Monthly Archives: March 2015

Testing Our Limits

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A good friend of mine once told me that nearly all people are capable of much more than what they believe they can do.  And that, in fact, when challenged, most would actually be surprised by what they are physically able to do once they have been pushed to their very limit.

When it comes to most activities, people generally tend to stop when tired.  After all, exhaustion is generally an unpleasant experience for most, and has the potential to make an activity no longer enjoyable.  However, from time to time, life issues some kind of challenge that forces us to give everything we have, way beyond what we had been wanting to give.  Most of us have experienced that unexpectedly challenging assignment in college that forced us to “pull an all nighter”, or had to tend to someone they truly care about at a time when completely exhausted.  It is at these moments, when we completely drain ourselves, that we figure out the true boundary of what we are capable of.  And, for physical activities, such as cycling, it is when our bodies actually physically begin to give out on us, that we truly understand what we are capable of doing.

Heading into a new season, I decided it was time to challenge myself.  Monday, I had an entire day available with no prior engagements, so I decided to take on a ride that would potentially test the limits of my endurance at its current state; A bike ride from Denver to Castle Rock, and back, in one day.

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The first 30 miles of this trek is on the Cherry Creek trail, from Denver to the suburb of Parker.  Most of this trail is relatively flat.  A gradual upslope, combined with a few uphill segments, takes a rider from Denver’s 5280′ in elevation to Parker’s 5900′.  This part of the journey was not too terribly challenging.  In fact, in this segment, my biggest challenge was finding water to refill my water bottle.  I had assumed, for some reason, since it was already the end of March, and that there have already been 12 days with high temperatures of 70 or above, that the water fountains around the suburbs would be turned on for the spring.  I was wrong, and was quite thirsty and relieved to see this sign, indicating that although the water fountain was not operational, that the bathroom had available water.  You would be surprised how many suburban park bathrooms do not have running water.

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To get from Parker to Castle Rock, one must follow a road called Crawfoot Valley Road.  The road is quite luxurious for cyclists, with a shoulder wide enough for roughly two bikes.  In fact, it is labelled a bike lane for some parts of this eight mile stretch of road.  The first three miles, headed southwest from Parker, however, is a bit of a climb, and a deceptive one.  The climb is nowhere near as steep as one in the mountains, and one only climbs 500-600 feet.  But, it is one of those frustrating climbs where the road winds around a bit, and, with each turn, a cyclist will wonder whether or not they are approaching the apex only to see another uphill segment gradually appear as they approach.

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Once this road levels off, facing southwest, the ride becomes almost surreal.  To the left of the road, one can see Pike’s Peak, standing there all by its lonesome.  To the right, the mountains of the Front Range, due west of Denver appear.  Riding sort of directly at these mountains, with the vantage point of being up at roughly 6500 feet in elevation, I cannot help but take a deep breath and marvel at how wondrous the world can be sometimes.

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After just over 40 miles of cycling, I arrived at Castle Rock.  When I got to Castle Rock, I decided to add on a mini-hike to my day of activity.  After all, I spent almost three hours getting here, why wouldn’t I head up to this little rock structure- my destination!

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This is a fairly short hike, with stair-step features that indicate that it was designed primarily for tourists, and not hard-core hikers.  So, I did not feel too bad about adding this hike to my already exhausting daily itinerary.

After all, the return trip to Denver would be much easier, after the initial climb out of town on Crawfoot Valley Road, the rest of the trip would be more or less downhill, descending, overall, from an elevation of 6200′ at Castle Rock back to 5280′ at Denver.

That turned out to be wrong.  As I approached Parker, a northerly wind developed, and, although the wind itself was not too terribly strong (10-12 mph range), the gusts began to pick up and become more frequent.  It was here, peddling into the wind, that an already challenging ride became one where I ended up testing the limits of what my body can do.

There are three levels of tired.  First, there is just general tiredness, where we just feel like stopping.  Many people do indeed stop at this point.  However, those who stop at this first level of tiredness generally do not develop any further endurance.  Level two tired is where we begin to ache, or feel some level of pain.  At this point, it is typically recommended that one stop.  This is the level of tiredness I had expected out of Monday’s ride.  However, the gusty winds on the return trip brought my level of tiredness to the third level, the level in which you simply cannot go anymore.

Working to each level of tiredness achieves a different goal.  An activity that stops at level 1 tiredness maximizes our enjoyment of an activity.  An activity that stops at level 2 tiredness is most beneficial to our fitness.  When we push to level 3 tiredness, we achieve personal accomplishments, the kind that make us feel as if we are achieving something with our activities.

The key is, for almost anyone involved in any kind of physical activity, to find a balance between working to each of the three levels, as they feed off of each other.  The original, and ultimate purpose of any activity should be to have fun, but, for most, an activity become even more enjoyable when we improve, take on new challenges, and accomplish new things.  Much like a skier that starts out on the green slopes, moves up to the blues, then blacks, and finally extreme terrain, I am looking to take my bike out longer distances, and to places that were previously unreachable.  However, in order to plan out how to test my own personal limits, I first have to know where those limits are.  So, as much as I can be pissed off that this ride ended up being more difficult than expected due to the wind, the wind allowed me to actually measure my personal limit, so I can start the process of improving.

The End of a Season

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Last November, prior to the start of the 2014-2015 ski season, I attended a screening of Warren Miller’s No Turning Back.  The main part of this film is broken up into eight segments, each one featuring a different location around the world, and each one containing footage of extreme skiing or snowboarding interwoven into a storyline that describes the people and the culture around snow sports in that location.  This film’s primary impact is to get skiers and snowboarders excited about the upcoming season.  However, the introduction to this film actually contained a reminder that every ski season comes to an inevitable end.  A time lapse of a ski resort becoming progressively more green over time (during springtime) is shown while the narrator (of the introduction) compares skiing and ski season to “falling in love with someone you know is going to leave you in four months.”

Well, here in Colorado, that four month expiration date appears to be rapidly approaching.  On Friday (3/27), Vail ski resort, the largest in the state, was still being patronized by a significant number of snow sport enthusiasts.  However, signs everywhere are pointing towards the inevitable decline in the quality of the skiing that accompanies the transition from winter into spring.  Not the only recent day to feature temperatures exceeding 50F, sections of bare ground can be seen not only on the horizon, but also on many of the slopes themselves, particularly slopes that feature bumps on Vail’s back side.

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Increasingly, trails are either being signed to caution skiers of this variable terrain, or being closed off altogether.

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Conditions like these are often labelled “spring conditions”, a label that is both descript and non-discript at the same time.  Labels like “powder” and “groomed” are commonly used to describe the snow conditions on any given slope.  These two labels, amongst the most commonly used, provide a clear indication of what kind of snow a skier or snowboarder can expect to encounter.  When conditions are labeled as “spring conditions”, they are often quite variable.

Over the course of the day on Friday, I encountered all sorts of snow conditions.  There were parts with large clumps of snow, parts with hard packed snow, parts that were quite icy, and, of course parts that were very slushy.  I even managed to find a couple of spots with untouched new snow in the trees (I am not calling it “powder” as the snow is wet in variety, much like the snow one would regularly see in New York City).  I often encountered a significant variety of snow conditions while traversing a single ski trail.  Transitioning, often from hard packed to icy, and then to slushy, would cause sudden shifts in my weight distribution.  Being jerked, both forwards and backwards while skiing down the mountain almost made me feel as if I were at a rodeo.  Only, instead of being jerked around by a bull, angry that his reproductive region had been recently violated, I was being jerked around by what is labeled “spring conditions”.

Regardless of whether we ski, partake in some other form of activity, or just enjoy warmer weather, spring, and the conditions associated with it, do often jerk us around, much in the same way I was at Vail.  Springtime is not a slow and steady transition from winter’s chill to warmer weather.  It is often chaotic with wildly variant weather patterns that people in Oklahoma are unfortunately all too familiar with.

Sometimes, as is the case in the Northeastern U.S. this year, winter just seems to keep on going, maintaining it’s grip far longer than expected.  Those who eagerly anticipate spring’s warmth have a rough time with years like this one, as it almost feels as if nature is trying to torment them.  Other years are far more choppy.  In many parts of the country, this time of year can feature weeks that include both summer-like warmth, and snow, sometimes even within a day or two of each other.  It is not unheard of for an early spring warm period to trigger some to plant outdoors, only to have these plants killed by an unexpected hard freeze later in the year.

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Much like all other aspects of life, at the end of one season comes another one.  And, while the season to play in the snow is coming to an end, spring brings with it a whole new set of opportunities.  For those whose one and only love is skiing or snowboarding, the end of winter can feel very much like the narrator of No Turning Back described it; as having a feeling similar to having lost a love after four months.  However, for those who are fortunate enough to have found an appreciation for all of life’s seasons, the end of winter, and the transition to spring, while an ending in one sort, is also a beginning, with spring bringing with it a new set of opportunities.

The main advantage to living somewhere with seasons, as opposed to somewhere with consistent weather, is the variety that comes along with these cyclical changes.  In places like these, each season is distinct from the last.  At different times of year, we go to different places, and do different things, and even incorporate periods of rest and renewal into the cycle.  It provides life with a clear breaking point that distinguishes one year from another; something that many lack beyond college and graduate school.  I will most likely be back at Vail ski resort, to once again enjoy some of the world’s best skiing, before the end of 2015.  When that occurs, it will certainly have the look and feel of a completely new ski season distinct from the one that just ended.  Until then, the time has come to go and explore different places, maybe chase some storms, take some longer bike rides, or visit some places that are much more easily reached without the threat of a blizzard interrupting travel.  The coming months will certainly feature some amazing experiences that I cannot wait to have, enjoy, and share.

More New Experiences

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I received a pair of snowshoes for Christmas … 2013.  Yet, until today, I had not gotten around to using them (unless you count the 15 minute trial run in my parents’ backyard on Christmas Day).  With my love for downhill skiing, I typically spend days with favorable conditions for snow sports on the slopes, which kind of doesn’t leave too much opportunity to pursue other snow sports that require those same conditions.

However, in 2015, as part of one of my annual goals, I am hoping to seek out new and interesting experiences.  This motivated me to take out those snowshoes and give them a try.  And, this weekend ended up being the perfect weekend to try snowshoeing out.  Colorado’s front range has received a decent amount of snowfall recently, and there is significant snow packs even at lower elevations.  With heavy traffic and treacherous conditions along I-70 this weekend, it made sense to make the much easier trip to a nearby snowshoeing trail and try something new, as opposed to risking sitting in tons of traffic to get to the ski resorts.

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Being completely new to the activity, I decided to play it safe- really safe!  I found a 1.5 mile loop with only 200 feel of elevation gain roughly 10 miles west of Boulder, at a place called Bald Mountain.  With no idea how challenging snowshoeing is, I did not want to do anything to put myself in danger, particularly in winter.  I figured, if it turns out that this trail is not too challenging, I can always take on a harder one on a subsequent trip.

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The first thing I noticed about snowshoeing as an activity is the way the trails are kind of carved out in the snow.  How do they come to be?  Are the trails made by snowshoers, or cross country skiers?  Do they need to be rebuilt every time it snows, and they once again get covered?  Do they always follow the exact same pattern as the hiking trails beneath them?

At first, following trails cut out in the snow confused me a bit.  Having never done this before, I got a bit apprehensive that I was not following the correct course, and may have been inadvertently following the tracks laid out by some snowmobiler, or worse yet, a stampede of bison, into some random spot into the woods that has nothing to do with where I intended to snowshoe, or where I had parked my car.  Luckily for me, I brought along with my one of the best guides anyone can have on a snowshoeing trip- a Siberian Husky!

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Juno (dog pictured above) lead us around the entire loop, called the Pines to Peak Loop.  In fact, she was so much in her element out here in the snow, that at one point, she lead us on the correct path at a time when we were actually considering following a different set of tracks.  I trusted my dog, and she was correct!

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The conditions were quite pleasant, primarily because there was little wind.  However, there was a lot of fog at the “summit”, as well as along the entire trail.  This means that if I want to find out what kind of scenic view there is at the top of Bald Mountain, I will need to come back another day.  The outlines in the fog do hint at some really nice scenery.  The area is known as Sunshine Canyon, and I have typically enjoyed that type of scenery.

But, today’s voyage was not about scenery.  It was about trying a new activity.  And, in addition to snowshoeing for the first time in my life, I got another, unexpected, unique experience.  For the majority of the time we were on the trail, we were the only ones there.  When we arrived, there was one other car in the parking lot.  That group was on their way out.  We did not encounter any more people until we were almost back at the car.

With no other people around, and very little wind, at the trail’s high point, the only noises I heard was the occasional bird, or, once in a while, the faint noise of a car traveling along the roadway in the distance.  It had been quite some time since I had been somewhere so quiet, and so free of distractions.  Sometimes, even the places we go to away from the city can be crowded and hectic.  Vail was packed on Friday!  Rocky Mountain National Park is usually jammed with people driving around looking for Moose.  And, in summer, one will encounter ultra-runners running up “14ers” with their headphones on.

I was so amazed by how quiet it was here at Bald Peak today, that I had to stop, relax, and collect thoughts.  I even meditated for a while.  Well, I tried to.  I really don’t know how it’s done.  I wondered if others, particularly people local to the area, and more likely to know the place (it is not very high profile), frequently came here to collect their thoughts.  I wondered if, since it is Boulder, people came here to try to receive messages from their “spirit animals”, or tried to go on “vision quests” of some kind.  In fact, as I sat there in silence, the idea did not sound nearly as silly to me as it would have presented to me in the city on an average weekday.  With how rarely we liberate ourselves from every distraction there is in the modern world, it seems quite reasonable that one could finally uncover something hidden deep in their brain by coming to a place like this.

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As it turns out, snowshoeing, although more exhausting than hiking, is not as exhausting as I had feared.  I am guessing that cross-country skiing is more exhausting.  At least it sounds that way.  After today, I am confident that I can handle much more challenging trails with my snowshoes.  I am not sure if any of the ideas I pondered while completely free of distractions at Bald Mountain will lead to anything significant.  However, today did serve as a reminder to me to periodically find quiet, and take myself away from distractions, and all things that cause anxiety in life.