Friday, December 29, 2006
It's about friggin' time, neighbors think, but are too polite to come right out and say
BELLINGHAM, WA (AP)--Jen, Mike, and Baker McQuaide this week announced the signing of a 2007 Nissan Versa to handle their transportation duties for at least the next five years. The move comes one week after their 1985 Toyota Camry--it of the 167,000-plus miles and the "power" windows that haven't opened in five years--broke its hood-release cable thus refusing to allow the McQuaides to add power steering fluid and motor oil, both of which the Camry guzzled like a frat boy under a beer bong on spring break.
"That's it," Jen said scraping her knuckles for the 14th time while using vice grips, a crescent wrench, and some dogged determination attempting to open the hood. "We've got to get a new car."
"Dang straight," Mike said while drinking a glass of chocolate milk and watching Jen hard at work.
The McQuaides made repeated trips to a Bellingham auto dealer where they figure they were lied to about one thing or another on average of once every 3.7 minutes.("We get the car from the manufacturer for MSRP and unless we get the $1,995 markup, none of us can put food on our tables," "We get nothing if you do the financing through us; it's simply our courtesy to you," etc.)
Things looked bleak until a friend mentioned he'd bought two cars through Costco's auto program, which to Mike, sounded ridiculous.
"What, do they make you bag it up yourself?" Mike said, intending to sit back and just bask in wave upon wave of laughter which never came.
Surprisingly, the Costco program worked wonders. The McQuaides paid only $500 above invoice (a couple hundred less than MSRP) and were lied to far less frequently in subsequent visits. There was no more haggling and experts estimate that the McQuaides saved a couple thousand dollars. On December 26, they drove home the Blue Onyx beauty, smiles on all their faces.
"Isn't that perfect, we got it through Costco on Boxing Day," Mike said, again trying unsuccessfully to humorously tie Costco and its propensity for making shoppers bag or box their own groceries with the day after Christmas, also known as Boxing Day.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
For me, it’s a roller coaster ride of doom, a journey of self-discovery (and self-destruction) that usually ends with me uttering those two words known to long-distance racers everywhere: Never Again.
But that never lasts. Next spring’s Chuckanut 50K will be my sixth.
I have a love-hate with this race. I love that I’m able to run it (thankful as hell, too) and I love the race-day excitement with its enthusiastic gathering of similarly tweaked people.
But I hate that I’m unable to run it faster. And that in the race’s final hour, I’ll inevitably turn into a slimy, sweaty, slow-moving old man shuffling along the Interurban Trail mumbling “How much further? How much further?” to trees, light posts, mailboxes and anything and anybody else along the way.
So why sign up for the race if I’m going to be such a crabby-pants about it?
Because I don’t want to miss out on the Sunday morning 8 o’clock group runs. Spending a few hours every week with friends running through the muck, mud, and mire of the dark forests around Bellingham brings light and energy to my winter, and makes its rain and clouds disappear.
For I don’t know many years (10? 15?) runners have been meeting up at the same time each week near the Vet Hospital in Fairhaven to run down the Interurban and up into the Chuckanuts. It’s nothing organized; it just happens on its own.
It’s like some popular, long-running Broadway show that you just take for granted is always playing at such-and-such a house on Theater Row. The cast rarely stays the same, but the show always goes on. Come 8 o’clock Sunday morning, the curtain goes up, and 12 to 15 runners hit the trail. Anyone can join in. Just show up ready to run.
I usually join the cast every December and run through late spring. For the next three months the focus will be the Chuckanut 50K. From the Vet Hospital, we’ll head up toward Lost Lake or Pine and Cedar lakes or sometimes even Lily and Lizard lakes down on Blanchard Mountain. Two-, three-, sometimes five-hours worth.
Sure, the training is great but I join the cast for the laughs, the friendship, and the fun. To throw snowballs at others and have tree limbs, heavy with snow, dumped down upon me. To skip rocks across the ice on a frozen Fragrance Lake.
To hear about movies I’m sure I’ll never see, and about home projects that are far too ambitious for me. To hear other people’s stories, and be inspired by their courage and ability to handle things. And to wonder, if it got right down to it, do I have that kind of courage in me? I’d hope so.
Race day Saturday is three months away. And truth be told, I’m kind of dreading it.
But that’s OK. To me, the next three months of Sundays are the best show in town.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Check out this week's Cascadia Weekly www.cascadiaweekly.com for a little piece I wrote about our Sunday running group. And while I'm in the plugging vein, Thursday's Seattle Times www.seattletimes.com Northwest Weekend section should have a story I wrote about a winter climb with the Everett Mountaineers.
Friday, December 15, 2006
So, I think you know how it is: your name is Mike, your wife's is Jen, and you go to New Jersey and you see that Dunkin' Donuts is running some ad campaign wherein someone named Jen gives someone named Mike a Dunkin' Donuts gift certificate for Christmas. And you get all misty-eyed and choked up, because it's like they're talkin' to you. (I mean me. And Jen.)
Just when you think that nobody in this world cares anymore and that Christmas is nothing but crass commercialism, Dunkin' Donuts shines their light on you. (I mean me. And Jen.) That's Jen there in the picture; we couldn't be more happy.
About a week ago, we went to the Frick Collection www.frick.org/ just off Central Park. My sister Kath drove from her house in the country and it took some time to get there--Route 80, NJ Turnpike, Lincoln Tunnel, and about 40 blocks of driving in Manhattan. So we get there, the we being Jen, Kath, myself and 7-year-old Baker, and look what the sign says outside the Frick: Children under 10 are not admitted. Know what we all said in unison--anyone? ... Right, What the frick! So suddenly Bake was 10. Ironically, it was Kath who set off an alarm when she leaned in too close to get a better look at a painting.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Here we are doing what we call cicing, at my sis Kath's place in Northwest New Jersey. Cicing is canoeing on ice, but being all Shakletonian about it. By that, I mean tryin' to bus' through it using oars, paddles and whatever else one has at their disposal. Why? Well, it's quite liberating to break something, smash it all to bits, as it were, while at the same time not doing anything that'd get you into trouble. It makes a great sound too. Plus, cicing is a McQuaide tradition. (And a stupid one at that.) We did the same thing two years ago, on New Year's Day '05.
That '05 trip was unique in that about three weeks after we returned to Bellingham, I came down with chickenpox. That was a great time, being a 43-year-old man covered from head to toe in hideous pimple-like skin eruptions. Now that I'm back in Bellingham, I can hardly wait to see what the next three weeks bring!
On this most recent visit east, we went into New York for the day. ($350 fine, by the way, if you start beeping your horn while stuck in the ubiquitous traffic.) The Frick Museum, lunch with sisters and a niece at a crowded diner, a lazy stroll through Central Park, and we were done. A terrificly pleasant time had by all. Below, see Baker on a really cool sculpture of Alice in Wonderland that we came across in the park.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Just got back from eight days in New Jersey. Thus this photo of evergreens on the side of Guye Peak near Snoqualmie Pass.
Heck of a travel day yesterday. Like 600 hours or something. But from time to time, Delta did provide us with some lovely cheese crackers and Sun Chips. So it wasn't all bad.
Terrific seeing the family. Funny how all the nieces and nephews get older, but neither my wife nor I do.
Bought gas in B'ham this morning. $2.73 a gallon. In Jersey? $2.05. But of course, Bellingham has those refineries nearby which kind of explains ... I'm not actually sure what.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
This is what they call a "classroom." The adult in the front of the room is doing what they call "teaching." The whole thing is called "school." (I'm writing this mostly to remind myself.)
My 7-year-old son used to go to one of these there "schools." But then last Sunday, a foot of snow fell on Bellingham, which was promptly followed by someone leaving the door wide open on the giant fridge that is the Arctic. Our fair city has been blasted into a block of solid ice. We've been freezing our tats off ever since.
Bellingham has no plows or sand trucks--they sold them a few years because it never snows here--so schools have been closed all week. And of course, all this comes on the heels of Thanksgiving break, not to mention this early-release day and that teacher work day, which means that my kid has gone to school maybe twice since Halloween.
But we've made the best of it. We've been sledding. We've enjoyed epic Monopoly games. We've sipped hot cocoa. We've slurped chicken soup. We've enjoyed epic Monopoly games. (Did I already mention that?)
Mount Baker has been a snow globe in permanent shake-up mode--it's been dumped on by 100 inches of powder in the last four days--so a trip to the ski area makes a capital idea. 'Cept we can't move our car. It's frozen in place under a couple feet of what looks like white cake frosting.
It's a winter wonderland out here.
But I want my Bellingham back.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Day 2 of the snow. Or three, I guess. Snowed two days ago. Yesterday was 19 degrees. Today is ... another day off from school for my Baker, my 7-year-old, whose school is two blocks away from our house.
It's a neighborhood school with no bus service; everyone walks. So instead of going to classes, all the kids have been walking and skiing to the schoolyard. There, they build snowmen and have snowball fights, just outside the classrooms in which they should really be sitting quietly and doing their lessons, as it were.
In New Jersey, where I grew up, my school was the one that never cancelled classes. All districts on all sides of us would have three days off if the words "freezing rain" were anywhere in the forecast but not ole Hoval. Instead, we enjoyed a harrowing two-hour bus ride, skidding up and down the ice-coated hills of rural Jersey.
I should be happy for Baker. I want him to have all the things I didn't. And if snow days off from school is one of those things, so be it.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Yesterday, we ran two hours in the stuff up in the Chuckanuts and had the time of our lives. A bunch of us winging snowballs at each other and pulling down on heavy branches that dumped buckets of snow on the person behind. I believe that's what friends are supposed to do.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Scanned this photo from a 1984 edition of the Hunderton County Democrat, a Central New Jersey paper. Why? Well, because it documents that I, at one time, actually led a race. (Note how they spell the word 'triathlon.')
"Garden State Tinman", as the race was called, implies that it boasted some tough competition, a race you had to earn your way into, qualify for, maybe. Hardly. Held the same day as big races in New York and Philadelphia that drew most of the hard-core racers, it was quite small.
The swim was a quarter-mile in Round Valley Reservoir near Flemington, famous for its circles (known elsewhere as rotaries) and outlet malls. (Famous to me, too, for the time when I was a kid and threw up in the movie theater there during "Planet of the Apes". I remember saying, "Dad, I don't feel so good," and then threw up all over him. Even then, I was aware of the importance of not just telling, but also, showing.)
Back to the race. Back in '84, before triathlon wet-suits were commonplace, I had a tendency to wimp out in cold water. So just to be safe, I rented the upper half of a scuba diving wet-suit for this early June race. Thing is, the water was knee-high at the deepest so we just ran the entire swim. I bet I looked pretty cool running in knee-deep water wearing a wet-suit for my upper body.
A couple miles into the 20-mile bike ride, it was me and the other guy in the picture at the front. We took turns drafting off each other. (Drafting was legal in the old New Jersey Tinman; the guy without a helmet is a race official, I think.) At some point, I asked the other lead guy what his 10K time was and he said 34-something. Rats! Mine was close to 39 minutes so I knew I had no chance of winning. But I still wanted to enter the bike-run transition with the lead so that my girlfriend at the time could at least see me in front. Which I did and that was quite thrilling for both of us. I started the run with a little lead and over the first couple miles, I kept turning and looking for the other lead guy, practically slowing to a stop and waiting for him: "Come on, when are you going to pass me, let's get it over with." (How's that for a killer competitive instinct?)
At some point he did run past me, as did one other guy, so I ended up getting third which was beyond anything I could've hoped for. The next day there was a little story about the race in the local paper and the guy who won (sorry I don't remember his name) said something to the effect that he knew he'd win because he was a much stronger runner than everyone else out there. (Actually, it wasn't even that arrogant sounding, he was just confident in his abilities; he wasn't, for instance, turning around looking for, and practically begging people to hurry up and pass him.)
My aforementioned girlfriend was really rankled by the story and called him up semi-anonymously to give him a hard time: "I guess you think you're some pretty hot stuff, fastest man in the world, huh? If you're so fast why aren't you in the Olympics?" that kind of thing.
Wonder where he is now.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
So I've decided to become bike race boy. Or BRB. I've never raced though over the past 25 years I've done my share of triathlons (including two Ironman races), duathlons, 10Ks, 50Ks, and the like. But never bike racing, wherein you shave your legs and, from the looks of watching the Tour de France on TV, ride uncomfortably close to a large group of other men wearing tight Lycra shorts. I can't wait!
Looking forward to being part of a team too. Fanatik Bike Co., a shop here in Bellingham, Washington, is sponsoring the team and being mucho generous in doing so.
I haven't been on a team in a long time. Probably since my high school baseball team, when I broke my arm in the first game of my senior season. Batted second, singled up the middle, stole second and heard an odd crack when I slid into the base. I had a habit, I guess, of putting my left hand down when I slid and when I hit the dirt I cracked my whatever that bone is just above the wrist. Super bummer, not just because I couldn't play, but the day before I broke my arm, I'd bought a beautiful black Stratocaster that played like buttuh. Rich, creamery buttuh. No matter, I waited a couple days then cut the cast so I could finger the fretboard.
Sunday was the second team ride. In absolute pouring, the old man is snoring, close to freezing rain. We rode in a paceline--about 10 of us with me trying not to be the new guy who screws up this group of mostly experienced racers. We had two lines of five, side-by-side, with the riders rotating slow-motion like in a counter-clockwise direction the whole time. Riding this way, the group can maintain high speeds for long periods of time, blocking the wind super efficiently.
As soon as we started doing it, I realized that this is what I always see them doing on the Tour de France on those long, flat days where they’re covering lots of ground in the peleton. I'd never ridden in anything like this before and to me it was a thing of real beauty. The miles flew by which was great because with the rain and cold, we were drenched. It was nice to have something to concentrate on.
Apropos of nothing, my cell phone rings on the ride down to Lake Samish. Rachel and Kylie, two second-grade cuties, are calling to see if my seven-year-old son Baker could come out to play. Some guys just seem to have it made.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Rode my bike about 25 miles this morning with Glenn Gervais and John Clark. In the rain. And cold. About 42 degrees and pouring rain most of the way. How pleasant is that? NOT AT ALL.
I take that back. It was fine. Once you reach that point where you're as wet as you're going to get--say 30 minutes into it--but you haven't yet started to get cold, it's OK. Fun even. But when you get cold, say 90 minutes in, that's it. You wanna be home. Like 10 minutes ago. And you can't stop thinking of all the other things you'd rather be doing. Like cleaning out the gutters. Or pulling out your own fingernails.
Or, say wearing a leopard spot bathrobe and looking out the window of one's room in the posh Hotel Monaco in Seattle, as this fine chap was spotted doing two years ago. It was our wedding anniversary and we opted for the romantic package and this really nice suite. Among other things (see leopard spot bathrobe) it came with a CD of Barry White's Greatest Hits which we got to keep. We had a super time, my wife and I, and I'll remember that trip for among other things b/c it was when I think I first realized how much I didn't like Ben Stiller. We watched "Dodgeball," on pay-per-view, and I was open-mouthed stunned at how terrible it was. Wasn't there a time when he was really funny? Or am I thinking of someone else?
Monday, November 06, 2006
These races take place at Northern State Recreational Area in S-W. See directions below. The contact is the loquacious Dean Taylor: (360) 856-6990 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Northern State Muckfest 10K
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Details: Cross country type run but without the spikes! Course is field roads, old gravel roads, grassy paths, gravel trail and hopefully some muck (last year it was ice!).
Entry Fee: $3 dollar entry fee covers the hot apple cider, the predict your time $$, the best poker hand $$ and the overall men's and women's awards. Register day of race only.
A Winter Solstice Headlamp 5 Miler
Friday Night, December 22nd
7:00 PM (yes it is a night run!)
Details: Cross country type run but without the spikes! Course is field roads, old gravel roads, grassy paths and gravel trail NO MUCK (different course than Muckfest)! Double loop course. Headlamp or flashlight required!
Entry Fee: $2 to cover food and drink. Register night of race only.
Directions: Meet at parking lot of Northern State Recreation Site, due East of Sedro-Woolley on Highway 20. Turn left on Helmick Road (signed for Upper Skagit Indian Reservation).
Naively, I didn’t think there’d be that much difference between my hard-tail bike and the cyclocross bikes that about 90 percent of the people in my race were riding. (Men’s B had probably 50 riders and from the looks of them, many should’ve been Men’s A. But you’re always going to have that; a couple months ago, I probably should’ve done the competitive Hill Climb division.)
But there was much difference indeed. The bulk of riders seemed very cyclocross-experienced, very fast, and much fitter than I. Still the riding was fun. An extremely challenging and topsy-turvy, curvy-swervy course—you rode through that round stone sculpture that’s like something out of some ‘70s music video or album cover, had to hump your bike up a vertical-seeming grassy hill, and negotiate down another vertical-seeming slope that was quickly turning into mud hole.
However, given my huge dinner at the Cliff House before the Sedaris show the night previous, not to mention the aforementioned mountain bike, I found the race a little long. “This is a 24-hour race, right?” I said to RD Ryan Rickerts at one point.
“You telling me my races are long?” he answered, chuckling. He, wearing a clownish gold afro wig.
Forty-five minutes would’ve been time enough for me. I did six-and-a-half laps, I’m pretty sure—10.9 miles in and an hour and two minutes.
I wiped out twice, on consecutive laps and I’m generally not a big wiper outer. The second time was on the steep downhill and I felt like I bent my right knee farther than I’m used to. It wasn’t a good feeling, not a tweak or anything, but it did give me pause as to whether or not this is nec. a good idea. What if I get hurt and I can’t do any of this stuff? With the bike team starting now, that would be disappointing.
Not sure whether I’ll do the Padden race on Nov. 25. Just because I don’t want injure myself. Hard as it is for me to admit it, I ain’t a young pretty thing anymore. But if I do race, I’ll do Men’s C. Unless, that is, a cyclocross bike that needs a new home magically appears on my doorstep.
Friday, October 20, 2006
It began as your typical autumn Saturday morning 5K. A nip in the air, a line for the porta-potty, a bunch of pre-race instructions that nobody could hear. But 30 seconds after the starter’s gun, as we round the first bend, things get weird. Real weird. The race leaders are suddenly nowhere in sight. They’ve already dropped me, I think to myself. Then a quick side-to-side looksee reveals the truly bizarre—I’m the leader. It’s as if we’ve entered some other dimension where down is up, cold is hot, slow is fast. I mean, me leading a race? A race that involves other runners?
At 40, I’ve been running for 20 years, raced on-and-off for about 12 of those, and as such, certain personal race patterns have emerged. Besides this one time 17 years ago when I led a triathlon for about five minutes, the above does not fit my pattern at all. At races I’m always a bit player—huffing, puffing and shuffling amid the heavy-breathing mass, trying not to be too bummed when I don’t hit my splits, trying not to spit on anyone else or be spat upon. Today, it seems, this bit player was given Yorrik’s skull and told “You’re Hamlet today; give it your best.”
Earlier that year, my goal was to run a sub 40-minute 10K for the first time since Reagan’s first term. When that wasn’t happening I amended that to running a sub-20 minute 5K. In my previous race, I’d come within 15 seconds. Warming up, I hoped this was the day.
Midway through the first loop of this two-lap, blacktop-and-trail course, it looked to be a three-person race. It was me, a kinda heavy guy who was probably 50, and a 19-year-old woman wearing cross-country spikes that clicked atop the asphalt as she ran. I thought they were tap shoes and wondered if wearing tap shoes was something race leaders do to psyche each other out. I wouldn’t know.
Early in the second lap, I start to pull away. (I think that’s the phrase). Other runners’ footfalls and clicks fade and in no time, the rest is silence. I begin to focus on how truly embarrassed I am. As I approach them, unknowing spectators are cheering me assuming that—like most race leaders—I’m someone with blazing speed who’s pulling off a Herculean feat of Olympian athleticism. “Sorry, it’s just me,” I want to say. When it dawns on them that I’m the guy in front, I sense a vibe, a what-kind-of-race-is-this-if-Mike McQuaide-is-winning? vibe. And after I pass by, I’m pretty sure I hear them laughing. I imagine the race directors shaking their heads, wondering where they went wrong that someone like me is leading their race.
With time to think, I piece together the events that led to today’s predicament. 1) Many of the city’s hard-core runners were on their way to the Royal Victoria Marathon in British Columbia taking place the next day, or they'd run the Portland Marathon the week before and thus weren’t racing today. 2) Most of the town’s speedy non-marathon types were running an established 5K the next day at the local university—that drew most of the young fast folks. 3) Perhaps most importantly, today’s race was called the Daughters and Dads 5K Dash (a first-time fundraiser for the Girls on the Run program) which some people took to mean was open to daughter-and-father teams only. However, in small letters the application said, Open to Everyone, and that’s why I was here—I’m an everyone. But apparently, since only about 40 (I found out later) non-daughters-and-dads showed up, not all everyones read the fine print.
With just a few hundred yards to go, I begin to accept the unthinkable—I’m going to win. It’s accepted on faith because there’s no way I’m going to turn around to see if someone’s gaining on me. If they were, I know I’d let out a high-pitched squeal and maybe start crying.
Nearing the end, I fret over what to do when I break the finish line tape—a forward roll? Some fly break-dance move? Or just stick my chest way out as if it’s a photo finish at the Olympics? It needs to be memorable because it’s not likely I’ll ever pass this way again.
But of course there is no tape. Just a clock that reads 20:21 and someone who wants the tag off the bottom of my race number. I pull it off and hand it to her. And as I walk away—a winner for the first time ever—I’m pretty sure I hear her laughing.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Because I’m such an epic scaredy cat, I never turn around when I race. I’m too afraid of what I’ll see: a dozen riled-up Lance Armstrongs, I imagine, standing and stomping, poised to swallow me up then spit me out like a discarded GU wrapper.
So today, in the Mount Baker Hill Climb, I won’t turn around, but I know that my friend John is right behind me.
And though John is one of my closest buds, I’d rather he was somewhere else right now—home mowing the lawn, Costco, a few miles back cursing while he fumbles to fix a flat by the side of the road (cruel, I know), Sea World in Florida; it really doesn’t matter. Just somewhere else.
John, you see, has my number. Or is in my head. One of the two. Or both. I can’t decide.
John and I, and about four others, are in the lead pack of this hillacious Western Washington epic, a 24.5-mile race that climbs 4,300 feet, three-quarters of that up the final 10-mile slog that makes riders scream not only for mommy, daddy, blankie, and teddy, but their first-grade teacher too. John and I have trained this hill half a dozen times with me getting the better of him most every time, sometimes even dropping him on a shorter but steeper climb about five miles before this bear.
But not today.
John rides my back wheel like a remora on a hammerhead, aping my every move—drinking when I drink, shifting up when I shift up, shifting down when I shift down. Standing when I stand. I hear him. There’s no shaking him today. But that’s no surprise; it’s exactly what I expected.
This is a race. And John plus race equals feats of super-human strength.
How is it that some people can turn into a whole other species, it seems, on race day? (Especially vexing, people that aren’t me.) Elevating their performance far above what their training would suggest? (I’m not talking certain pros here who may or may not turn to chemistry to raise performance levels; I’m talking normal people. Like John and me.) Certainly, my times in races are better than those in training, but not to the extent that has local folks who care about this sort of thing chatting me up, “Can you believe how McQuaide did?”
Like they do with John.
John, I’ve come to the conclusion, just has higher tolerance for discomfort than I. In all aspects of his life. On our rides he’ll tell me semi-harrowing tales of jobs he’s had, or about raising his teen-age kids, or dealing with elderly parents, and I just shake my head. I’d crumble whereas John seems rock steady.
Just like he is out here today.
Hammering away in the red zone on a relentless 10-mile climb is painful and not just physically. Not only are my quads, calves and hammies pumped out and about to burst, my chest feels like I’m attempting to be the first person to summit Everest while chain-smoking a carton of Camels. And mentally, I’m not in the self-nurturing space I need to be.
I understand that the farther we continue like this, the more likely it is that today’s race for second will come down to a yank-your-own-toenails-out painful, mano a mano, me-versus-John sprint up the final 200 vertical-seeming meters. Whatever discomfort I feel right now is like riding a chairlift compared to that.
Especially since I’d have a 50-50 chance of losing. Though, let’s be honest. This is John we’re talking about; despite my best psyche-myself-up affirmations to the contrary, my chances are closer to 20-80 or 10-90 or 1-99, with me on the short end.
So when John passes by me with about a mile to go and despite my best efforts I can’t respond, it’s no real surprise. And it’s not that I’m relieved, so much as … I’m kinda relieved.
I’m not going to have to lose that dreaded sprint.
And you know what? Third place is nice. I beat my best time on this race course by almost five minutes. And in the grand scheme of things John’s ability to elevate himself on race day more than I can doesn’t really matter much.
Though it sure would be nice to have the guts to turn around once in a while.
Even nicer to turn around and see John.
Just a speck.
Far down the mountain.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Six months ago, the unspeakable happened. Our favorite espresso joint got rid of their old-school La Marzocco espresso maker and replaced it with some weenie high-tech low-taste push-button model.
Our lives may never be the same.
Espresso from the old machine was rich, creamy, almost chocolaty in texture and talk about a kick! A triple tall Americano with no room—three shots of espresso and water, black—would launch me from zero to 60 in six sips or less. Espresso (they have the nerve to call it that) from the push-button machine delivers about as much giddyup as an ’85 rusted-out Yugo firing on one-and-a-half cylinders.
Yea, I know what you’re thinking. There’re cleverly named espresso joints on every corner in the Puget Sound area—Coffee Grounds, Espresso Yourself, Brewed Awakening, etc. Espresso stands are about as hard to find around here as tattoos on Railroad Avenue. Can’t twe just go somewhere else?
No. We can’t.
You see, what our formerly favorite espresso place did by switching machines was so much worse than just leave us bereft of good strong morning espresso. They stole our routine. Took our morning ritual and ripped it to shreds.
Our morning ritual was thus: on the way home from her early-morning gym workout, my wife would stop at said emporium and pick up a sesame bagel for her, a poppy seed muffin for me, and two cups of what can only be described as 100 percent pure-grade ambrosia. Triple tall, no-room Americanos. Simple yet sublime.
Many were the nights I put head to pillow, a smile on my face as I imagined the taste bud explosion I’d be greeted with in eight hours. My muffin was a pleasant prologue to the true showstopper, the espresso elixir that would jolt me into consciousness and make all of life seem like one golden opportunity after another.
Now though, we’re spit out of luck.
When the old place first went the push-button route, we felt hurt, as if we’d been dumped by a lover. Our reaction was to deny our reliance on espresso and caffeine. We swore off anything with caffeine in it—not just espresso, but coffee, Coke, chocolate, coffee cake. (That last one probably wasn’t necessary.) Caffeine was a crutch, we realized, and once we’d banished it, our lives were immediately so much richer.
That lasted ‘til about 11:30, maybe 11:35, that first morning.
Next, we found ourselves caught up in a rebound relationship. Someone had turned us on to the wonder that is the espresso peanut butter milkshake and though the purveyor wasn’t exactly conveniently located, we somehow managed to fit it into our morning routine. Two weeks later and 13 and 17 pounds heavier, my wife and I realized that wasn’t a good idea.
Then we got desperate. We shelled out half a grand for a home espresso machine. But it’s not the same. It’s like the home version of Hollywood Squares; it just ain’t as good as the original. Besides, making your own espresso requires—oh, what’s that thing called that I have absolutely no aptitude for early in the morning? oh yeah—effort.
So, here we are most mornings, $500 poorer, yawning as we shuffle along, wandering bleary-eyed from Bend to Bellingham in search of a place with an old-school La Marzocco espresso maker and that fits our morning ritual requirements—muffin, bagel, espresso of the gods.
Always searching … always shuffling … always yawning …
Friday, September 22, 2006
In my whole life, I’ve had the lead in only three races. One was a triathlon where the swim was short and the water so shallow we ran the whole thing without getting our knees wet. Another was a small, first-time running event called the Dads and Daughters 5K. The somewhat misleading name implied it was for fathers with daughters only (it wasn’t), thus cutting out about three-quarters of the running population. Oh yeah, and it was held the same weekend as about five popular area races. (I actually won that one.)
And the third race I led was this year’s Mount Baker Hill Climb. Leading a race is way cool, especially if like me, you’re now closer to 50 than 40. But it also feels like you’ve snuck in someplace that you’re not supposed to be. It reminds me of being 17 when my friends and I at the Jersey Shore would try to sneak in to all the bars using I.D.s we’d swiped from our older brothers. On those few times it worked we shared an excited giddiness at our good fortune, but once inside we had a new problem: What are we supposed to do now?
Cut to this year’s race. (And just so I’m not leading anyone on, we’re talking the Recreational race here.) About two miles in, just past Canyon Creek Road, we started up the first climb. As the pack slowed a tad, I saw that the leader was right there; I mean, like right there. Close enough that if we had been sitting in a boring geography class together, I could’ve nailed him with in the left ear with a spitball. So I clicked up a couple gears, stomped on my pedals for about 20 or 30 good, hard mashes and, voila—I’m in the lead! Who knew it could be so simple?
I opened up a gap—I think that’s what it’s called—of about 50 yards and soon a motorcycle with a cameraman on the back pulled up next to me to get some shots. How cool is that! I felt like I was in the Tour de France (my ideal of it, that is) and that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin were commenting on me dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way as I dug deeply into my suitcase of courage. Granted, the motorcycle and cameraman were probably just practicing for shooting the competitive race that started an hour later, but still.
Here I was at 45 leading a bike race with some 300 riders in it, but oddly I found myself wondering the same things I used to when I was sneaking into bars at 17: what am I supposed to do now? The race is 24.5 miles, with the last 10-mile climb being what it’s all about (Alfie), so having a lead here at about the three-mile mark is pointless. It’s like a football team being in first place during the preseason; it don’t matter none. Best thing would be to let the pack swallow me up when we hit the next flat section, suck everyone’s back wheel like the draft-strumpet I am, and save myself for the hour of hurt that ends this day. So that’s what I did.
It was a chilly, overcast morning in when we pulled into Glacier before the race. Early too, as a groggy John Clark pointed out from the backseat perhaps every three miles on the drive out. Glenn Gervais drove with Kevin Mills riding shotgun, the four of us doing our duty and carpooling.
At the start, I lined up next to John, a few rows back from the front. John’s a great pal and we’d ridden together a lot during the past few months, including three or four reconnaissance rides up the mountain. Next to John, coincidently enough (it will turn out) was Noel Phillips, who I noted was sporting a spiffy new carbon Scott CR1. Pretty. Noel is a super fast runner and last year, when I passed him on that final 10-mile climb I remember being impressed; I knew that the day before he’d run the Fairhaven Runners Waterfront 15K in just over an hour.
The race underway, things went surprisingly smoothly, the first few little climbs stretching out the pack. I did my little lead thing (alluded to earlier) and noticed that Noel and I seemed to be leapfrogging one another. Sure is a good rider for a runner, I thought every time I saw him.
Skip ahead to that final 10-mile hill, the one that climbs 3,000 feet and seems to break just about that many hearts and lungs in the process. It’s what first comes to mind when you think of the Mount Baker Hill Climb. As the pack passed the D.O.T. shed in the last flat stretch before the hill, many riders began hooting and hollering to psyche themselves up. It reminded me of the way Shakespearean characters always have some stirring speech or cry to steel themselves for battle. (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother …”)
As with the first climb, when the pack slowed, I maneuvered to the outside, pedaled hard for a few moments and, save for two riders about 150 yards in the distance, found nothing but open road ahead of me.
“You go for it, Mike!” Noel yelled. Which I thought was sweet. Not only is he a good rider for a runner, but he’s an encouraging one too. I made a mental note to wait around for him after I finish to tell him how much I appreciated his words.
I never turn around when I ride, but I gathered from what I could hear—it was a very chatty group, by the way—a handful of riders went with me including John, his co-worker Mark Harrison, Noel and a few others. Vern Latta, who took third in last year’s race, and one other rider (sorry, I never caught his name) were the duo ahead of us and soon we were on their wheels.
In not too much time, it was down to about four or five of us: Vern, John, Noel, me, and there might have one or even two other riders. There was some jockeying back and forth, a couple times when John and I considered teaming up on some killer breakaway (as if), but for the most part, that’s how it stayed for the rest of the painful climb.
Except … that somewhere on the way up the mountain, Noel got away. Not in some dramatic Landis-esque Stage 17 breakaway (my ideal of it, that is), but rather he just kind of drifted away; as if we’d grown apart. (Was it something we said, Noel?) But he never disappeared. Noel was always right there in our field of vision, like a smudge on your sunglasses that you can’t wipe off.
So then it was Noel by himself and a pack of four or five chasing him. Vern did a lot of the heavy lifting—I remember at one point John said, “I’d take a pull if I could but I can’t get up there”—until we approached the upper ski lodge with about three miles to go when it was every rider for himself.
Riding like this—in the red zone at the edge of my physical abilities—is seriously stressful. Mentally draining too. Winning this thing, or equally enticing, actually finishing ahead of John Clark in a race, was somewhat within my grasp and to someone not used to that (moi) it made the mountain feel twice as steep. I don’t consider myself particularly gutless, but there were times when the thought occurred to me that if the god of flat tires were to descend upon me, leaving me broken and busted by the side of the road, I wouldn’t have been too terribly disappointed.
Just below the upper ski lodge, there are flat spots around Highwood and Picture lakes that mislead one into thinking that they’re getting really close to Artist Point and that the climb must be easier the rest of the way. Nah.
Even more cruel is the stretch just past the Heather Meadows Visitor Center, where you head due north for a few hundred yards. At first it’s almost flat and you might even get up to 15 or18 miles per hour. But when the road abruptly hairpins south, the grade increases tenfold. (At least, that’s what it seems like.) I always feel like I’m pedaling through glue at this point; it’s the sole reason that within the previous month, both John and I replaced our rear cassettes with ones that have an easy, glue strip-friendly 27-tooth gear.
With about 2K to go, just before the Lake Ann Trailhead, John got past me on one of the final turns and started pulling away. I tried everything I could to get on his wheel, but it wasn’t gonna happen. About the only reaction I could muster was, “Oh look, there goes John. He’s wearing blue today. Goes well with his black carbon frame.” We were deep in the glue trip and it was all I could do to keep moving forward.
Just ahead of John was Noel—steady, consistent, and riding scared, he told me later. He won in 1:43:35; John was 11 seconds back at 1:43:46. I came in third at 1:44:02.
Once across the finish line, I quickly found John. We high-fived, hugged and laughed like crazy at what we’d just been through. We were brothers.
We and everyone else who made it up the mountain that day.
We happy few.
We band of brothers.
For months, absolutely no one has been begging me to tell the story of my knee surgery. So here it is:Sometime last October I noticed that my right knee looked swollen. At least I thought it looked swollen; I wasn’t really sure. It looked bigger than my left knee but it didn’t hurt or anything so I thought, maybe it’s always looked like that and it’s just taken me 41 years to notice. I mean, it’s not like I’d been in the habit of looking at my knees every morning and saying, “Nope, not swollen today.”
I’m an avid runner and my right knee has always been my bomber knee. The one that never complains, the one that says “whatever load you must bear, brother, put it on me; I’ll carry it for you.” Not like my left knee which I knew to be moody, prone to bellyaching and frankly, at times, being a bit of a sissy. Many’s the time when I’ve been out running and Lefty will see a child being pushed in a baby jogger and start whining that I should get one of those to push him around.
In early November, however, Righty began to hurt whenever I ran. Not just a little. With a vengeance. Like he was mad at me because I owed him money. It felt like there was a pebble stuck inside my knee joint that I couldn’t shake loose.
Runner that I am, I charged on figuring I just had to find the magic minor adjustment that would put me back on the trails and road. I stretched more. I stretched less. I warmed my knee with a heating pad before I ran. Chilled it with an ice pack afterward. Tried new shoes. Tried new shorts. Tried parting my hair on the other side. Nothing helped. It was swollen and hurting and I couldn’t run.
It must be stated that not being able to run during the dreary Bellingham winters is not good for me. To me, running is as much for psyche as it is for body. When I’m running, the murky waters of my mind finally have a chance to settle. By the end of an hour’s gallop through the woods, on even the rainiest of days, the skies have turned an azure blue and all the world seems bursting with possibility. Take that away and in no time at all I’m a cranky melancholic mess.
Thankfully though, because I couldn’t run, I gained 12 pounds in what must be an age-group record for Western Washington males. (I’m sorry, did I write, “thankfully”? I meant to write, *#@!&#*^@!!!”)
In late November, I had an appointment with Bellingham physical therapist Ted Molaski who, after five minutes of poking, prodding and questioning, suspected I had a torn meniscus. (Essentially, torn cartilage.) Ah, what does he know, I thought to myself. He only went to five years of physical therapy school and has been poking and prodding people’s knees for the past 24 years. I’ve spent 20 minutes on the Internet and am pretty darn sure that all I’ve got is chondromalacia (runner’s knee). A little rest and I’ll be fine.
Three weeks later, I tried running again and it hurt worse. I went back to Ted who recommended an MRI, the sound of which I loved. For the first time in my life, I felt like an athlete. I imagined sportscasters on ESPN announcing, “Bellingham trail boy Mike McQuaide is scheduled to have an MRI on Thursday with surgery, if necessary, scheduled for Friday. He could be out three to six weeks, but doctors say he should return 100 percent.” I could be running again in three weeks! Yippee!
Thing is, that’s ESPN. My real-life MRI wouldn’t take place for three-and-a-half weeks, the results wouldn’t be available for a few days after that, and if I needed surgery, it could be months from now!
In early January, a few days after lying perfectly still while the giant donut-shaped MRI machine went “ZOINKA-ZOINKA-ZOINKA!” and “CHUNGA-CHUNGA-CHUNGA” and “DUHRUBA-DUHRUBA-DUHRUBA!” at decibel levels that’d be good training if I ever wanted to try for Metallica, I found out that—guess what—Ted was right. I had a tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. Not a major affair but if I wanted to run again—even to just chase my son around the yard—I’d need surgery.
The meniscus is like a cushioning pad between the shinbone and the thighbone. If you imagine the meniscus as a miniature pizza it’s the crust part that does most of the cushioning. My tear was not on the crust but on the inside part of the pizza. You fix it with arthroscopic surgery, an outpatient affair wherein the surgeon, using his tiny tools, goes in and snips out the offending nasties. I was bummed about needing surgery, but there were benefits to having such an exotic, Latin-ish sounding affliction. I could say to my wife, “Honey, I’d love to climb that ladder and clean out the muck that’s clogging the gutters and dripping down the side of the house, but I have a torn medial meniscus, the posterior horn to be exact.”
Next, it was on to meet the surgeon, Dr. Michael Gannon. He explained what he’d be doing and I nodded thoughtfully as if it didn’t really gross me out. He gave me the option of staying alert and watching the operation on a monitor to which I pretended to be foreign and unable to understand English. So, I was going under the knife. For a scaredy cat like me, it was daunting, but I steeled myself with the knowledge that afterward, I’d get to live for a few days in a glorious Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds painkiller haze. That I’d be waited on hand and foot by my wife and friends and whomever else whose sympathy buttons I could press.
But it didn’t turn out that way. Surgery went smoothly all right, but the post-surgery nuclear pain bomb I was told to expect never detonated. So I couldn’t justify the painkillers, which didn’t really do anything except give me the jimmy legs when I tried to sleep.
I was off crutches the next day, taking walks around the neighborhood in three days, and did my first kinda-run, kinda-shuffle in a week. It was amazing! The pain was completely gone, like a thorn that had been removed. Once again, Righty and I were the best of pals! But May was the real test: I finished the Sunflower Iron Event, a 21.5-mile trail running race from Mazama to Twisp one weekend, the 100-mile Skagit Spring Class bike ride the next, and two weeks later the Wuhoo! Urban Adventure Race in Tacoma. Righty performed admirably. So did Lefty for that matter. Best yet, I earned the right to annoy my friends by saying I did these things just three months after knee surgery.
Now that I’m running again, the world once more seems full of possibility. Summer’s just around the corner and I almost can’t help but feel like I’m 15 again. The only bummer is now I have no excuse for not climbing that ladder and cleaning out the muck that’s clogging the gutters and dripping down the side of the house.Though now that I look at it, my left knee looks a little swollen. Better not chance it.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
There I was at the Mount Baker Ski Area, midway through my first intro snowboarding lesson, a frustrated 35-year-old sitting in the snow with a cold wet butt. Defeated. Discouraged. Depressed. It just wasn’t coming to me.
My lesson, so far, had consisted of two parts. One, me standing on my board for maybe three seconds only to catch an edge and be slammed to the ground with roughly the same force as Wile E. Coyote getting run over by a Mack truck. Two, me sitting on the cold wet snow waiting my turn to stand on my board for maybe three seconds only to catch an edge and be slammed to the ground with roughly the same force as Wile E. Coyote getting run over by a Mack truck.
It was during the sitting part that I came to a disturbing realization: I’m destined to live out my days as one who has never mastered the art of sliding downhill on snow. Raised in New Jersey, I hadn’t grown up a downhiller and, given my unintentionally hilarious past attempts at learning to ski, it didn’t look like I would ever become one.
Yes folks, that was me, several winters ago—a frozen-butted loser sprawled in the snow.
But fast-forward about 18 months from that intro lesson and there I am once again sitting in the snow, but this time I’m at the summit of 12,276-foot Mount Adams. And in moment, I’ll kick off on an otherworldly, righteous-as-heck, 6,000-vertical-foot cruise down the south side of Washington’s second-highest mountain. This, just a couple months after snowboarding down the south side of Mount St. Helens.
How did I turn it around? I put my best foot forward, that’s how.
Back to that first lesson. While being fitted for a snowboard and boots at the rental shop, I was asked whether I was regular (left foot forward)—like most riders—or goofy foot (right foot forward). I’d never skateboarded much and had nothing to compare snowboarding’s sideways stance with except for a batting stance in baseball, of which I’d played tons. Though I throw righty, I bat lefty, with my right foot forward toward the pitcher so it made sense to me that I’d snowboard the same way—right foot forward. That meant I was goofy foot; I loved the way that sounded.
Grabbing my rental board and heading out to the snow, I was psyched. I imagined how different my life was about to become. I was now a snowboarder. (A goofy-foot one at that!) I felt like a rebel. Like I should get a few tats, start cranking Green Day and The Offspring out of my Camry, and wearing a wool toque pulled down low over my ears, even indoors when I’m toasty warm.
Then came my lesson and my breath-taking ineptitude, not to mention the day-after pains, bruises and concussion-bomb headache. I hurt in such weird and unrelated places—forearms, neck, heels, butt, and abdominal muscles—that I woke up thinking I must be coming down with polio. I was OK, though, as long as I didn’t sit, stand or lay down.
A month later, I tried another lesson, with the same results. Only this time, I felt really defeated, really discouraged, and really depressed. So I hung it up. It was not meant to be. But that was OK. At least I wouldn’t have to wear a toque all the time, which was a relief because wool makes my head itch.
Still … it stuck in my craw that I’d go to my grave a non-downhiller. Especially when I’d see some tattooed, Green Day-cranking slacker effortlessly carve a graceful line of swooshing arcs down a mountainside. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to jump or flip or spin or reach down and grab my board when I’m in mid-air as if I just spotted a nickel on the deck of my board and reached down to pick it up. I just wanted that sensation of floating down the mountain on a Magic Carpet.
So … about five months after my second lesson, my wife, Jen, and I schlepped our way up to Whistler for Memorial Day weekend. No lesson. Just me and the mountain. Again I rented a board but with a twist. Maybe, I’d begun to think since my last lesson, I wasn’t goofy foot after all. Maybe, perhaps, I was just a regular guy, regular footed.
It was the Aha! moment of all Aha! moments. Right away, I could stay up without catching an edge and getting body slammed to the snow. I could stop when I wanted to, and even begin linking turns. I had control. With each run down the mountain—Jen, a skier from way back, shouting encouragement as she skied alongside—I was exponentially better than the previous one.
I linked one, then two, then four turns in a row. It was the best feeling in the world! The closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I can fly. At last, I understood the overuse of the word “freedom” in all the Warren Miller movies.
Thing is, it was Memorial Day weekend. The end of May. Except for Whistler—three hours away from my Bellingham home and not exactly the discount-house of ski areas—the season was over. It’d be six more months until I could fly down the slopes again.
No problem. I spent the summer and fall loitering in the snowboard magazine sections at bookstores, ogling gear at snowboard shops, and renting how-to videos. On our living room floor, I practiced what they preached on a cheap board I picked up at an end-of-season sale.
One video, despite being shot in the late ‘80s and featuring snowboard instructors in alarming neon pink and lime snowsuits, offered a newbie tip I used again and again the following winter.
If you want to turn left, with your lead hand (left for regular; right for goofy-foot) pretend to dribble a basketball on the left side of the board. If you want to turn right, pretend to dribble on the right side. (Again with your lead hand.) Assuming you’re in the correct snowboard stance—back straight, knees bent—as you turn to dribble, your hips and knees will guide you through the turn.
That winter, at ski areas from Crystal Mountain to Mount Baker, I was the one who could be seen flying down the hills looking like some nut who thought he was Magic Johnson leading a fast break. The following spring and summer, I dribbled my way down the south sides of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.
These days, I generally pretend-dribble only on my first couple runs of the year while I get my snowboarding legs back. I haven’t been out yet this season, so if in the next couple weeks you see a boarder dribbling air balls, don’t be alarmed. It’s just me.
Feel free to wave and say hi. I’d wave back, but I’ll be too busy dribbling.