Cold, wet, miserable … and happy

In my early years as an amateur cyclist, I used to do nothing in the winters. I couldn’t ride the bike, and the internet experts somehow convinced me that specificity was so important that I shouldn’t bother with anything that didn’t involve pedaling. Some of the blame was mine too — I took cycling way too seriously in those first few years.

Somehow, through the Thanksgiving Day 5k races, I managed to adopt running for some of those winter months, which paid off to some degree. But in 2008 (I think) I went to a used gear sale at my alma mater and found a pair of Crescent Moon snowshoes on sale for a mere $70. I say that with some sense of irony, because my wife thinks anything that costs more than $10 is incredibly expensive and an overwhelming burden on our family. (Hey, that frugal attitude has gotten us pretty far, so don’t knock it!)

Snowshoeing in Park City
Snowshoeing in Park City

I think I used my snowshoes first in Utah at a couple of different trails in Ogden and Park City. But then I learned we had a bunch of snowshoe trails in the mini-mountains around our local bunny hill, and I even found a map online, because that’s how resourceful I am. So I drove my car up to the bunny hill and found a trail named “Lower Cole’s Climb” …

Moments later, I was gasping as I marched up into the forest between the bushes and trees, the claws of my snowshoes digging in to the icy snow beneath me. The climb was narrow, serpentine, and brutal — taking me up the face of a mountain that I would later learn was completely inaccessible in the summer.

Each weekend after, I would come back, sometimes with my brother-in-law but often alone, and explore another part of the trail system. There were overwhelming and exposed quick climbs, eerily still and narrow forest routes, and unrelentingly steep long climbs, all of which were rendered significantly more difficult when they were covered by fresh powder.

I remember telling my coworker I’d become a snowshoer who cross-trains with cycling, rather than a cyclist who cross-trains with snowshoeing. I even made a low-quality YouTube video about it at one point:

 

My favorite was to come to the hills when it was really, really cold — like in the negatives on the fahrenheit scale. The snow would be soft and dusty — perfect snowshoe weather and often cold enough to keep everyone else at home. Sometimes, I’d show up just after a patch of fog had rolled through, coating branches and limbs with hoarfrost, and giving the forest an other-worldly appearance. I’d get up on top of the high climbs and see the distant snow-covered peaks and wonder about snowshoeing on them.

Then there was the wildlife. After an exhausting 950-foot climb up the Moose Rim trail one cold morning, I was startled to find myself standing perhaps 15 feet from, of course, a moose. It was a bit of an awkward meeting, so I tried to break the ice by talking to it … or her, I guess. As I walked away, passing a group of trees next to the moose, I asked, “There isn’t another one over here, is there?” And sure enough, there was. That year, I saw seven moose in perhaps four weekends of snowshoeing.

I’d finish every hike with snow plastered to my back and ice crystalized on my neck gaiter. I’d strip off my jacket before I even got in my car. And by the time I got home and pulled into the garage, I’d be shocked to find my legs so fatigued that I’d have to sit in the car for a moment before I could muster the energy to go inside — where I’d gobble everything I could find and then take a well-earned nap.

One Saturday night, my wife and I were watching some special on PBS about a woman who’s a river guide in Idaho. The woman told the camera, “I need to get cold and wet and miserable, and then I can be happy.” My wife turned to me and said, “She’s just like you.” And she’s absolutely correct.

I don’t know why I’m writing this all in past tense and with perfect aspect. Fact is, I went snowshoeing again this morning, saw a bull moose with a cow, tripped and fell on my face,  came home with sore legs and wet clothes, and enjoyed it as much as I ever have. Guess I just wanted to share.

Rough Start

The snow finally came, and with it came snowshoe season—one of my favorite times of the year. My snowshoes now have a comfortable place in the backseat of my car, and my poles are tucked neatly against the passenger seat.

This past Saturday, I headed out on the trails near our local bunny hill, climbing 1,000 feet in less than a mile right out of the gate. Other than a few deer prints, I didn’t see any evidence anyone had used the trail lately. When I got up on top, however, I saw a print with toes …

Later, as I was making my way alongside a barbed-wire fence, a deer rustled in the trees not far away and then emerged, bounding across the trail in the snow. I thought I saw two or three of them, and then later, I came across another one—mule deer, with their huge ears. I was pretty tickled to be spending time in nature with no one but the wildlife to keep me company.

Later, as I curved around the radio tower—well out of screaming range of any other people—I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of two large, dark animals ahead of me astride my trail: two adult moose stood there, eyeing me down in the snowy silence. I, of course, yelled at them, hoping they’d get the drift and scoot out of my way, but they just stood there and glared at me. Then, the female walked behind the male, and that’s when I realized how big a rack the guy had on him. I’d thought they dropped those before winter. Guess I was wrong.

I was just about to reroute to the cross-country ski trail when the two decided they’d had enough and trotted off into the forest. In the end, I didn’t see another human being at all in more than two hours on the trails. So my animal to human encounter ratio was something like 4-0 and 4-2 for the season.

This morning, I got up late for another snowshoe only to find the road coated with a thick layer of slick snow. That wouldn’t be much of a problem except for the fact that I drive a sedan that has a knack for sliding all over the place. I’m not sure what it is about Chevrolet Malibus, but our car cannot handle the winter time at all.

I made it just outside the canyon after admiring some bald eagles (add two more to the animal to human ratio) when my car slid out on the road. I turned around and went to go chain up only to discover my chains were worthless. After toying with them for nigh unto a half an hour, I threw them in my trunk in disgust and tried to head back up the canyon without them … and that’s when my car slid completely off the road.

One of my wheels was dangling, more or less, completely off the edge when cars started to stop and offer help. I declined having anyone come push, simply because I didn’t want my car sliding and crushing anybody, but I asked around for someone with a tow cable. Nobody.

Eventually, a rock-laying truck came along, and the guy stopped and pulled over just as I slipped and fell on my butt. I got up and he said, “That slick, huh?” Just as he said that, his truck began sliding from its completely parked position and I ran to steady it before it slipped off the road. He got back into the driver’s seat and backed up to better traction, and then he started warming up the motor for his truck to lay down some rock.

I was stuck waiting around for a little while longer when a nice woman came along and reluctantly asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked, “You don’t happen to have a tow cable, do you?” to which she answered that she didn’t. But then she rethought for a second and said, “Actually, maybe I do.” She got out, searched a first-aid kit in her trunk and found a tow rope.

I hooked it around my rear axle near my left wheel and then to her loop hitch on the back, and voila, I was out in moments. I thanked her and got on with defrosting my fingertips, all of which felt semi-hypothermic.

I drove home and then to the tire place to get some snow tires put on my car. Then I came home—$200 lighter. When my wife got home, the mountain bike was already sitting against our bannister, and my vexation at not having snowshoed was palpable.

Traction was good going up my local hill, and I managed to get up to the summit without putting a foot down. That soon changed as I found my way into some nasty drifts along the road. The wind picked up, and my hands again lost feeling. I wound up riding home on the rivet with a gale-force winter wind blowing the other direction.

As I walked in the door, I told my wife, “I’m going to be in pain in just a second,” and she responded, “Why? Did you crash or something?” “No,” I said. “My hands are just freezing.”

I sat on the couch and winced as I defrosted my digits, and in a few minutes everything was almost back to normal. “I just can’t catch a break today,” I told my wife.

Then I enjoyed the most exquisitely warm shower I can remember, slowly draining the cold from my shoulders with steaming hot shower water. And then, finally, it felt like Christmas vacation again.

I took a camera with me for a change …

If you look real close, you can see the Grand and Middle Teton through the Big Hole Mountains ...

So I finally took the time to snap a photo during one of my rides. Yes, the grass is still ugly yellow, but this gives you a glimpse at what I see all the time in my runs and rides.

Truth be known, scenery is a big motivator for me, and it’s not always pretty around here. This sort of thing adds some mysticism to my rides and makes me appreciate where I live just a little more.

Yuck

I went for my “long run” yesterday. I planned a very hilly 8–9-miler. It would be 4.5 miles of uphill for about 1,400 feet and 4.5 miles of downhill for about the same. The first climb was a moderate hill road that’s about the same gradient as the Race to Robie Creek. The second climb is significantly steeper, covered in volcanic rock, muddy, bushy, thorny and generally messy.

The first climb wasn’t much trouble, but then I descended about 670 feet to the valley floor to begin climb number two. I didn’t want to walk any of it, but my hip flexors were absolutely screaming at me. So I relented for a bit. I got jabbed by a stick at one point and thought it might’ve been a garter snake bite, but all in all, it wasn’t a bad run. I finished at somewhere around 9 or 9:30 miles, which I didn’t think was half-bad considering I hadn’t gone all out.

I came home and was getting ready to log my workout when I discovered that I’d picked up a stowaway: a little red deer tick was navigating my leg hairs.

Being the sick, twisted person that I am, I had to do some experiments on the guy. So I stuck him in a cup and tried to drown him in rubbing alcohol. To my chagrin, he was still squirming after minutes in there.

I had a survivor on my hands.

But I also have a secret weapon: melaleuca (or tea tree) oil. I put something in the alcohol and, sure enough, the little sucker grasped onto it. He was most definitely still alive. Then I put him on the bathroom counter and dripped a few drops of melaleuca oil on him. He stopped moving almost instantly. I dumped out the alcohol and stuck him back in the cup where I dowsed him with more mela oil, and, sure enough, he wasn’t moving.

Of course, I had to chop his body in half later just for good measure.

But there’s your useful tip from me to you: tea tree oil kills ticks. I think that’ll be my replacement insect repellent next time I go mountain biking.

I need to carry a camera

Few things compare to a nice jog in the snow
The first thing I did after quitting the gym (besides gloating to my coworkers who are still gym members) was to go home and go for a run. It was a quick and easy run—just two miles and about 15 or 16 minutes—and when I walked in the door, I felt just relieved.

“That felt really good,” I told my wife.

I like to run when it’s cold out, honestly. I think runners who give up when it gets cold are missing out the best time of the year for running. I mean, you get built-in outdoor air conditioning. You get to see the stars when they’re at their prettiest. Snowy surfaces are softer.

This is probably the first year, I’ve kept up my running habit the whole way through the winter, but two years ago, in the fall, I used to run up a certain hill bright and early in the morning. I’d get to the top just in time to see the sunrise over the pointy peak of Grand Teton in the distance. I loved it, needless to say.

I started doing the same run again when I broke out of gym prison. Yep, sure enough, Grand Teton was still there. But so were some other scenic elements. One time, I did that run in the middle of a snowstorm. I watched the clouds roll through the hills as I ran up to the apex. Incredible!

Then there was the night I got stuck snowshoeing on the soccer field. It had just snowed, and I didn’t think I could get my car to my typical parking spot by the hill, so I defaulted to the soccer field. Above me, a sort of misty cloud encircled the moon and a handful of very bright stars. It reminded me of the time my future wife and I watched the northern lights years ago.

Tonight, I saw Grand Teton again—just before the sun went down. But I also discovered another reason why not everyone loves running outdoors in the winter. I took a steep dirt-road downhill a bit too fast and I slipped and fell on my rear end. I guess you have to make certain deals with fate.

So far, this one’s been worth it.

I have a confession to make …

There’s a reason I haven’t been posting lately. It’s because I wasn’t sure you’d understand. After all, I’ve been making fun of marathon and half-marathon runners as health-ignoring lemmings for some time now. And, if you’ve been reading long enough, you might be aware that I have no desire whatsoever to run a normal flat, downhill, paved (aka 90% of the races out there) half-marathon or marathon.

So why on earth would I have signed up for the 13.1-mile Race to Robie Creek? Valid question. (And yes, that’s my confession.)

Well, I should mention, if you’re not familiar with the race, that it climbs 2,000 feet, including some relatively steep gradients toward the Aldape Summit.

I should also mention that the bulk of the race occurs on dirt rather than pavement.

I could even bring up the fact that folks keep telling me how much FUN the race is.

But you would know that all of those are just excuses, wouldn’t you?

P.S. I found a video of some guy running the course. He’s a CrossFit nut, which isn’t exactly endearing, but the video is otherwise well done.

Here it is:

Testing CrossFit: The Race to Robie Creek from Greg on Vimeo.

The Possibilities are Endless

I generally try to avoid doing races near where I live. I know that’s weird, but I like racing anonymously. I don’t want to see my coworkers or my neighbors on the starting line because I don’t want to have my race results become part of some ego-fest over the water cooler or in the halls of our church chapel. I like racing for the sake of racing and would like to keep it that way.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time turning down an offer to race for free. So last week, when one of the secretaries downstairs called and asked if I wanted a free race entry into some 5k race our office was sponsoring, I hesitated for perhaps a second and said, “Sure.” That it was only a week away and that I hadn’t been running were immaterial. I can get up on any given day and run less than 22:30 in a 5k, and I know that. Of course, I did get a little nervous when I found out that many, many of my coworkers would be there in the same race. But what the heck—why not have a little fun? My wife and sister-in-law even agreed to race it with me.

So race morning dawned today, and my wife and sister-in-law got all ready to jog the race behind me. As we stood there on the starting line, I started looking around for the fast guys so I could attempt a decent time. I spotted a couple of young kids and asked them if they were cross-country runners, to which they answered in the negative. Then I noticed a bald guy with skinny legs. He looked fast, frankly. So I sidled up next to him, made a little small talk and then asked how fast he planned to do the race. When he said 20 minutes, I knew I’d found my running buddy. It also didn’t hurt that he said he’d been training and coaching a local high school track distance team—so he was in decent 1500-meter shape. I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I tried to stay with him, and he said that’d be fine.

But when they yelled “go,” it was some other guy who took the lead—a shorter, stalkier runner with chiseled legs. I didn’t mind the quick change in plans, and I scooted up behind him to draft. That lasted for perhaps the first half a mile, upon which I looked back and realized the two of us had distanced the entire field. He seemed to surge, and I found myself in no-man’s land (where I spend most of my races). I worked hard to keep him in sight, but when we went around one corner, he disappeared.

Then an interesting thing happened. We got to the point where the 5k and 10k races diverged, and he turned the 10k route. That’s when I realized I was LEADING the 5k!

Unfortunately, at that moment I turned onto a long straight section with no shade whatsoever. My thicker black socks seemed to soak up the heat, and I felt a bit like I was jogging on hot coals. I started to lose it a bit, and that’s when another runner—the bald guy—caught up to me. We chatted for a moment, and I tried to stick with him. But as the heat crept up, I dropped off the back. Eventually, I peeled my shirt off as the sun started to beat down on me. Yuck!

The finish line was surrounded by cars parked by the runners, so when I saw a massive group of parked cars, I assumed that was it. But as I got closer, I realized it was parking for a local soccer game and that I still had at least a quarter of a mile to go—in the heat. I managed to keep it together and run a 21-something, but it was definitely NOT one of my faster times. Too bad. Still, having led the race for two miles and then finishing second isn’t terrible.

After the race, I got to thinking that this is actually my second top-three finish at a 5k road race in my hometown (which I usually avoid). I got to thinking, “I wonder how I’d do if I actually spent a little time running.”

But besides adding another result to my paltry palmares list of small-time race results, I expanded another list today: my “Celebrities I’ve outrun in 5k races” list. Previously, it included only Sarah Palin (who DNF’ed the tri-cities Turkey Trot a couple of years ago), but now it has expanded to include Kaylee and Moses Kinikini of Biggest Loser fame. Kaylee actually outran my wife (hey, Kaylee may have had some weight before, but she hasn’t had three kids), and we saw Moses walking the last mile with his wife as we were headed home.

Best wishes to those guys for winning the at-home prize!