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.

With about two miles to the finish—but 700 more feet to climb—this pack of five starts to disperse, and for a moment I’m in sole possession of second place. (The eventual winner got away so it’s become a battle for runner-up.) John’s close, real close, but I’m not turning around. If I do, I just know it will have the opposite effect of Lance’s L'Alpe d'Huez “look” of 2001; I’ll stay put while all behind zoom past me as if their bikes suddenly had jet engines.

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

Espresso Love Lost

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.

Knee Surgery

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.