Sunday, March 17, 2013

Crazy Desert Trail Race

Last time, I waxed on (and on, til the break of dawn) about how important the city of San Angelo is to me. As promised, this is the recap of an outstanding weekend in the Concho Valley, which included camping and spotting wildlife, the prospect of cycling for hours on endless FM roads and my first trail race, the Crazy Desert Trail Race at San Angelo State Park.

Just outside of Abilene on Highway 277, you'll encounter dozens of wind turbines. It's the first interesting thing you'll see after three hours of driving the long, boring stretch of Interstate 20 toward Lene Town. 

TPG and I hit the road Friday so we would have ample time to make the 4-plus hour trip to Angelo, set up our campsite and get some rest so I would be ready for the race and she would be in top spectathlete form. Funny how plans don't always work out!

You never know what you might encounter while hiking. San Angelo doesn't like to boast about it, but it has a bone-
dry lake you can walk into, which is what we did. When I lived in the city, O.C. Fisher Reservoir still had some water. As you can see (and watch in this dramatic video), it's returned to its natural state.

See, we like primitive camping. It affords us the tranquility you can't find in a big city like Dallas; and it puts us closer to all the wildlife. Packed to the brim backpacks, tent, sleeping bag and some comfy chairs — that's a nice setup for us. And, ideally, that setup is located a decent hike away from RVs and paved roads. On the South Side of SASP (the more scenic side, IMHO), that kind of camping isn't really available. Our "primitive" spot had a picnic table, fire ring and parking space. No hiking required, but being close to the car was convenient.

Sunrise in beautiful West Central Texas. 

You can never predict the weather for a race day or weekend camping. We take whatever may come. The forecast showed significant wind (20-30 mph) and a good chance of thunderstorms. The storms didn't come, but the strong winds were constant reminders that we were in a different environment. In a word: dusty. Everything was covered with dust: the car, tent (even inside; the rainfly isn't called a dust fly for a reason) and us. We didn't sleep well at all — the wind howled and whipped the tent's rainfly like a tethered kite all night. At times, we were certain the tent would go airborne.

I learned that trail races are much more laid back than their road counterparts. Everyone just hung out. Nerves were at a minimum. Oh, and this is what passes for a starting line. It's questionable when the race director says, "The start line is between those two trees. The finish line, which was marked, also was confusing.

Doing the prerace picture thing. And hey,
check out the lucky number!!!
So, with about a cumulative two hours of sleep, we headed to the North Side of the park where the race was staged. As mentioned in that earlier blog post about Angelo, I spent significant time riding these trails during 2003-2005. I will ride for hours, without goals, set mileage or time. I'd just ride for the beauty of it. Eventually, I became a strong mountain biker, and even raced a bit. But I never ran on these trails. Back then, I couldn't think of anything less enjoyable than running. So while I entered the race knowing the trails like the back of my hand, I didn't know what my feet would think of them. But the trail wasn't the only thing that was familiar. I got to see a former colleague, Anthony, and his wife. Both are accomplished runners, cyclists and triathletes. Anthony and I also worked together at the San Angelo Standard-Times. We now work for municipalities, so you can imagine we had plenty to chat about (before the race and later over pizza at Cork & Pig Tavern).

The race started with the 50K runners, then the marathoners and then 30 minutes later the half-marathoners. As has become my (bad) habit, I started faster than I should have. The long first couple of miles of the course snaked through flat, twisty sections of dirt. Prickly pear and thorny trees fence in the singletrack. It's a sure bet something will snag you will running these trails.

The first challenge on the course was around mile three — the Big Hill. That's what it's called. It's a rocky, steep fire road that I used to punish myself trying to climb on a mountain bike. Running up it was no small feat either. Fortunately, after reaching the top, I knew there wouldn't be anything nearly as challenging (the course route excluded the famed Roller Coaster trail).

There were a few aid stations on the trail. By the time I reached the first at mile four, my handheld was nearing empty. The temperature quickly reached 60 degrees. That's not terribly warm, but the trail offers scant cover from the sun. By this point, I was now running at a comfortable pace, no longer in the lead pack, but situated near the front of the average runners. I was racing, but barely. I hadn't trained much, and my only goal was finishing in under two hours. I wanted to challenge myself, but more than anything, I wanted to have fun. I wanted to soak up the experience; I even ran without my iPod (which were allowed, surprisingly).

Chad Hirt Photography 
Just further photographic evidence why
I should always wear sunglasses during
a race.
During most of the race, I had plenty of time to think. There were plenty of racers on the trail, but there were only a couple of instances when someone was near me. As my feet reconnected with this dry, red-dirt playground, I saw familiar landmarks. Spots that were sandy 10 years ago were still very sandy. The crossing that has a small cattle guard likely surprised many runners, but its location was etched in my brain. Sections that I didn't consider hilly on a mountain bike proved to be challenging on foot. In fact, several stretches were quite hilly and rocky. I can see and feel the benefit of using trail-specific shoes that have rock plates. The wind was relentless, and I could taste the dirt collecting in my mouth. Delicious!

I stopped at every aid station to refill on water, even opting to eat a banana (I passed on the gooey brownies reserved for the 50Kers) and grab a second bottle of water at mile 9, just in case. Hands down, the volunteers at the aid stations were awesome. It was nice to see smiling, friendly people and hear their words of encouragement.

At mile 10, volunteers from the Army were stationed to track racers progress. I can't remember what they said, but I thanked them for their service and for volunteering. Seeing them reminded me that I need to get back in the (good) habit of volunteering at races.

I was on track to finish the race in less than two hours, and felt pretty good. I passed several runners in the last three miles, partly because they included hills, but mostly because people seemed to be dehydrated. By the time I reached the last half-mile, I could see the race area through the trees. More volunteers lined the turns that led to the overly complicated finish line.

Sprinting to the finish hurts so good. I didn't leave everything out on the trail, but I had a great race. *Unofficially finished in 1:58.
I'm not one to complain. The race was inexpensive, the course was marked well (white ribbon with orange polka dots), aid stations were properly placed for the distance and volunteers were friendly and helpful. But the finish line was confusing: The orange coned finishers chute had a "finish" sign on the first cones. That confused many runners. Even though volunteers and the race director yelled keep running, that didn't help tired/confused runners from stopping early. I didn't have a problem running all the way to the real finish line, but others did. Seems to me a banner over the actual finish line would have solved that problem.

*Worst of all, I apparently DNFed. Well, that is if you believe the race results. My watch said 1:58 when I crossed the finish line. A race doesn't have to have a chip timing system, but it really should have accurate race results. Judging by the comments on the Facebook page, I wasn't the only person who saw problems with the results (such as 50Kers marked as half-marathoners). When I finished, there was no one near me. The volunteers should have been able to look at the stopwatch, my bib and write down a finish time. It shouldn't be that difficult. I get that putting on a race isn't easy and entrusting volunteers with duties is part of it. I don't expect there to be a good post-race food option for vegetarians. But I do expect to have an accurate time for my race. It'd also be ideal if those results were divided by distance and finish time so racers could see how they fared against the competition. I don't think that's asking too much; it is, after all, a race.

With my first trail race in the books, TPG and I spent the rest of our weekend embracing our surroundings. Have you ever been to Prairie Dog Town. We have!

This part of the state park is actually new to me. I never went to the far south side because the bike trails didn't extend that far. But we were rewarded with three prairie dog sightings. We surmised that the two in the above picture were watch dogs keeping a mindful eye for predators (a hawk looking for them spared above the town minutes earlier). We also heard one of their friends barking on the other side of town. It's hard to describe the sound. You just have to hear it for yourself.  We also enjoyed seeing the biggest rabbits you'll ever see, a speedy chaparral (meep-meep), and hearing what I think were quails. We hustled along the trail to see them, but they outsmarted us on their home turf.

The second night was also restless, though my race helped me catch a few additional winks. It rained a bit, and the wind wasn't quite as bad overnight, However, it picked up again Sunday morning. Our plan was to ride for a three or four hours. As much as I wanted to show TPG some special spots on bike, we opted to not ride. But that doesn't mean our morning was a complete bust. Nope, we made oatmeal and coffee and tea with her new Jetboil Sumo stove. It's ingenious! Starting the day with something warm was so awesome. Burn bans in the state make fires verbotten. It's nice to have a lightweight packable option. Two thumbs up for this piece of camping gear and MaryJanes Farm's Organic Outrageous Oatback Oatmeal.

All things considered, it was an excellent weekend. I enjoyed seeing this city again, and showing TPG all the spots that I used to frequent — from the newspaper building and tattoo parlor, to my apartments and the wonderful trails. I can't say we'll go back often, but it's nice to know that we now share good memories of our time in my old "home."

Monday, March 11, 2013

San Angelo

Photo by TPG
Barbed wire and cacti: This prickly pair (har!) makes me smile. San Angelo's beauty doesn't reveal itself; you have to look for it. It's worth it.

Tonight, I flipped open my computer fully intending to write about my first trail race — last Saturday's Crazy Desert Trail Race in San Angelo. I had an outstanding time running the familiar trails of San Angelo State Park.

A fun, homecoming post about how great it was to return to the city and run a great race: That was the plan. But that post will have to wait because first I need to share a little history on how San Angelo became home.

I didn't grow up in San Angelo in the traditional meaning of the phrase. My formative years were spent in Garland; that's where I actually grew up. Then, in many ways, I delayed achieving adulthood during my college years at the University of Texas in Austin. But I did grow up (read: became an adult) —eventually — in San Angelo.

Truth be told, San Angelo wasn't my first choice (or third or 20th) for where I wanted to land straight out of college; but in the first months of 2002, there weren't a hell of a lot of good options for a young journalist. I spent the better part of four months unemployed in Austin — depressed that I had skills (good training through internships at a couple of papers and stints at the school paper) and no place to use them. I was choosy at first. I only really wanted to work at the Austin American-Statesman. I might have worked part-time there ... if I hadn't bombed the pre-employment editing test. Worst mistake: I nervously confused Mark David Chapman with Charles Whitman. Yikes!

When I realized that working at the Statesman wasn't ever going to happen, I started applying everywhere. And I mean everywhere. A few newspapers showed some interest. But only The Joplin (Mo.) Globe and the San Angelo Standard-Times invited me to visit their cities for interviews and subsequently extended formal offers of employment.

I won't bore you with all the details. Just some of them. There are more than three years of details. Way more years and details than I had anticipated. Highs and lows. But, what you must know is that I:

• Stopped smoking for good in San Angelo.
• Slipped into depression and drank way too much in San Angelo.
• Learned a lot about the newspaper industry and journalism in San Angelo.
• Started my path toward vegetarianism in San Angelo.
• Met some lifelong friends in San Angelo.
• Lost some friends in San Angelo.
• Got hooked on tattoos in San Angelo.
• Bought my first new car in San Angelo.
• Fell in love with mountain biking in San Angelo.
• Lost 50 pounds in San Angelo.

All of those details are what got me here. "Here" is a life that is packed with way more blessings than one person could ever hope for. It's a full life — one that's much more than just running, riding bikes and listening to music. It's a life in which I learn something new every day, do work that's fulfilling every day, improve who I am every day, thank God that I've found the love of my life every day, appreciate incredible friends and family every day, and much more.

It's a special place, all right. And this is a special life. It could have unfolded anywhere. But it didn't. It happened in a West Central Texas town that will be dear to me forever. I hope everyone finds his or her San Angelo.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Yakin', stressin', runnin' and illuminatin'

Courtesy of Rick Hose/Keep Irving Beautiful

About a month ago, Rick Hose with Keep Irving Beautiful invited me to join in a cleanup effort of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River on March 2. So that means boats, specifically, kayaks. See, TPG and I like to do cool and different things. We also respect the earth and do our part to be responsible stewards. So this was right up our alley. We had a damn good time.
• For a fine writeup of the day — Pigs, Paddles and Nutria Scat
• For a boatload (har) of photos — (at the end of the post)
• For more details about the day and KIB — KIB Volunteers Kick Off the Great American Cleanup 

Just the other day I got a stress ball. It lasted exactly one day. Good thing I am starting a three-day weekend. I am looking forward to running my first trail half-marathon (Crazy Desert) in one of my old "homes," San Angelo. There will be biking and camping, and catching up with friends, too. Most likely plenty of blog fodder.

That's the bike I bought. An Orbea Occam 29 H30. I love it, especially the color. It is reminiscent of my first legit MTB — a Spanish gold Trek 6700. I blogged all about the process of selecting the new sweet ride here, here and here. Right now, I am told it will be another 10 days until my bike arrives. Twice the dudes at Dallas Bikes Works have said I could get the black-frame Occam pronto, and twice I have said, "My bike is brown and gold." This wait will be worth it; however, if I hear "two more weeks again," I may consider another option.  This delay could drag on for much longer. Who knows. I sure hope it doesn't. Races are coming up, and my training is getting started.

Speaking of training, I went for my first night ride with the ultra-bright Gemini Duo light kit. Strapped to my helmet and pulping out only half of its 1400 lumens the trails at Rowlett Creek Preserve glow like daytime. Two petrified rabbits that crossed my beam can attest to the brightness. It's a whole new experience riding the trails at night. It's like you're going twice as fast; and since you can't see much in the periphery, it's not unlike being in a tunnel. It's a strange sensation, but one I dig. I am looking forward to improving my nocturnal bike-handling skills. Holler if you have any tips. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

More races, more gear — Part three

As mentioned in part one and part two, I have spent weeks searching for the perfect full-suspension 29er mountain bike for my upcoming races — Red River Riot (just-for-fun 120 miles of gravel grinding) and 24 Hours in the Canyon (test of endurance and my first fundraiser to kick cancer's ass).

What really made the following bikes the frontrunners was seeing them during a recent trip to Austin with TPG. ATX is the cycling hotspot in the state — bike lanes for commuters, trails aplenty for MTB riders and badass hills for roadies. And there are so many shops in the city. Some cater more to students and commuters, others serve elite riders and triathletes, and then there are those that are one-stop shops for all manner of cyclists.

Er'body knows about Mellow Johnny's bike shop in downtown Austin. It's a great shop. I don't want to take anything away from it. But my favorite shop in Austin is Bicycle Sport Shop. The headquarters location on South Lamar is huge and carries a gaggle of legit brands (Trek, Specialized, Santa Cruz, Salsa, Independent Fabrication, CervĂ©lo, Co-Motion, Surly, Niner).

BSS staffer Steele Taylor had all the answers I needed. I told him my cycling goals, and he dished out expert knowledge of the bikes BSS sells. He steered me toward (see what I did there?) a couple of bikes I was considering and steered me away from (I did it. Again!) a couple of others. If I lived in Austin, I would have test ridden and potentially bought a bike right then and there. But I don't, so I didn't; I didn't want to waste (any more of) the shop's time on a no-sale. Armed with excellent information, I knew there were two excellent full-suspension 29ers I needed to seek back home.

Trek Superfly 100 AL
This was the last bike I checked out at Bicycles Plus. I've ridden a few Trek models over the years. In fact, all of my mountain bikes have been Trek. I am brand loyal. I was pleased to hear from Steele and then the fellas at BP that Trek had improved its rear suspension and that Bontrager had stepped up its components in recent years (they used to be very cheap, low quality and the first items replaced on stock Treks). The Superfly is a nice machine. It bears MTB grandfather Gary Fisher's name and his former company's proprietary G2 Geometry. As is expected from the mega-huge brands (volume, it's all about volume), the part spec is dynamite (XT rear derailleur, SLX brakes, Fox suspension), and you can easily find them in stock. The color (because, yes, color does matter) is much sharper in person (great gray with hook-em burnt orange touches). Ultimately, I decided this just wasn't what I was looking for; it's a great ride, but it didn't feel like my bike. To make a comparison, the bike, to me, felt like a Chevy or Ford sedan — perfectly fine cars that get the job done. But I am looking for perfect, high-performance excellence that feels right to me.

Salsa Spearfish 2
This was the odds-on favorite when I first started my search. If the company's marketing means anything to you, this rig's made for endurance rides. And many a forum post backs up Salsa's claims. One thing to note about the Spearfish: It is elusive. A handful of shops carry them, but very few have them in stock because they sell so well. That's a good problem for them and a not-so-good problem for someone trying to track down a test ride. Fortunately, after calling several shops, I located a Spearfish at Oak Cliff Bicycle Company. Don't let the website fool you. This is a serious bike shop in the seriously hipster section of Dallas. You will find boutique bikes, retro rides, a shit-ton of single speeds and more fixies than you can shake a stick at in Oak Cliff. And most of their owners bought them at O.C.B.C. The bike I rode was owner Jeremy Ordaz's. I'll say it a gain: When a shop's owner will let you pedal his or her ride, you are dealing with a great shop.

How great is this bike for endurance rides? Ordaz rode it 350 miles across and 56,000 feet up Georgia (Trans North Georgia Bike Adventure, consider yourself on my list of to-do rides). My test ride was considerably shorter and less challenging. The Spearfish felt fine — comfy and capable, and it handled well, but it didn't seem as fast as the other bikes I had tested. I was sorta bummed because it was my favorite pre-test ride bike. That, and I liked O.C.B.C. — good people who love what they do, support cycling and have fun events (vegan options aways on their barbecue BarBikeQue grill). I am loyal to supportive shops that offer good gear and quality, knowledgable service — even if they don't have the best hours or aren't right down the street; I have written off shops that are snooty and offer crap customer service/repairs. But I couldn't buy a bike I didn't love. Sorta sadly, I didn't love the Spearfish.

So ... the search is over. And I bought a bike that I love. But it's on back order. My wait is about halfway over. I should have my new ride late this week or early next week. Check back then to see what I bought (if you've read all three posts, it shouldn't be a surprise) and to read some of my first-ride opinions.