibly, I was there on behalf of the Outdoor Alliance to encourage our congressmen and senators to vote yay on a program that I hadn’t previously heard of called the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  This is very reasonable gig:  the US government receives royalties from the petroleum industry for leasing offshore areas for drilling, and a portion of those royalties is allocated towards preserving/protecting/enhancing lands that are in need of specific care, usually in the form of purchases.  Many times it’s used as “in fill” to buy up parcels that may otherwise be too small or too complicated for other federal/state agencies to protect/shore up.  One of the best examples of this that I have taken advantage of is the river put in/take out at BZ Corner on the White Salmon; when I first started paddling there it was private land and challenging to deal with; you had to hope that the proprietors would be there and be sober enough to take your money, parking was limited and a junk show, getting rafts into the gorge involved a high, complicated cable system, and the trail into the gorge was an erosion-fest.  The LWCF came in and created a model situation by recognizing the need, buying the land from the owner, creating an environment that has plenty of designated parking, a nice (and necessary) toilet, a well-hewn trail down to the river, and a clever slippery-rail-on-the-trail system for sliding rafts down to the river.  In fact, we “used” it just this summer when Ash and I took her niece there to show her one of the most beautiful little sections of river we know. 

The LWCF has been in place for 50 years and has had bipartisan support and is now up for renewal, and though it’s hard to imagine that it’s controversial, many of the Western states’ congressmen are on such a bender to eradicate federal control of lands that they are threatening to scuttle it.  Ironically, the money to be allocated – across the country, with many suitable sites in the East, the South, etc – has historically been $900M, but only about $350M has actually gone to the program, and the remainder has apparently gotten scuttled away into other programs, but still the Western folks don’t like it.  Regardless, the annual showdown over the US budget is happening now with a fairly high likelihood of another shutdown (this time caused by protest over Planned Parenthood, even though they are forbidden by law to use federal money for abortions…..c’mon people!).  So with that deadline looming the Outdoor Alliance rallied people to the Capitol to meet with their congressfolk to see if we could convince them to support the program.  Ironically – and we tried to point this out – part of the money also gets allocated to the states for them to utilize in the same way, so any opposition also inhibits states’ ability to take more control over their lands. 

Our Utah delegation consisted of myself and Julia Geisler and Nate Smith of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, and since we have all been intimately involved in the Mountain Accord process (to create a comprehensive management plan for the Wasatch) we wanted to also tell them to make sure to introduce/support the permanent protections should hopefully come out of the Mountain Accord.   Although Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons has rightly suggested that national monument designation is probably the best tool to accomplish the desired goals for the Wasatch,  the concept of any “national monument” is anathema to Utah’s delegation, who are inexplicably still furious over Clinton’s 1996 Escalante/Grand Staircase proclamation despite considerable evidence that it’s been a positive thing for that area (covered recently by Brian Maffly in the Salt Lake Tribune).  Even though national monuments are also able to be designated by Congress, the widely-held perception is that it’s only done by executive order and the congressional delegation doesn’t want to play into that, so the Mountain Accord is looking into other options.  The most likely scenario:  a “Conservation Management Area”, though Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty apparently recently freaked out at this possibility and is demanding that it be a “National Recreation Area – a less-protective designation, which is contrary to what The People spoke when the Mountain Accord had it's public comment period in the spring -  apparently so that he can have a better shot at finding a loophole to complete his pipe dream – and maintain his tenuous relevancy – to create interconnected ski resorts. 

Representative Jason Chaffetz was our first target, and – for better or worse – our contact was a woman who had been with the Congressman for…..a month.  “I just graduated with a degree in poli-sci from the U!”  Yikes.  

But to her credit, she traveled to the OA office because Congress was in a security lockdown due to the pope’s visit, she was very sharp, up to speed on both the LWCF and Mountain Accord, and assured us that she spoke to Chaffetz daily.  It’s our understanding that Chaffetz has agreed to be the one to introduce the Mountain Accord legislation, so it was important that we get in front of at least someone in his office. 

Our next meeting was a bit more fulfilling; we met with Representative Chris Stewart’s Senior Policy Advisor (Tim) and I assured him that as a Sugarhouser I had huge sway over a wide swath of voters in his district!  Stewart seems to be an interesting character:  he’s a former Air Force pilot, has written a bunch of novels and the definitive tale of kidnapped/rescued Elizabeth Smart, and….is a big climate change denier.  How smart people think/do dumb things is a question I find myself asking all-too often. 
Rep Steward is very proud of his books.  Ironically, his Elizabeth Smart cover was not included here. 
Tim is clearly a good politician himself; a big, gregarious, self-effacing guy who is easy to like and agree with….until you realize you don’t agree!  But he too was clearly well-versed in both LWCF and Mountain Accord, heard what we had to say, assured us that Rep Stewart was also well-aware of the importance of both programs, and introduced us to “Payment In Lieu of Taxes”, or PILT – the program that allocates federal dollars towards counties in the West that have almost no population and therefore no tax bases in addition to big chunks of (typically) BLM land but still have the expenses associated with county governance, so the federal government effectively subsidizes these counties.  I found it ironic that the same rural westerners who cry about the federal lands are also getting subsidized by the fed (not to mention the effective subsidy of the frozen-in-time cattle grazing fees of something like $2.50 per head per year); it reminds me of the battle cry of “Keep the gub’ment’s hands off my Medicare!”

The most critical member of the delegation couldn’t meet with us:  Rob Bishop is the chair of the House Natural Resources committee, and is notoriously vehement about giving extractive industries free reign and very suspicious of any sort of protection, and he howls – and makes headlines with his howls – at Obama’s recent national monument and wilderness designations.  He also has created something called the “Public Lands Initiative”(or PLI) that effectively means “Let Private Companies Drill As Much As They Possibly Can On All Public Lands in Eastern Utah Regardless of Location or Impact” (not as good of an acronym), and apparently he has expressed interest in tying this pet initiative – which apparently is losing support as the boom and bust oil and gas industry is now in its most-recent “bust” phase – to the Mountain Accord deal, even though they are so different that they could be in different states.  We encouraged Tim to try to influence Bishop’s office to convince him that this would be a bad idea.

Our last meeting was with a couple of the venerable Orrin Hatch’s legislative assistants.  Another politician-in-waiting, Ed Cox is also a friendly sort who endeavors to create a good connection and assure you that he is one of us.  He too was well aware of the LWCF and Mountain Accord, and said that the “pragmatic” Senator Hatch would like to see some compromises made in terms of divvying up the LCWF wealth, and/or have a tie-in to the PILT program.  This led to a discussion about Utah’s state leadership and their efforts to “take back their lands” from the federal government; he felt that this was a fruitless endeavor (as did Rep Stewart’s guy Tim):  not only were those lands never the states’ in the first place (they were public lands before statehood) and it’s unconstitutional, and it’s unfortunate that Utah has allocated $14M to file a lawsuit against the Fed for this reason. 
It was somewhat encouraging to see that all the reps and Hatch had big glorious photos of Utah's natural landscape as the most prominent art in their offices.   
That said, these guys are bound and determined to chip away (and rail against) federal lands due to their perception of woeful mismanagement by the federal agencies, mostly the BLM.  He started talking about harvesting the zillions of acres of pine bark beetle-killed timber in Utah that was simply a fire hazard.  Really?  Where, pray tell, are these vast groves of beetle-kill forests?  It’s happening for sure, but he made it sound like all of Utah’s trees were “ready to be harvested”, and then – disturblingly – he started talking about other natural resources to be “harvested”: oil, gas, etc.   and how much better the state could do at administering the lands.  I pointed out to him that the state’s own state parks were equally  - or worse – poorly funded/managed than federal lands, and how could they expect to do any better?  By “harvesting”, naturally.  He railed about how pinyon junipers were the scourge of public lands (which I am dubious about; they native to our desert) and then shocked us by talking about how – in the context of the Mountain Accord – the “environmental community always get what they want, and they have the ‘currency to spend’.” I couldn’t resist this bait and called him out on it:  actually, in the Mountain Accord there are many folks who are saying that the ski resorts are the ones who “always get what they want”, and if indeed a train and/or tunnel ends up in the Cottonwood Canyons, not only will it be a huge give by the enviro community it’ll also be a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-subsidized project (“oh, but not all of that would come from the state” – ah right, more federal meddling in the states!) to essentially benefit four businesses!  I began to realize that our time was running out and these arguments could go on for days and no one would be convinced. 

We closed by asking him to try to exert some influence on Rep Bishop to not tie his Vernal lands deal to the potential Mountain Accord legislation, and he replied that “Congressman Bishop doesn’t like the Senate too much”, which again got my eyebrows up.  Does Congressman Bishop like anything, or anyone?  Baseball!  He really likes baseball.  Hmm.  Not very encouraging. 

So this week – as the nation bites its nails watching Congress posture about the 2016 budget and threaten to shut down the government over the Planned Parenthood red herring (but will very likely create a “Continuing Resolution” to address it again in December) we’ll be watching to see if they will include the LWCF. 

As everyone knows, the pope gave an inspiring speech to Congress, and while we were unable to get tickets to get onto the Capitol steps for the huge throng watching the pope on the jumbotron, they had smaller jumbotrons on the mall:

One of our Alliance compatriots get tickets to the steps and said that after giving the speech in English, he then spontaneously bolted out to a balcony and hollered “Buenas Dias” to the crowd, which roared its approval.  Good pope!

We were able to fit in a 45 minute tour of the Capitol, which included one celebrity sighting:  presidential aspirant and rabid right-winger Rick Santorum (do yourself a favor and google “Santorum”). 
a little blurry...shot from the hip. 
In the Capitol each state has the opportunity to have a statue of a citizen, and it’s up to the state to decide who it is:
the priest who the pope canonized last week

Rosa Parks, the most recent addition
Utah's statue:  Of course, Brigham Young
Thanks to the Outdoor Alliance for sponsoring our trip and rallying a great crew of folks to DC, and to Julia and Nate for being good partners in lighting some of these guys up.  On one hand the Utah delegation is going to be as un-eviro-oriented as they are going to be and no amount of “lobbying” will do anything to change their views, but it’s also good to know that we can at least get close enough to them to make them realize that at least some of their constituents are taking careful note of their actions. 
Ready To Lobby!   

Monday, September 14, 2015

Wasatch 100 report

So 10 months after I inexplicably applied to get into the Wasatch 100, 8 months after I won the lottery to get in, and 8 weeks of training, The Race Was On, so to speak!

Though it may be hard to believe that one needs to "prepare" many other thing besides just your body for something as simple as a running race, it seemed like there was a lot to do in the lead up to this outing.  And as I like to say, "when in doubt" (and I was very much indeed "in doubt!") "make a spreadsheet!" So I borrowed spreadsheets from the venerable ultra dudes Roch Horton and Chad Bracklesberg and morphed them into my own to keep track of "everything" associated with this event.  Having paced Chris Adams for the last couple of years and watched him manage his races and support team really well, I knew that having a good plan was a critical path to success in an endeavor where "so many things can go wrong."  I guess that's a good rule of thumb for life, and Ashley lamented to pacer Colter something to the effect of "if only Tom could manage the house as well as he managed this race!"  Ah well, we have our strengths, and we have our weaknesses.  

So with 5 drop bags in place for aid stations and the crew ready go go with their marching orders, I woke at 3am to catch a 4am bus from downtown to the start.   It may sound stupid for a hundred mile race, but the first thing I did when I arrived at the starting area was go for a warmup; I had been told that while you really didn't want to go out too fast, you also really didn't want to be too far back when the tight singletrack started kicking upward resulting in possibly navigating through traffic as people slowed dramatically, so I wanted my legs to feel ready to roll along the first three easy miles.  This strategy worked well, and I found myself in decent position and able to go my own very easy speed as we eased into the first, biggest climb of the day (about 4500 feet).  

As dawn came I was able to look around (but only a little; a pretty technical trail that demanded attention) and marvel at the beauty of this part of the northern Wasatch that - despite being only 30 minutes from home -  I had never seen before.  Since pacers are not allowed on the first 40 miles and my mind was wandering a little I spent part of my time looking around at my fellow runners and gave them various names:  there was "tall skinny guy", "chatty compression clothes guy" who was yapping with "obsessive runner girl", "Asian guy who speaks no English", "Guy clearly going out too fast and will blow sky high sooner rather than later", "Ubergeek Neanderthal Guy" (sporting multiple watches, two Breathe-rights, and possessing a really awkward, strange stride) and others.  Finally I found the very-normal and legendarily-nice-guy Jon Webb, a former SLC-er and current Boulder-based Hoka rep who had been giving me some pre-race tips, and we had a good time chatting before we moved apart.  

I had been told that the descent off Francis Peak at about mile 15 was fairly critical; a hard-packed dirt road that was about a 10% grade, and that descending it the way you felt like you could may turn out to be a insidious quad crusher many hours later.  I was therefore happy that one guy went blowing by me on the descent, since that was indicative of how smart I was! But in hindsight, the easy 7:45/mile pace (I did a quick check on my little gps watch that I otherwise did not engage) may have yet been too fast.  

Heat had been topic (so to speak) at the start line, and a couple of seasoned vets (11th and 23rd starts, respectively, with only 2 DNF's between them) admonished me to be careful and I picked up the insinuation that they figured I would go out too fast and suffer mightily in the heat.   I was determined to avoid this, but most of the miles after the first climb are east facing and the sun was indeed searing, but this was incentive to keep drinking and keep popping the electrolyte stuff even without a pacer to nicely remind me of that necessity.  But I felt very much well within myself, the splits were about what I anticipated, and even as a rookie sitting within the top 20 I felt like I was managing the race pretty well.  

However, as I came down the final steep descent to Big Mountain pass where pacer Aaron and Crew Chief Ashley were awaiting me I got a sudden, violent cramp in my left groin; the same place that had nailed me a few weeks prior on top of the big descent at the Bridger race.  I had just recently had another salt tab and again waited in agony for it to flow down to my legs, and sure enough the cramp subsided enough to the point that I could limp down into the Big Mountain aid station where Ash had the elixir:  pickle juice!  I love that stuff, and apparently there is documentation that it might be the best ticket to non-cramping there is?  In any case, after a quick refuel Aaron and I charged (well, not really) off up the hill back into the woods and the heat.

That section is notorious for bringing people down hard; there are lots of short, sharp climbs, there's a long descent down the aptly-named "Baby Head Ridge" that is pretty gnarly, it's low elevation and west-facing in mid-afternoon so it's roasting, but at least there's a hot breeze blowing to further dry the body out!
When you see ad photos of people bounding down slopes like this in their Salomons or Merrells.....they aren't "running" 100's!  
A couple of years ago - on an even-hotter day - the Alexander Ridge aid station looked like a MASH unit when I came through with Chris (who had declared "I feel as bad as I ever have in my life!") but this time it was pretty quiet.  I was eating food and gulping sodas, and a nice volunteer said "do you want a potato rolled in salt?"  It sounded pretty good so I said sure and took one.....that pretty much had about a half an inch of salt all the way around it.  Moments later I got up, checked out of the aid station, walked about 50 yards.......and blew my guts out.

Everyone has vomited; it is awful, but it's part of being human.  But for some reason I seem to be an unusually dramatic puker.  I remember once cutting my head open badly because I

was puking so hard that I was banging my head on rocks on the ground.  Poor Aaron could only stand there aghast as I got full body-buckling heaves and an extraordinary amount of fluid came raging out, which was a little disappointing:  "hey, I need that!"  But just as abruptly as it came on, it passed, I stood up, said "I feel much better" and off we went!  I had gotten the beta from Roch that there was a spring a mile away and I had scouted the location a week prior, and the cold water gave me even more life. But considering that I was now passing my former longest-mileage day yet was not even yet halfway through and already had some issues was a bit disconcerting.

Onward we trotted, with the ever-interesting Aaron keeping me entertained until we rattled into the Lambs aid station, where I was surprised to see a big contingent of (mostly little!) folks cheering me on!
I needed all the help I could get to get dragged up the road!
My crack pit crew pretty much gave these guys a run for their money:

cleaning my feet, changing my socks, feeding me, watering me, changing my shirt, etc.

It was here that I left Aaron and picked up Colter
A true "team" in our matching outfits!  Colter couldn't bring himself to wear the dork headband, however.  
The story typically goes that once leaving the oven behind and entering the cool air of Lamb's Canyon there's a bit of revival, and sure enough I began to feel much better, even as we did a pretty healthy climb up to the pass overlooking Mill Creek.  Back down on the Mill Creek road I had a chance to meet "Tall Skinny Guy" who turned out to be local Jason Eichhorst and his pacer pro skier Brody Leven, and we all had mutual friends and much to chat about.  Jason told us about some poor bastard who was puking his guts out a few hours earlier; I let him go on about it for awhile before I told him it was me in a different shirt; he couldn't believe I was still rolling after seeing my heavefest. 

Brother Paul awaited us atop the Mill Creek road, and I got another surprise visit from the little people of Team Martin who plied me with succulent grilled cheese sandwiches; I assume being little kids they love grilled cheese, and they in turn probably assumed that everybody - including strung-out runners - liked grilled cheese sammies too!  

It seems that ultra runners like to talk a lot about their "feelings", in that how they are feeling at any given time over the course of a long course.  So therefore I must as well, I suppose.  I felt pretty dang tired, sore, and whupped  -at this point around 60 miles - but was still able to move along at an ok pace, and even though Jason - cheating with an inseam that is at least 6" longer than mine - moved ahead, I felt like I was generally maintaining an adequate pace, and though there was some solid sufferage, it was tolerable.  Paul took some of the burden of keeping me entertained off of Colter until he turned back right around dark, and onward we chugged, with Colter regaling me with tales of books he's read, climbs he's done, and probably other things I missed, because in this period I had developed a habit of "needing" to make some really weird growling, grunting, and sighing noises as I ate, drank, and periodically battled waves of nausea, which Colter cheerfully ignored and kept gently pushing me along.  

Just after dark I rolled into the next aid station to find yet again Ash popping up to cheer me on and deliver the Magic Pickle Juice, and she brought along veteran Desolation Lake aid station provocateur Lauren Scholnick to provide both leg massage and "encouragement" that a drill sergeant would envy!  With her words literally ringing in my ears we trudged off again into the night.  

Veterans say that the Wasatch 100 race "begins at Brighton", but Logan-based Nate Hough-Snee thought I looked like this

But in my own mind I looked much more like this:

Brighton is notorious for being a huge vortex that runners get sucked into and have a hard time leaving, so though I didn't stay outside - as had been my stated goal - I did stay just inside the door and outside the fray, and my crack team again got me set up and out the door in speedy time (but not as fast as "Ubergeek Neanderthal Guy" who burst through the door and yelled "number 48, IN AND OUT!" apparently to show everyone how Ubergeek Neanderthal Guys roll!)

Colter was likely quite relieved to be done with me and head for bed, while Ari had the unenviable job of dragging my ass "home".  A half an hour above Brighton I told Ari that I wasn't really sure if I could finish, and he said "Dude, if you leave Brighton, you kinda have to finish".  I thought about this for a bit:  the course went up to 10k feet then dropped over and into a virtual Nevernever land that yes, had aid stations, but these were oh so very far from my bed, and since I was still lucid enough to understand this and agree, I realized that it was going to be really hard, but that yes, I was going to finish.

Not surprisingly, this is where my lack of training this summer really started taking its toll, especially on the descents.  About 10 days earlier I tried to really light it up by going nearly all out on a familiar 10% grade descent and did well, and had been trying to do a lot of descending in general, but between my quads, shins, and hip flexors, I was not rolling the descents at all, and knew I was starting to lose time and some places.  But I went as fast as I could without getting to the point of full muscle meltdown that our friend Andy Dorais had experienced a couple of years ago at the Leadville 100   (that video has haunted me since!).

The final 20 miles were pretty painstaking, and Ari proved as worthy a pard as I knew he would be by keeping tabs on my eating, tolerating my continued weird noise-making, dealing with my shit (literally), bending down and grabbing me around the chest after a crash to haul my full weight back to my feet because I couldn't get up on my own power, telling me dumb jokes, finding the route though a few miles of cow pastures, and shuffling through the night.  With less than a mile to go a couple of headlamps came outta nowhere and I thought that Ubergeek Neanderthal Guy was hunting me down (he wasn't; it was another guy who was finishing strong), so I gave 'er for what felt like a fair bit which made the finish that much more crushing-feeling.
My head exploding at the immensity of the effort
 Everywhere-Girl Ash was there at the finish hollering away again, and I don't know if it is a physical or emotional "release", but after running a hundred miles I had to almost be carried a hundred feet to the car (where I continued to make weird noises).

Even though running is an individual event, I learned the value of a running team in high school, and this event takes it to a different level.  I am certain that I would not have finished this outing were it not for my strong support squad;  I felt a little sheepish to rely on them so much, but it seemed like they got a kick out of it.

Thanks Gents, and of course Pit Crew Chief Ash
Though I was trying not to feel too much pressure, I knew there were tons of people out there in The Interweb land who were "following me" and sending great vibes.

A provocative outing for sure.

distance: 100 miles
vertical:  a lot
crashes - too many
blood - surprisingly little
blisters - a few, but not debilitating
shoes (for fellow geeks who are interested): Hoka Challenger ATR (the whole time, tho I had others queued just in case).
suffering:  much, but I guess not too much, since I finished.
weird power food-like products:  definitely too much, but I guess enough
realtime and virtual cheering sections - surprisingly large and enthusiastic!
volunteers:  too many ridiculously nice people giving way too much of their time to count!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wasatch 100 - Yikes!

I ran my first marathon when I was 14.  Dumb, I know, but it took me going out way too fast and struggling mightily to finish to recognize that.  When I finished and my mom helped ease me into a chair, I said "Never again."  It took me a long time to break that vow, but I did it a coupla years ago in a local trail marathon.  And now I am about to embark on an outing that's nearly 4 times as long, to really break that vow!

I am not sure why I put my name in the lottery for the Wasatch 100; when I did Speedgoat last year a friend said "Well, you know what you have to do next!" and I said to myself:  No, not really; I don't have to do a hundred miler."  But of course time goes on, and the intrigue mounts, and thus I stand on the precipice.

This year has not been conducive to such an excursion; a sore knee that didn't heal itself over the winter came to the fore again as I started to run in the spring, and through the typical process of ever-increasing treatment efforts and throwing money at it I found I had a torn meniscus, which is not a big deal to fix.  But two fun trips that I had not only precluded my ability to get the surgery, they weren't really "training missions" for running 100 miles at the end of the summer.  I considered letting go of the race, but my opinion sort of changed when the ever-blunt Chad Bracklesberg said "Did you think you were going to win?"  To which I blustered....well, no of course not; I just wannalearn a lot and see how it goes.  And his point was made; I don't have to be in Top Form to go out and make a go of it.

So finally in mid-July I got the surgery and was able to get going shortly thereafter, but then faced the challenge of ramping up quickly without getting hurt otherwise.   I seemed to navigate this mostly successfully (ironically, I jeopardized my health by stupidly doing a bike tour with a saddle that was too high, tweaking my achilles and hamstring; while I got some great treatment at Pinnacle Performance, this could become "real" over the next 24 hours) but the truth is that I have less than 300 miles of training under my belt to run 100 in a day! Ah well, so it goes.

My big concern is heat; it's progged to be 90 tomorrow, and I've ended up on the end of an IV several times by pushing too hard in the heat.  So I'm testifying here that I've Got To Make Sure To Drink More Than I Think I Need.  And struggle against an odd thing; going at a normal pace.  I've done so many 1-4 hour outings where you can pretty much give'er the whole time; even 6 hours is ok pushing hard but just slightly sub-max.  But wow.... 24 hours??? or more???  I don't think I can even go "normal"; I gotta go slower than normal.  And trying to anticipate at hour 5 how I'm going to feel at hour 20, or 25??

I think it has helped me to clarify what my goals are, which also led to why I entered when I barely knew myself:  I want to push myself and try something hard, but I also want to have a nice long outing in the mountains covering a lot of terrain in my backyard I barely or don't know at all, meet some nice folks, get some good quality time with my excellent pacers (Aaron Smith, Colter Leys, and Ari Menitove), give my buddy Ashley a bit of excitement, and have a generally nice adventure that is supported with food and water and would be difficult for me to do otherwise.  But if I feel like death and/or I feel like I'm injuring myself, I'm hoping that my ego is such that I won't be a lesser person if I decide to bail.  Tho I must say I'm a bit determined to lose the pool that Chad said he wanted to start:  "At what mile will Diegel blow up?!"

As someone told me:  "So many things can go wrong" and another said "So many things are different after 50 miles."  And I don't even know.  But I guess that's why I'll be slugging along tomorrow morning, afternoon, night, and the following morning; I'll be finding out.

Here's the link to track my progress:

Friday, September 4, 2015

A bike tour of Yellowstone

I did my first bike tour when I was 14 (in the San Juan Islands) and even though it poured rain I was a geeky enough kid that I loved it and wanted more. It took me getting too cool for bike touring in high school and then coming back around to it in college to get going again, but since then I've found it to be the best way to travel, both here in the West and in other countries and cultures, and I was fortunate that Ash has always had a comparable passion for it and we've had loads of good two-wheeled adventures.

Brother Paul did his first bike tour in about nineteen hundred and eighty with a buddy in the Napa and Sonoma Valley area, and if my math is correct  -and it may not be  -he was too young to partake in the winery bit that makes bike touring there appealing to folks who like that kind of stuff, and they weren't very thoughtful in their route choices and ended up on big, busy roads doing long hot days with few camping options.  For lo these many years hence I have partooken in many a great tour and henceforth waxed poetic of their joys, but he hath resisted the call.  It finally took Paul tearing his ACL this spring and a recovery that essentially limited him to riding his bike this summer - with no on-foot adventures - that led him to say "I'd like to do a bike tour."  And Yellowstone seemed like an obvious choice.

Our national parks are such anachronisms:  the visionaries who created the parks truly got some of the most remarkable natural features and scenery on the planet, and made them very accessible to literally anyone with a pulse, but with that grandeur and accessibility comes....people. Loads, hordes, teeming masses of people.  And apparently 2015 was a record year for our national parks; Utah's "Big 5" campaign resulted in generally un-manageable crowds.  And we found out that Yellowstone also had its biggest visitor year ever, which is saying a lot for the oldest and one of the most famous national parks in the world.  But despite being generally assured that there would be crowds and therefore traffic, a tour that Ash and I did a few years ago made us realize that it's never that bad, because speed limits are low (max of 45mph) and since people are on vacation they are in a mellower state of mind than blasting around town in order to get back home to relax with their g & t (a question we pondered:  is it the same people who are mellower on vacation, or do mellower people go on vacation?).  The biggest worry with drivers is that they tend to lose all sense of rationality when wildlife sightings are part of the game.

Yellowstone is a great place to tour on a bike for a few reasons:
  • it's a bit too big to do big day loop rides, but tight enough that no distances are ever too far, even though the scenery isn't jaw-dropping beautiful like Yosemite or Zion
  • there are lots of smaller, more-intimate, and really interesting things to see so it's easy to pedal from one site/sight to another
  • in a car you'd probably just blow right by most of those interesting things
  • the campgrounds are not only situated good riding-distance apart, but they all have specific campsites that are always reserved for cyclists, and they are $7.98 a night.  
There are also lots of places to "poach" camping, but there's really no need to do that; we didn't bring ropes to hang our food, and it's easy to beg for late-day cold beers from our fellow campers!  
All ya gotta do is ask.....
Our plan was pretty simple:  They have a route they simply call The Grand Loop that takes in all the highlights of the various geyser areas, the famous hot springs of Mammoth, the falls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone river, the various geyser areas, of course Old Faithful and it's remarkable lodge, all in a very approachable couple-hundred miles.  

We also wanted to head up the Lamar Valley since the NE corner of the park is where some of the ruggedest terrain is easily accessible. 

West Yellowstone is the most efficient place to start  tour (and it has a great taco bus):

with a nice spin up the Madison river valley to access the Grand Loop.  We chose to go clockwise, hitting the Norris area first.  Sure enough, the Norris campground was full, but the prime spot reserved for cyclists was waiting for us.  Next up was Mammoth; a mandatory stop on the Tourist Trail, and it's worthy.  

Of course, for my upcoming coffee table book: "Tourists of the World" there was plenty of fodder there:

dork tourist in training
And this poor tree suffered the brunt a while ago of a shift in the flow of hot water:

We headed east on a nice rolling road towards the Lamar Valley.  On our trip a few years ago Ash wanted to camp in the Lamar Valley "to see the wolves", but I scoffed at that remote possibility that we'd actually see wolves advocated camping at Tower, which is just above the valley.  The next morning at the entrance to Ash's desired campground we saw Fred from Georgia who was telling one of his buddies:  "I looked out and saw me some antelope, so I hollered to Myrna to come look at the antelope, and just as she came out a coupla wolves came in and took it down!"  Huh?  You saw a coupla wolves "take down" an antelope?!?!  I was aghast at having missed that, and Ash has never forgiven me, so of course when Paul and I returned the first thing she asked was "did you see wolves in the Lamar?"  This time, again, we did not, but it was still great riding  

But if you are into bison (and wolves probably are) the Lamar is the place to be; there were herds of hundreds.  And despite warnings like this:

People still bumbled around the bison:
Though to be fair, it was actually a little scary to ride near them because they got spooked not by cars but by bikes!  They'd freak when we went by.

We rolled into the Pebble Creek campground near the NE entrance to the park and of course it was....
the next morning it was filled for the night by 9am.
but of course the bike site was open! And not only did we again score some nice cold beers from fellow campers, the camp hosts also had a scrabble game! 
it was the most unusual request they've had in 10 years of camp-hosting
The valley in that area is dominated by the imposing 3000 foot wall of The Thunderer, and with a trail going up to a pass accessing what seemed to be a viable east ridge, and a bearing a moniker like "The Thunderer" I had to give it a go.  

First thing in the morning I pedaled a mile up from the campsite to the trailhead, stashed the bike, and trotted down to the creek crossing.  I was surprised to see not only a cloth "dam" across the river but also the water was running blood red!  There was a woman with chest waders on in the creek clearly doing some work, and she only spoke Spanish, so I only half-understood that there was some toxins in the water for an invasive fish kill deal.  I was about to wade across, but the word "toxin" and the chilly air temp and the presence of a big lodgepole that had fallen across the creek just upstream sent me up there to keep my feeties dry.  I got halfway across the log and realized how springy lodgepoles are; it started oscillating with my steps and with my attempts to get stable it started oscillating more and more, and.....of course it bucked me off in an inglorious belly flop into the chemical creek.  So I was now fully soaked and it was 39 degrees, but at least I had some sort of toxin on my skin that would undoubtedly make my skin flay off!  Whatever; I charged on up the trail knowing that I'd soon warm up with a 3500 foot climb. 

Running alone in Yellowstone with a population of nearly 1000 grizzly bears is generally against typical tourist protocol, but I kept hooting at them and of course had my trusty bear spray ("when the bear charges, aim accurately, adjust for wind, and spray the bear directly in the face"  - oh, it's that easy?). The trail passed over the ridgeline, where I left it and marched up the ridge that had some scrabbly third and fourth class sections, but ultimately got turned back at 5th class section a couple hundred feet below the summit.  I checked The Google on the Interwebs later and saw that someone had posted that "the Absorka (mountain range) rhyolite is so terrible that it's likely NO ONE has ever attempted to summit The Thunderer!"  Hmm.  Something tells me that someone has done it.....

The climb out of the Lamar Valley to Dunraven Pass is pretty long, and Paul and I trudged up it:

We started up the gravel road that leads to 10,000 foot Mount Washburn, but bailed soon thereafter due to gathering dark clouds, thunder, lightning, and rain moving our way.  At the pass we hunkered out of the rain in the doorway of the shitter:
I should do a post  - or maybe just a photo album  - of how many times shitter doorways we have utilized over time.
We rolled into the very commercial Canyon campground (run by "Xanterra", the company that has the license to many national park concessions; that name sorta gives me the creeps, and I liked their old one:  "Fred Harvey" much better...) and immediately met the Avid Austrians Rainer and Veronika: 

who had ridden to Yellowstone from.....Fairbanks!  They had some tales to tell (and will be in Salt Lake this weekend, provided they don't get blown back up to Yellowstone by the ferocious south winds).  

While the Canyon area is sort of overly-developed, it's popular for a reason: the views of the upper and lower falls and the Grand Canyon are sublime:

I would love to paddle this section.  Inexplicably, although pretty much anything goes in almost all national parks....except whitewater kayaking in Yellowstone!  don't get me started....
Rambling south, then west, then back north towards Old Faithful is a good combo of flat
 and hilly riding, with a long descent into the vast excitement of the Old Faithful/Geyser Basin area.  The Crowd eagerly awaiting Old Faithful's eruption:

And the dorks who missed it because they were looking the wrong way:

the hot pots and such are pretty cool:

some provided a nice steam bath:

and there are even some nice bike-specific routes in the area:

We did a 2 mile hike to a trickly little waterfall, and met a woman who would make Steve Madden proud with her choice of footwear:
yes, she got blisters.....
And of course there were some classics to go into the coffee table book:
Expensive camera to shoot pictures of very mundane creek in midday sun?  Check.  Michigan shoulder strap bag?  Check.  Bear spray to protect self when walking on a couple of hundred yards of railed wooden walkways?  Check!
Manpris?  Check!  
guided trekkers ready to go on a flat 1mi hike with their guides, 10 essentials, and trekking poles
Though I suppose it's easier to be getting accustomed to, it's remarkable how many seriously overweight folks there are out there, and disturbingly, so many kids.  Maybe national parks attract sedentary folks  -and to this guy's credit he was out hiking - but it's easy to see the obesity problem in the US whence in the national parks.  
And a coupla dorks who think they are far cooler than they actually are. 
With another thunderstorm wind blast shoving us along we flew back down into the Madison Valley
Though I had to be a little careful by not pedaling too erratically; I've broken a lot of things, but the first time I've broken a clipless pedal.  
for one more night at a full campground in the bike zone before spinning back to West Jellystone the next morning.

Miles:  a fair number, but not too many.
Vertical:  as much as we could, given the roads we were on.
Time: passed
Calories: lots
Fun:  pegged the meter!

I think brother Paul is now the latest bike touring enthusiast.....