Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Week of Highs and Lows...Temp Wise

I completely failed to achieve that sought after "balance" I talked about in my last blog entry. This past week, the balance" of being active, allowing time to "refuel," was elusive, and not at all present. But I am going to blame the weather.

I was confused about why I felt tired the past two days. I considered my activity level the first 8 days of February--Sunday to Sunday--and it made more sense. It was an extraordinary week, weather wise, and I took advantage of the highs and lows. I'm not sure I'll ever report about another week like this one.

Sunday, Feb 1 - 60 degrees
9am I didn't feel great
2:20pm did my first cross race--Cross My Heart Superbowl of Cyclocross Race by Proteus Bikes
Ridiculous fun(kudos to Jim Venttosa for putting on a great race) with mud, mud and more mud, interspersed with ice that hadn't melted yet. Short Sleeves and shorts.
4pm i was doubled over with abdomenal pain that lasted the next 12 hours(stomach flu?).

Mon, Feb 2 - 40 some degrees
3am pain subsided, finally slept
9m called in sick for the 3rd time in my life--hadn't eaten for 24 hrs--just before race.

Tues, Feb 3 - 30 some degrees
Weak from not eating, but on the mend.

Wed, Feb 4 - 25 degrees evening
6-8:30pm Night snow ride with the girls--trails alternated from snow to ice to mud to snow to more ice. Multiple falls for everyone, but god, what a blast. 3 packs of hand warmers...cold.

Thurs, Feb 5 - 25 degrees evening
7:30-10pm Snowboarding at Liberty with Jon and Josh. Not a stellar boarding performance, but much fun even with the icy slopes and cold blasts of wind on the lifts.

Fri, Feb 6 - 32 degrees evening
Legs a little tired. Jon and I went to art opening in Baltimore, then to comedy club. Great night, but didn't get back til late.

Sat, Feb 7 - 60 degrees
60 mile road ride from Frederick through Thurmont, Emmitsburg, Catoctin Furnace, to see all the covered bridges we could find. Gorgeous sunset...made it back just before dark. I had to ride hard. My single speed gear was a lot easier than Jon's fixed gear. It was getting dark, and I had no lights, so I pedaled as hard as I could.

Sun, Feb 8 - 60 degrees
24 mile rd ride(round trip). Jon, Kevin, Ken and I left from Kevin's house in Woodbine on scenic ride to Bike Swap in Westminster.

Hardly a week of balance. Two days of not being able to eat, and within 24 hrs I am pedaling through snow and ice covered trails in below zero temps. Maybe awareness is at least something...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Question of Balance

Strangely enough, at a party a few weeks ago, I had a big fight with a dear friend of mine. That is unusual for me, as I am pretty easy going, and rarely riled by opposing opinions; obviously, this hit close to home.

Jon, who was literally, and figuratively, in the middle of the argument, eventually smiled and slipped into the other room, either out of annoyance, or amusement. Either would have been valid.
photo by Todd Bauer

The argument escalated, and it was, of all things, about balance, regarding biking. I was "fighting" for the cause of keeping balance on things that are good, but can easily become "too much." He was "fighting" for the cause of pushing limits 'til you can't go any more, rather than presupposing what "can" happen. The discussion did not end well.

Neither of us was trying to convince the other; like most things that get us riled, we are trying to convince ourselves.

I believe that biking is a vehicle, nothing more, nothing less, for connecting. In its best form, biking is a means of connecting with friends, family, the environment, our community, or ourselves. In its opposite form, it is a means for distancing, or ignoring, all of the above. Those who seem to succeed do a constant re-appraisal, and balancing, between the two. We love the feeling of connection among like-minded people, but we also love the escape from the inherent difficulties of work and relationships. It's all about acknowledging and keeping track of where we are at any given time.

I was invited to join some friends on the slopes last night. I was still tired from our Wisp trip(away thurs-sun) and a stressful beginning of the work week. The relentless question of "balance" and wisdom flickered, ever so briefly, and I decided to override it and go. I am not a skilled snowboarder; and I am not endowed with wisdom when it comes to limits, so I honestly had no idea how this would turn out. I went anyway, aware of that.

My first run on a blue slope was a disaster: I simply could not relax enough to turn the snowboard. I was forcing it with my body, rather than my legs, and I mostly tumbled all the way down the slope. I knew I had made a big mistake in going. I was probably going to die, I thought.

On the next few runs, I relaxed and "remembered" how to board. It came easily, and I jumped on the black slopes that didn't have "bumps," and descended with ease and confidence; the steeper the slopes, the better I did.

I am thankful to Julie, Joe, Todd and Larry, who patiently waited while I missed 4 left turns in a row, even after repeated attempts to both guide and wait for me to join the group. Direction wise, I couldn't seem to focus.

I knew after the last run, that I had run a huge risk. Had I continued my bad runs down the slopes, would I have pulled back and taken a rest? Would I have acknowledged my limits and been ok with that? Or would I have pushed past them and gotten hurt? As hard as it is to admit, chances are I would have opted for the latter.

So my argument with my friend was, in fact, an argument with myself, trying to understand, and accept, that limits, and balance, are crucial. I'm not sure I was born with the genetics to intuitively "get" this, but I can certainly use my intellect to at least TRY to overrride it.

I am successful at this balance, maybe half the time. That's better than it used to be.

Like many of my mountain biking friends who share(either admittedly, or not) the same "pushing the limit" quality, I have been fortunate. I am alive, after many many risks, on the slopes or the trails or whereever.

Could I live differently? Yes and no. I'm certainly aware, when I want to be, of the "angel vs. devil" voice in my head that prompts action, or not. Maybe that, in and of itself, is progress. Only time will tell. But I had one hell of a time boarding last night. If I had listened to the warning in my head, I would have missed all of it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


The day was cruel and interminable. Still, the 12+ hours of "balls to the wall" work, without a break, felt familiar. It was not wholly unlike some 12+ hour races where I have ridden, and in the final hours, suffered, getting to the finish line; in this case, getting to the end of the end of the day was a big deal. It must be a skill set you learn, or adapt, or maybe, are born with, that teaches you how to cope. On both occasions, you rise, you go, and you hope for the best. If you believed in the worst, you would never get out of bed. Maybe that is how we trick ourselves into getting through--racing and life.

These final days of the college semester where I work are
always intense. Kilns need to be fired, classes need final exams,
final critiques, and parting words that inspire students to "go forth and
conquer" in life. The gallery never fails to produce an exhibit that calls for a dramatic opening and reception.

Today felt like the Iron Cross in October--the last "official" race I entered this season. It was a 62 mile cross bike race in Michaux State Park in PA. It took me 7 hours to complete, and I was nearly the last one to finish. It was the most painful, exhilarating, and silly race I have ever done, and even after experiencing a flat, unfixable brakes that I had to remove for each climb to maximize wheel spin, and taking a wrong turn that added 4-5 extra miles, I can still say that above all, I had fun.

My first race--the Leesburg Bakers Dozen this past April--was unintended. After taking nine months off from riding, it was meant as a
one time kick in the pants, an all night study in preparation for an exam-- the kind of learning you know is not going to stick with you longer than 24 hours. But it lit a bonfire under my ass.

The moment I stopped riding, nine months before, must have brought on a silent, and very unexciting, conception of sorts. It kicked off an incubation--some weird, slow re-emergence of that gut felt and undeniable connection for riding that I recognized the instant I got on a mountain bike years before.

Now, when I look back on the past months, starting in April, there were a ridiculous number of endurance races (7-13 hrs each), epic length rides and trips with friends. Each one became a thought, then a commitment, then a reality, with no grand plan.

I can honestly say that I never once "raced" this year. I paid entrance fees, I rode, I took pictures to document that my friends and I were indeed there. I credit Jon, who was a new friend at the time, for teaching me the beauty of "not training." I experienced no performance anxiety, or stress about needing to do well. I have no idea how many laps I did on the 12/24 hr races, or my times on the others. The mornings before the races I was feeling on fire with anticipation, which of course dwindled rapidly on the first climb of each day, but I continued with purpose, and some twisted sense of masochistic joy.

As an innately competitive, and goal driven person, my first year of racing some years ago was centered and purposeful. But I had a full time job (that I loved), and a house(that I hated, but still owned), and a full life(one that I had worked hard to build). Pinning any sense of identity on racing, as a new mountain biker with little time to devote to my new sport, was a doomed, but inevitable venture that carried with it a hard won set of lessons that eventually shaped my life.

That first year, I did well, but I was a sport racer in a very small field of women. As I started "training," I jumped forward, not only in race class,
but in expectations of myself & expectations I perceived from others. Riding became a chore, with goals and finish times and mileage concerns. In short, it became "not fun," and I lost a part of myself--the insanely adventurous part that experiences life deeply & purely--in the process.

I set out, very deliberately, to bring it back.

When I returned to biking, and my friends, this past spring, it was with a very clear intention: "Race, ride, whatever, but KEEP IT FUN." I had to define "fun" using very clear emotional boundaries, rather than the the traditional definition as "enjoyable, agreeable, and nice." It had to include an understanding that there would be some discomfort, as it would be difficult to ride solo or single speed solo or fixed gear for any length of time without a degree of pain. But subconsciously it made sense.

The only race I terminated due to its "unfun" status was the Cranky Monkey 12 Hrs of Quantico race, where I entered in the solo women's category--single speed. The race held emotional baggage from the year before, but more importantly, this year I was alone without fellow Outlaws.

The strange thing was that I knew lots of people at the race, and had plenty of friends with which to partner, cheer on and lean on, or drink with, but I felt very alone. They were parts of their own groups. This race was complicated for me; my teammates would have understood without explanation. On my last lap I realized something important--my independence sometimes diminished my ability to connect with those I cared about most. Riding for the wrong reason kept me apart; returning to riding for the right one opened a new place for deep, and unexpected, connections with my riding friends. I had deeply missed them.

12 hrs of Lodi, 24 hrs of Big Bear, and, most notably, the SM100, felt much like today. Each one opened with stress about the getting to the start on time. Each continued on, with intermittent exhaustion and 2nd and 3rd and 4th winds, as I tried to keep from looking at my watch--to allow the day to shape on its own. But each ended with the same emotions--relief, exhaustion, and a heightened sense of what it means to be alive.

On the way home today, this hellacious day, I stopped at Walmart for some things that I knew only Walmart would carry. This is saying a lot, as I loathe shopping there. I wish I could say I am informed enough to carry some educated or political resentment against the store as my reason, but my opinion is based on service. Waiting in line feels like waiting for my mutt Pointer to fetch a ball--it just ain't happening in this lifetime. I remain hopeful that Jon will elicit the coveted "fetching" response in hapless Roman, but I am not holding my breath.

But tonight, as I left Walmart, still bleary eyed from the day, I actually smiled to myself, and found myself walking towards the cheery bell wielding Salvation Army guy holding a dollar in my outstretched arm. This must have been prompted by some strange holiday spirit that pervaded the evening; I found what I needed, the service was expedient and the cashier had been friendly and helpful.

Pulling up to my townhouse, parking on my festively lit Frederick street, I thought to myself: if Walmart can actually deliver service on a hectic holiday evening, maybe Roman WILL fetch the ball next time. Maybe I will do another SM100 where I am not praying to the roadside lizards to take away my suffering. Maybe not.

But I do know I will work another day like this, and when the alarm goes off that morning, I will think of the ending of today, of all the finish lines I have crossed after days of grueling single track, and I will know that I will get through it, and it is what I am here to do.

It is tempting to lie and say that the understanding, and the belief in the goodness of those nine months was easy. Initially, I mourned what I perceived to be the loss of "time." No matter what you believe about the afterlife, I would imagine that most admit you have one "go-round" with this set of genetics, so you might as well make the best, of even the worst, of your genes. My genetics have led me to the extremes, both physical and emotional, and it is my job to find balance. While those nine months of healing may not have been exciting, they provided a solid foundation for moving forward.

No 100 mile races, no ridiculous commutes, no full moon road rides, no snow rides in the city, etc would have been possible without those quiet months. Does that make it all worth it? Without a doubt.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I used to think Baltimore was sexy and alive. Growing up in the northwest suburbs, my creative mother would take me to art galleries and festivals, and revisit my strong Bohemian roots on Fernley Ave, and the heart of the Czech community. As a young artist with no understanding of the word, or meaning, of "poseur," I was drawn to those who looked "different"--purple spiked hair, torn clothing, the "fuck you" look that warned the curious to quickly glance away. I had no tools to distinguish an act or a look from real conviction.

After 4 years of grad school, I returned to Baltimore as a bona fide "artist." I had worked full time in the Art Department where I got my mfa, and part of my job was to "chaperone" and coordinate workshops with "big name" artists--Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, David Leach, etc. --and to witness the evolution of budding artist talents, both at school, and within the DC area. Four years of witnessing brought an undeniable clarity--the soul-felt artist may, or may not, look the part. Years later, I would know the same thing about bikers.

Baltimore looked, and felt, different when I returned. I found my place in the art scene. Columbia to Baltimore became an easy drive. I knew the neighborhoods, knew where to go, knew where to park. But then, visiting friends in Fells Point, Patterson Park, and Canton, became depressing. Over and over, when I returned to my car after each visit, I found it defaced--windows broken, bags stolen, dashboards skewn with debris. Charm City was losing its enchantment, and slowly I stopped my ritualistic visits. It was getting expensive, and the city stressed me out. I stopped seeing goodness and life behind the chaos and the ruin and the history. It just looked broken.

That was years ago.

Baltimore, in the past few weeks, has started to embody complicated beauty again, thanks to revisiting the city via cross bike. Jon introduced me to the Gwynn Falls Trail, a manicured and extensive pathway that winds around and through some of the best and worst of Baltimore(mostly west?).

Today, we did a 40 mile sojourn that started in Elkridge and continued through the Patapsco State Park roads that eventually connect to the GFT. We visited "Hell House" and scrambled through the ruins of an old swimming pool, trashed by the most artistically advanced graffiti I have seen in some time.

Real life trains are the stuff of nightmares for me. After reading an article, years ago, about a Baltimore woman whose 21st birthday wish was to hop on a passing train with her friends, I have an intense and completely irrational fear of crossing railroad tracks and being whacked by an unexpected locomotive. The woman, witnessed by her group of slightly inebriated friends who gathered to celebrate her stunt, ran to a slowly passing train, grabbed a metal bar and attempted to hoist herself upward and over to safety. But she slipped, fell haplessly onto the tracks and was beheaded. I have never erased the horror of that image from my mind.

Still, I faced my fear by crossing the single lane bridge(the width of the traintrack) over the Patapsco. When I stumbled, and my leg fell through the rungs, I saw my bike shoe dangling over nothingness. If a train had come by in those moments of crossing, Jon would have seen a very different "me." He prepped me before crossing that if a train started coming I was to leap onto one of the three small platforms that jutted out over the river below. In my mind, I decided that if a train came, both my bike and I were heading for the water.

The 50 degree day turned cold, and felt wintery, because I had underdressed. There were winter smells, and the river looked intensely cold. But senses were pretty much locked on the visual. We passed historic ruins on the hillside and trash filled stream sections, with plastic bags arrested by fallen tree branches in the water, feeling like trapped & frozen halloween ghosts.

We stopped by the Carrie Murray Nature Center, just off the trail. We entered through the woods in the back of the property, so it felt deserted, surreal and cold when we arrived; the outdoor animal cages were empty, and I assumed it was long ago abandoned. But the door to the building was open, and inside it was warm, in temperature and in hospitality. Filled with rescued cold blooded creatures--snakes, iguanas, turtles--the rooms pulsated with heat, the staff was friendly, and it was a welcome respite from the outside.

Dickeysville, another stop off the trail, was equally surreal. Just past the "projects," a pristine, community of well manicured historic homes emerged. Each home was white--painted brick, siding, mortar. It was odd, and I felt as out of place, and nervous, as I did at the previous stop in a sketchy neighborhood that reminded me of The Wire.

We returned home 5 hours after we left. We had ridden at a reasonable pace, but the lure of off trail curiosities and adventures turned the trip into a day long affair. The day left me with strong visuals of sights passed, indelible feelings of highly contrasting neighborhoods, and a longing to return. My connection with my home town is emerging, still embryonic, but alive. I'm counting on future cross bike adventures--sans the worry about car breakins--to help me bring it full circle.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Morning Bliss

We "commuted" to the Patapsco trail maintenance in Baltimore--from Frederick. It seems an eternity ago, but it was only this morning. 5am arrived rudely. We scrambled to eat, to get our bikes together, and planted our tired asses on our saddles by 5:30am. We pedaled into a black, and very cold, morning.

Three hours, door to door--my house in downtown Frederick to Jon's place in Elridge--the ride felt effortless. Never have I been blessed with a tailwind--but this morning the winds were with us. Something about starting out in blackness, and riding into daylight-gave the ride a swiftness, and a cohesion, that was different. We didn't talk much. Usual pleasantries--acknowleging the sunrise--seemed pointless. The sun was emerging, as it always does, and we were there to witness it. But it had a profound effect on the ride.

It was ironic that we made it to trail maintenance on time, with a three hour bike commute, when on the previous Sunday's bike commute to Gambrill trail maintenance--just 8 miles(though half were a steep climb)--we thought we were half an hour late. It was the first time a daylight savings clock error had worked in my favor. The dread of arriving at the trail head, so late, turned to amusement, and then unwarranted pride; I had set my watch with the wrong time. We were 30 minutes early, and passed it off to those arriving as an intentional move on our part. With my perpetual tardiness, I knew I'd never get the chance to do that again.

It's now 10:30pm, Sunday night. I'm home, warm & still, feeling that same clarity, cohesion and rightness that I felt this morning on the bike as we pedaled towards the sun, on the rise, and peeled away the miles. I had never "biked" to a bike trail maintenance day; I missed out on a lot of opportunities, in many ways. The day was full, and ended with beer, food and friends. When we pedaled home, with the sun descending behind us this time, it felt as if the day had come full circle in a way that made me feel very much alive.