Archive for January, 2021

IN THE ZONE

January 31, 2021

We waited 35 minutes at the 12 mile mark for the rest of the group to catch up. By then, the two of us had had lunch, stiffened up, I had hiked back a quarter mile looking for the others, and we still had to finish the last 14 miles of the McKenzie River National Scenic Trail.  We waited earlier 15 minutes at the 3 mile mark. Unless we got permission from the hike leader, it was going to be a long day with more waiting to hike the 26+ mile trail. I had been told we would be hiking at 3 mph, but the leader invited a friend who was still recovering from a leg injury, and there were others that were not hiking anywhere near that speed.

I convinced my partner to ask if we could go on ahead, and we got permission.  There was a climb out from where we ate lunch, and at first, I was slow, but then I got warmed up, and before long, I was in cruise mode.  I’m not a sprinter. I like endurance activities, and once I find my zone, I can hold my speed for a long time.  We started cranking out a mile every 17 minutes, and at the 18 mile mark, took a break for 5 minutes by the clock. I emptied my boots of some dirt, drank some water, had something to eat, and put my boots back on. Off we went, along the beautiful free running McKenzie River to our left.  

McKenzie River
Blue Pool. The water goes underground and comes out here, but in heavy snow years, the water floods the woods about a mile away and comes over the part at 11 o’clock like a waterfall. This is a third of the way.

I wasn’t stiff, and we continued making good time.  We hit that special moment when the odometer reads “20.00,” and took another break at 22 miles, doing the same routine we did earlier. Seventeen minutes later, I knew the end was coming, an hour more, maybe, then a half hour, a quarter hour. There was the highway nearby, the trail left the river and paralleled the highway at the end. I was there, along the road, and I was done. I felt fine. I could have done 30 miles that day. Five minutes later, my partner finished.

Lighter than a GPS, and every gram carried matters.
End of the trail.

That’s being in the zone.  I would do the hike a year later with a faster group, but one person took videos to post on his Facebook page, costing us 20 minutes of prime hiking time when it was still cool, on a day which we knew would be much hotter.  One woman had diarrhea, another developed a blister, and I hiked four miles in atrial fibrillation, which was an interesting experience.  I converted to normal rhythm at lunch. It took us almost nine hours.

                        * * *

I was at an elementary school in Oro Valley, Arizona, 30 years ago, shooting free throws. I was by myself and had to fetch the ball, so I reset each time I shot. I hit two in a row, then 5.  OK, not bad.  I dribbled once, held the ball, flexed my legs, then shot. Six.  A short while later, 10.  Hmmm.  Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish, and I was at 15, finally ending my streak at 20 in a row.  It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t miss, and I wasn’t getting any gifts, like bouncing off the back iron 5 feet in the air and dropping straight through.  Normally, I was a 65% free throw shooter. Assuming that, a streak of 20 in a row had an expected value of 1 in 5000 tries. If I shot 20 five times every day, which I didn’t, maybe once in 3 years I could do this.

Mind you, I know there is a considerable body of evidence to say the hot hand really doesn’t exist, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. There are days where difficult tasks don’t seem difficult, where everything comes easy. That day, I was beyond any performance limits I knew of. I was in the zone. Everything clicked, and I shot like I never had before…or ever would do again. 

* * *

Nearly 30 years before that, I swam the 400 free in a high school meet—that would be 400 yards—and I was ahead. Way ahead. I felt like I could swim forever.  I won the race by 35 yards with the best time I ever had—5:19.3. The fact that I remember that race, never forgot my time, slow as it is today, among all the races I did, and even the ones I won, is testimony to the power of the feeling. I was in the zone. A team member told me it looked like I wasn’t even working.  But let’s be real: the national record for 500 yds, 25 yd length pool, is 1 minute 12 seconds faster than I swam 400 yds. 

* * *

I ran only one marathon, with three goals—to finish, to finish without stopping, and to finish without stopping or walking.  I did all three. My time was not particularly stellar—3:25.48—but again, I remember it exactly.  What else I remembered about the race was that 5 miles into it, I actually felt I was sitting in a car watching the scenery go by.  I was detached from all the effort my body was going through.  At 5 miles, I was just getting started, for whatever my athletic skills are, and they don’t amount to a lot, I do well at distance.  Indeed, my time for the second 10 miles—77 minutes—was exactly the same as it was for the first 10.

* * *

In 2002, I rode the 160 mile Tour of Cochise County, the second longest of the four rides the Perimeter Bicycle Association of America sponsors (the longest was 252 miles) that day. I was with a group of five, and we had to have our own Sag support. For the first 70-80 miles, much was flat with some downhill, and I stayed in the back drafting off the sprinters.  I remember going through Tombstone upwards of 25 mph, drafting, and I was barely turning the pedals. 

After lunch, at about 100 miles, I was doing fine, “just warmed up,” I told others. There was almost no wind, a gift in Cochise County. One of the sprinters went to the front, seemed to be tired, so I said, “pull over if you wish.”  He immediately pulled over.  Two of us took over at the front, the sprinters drafted, and I did two-thirds of the pulling. I stomped out the cadence, over and over again, two miles at a crack, 540 strokes, then sat in the pack for a mile, before going back out to pull.  I was in the zone, and it took us 8 hours to do the ride, the best single ride I ever did or will do.

* * *

On skis, some days I could hit a mogul field and pound myself down one after another—air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly, air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly,…down the bumps, until I finished or stopped because of exhaustion, and shook my fist in the air.  That’s being in the zone. It’s a dopamine high, receptors reacting, a sense of everything working.

I was in the zone once on a portage, when I was 100 yards on the trail and didn’t remember putting the canoe on my head.  I knew it the other day, when I took over the power brusher duties, wanting to finish the trail, and didn’t stop until I did. I know it on hikes, when I say to myself, “this is a special day out here,” when I am covering ground and thoroughly enjoying myself. 

I can’t predict when I will be in the zone:  the day before and the day after, nothing is special. But for a short time or a day, a glorious day, everything is in sync, in tune, and alive.

These guys are for real. They have the right genes, eat right, train right, but only two of them will go to the Olympics, Men’s 3000 m steeplechase, US Olympic Trials, Eugene, Oregon, June 2012. I’ve seen performances here that for one day a specific individual was in the zone, smashing his personal best, and sometimes going to the Olympics. It’s exciting.

STARTER CORD

January 24, 2021

I ran a Stihl hedge trimmer the other day, but rather than trim hedges in neighborhoods, we had about 5.2 miles of the South Willamette Trail in the Willamette National Forest to brush out.  The trail connects the Hardesty Mountain trail with Eula Ridge Trail, and it is possible to make a full 14 mile loop. I’ve hiked that loop several times by myself, led a hike called “Hardesty XX Black Diamond,” and tried to run it once, to see if I could make the Hardesty Hard Core race cut off time in 4 hours.  I hiked it in 4 1/2 with a pack and felt I could probably break 4 hours, but was so wasted I asked myself why would I want to?  Age is such a nice thing sometimes.  Hardesty climbs 1000+ meters or 3500 feet in a few miles; Eula Ridge is one of the steepest climbs or descents I’ve seen in Oregon.  South Willamette is easy by comparison, with gentle ups and downs in a lovely forest. 

It is muddy out in the woods during the wet season, and streams are on the trail where in summer one would think water had never been. The first day we were out there, assignments were divvied up, and I took the rake and stayed in the back, clearing the trail, well behind the others who were doing the actual trimming with the 7 foot long Stihl whackers. I removed cut sword fern, Salal, and Oregon grape, along with a few small but difficult to remove vine maples that were encroaching on the trail.  Vine maples are nature’s way of getting back at trail clearers.

Small stream flooding South Willamette Trail. We turned it into a crossing.

I thought back 65 years to Crow Lake, Ontario, and later the Finger Lakes of New York, and the 5 hp green outboard (the 5 was in red) with “Johnson” blazed on it, the first power machine I learned to use. I have to laugh when country music singers talk about their “old days” first motor as a 40 horse or Alan Jackson’s ’75 Johnson with an electric choke. They are soooo young. Forty horse? Electric what? This Johnson had a cylindrical shaped “primer” that we pushed down a few times and could turn, although I never knew what the numbers meant and never did turn it. My father didn’t, so I didn’t. The gas tank was in the back on top. You didn’t have an external one. Those came later.  It was a 2 cycle engine, and for years I thought we had to add oil to gasoline to run a motor, one quart of oil per gallon of gas.  I still remember using a can opener on the oil can.  Oil first, not last. Fortunately, I never did that to a car.  I cringe today when I think of the pollution.

Blindfold me, put me in the stern with that motor hanging off the transom, and I could start it right now. Drop the 2-bladed green prop into the water.  Turn the brass four cross knob on the left bottom counterclockwise to start the fuel flow.  I can hear it running.  Then open the top on the fuel line on the back top of the motor, hearing the sound of escaping vapor for a couple of seconds. Then push the silver clutch on the right side out like an ear, which it looked like, move the throttle from off to start, which had an automatic stop. I always moved the throttle up to the automatic stop. I never once started it without the clutch in place.  I can still hear every sound as I describe it, the trickle, the psssst, the clunk of the clutch, the throttle banging against the stop, the sound of the primer as I pushed it down a few times—clunk, clunk… clunk, clunk…clank.  Then grab the handle on the right front side of the motor, holding the steering handle with the other hand, and pull.  Usually on the second or third pull, if that, it would start, with a cloud of smoke. Move the throttle to the left a couple of inches to slow, then slowly push the clutch back flush with the motor. Reverse gear was turning the motor in a circle, before letting in the clutch.  When I was ready to go, I gradually advanced the throttle. I knew every sound of that Johnson.  When I was 12, I used the boat, a 14 foot plywood cruiser called “Osprey,” to deliver the Rochester Sunday paper along 3 miles of the west shore of Honeoye Lake, so I didn’t have to stash papers along the road.  Newspaper delivery by boat—what a ball, and I made good money, too. Hard to believe it was sixty years ago this summer.

I hauled the 7 foot long orange Stihl brusher about a mile west on the trail that we had worked the previous week, trying to avoid trees, ground, rocks, and not fall.  When I got to where we needed to work, I put in my ear plugs, checked the vest on that would connect me to it, and got down next to the motor.  What was fascinating, now that I think about it, was that nobody told me what to do. They either thought I had done this or my confidence at running a motor again was infectious. It had only been 20 years since I last used a lawnmower.  Same approach.  Put on the choke, hit the plastic primer a few times with the fuel visible underneath, then pull the cord.  It pulled really nicely. After 4 or 5 pulls, it started right up. I moved the choke to off and was ready to go.  I lifted the machine up, attached my harness to it, so the engine was to my right and the 7 foot connector to the blade was to my left. Then I hit the throttle a couple of times, mostly because I liked doing that, and started cutting. The ferns were the most common, and the plethora of them along the trail meant that we made slow progress. The first time I used the brusher, we had two guys out with them; each did one side of the trail. That ends up quickly making one side of the body sore from always leaning a certain way.  I liked trimming both sides of the trail with a swinging motion, where I cut the throttle going across, and quickly gave it gas as I leaned into another fern clump, then letting go as I was almost finished.  This reduced the noise and I think saved fuel.  I saw a lot of guys who went full out until it ran out of gas.  Of course, the sooner it ran out, the sooner one could take a break or maybe persuade someone else to run it.

The next time out, someone actually asked me how to start it and how to adjust the blade. Wow. I felt like I should be wearing Stihl orange with the appropriate ball cap. There is a trick to setting the blade, which I figured out when I was off by myself with the beast and my macho self—such as it is at 72—didn’t want anybody to know I didn’t know how to do it.  There was a little cylinder which I tried to turn and push, with no results, so I then pulled, which was the last possible thing physics would allow.  That was the trick. The cylinder opened up, I could reset the blade at another angle, and then reset the cylinder.  Nice.

I tried to start the Stihl while I was strapped to it, but I couldn’t get enough purchase to do it.  I also checked the fuel after about 45 minutes.  It gave me a chance to take a break, and as I had long ago learned with the Johnson, if one doesn’t run the motor until the fuel tank is completely empty, it is a lot easier to start it up afterwards.  The last day out there, I ran it about three hours with one refill. The crew leader finally stopped me. He said he kept waiting until it ran out of fuel and then got impatient.  I laughed.

More fun than raking.  I’ll get the quiet when I hike the trail.

Stihl trimmer with guard over the cutting blade, which is folded over. The hand throttle is easily seen on the handle.
Author running the beast, a bit close to his pack.

Within six months, this growth will be back. If trails are allowed to go three years without being maintained, the blowdowns will make them impassable, and they will rapidly disappear. It’s a fine line as to what should be maintained and what is better off reverting to what it was. But then nobody would know how special it is. That’s another fine line.

FINDING MORE STRENGTH…AND THE HAMMER

January 19, 2021

I stopped briefly to think about whether I should turn around.  I was checking the winter snowshoe trail for which I am responsible and wondered if I had bitten off more trail than I could chew—or snowshoe.  I hike Tait’s Trail in the Cascades in fall and snowshoe it in winter. It is like two different trails, and the past 2 years I have only taken the more heavily traveled part of the loop that goes close to the cliff overlooking the Rosary Lakes below.  I was therefore less familiar with the inner loop, which is where I was, and thought the whole loop was a mile, when in fact it was 2.1, an error I should not have made.

Not surprisingly, where I was on the GPS showed considerable distance left to get to the overlook where I wanted to have lunch.  The wet snow was 18 inches deep (45 cm), and I had already traveled over 4 miles (6.5 km) and climbed 1300 feet (390 m).  The last mile and a half (2.5 km) I had been breaking trail. I still had to get back to the car; turning back now would be a little easier walking in my own tracks and going downhill.  But the distance wasn’t going to be much less. My legs were fatigued, and I was a little winded, expected, but not quite to this extent. I was 6000 feet (1800 m) above where I had awoken.

I decided to trudge on, now aware that caution lights were flickering in my mind, saying “you aren’t in trouble…yet,” the verb trudge being appropriate to the lift, step, drop, lift, step, drop I was doing, for 50 steps, maybe 75, but definitely not 100, before I took a breather. The trail was easy enough to follow, but rest of the loop was likely untracked.  I made a snap decision to go cross country, to cross a chord of the circle, mostly because I had done it in autumn when I had been on the trail wanting to mark a log blocking the trail to be cut out.  Then, a quarter of a mile cross-country was no big deal and saved some time. I even saw a few elk.  Today, it would be more difficult, but it would still save maybe 3/8 of a mile.

The cross-country route was slow, but flat, there weren’t many trees, and I found the trail on the other side easily with a welcome set of old ski tracks, not packed snow, but requiring less work. Fifteen minutes later, I was seated on a snowy log eating lunch, immediately putting my rain top back on because I knew I would rapidly cool.  I felt old, like I didn’t have it the way I used to. This was one difficult snowshoe.

When the ski area is closed, it is possible to go up the lowest trail (looking here) and get directly to Tait’s. In an emergency, coming back down from Tait’s through the ski area saves a good deal of time, and it is possible to slide as well.

But, when I thought about it a little more, I had been lulled into a sense of being in better shape on my first two snowshoes out this winter. Both were just over 10 miles (16 km), a distance I hadn’t done for the first three years I snowshoed and thought a difficult goal in itself.  This year, I did those two 10 miles+ without difficulty.  The second had a lot of climbing, and I still did well.  But there was a catch: in both, the trail was broken, and that makes a huge difference on snowshoes or skis. A single set of tracks in which to walk is a great help. 

The third time out, I did almost eleven miles, but I had to climb in unbroken snow to Maiden Peak Shelter, a trudge as well, again at altitude, and half way back, I was ready for the end three miles before I got there. Unbroken trail requires more time and wisely fewer miles, and the reason I hadn’t done long snowshoes the first couple of years were that the trails were often unbroken. Twice in one year, I was breaking trail in 2-3 feet of snow, and it was exhausting.  In addition, today I was taking time checking diamond markers, placing new ones, and moving others up on the trees.  That required gloves off, using a hammer, nails, and getting the diamond properly placed.  It was more work.

I had hoped to do the larger loop from Tait’s around to and back down around the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), to Rosary Lakes and Willamette Pass, about ten miles total.  I know the way, and I also knew that I did not have the strength to do it. I needed to get back down, slowly if necessary, but now. I finished lunch and started heading back towards the Tie Trail that led directly to the PCT. I had just started down the Tie Trail when I noticed I no longer had the hammer I was using to pound in the nails. Somewhere in that five hundred yard stretch after lunch, it had fallen out. I was carrying a back pack and a small tool pack which the hammer was easily accessible to me, but also easily able to fall out.  I stopped, looked uphill at a possible “short cut” through the woods to where it might have been, looked at the deep snow, and decided to leave it. Downhill in my recent tracks was far easier, I had already dealt with the diamonds, and while the PCT to the trailhead was still long, it was straightforward. I reached the car in mid-afternoon, after about nine miles (14 km).  

A week later, I went back to do the other part of the loop, in the opposite direction. It had not snowed and was warmer; the snow was firmer, I could stand on it without sinking, and there were more tracks.  I reached the main climb that goes to Maiden Shelter, Tait’s and the ski area, started pulling diamond markers out of trees and placing them higher. The snow was “fast,” I was carrying a mallet and diamonds, pliers in my pocket to pull out nails, so that replacing diamonds was a rest break as well as work.  While I got to the same lunch spot at the same time, I was not nearly as tired. I had only had to break trail over a couple hundred yards, and it was not as difficult as the prior week. 

After lunch, I started to head on an angle away from the cliffs gradually towards the trail that still had my faint tracks.  Then I changed my mind and headed directly to the trail. There in the middle was the hammer I had lost, frozen into the snow. It would have been a long walk back up to find it the week before. I took the same route down the Tie Trail, now covered by large clumps of snow which had fallen off the trees. I was glad I hadn’t gone up this way; coming down was far easier. I felt fine, if appropriately tired when I got to the car, after ten miles. Tait’s is done for this year, unless I decide to lead a snowshoe there.  I have a few places next fall where I may add some more diamonds.

I will take better care of the hammer.