Gear up with decent equipment

February 25, 2018

Good gear is always a challenge to find, particularly on a budget. Here are a couple items I’ve been able to count on recently and would endorse:

Something fun: Akaso video camera. People have been telling me for a few years that I should get a GoPro camera. Sure, that could be fun, but for the longest time these gadgets were financially out of reach for me (falling well below bike maintenance costs on my ledger!). As much as I dislike the big online retailer that starts with “A” (oops, I used to work for them) — I found this Akaso mini video camera for under $100. It came with rechargeable batteries, has been reliable and is so much fun to fool around with!

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Underwater videos have been my favorite part, because the camera came with a zillion mounts and accessories, including a waterproof housing. I can’t really get good mountain biking videos on it yet because I haven’t tried the helmet mount (I tried a handlebar mount and thought it was too shaky and tried clipping it to the chest strap of my backpack but got too much footage of my knees rather than the trail ahead of me). My issue is that it’s really hard to tell if it’s recording when you’re looking at it through a snorkel mask and the waterproof housing. They could make a bigger flashing red light on the screen or something. As a result I’ve taken lots of footage that looks like I’m in a washing machine and missed lots of footage of cool underwater things because it’s off when I think it’s on and vice-versa.

I’d love to upload the actual video (especially of Mike swimming with the fish in our favorite Florida spring, above right) but I’m not on the premium plan here so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Good shoes. Seriously, don’t skimp by buying cheap sneakers when you have a lot of hiking or even city shopping to do on a vacation. I like Salomon as a brand because they are rugged and last a long time. I tried out these new “Sense Pulse” style shoes (on left) just before we went to California and Hawaii last fall and I haven’t regretted it.IMG_20180224_181126_971[1]          IMG_20171019_145929_308

My partner, on the other hand, bought cheap sneakers before the trip. I think they’re Avias (on the right in photo above). Don’t make this mistake (I need to underline that and put it in bold too!). The Avias were worn out and lost all structural integrity by the end of the trip. We’d done some hiking, perhaps 15-20 miles, plus plenty of just around town walking, but that’s nowhere enough use to destroy a pair of decent sneakers — it’s the brand, the cheap construction, that is at fault.

You think I’m exaggerating? Look at the above photo of the soles, taken roughly a week after the trip. Our shoes were both brand new before the trip. I hiked a bit more than he did during the trip — and mine still look like new while his are destroyed. It was a bad decision to buy cheap shoes, and he’s paying the price (ask his podiatrist). Now that I’ve walked and run about 100 more miles in mine they’re starting to show some wear, but the upper is still intact and strong. I would buy this model of Salomon again in a minute.

Of course you still have to find the shoes that fit your feet correctly in order to get the best use of them. Not every Salomon sneaker is right for my bony feet. I decided to start running again this winter and again, just like last year, had to try on a million pairs of shoes that didn’t fit perfectly before I found some that do (I refuse to relive the toenail incident I caused by wearing too-narrow Hoka Cliftons last winter). The aqua pair of Salomons in this photo (next to my worn-out Missions and newer Sense Pulse) just didn’t work for me. It’s like dating — I knew they weren’t for me as soon as I laid eyes on them. Too narrow, not made of the same rugged materials as the others. Oh well, they’ll work for someone else.

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A solid pack. When I was working for Eastern Mountain Sports I stocked up on backpacks using the employee discount, and it was a good investment. I can’t even estimate how many miles are on the tough Fen model pack I have. It goes everywhere I go, from biking trails to skiing to travel. At times it feels a bit heavy but the construction has been solid and it’s not practical to bring more than one for slight variations in use or conditions. It has a waterproof pocket built in to protect things like my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I’m hiking in the rain (hello, Kauai).

My only significant quibble with this pack is that the mesh side pockets aren’t deep enough to keep a good size (20oz) water bottle from falling out. It has gear straps that enable me to lock my packable rain jacket or sandals in those mesh pockets but they don’t work for the water bottles unless the bottles have a loop to thread the strap through. (Yes, I’m available to work as a gear tester, just say the word!)

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And although I don’t think it’s x-ray proof, the TSA hasn’t confiscated stuff out of the bottom of it like my spare fishing knife — maybe they just know it will take all day to empty the pile of snack bars, Nuun tablets, pens, foreign coins, notes, etc. etc. to get to the contraband?? Every now and then I actually empty it to wash it. It’s like Christmas, finding my iPod shuffle and the odd seashells in the nooks and crannies.

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Mountains and Sea, Part II

November 11, 2017

Nothing makes a person feel more alive than ambling along a trail and having a bear pop up from behind a log 25 feet ahead. It’s like getting an electric shock.

The first time this happened to me was just last month when we were in Sequoia National Park in California. We knew it was possible and even likely to encounter bears there, but that knowledge didn’t quite control my instinct to run when I saw the first one. Mike and I have spent lots of time in remote places in New England yet never run across bears along the rivers we fish in or the back roads we bike on (he has, I haven’t).

We apparently missed the memo that our third day in Sequoia was Bear Day. It started with bears crossing the road ahead of us on our way to the trail. Then the one popped up from behind the log — and promptly ran away, before Mike even got a good look at him. Later we saw an adult black bear with a green tag on his/her ear rooting near a busy trail intersection (poor thing is so used to paparazzi that it’s like a Kardashian of the mountains, paying the camera-toting tourists no attention). The last time it was the same green-tagged bear again, but too close for comfort, and we were the only ones around.

In the last incident the bear again ignored us and kept rooting around some logs. He was too close to the trail to pass him with a decent buffer of safety. He seemed to know we were there but didn’t care — and we didn’t want to test his patience. We waited until the bear made some progress across the trail, then began hurrying him along by clapping and making noise. He headed up a hill to one side of the trail, so we passed, keeping a wary eye on him. We weren’t far away when the bear veered back to the trail behind us. Mike was alarmed, thinking the bear decided to follow us. I just wanted to put more distance between us and the big animal. Then we ran into a guy going in the other direction, toward the bear. We warned him and everyone else we saw in the next half mile. Their reactions were similar: “oh cool, a bear!” And they all headed toward it. Yikes.

A couple days before we had been on a very remote trail through mountain lion country. It was another 7-ish mile (round trip) hike through boulder fields and twisted bristlecone pines to (of course strip down and jump into) freezing cold Weaver Lake at 8,700 ft. I whistled and clapped every few minutes to let the critters know we were coming. It  didn’t take long before I got really sick of hearing myself whistle and clap but not seeing a mountain lion is probably a good thing.

This is the second installment of my trip report. We spent a second week stalking ocean creatures in Hawaii — how peculiar that we tried so hard to avoid large mammals in the California mountains but sought them out in Hawaii. Mike even swam alongside a couple seals and emerged from the water a little freaked out by how close he had been.

Solitude was what we sought on this trip, not so much communing with others, whether mammals or reptiles. It was easy to avoid crowds and tourist traps in these places — just step away from the pavement! At Sequoia National Park we did three days of significant hiking and only saw people when we were near the big named trees (the General Grant, General Sherman, etc). Funny thing, that’s where the bears were, too! In Hawaii, completely empty beaches were easily located but the one significant hike I took (Kalalau Trail, see my previous post) was way too popular and crowded.

There’s something extraordinary about being alone (together) in remote places. It’s serene, sublime. Getting a feeling for the terrain, the scope of the wilderness, and the astounding size of the sequoia trees requires time and patience. Sharing the wonder and awe with someone who appreciates the natural world (and doesn’t whine!) is a rare thing. If we never take another significant trip like this I will always remember those days, unplugged, meandering through the woods and looking up at the big trees.

me an dmike on rock sequoia

Now here’s a shocking revelation: I think I liked the Sequoias more than Hawaii. Here’s why: the Kaweah River. This frosty, fast moving river shoots out of the tall Sierras — headed, I’m pretty sure, for people’s lawns and faucets in the LA basin. But Sequoia National Park’s lower elevations near the Three Rivers gate gets the best of it. We spent a day here, hiking in from Buckeye Flats campground to find the perfect flat rock for warming up after a plunge in a deep pool. There was no one else around: no voices, no car engines, not even an airplane overhead. The campground was closed, so we were a mile or more from the park road. How often in life are you in a place that peaceful, secluded, and fun? If you can’t think of a recent time you’ve done something like that, go NOW before it’s too late. You won’t regret it.

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Mountains and Sea, part I

November 1, 2017

It’s impossible to compare our two destinations: Sequoia National Park and Kauai, Hawaii. Which did we like better? Which was more fun?

Sorry there’s no simple answer. It’s more than a matter of sea turtles vs. black bears, crowded or uncrowded. The two places are about as different as you can get.

One thing they had in common is that it was possible to get away from people in both locations, and that’s something we like. We don’t travel to eat at restaurants or to visit museums. On these trips we’re going for the natural beauty of the destinations, to feel a part of the landscape and to be as far from deadlines and demands as we can get. When judging by this criteria we certainly succeeded.

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I’ll try not to bore you with a multitude of photos of beautiful empty beaches, but on the east side of Kauai they are plentiful. Too far north and too far south the beaches are much busier. We stayed in between the busy areas in a town called Kapa’a, (which we didn’t know how to pronounce until nearly our last day) where a wonderful 4-5 mile paved bike trail follows the old pineapple railroad route right along the beach. Our guesthouse had an arsenal of beat up beach cruisers to choose from. Since we had done a lot of hiking in the Sierras, biking fit the bill here.

Underwater in Kauai

One disappointing aspect of Kauai was the absence of coral. Mike has been to Maui where he says the coral was beautiful, but we spoke to some local folks here who pointed to Kauai’s frequent rainfall and subsequent runoff as one significant reason why there’s little coral found here. We saw some large sea creatures like seals at Poipu (south) and turtles at Anini (north) but there were few places to snorkel and see other sea life (Poipu beach near the Sheraton was one of the best places we found for tropical fish, and there’s also a beautiful hiking trail along the edge of a cliff there).

Before I prattle on about the trip and its logistical challenges let me slow down and say swimming with sea turtles is incredible. Watching colorful tropical fish feed on rocks and hide under ledges is amazing. We had some fun boogie boarding — and we got trashed by huge waves but walked away.  And I even got to chase wild pigs around in the yard of the place we stayed (trying to get a photo of them, which was very amusing). So any critical comments that follow should be kept in context.

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Hiking in Kauai

My assumption was that we’d hike in the Sierras and swim in Hawaii but we managed to mix both in each place. To my surprise there are many hiking trails in Kauai’s mountains. I’d hoped to do the Giant’s Chin for its views of the coast but we ran out of time. Also, stretching across the west-northwest coast of the island is a canyon with many hiking options but we only nibbled at its edges.

My big kahuna on this trip was the Kalalau Trail that departs from the northernmost accessible beach in Waineha on the north shore and hugs the sides of steep mountains along the coast. In October it’s muddy — very muddy! The day I hiked it we had rain squalls every 30 minutes or so. While not unexpected and not unpleasant, it turned the trail into a morass of slippery red muck that will quickly cake up the lugs on your shoes and turn them into skates. The conditions made the right gear so important: quick dry wicking fabrics (never cotton!) and decent shoes with deep lugs; a hat, sunglasses, and a pack with some food, water, and other supplies (more on this below).

As tempting as it was to dive in and hike it, Mike only did the first half-mile due to a foot injury, and that was smart. This trail is hyped online and every day there’s a lot of people making their way along its rugged route. The majority only go to the secluded beach at the 2 mile mark which doesn’t seem far but the conditions slowed me to 2 mph, about half my normal walking speed.

Just before the secluded beach is a river. I carefully removed my sneakers and carried them across, only to realize that there was no way to scrape the sticky muck off them. Therefore every subsequent river crossing (there were many) was a welcome opportunity to lighten the heavy load of mud on my shoes as I wore them through the water and was happy they remained comfortable and drained quickly (they’re Salomon Sense Pulse).

From the beach, the historic valley is another 8+ miles, which I would not have made it to in my allotted time, so I chose to hike in toward the mountains to a waterfall about 3-4 miles away. This trail was quieter, following the river through some heavier foliage and past thick bamboo groves. I hit my turnaround time before getting to the base of the waterfall but I didn’t mind. It was enough hiking for me, with 2,800 feet of elevation gain.

I’m planning a separate post on the interesting and alarming gear observations from the trip, but I want to return to the topics of the backpack and preparedness. I’ve done plenty of spur-of-the-moment hikes without putting a lot of thought into it, but in these 7.25 miles I ran out of water right at the end. I generally have a few packaged snacks buried at the bottom of my backpack just in case. So I was adequately prepared but so many other people weren’t. Lots were suffering through the choice of flip flops for the trail, which didn’t perform well in the mud. Most weren’t carrying water or supplies. Then I met three women on the trail carrying a baby in nothing but a diaper, headed for the secluded beach they’d heard about. That was not just ridiculous but irresponsible. I warned them in no uncertain terms that the trail was poor due to the rain and then I went a little further: “I wouldn’t take a baby in there,” I said sternly. I hated being such a spoilsport but seriously folks??

That evening the property managers at our place told us about friends who got stranded on that secluded beach when rain in the mountains made that river rise and impassable. That night 60 unprepared, cold, and hungry people spent a night on that beach, they said. Who thinks of those possibilities?

At some point in the future I’d like to go back to Kauai to hike. I would like to be prepared and have the right gear and enough time. It’s a beautiful trail and a rewarding hike, but it deserves to be done right.

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Sorry Girl Scouts, you were not my type

October 13, 2017

If I could go back in time, I’d apologize to a few people. My Girl Scout leaders would be some of them.

You see, I was raised in a household of rambunctious, hockey-playing boys. I am still a “tomboy” because I require a pretty significant level of physical activity to balance the amount of time I’m required to sit still most days. Back when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old I was a good student and focused in school, but wanted to let loose afterward. I was into climbing trees, building forts, playing football or baseball or whatever the other kids in the neighborhood were up to. I delivered newspapers on my skateboard. I started running races around age 12 (just a few but it planted the seed). Girl Scouts was the wrong organization for me to join.

Girl Scouts was anathema to me. It was more sitting still. The leaders, God bless them, tried to teach me things like paper mache and embroidery. We used miles of colored yarn to earn badges that required nothing more than channeling our natural energy into a checklist of pseudo domestic skills designed to make us better housewives. That’s the worst thing for pubescent girls who are beginning to battle body image issues, to face “mean girl” school cliques, and often having few outlets for confidence building activities. Girls need to test their physical skills and keep endorphins flowing through rock climbing, biking, problem solving and meaningful activities like public service, in my opinion. Like I believe Boy Scouts do.

Girls belong in trees and on climbing walls and participating in more than glue and glitter activities.

In Girl Scouts, when I was participating, we never went hiking or learned survival skills, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts, we never rode bikes or camped outside, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts we never shoveled snow for the elderly, paddled canoes, or learned fire-starting techniques as Boy Scouts did. I asked to join Boy Scouts but was told no, that’s not for you. Instinctively I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do but in 1978 or thereabouts very few people were challenging the rules and my parents were not going to rock the boat. So I made my Girl Scout leaders miserable by misbehaving.

Later in life I became a Girl Scout leader, hoping to provide the right opportunities to my daughters and other young girls. Sadly, I wasn’t able to offer the kids much better than I had experienced in  my youth. Up against a bulwark of rules designed to protect the organization from liability, we could not push girls to participate in activities that they didn’t want to do, perpetuating a system that clearly discouraged physical activities in favor of using more yarn and glue and glitter. It was nearly impossible to even teach the kids to cook or allow them to use scissors. It was ridiculous. But if you sold lots of cookies and made money for the organization to pay its attorneys (the troops got pennies on the dollar) you got a pat on the head.

The climax of this frustrating exercise of working within the status quo was when I went as a leader with a dozen other troops (total of 60-100 girls) for a camp experience. We were going to be allowed to cook over fires (if you followed a dozen pages of rules of course)! We were going to be outside! What actually happened was these 60-100 girls were stuck playing kickball in a big field under the burning sun on a 100 degree day while a nearby beach had to be ignored because of rules and liability issues. That’s when I had enough.

Girl Scouts is nothing more, in my opinion, than an outdated organization run by old biddies who believe girls should be seen and not heard, clean and not dirty, still and not active.

This week, the Boy Scouts finally announced that they’d allow girls to join. I surely hope that means more kids will be allowed to run outside and be physically active and learn meaningful skills. The attorneys who have made their living writing rules that made generations of Girl Scouts sit miserably still should be forced into retirement.

You see, I’m still climbing trees and playing in the dirt, despite Girl Scouts.

Rules for Ragnar and other relays

June 1, 2017
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chugging along Lake Ontario

The smell hit me and nearly made my eyes tear up: it was something acrid, like a solvent. Great, I thought, it’s impossible to hold my breath and run at the same time. Maybe the chemical in the air will kill me before some ax murderer steps out of the bushes and grabs me. (It happens, read this.)

This sort of fatalistic thinking is not normal for me, but nothing was normal that day. I was in the midst of a 36-hour relay race with people I didn’t know, in an unfamiliar place, it was nearing midnight and I was on a dark, desolate stretch of industrial road between factories with no one else in sight.

Compounding my growing panic was the following calculation: I was probably on the wrong road, headed in the wrong direction (what race director would send runners down an isolated, unlighted industrial road on the fringes of a city?). The course was sparsely marked and it would have been easy for someone to move the relay race’s last directional arrow, sending me to my death. Even better, I realized —  if I got lost in Toronto at midnight and couldn’t find my team of near-strangers, I wasn’t carrying any identification or money or a working cell phone (mine stopped functioning at the border). Great.

Doesn’t this sound like fun?

Believe it or not, I paid for this experience. I was doing one in a series of popular “Ragnar” relay races that each covers 180 miles (or so). They’re all over, this one being along the shore of Lake Ontario in Canada, ending at Niagara Falls. Six of us decided we could take turns running 4-9 mile portions, each covering a total of about 30 miles in 36 hours. Other teams had 12 people in 2 vans, each covering approx. 15 miles.

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Obviously I survived being on this side of Toronto.

However… in the 6 years since I ran my first Ragnar (Greenwich Conn. to Boston) the emphasis has apparently shifted from running to a silly group bonding exercise on wheels. It’s a trap. My observation is that lots of people get sucked in by the party atmosphere, the option of wearing silly costumes like tutus and viking hats, decorating their vans, as well as buying all sorts of Ragnar branded crap to show that they’ve done one of these expensive weekends … and the running is secondary.

That’s not the way it works.

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Viking hats, how original.

Oftentimes the “bonding” experience flops when people are tired, cranky, and wishing they hadn’t bought into this trip. The fun part of spending two days in a van with 5 other people lasts for about the first 4 hours, and after that you need to focus on running. Sadly, lots of people are not prepared to deal with the less-fun parts of completing their portion.

Here are some suggestions to make your decision to run a long relay race go smoothly:

No smelly food in the van: it’s one thing to share the aroma of your favorite dish with those around you, it’s something else entirely when the smell is amplified by your moist breath when you fall asleep. Nix the jalapeno chips and garlic chicken in favor of bland, energy-rich food like bananas. Please.

Control your mess: before the race I saw a great article about giving each person a bin for clothes and shoes to limit the piles of cast-off gear that others had to climb over between seats. Whether that might work in practice is still unknown to me, because our van devolved from orderly to chaotic, leaving us crawling across seats layered in clothing and others unhappy about people falling asleep on our stuff..

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Van management and navigation should be required courses.

Train the driver: Part of the issue with my team was the isolation of running an hour through unfamiliar territory with the same misgivings I described above. There were several desolate stretches on this race. However if your van actually stopped midway on each leg or otherwise accompanied the runner when possible, thoughts of axe murderers might be alleviated.

Stop: Part of getting cranky and uncomfortable was the lack of facilities. Filthy port-a-potties were easy to find, but running water and actual soap was elusive. With a little planning and flexibility, everyone would be happier using a Dunkin Donuts/Tim Horton’s bathroom (and getting hot coffee) once in a while. We didn’t do this often enough.

Change: dry clothes make a huge difference in a runner’s attitude and comfort. Strip off the wet layers when you’re sitting in the van waiting for your next running leg. Bring warm layers even if you don’t think you’ll need them (our weather turned cold and rainy).

Plan for priorities: Costumes and markers and group t-shirts are not even secondary to logging training miles. Things like 18557438_1827871270863859_1406266920653950139_nappropriate food, access to your stuff, and small comforts (like coffee) become far more important once the race starts. These are the important things to plan for, as well as having a fallback if someone gets hurt and can’t run.

Van necessities: Get a vehicle with separate controls for heat and ventilation from front to back. We had a van with lots of room (for lots of crap) but temperature was controlled on the dash only, and windows only opened at the far ends (front and back). Discomfort and noxious smells resulted in further unhappiness.

 

Resist the urge to succumb to Ragnar’s increased commercialism. Do you really need to pull out your credit card at a (lousy) transition area and buy a hat, sweatshirt, or souvenir with the Ragnar logo on it? Really? Why not withhold that additional cash until the race director(s) supply decent (clean) facilities, frequent and reliable route markers, or, God forbid, a snack for runners along the way. That way, when you get to the finish line and find that they don’t give you so much as a freaking free beer and burrito you don’t feel like so much of a chump for buying their brand along the way.

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There were no “extras” for the runners — no hot coffee, power bars, and not even a free beer at the end — but they’d take your money for branded crap even at a transition area in the middle of the race.

Be honest: are you in it to push your physical limits, to test yourself, or are you in it for the silly costumes and party atmosphere? Think about it. If it’s the latter, do a 5k. Don’t screw up another person’s budget and training just so you can wear Ragnar gear and say you were part of a team.

Mom needs a kayak

May 12, 2017

Yup, you read that correctly: it’s your answer for the annual Mother’s Day conundrum — and you still have two whole days to shop (or procrastinate).

Freedom. Power. Shopping. Those are the reasons why you’ll buy Mom (or your wife or significant other — or yourself or your daughter!) a kayak this year. Let me explain (note: this is one of those kayak-endorphin inspired musings that revealed itself to me as I plied the windy waters of the St. Lucie River, which will make more sense as the explanation unfolds):

Freedom: The realization that she can’t do anything she wants and she can’t do everything the boys do is something that slowly and insidiously seeps into a young girl’s consciousness. The result is often a home-bound woman frustrated by her limited choices and afraid to step outside the boundaries that society and the media have created. Those boundaries tell her she’s too old or too weak or it’s dangerous for her to do something like kayaking.

Of course the first problem with kayaking is “I can’t lift one of those onto my car.” But this video (link below) shows plenty of ways to get around that issue, even for a small woman. Where there’s a will …

Think about this: As we age and grow, true freedom evaporates for girls. We’re in the kitchen cleaning up after parties and dinners while the guys continue drinking and watching the football game. There’s little choice in the matter. We’re constrained by expectations of appearance in dress and manner, further eliminating choices and options. By adulthood, because we’re working and nurturing others or doing free work at schools and libraries many women are too pressed for time to do anything for ourselves. We’re too concerned about smelling bad or looking disheveled to participate in anything athletic, so we turn to finding cute outfits and cooking or keeping house as our outlets.

But eventually the beast emerges, hungry for freedom and choices that aren’t satisfied by retail therapy. A woman who’s been saddled with raising children, toiling under an ungrateful boss, and frustrated by time passing will inevitably implode.

Unless she has a kayak and freedom.

A kayak is a vehicle that doesn’t need roads and signs; it carves its own path to adventure and happiness. Travel quickly or meander aimlessly, the kayak doesn’t care. She may look for fish, for birds, for signs of spring or fall colors — or nothing but peace and quiet.

A in kayak Pittsburg NH  Freedom. Serenity. Power.

Power:  Women are generally discouraged from building or using muscle. “Let me do that for you” is a frequent phrase we hear for everything from lifting groceries to moving furniture. Call the handyman when a job requires lifting. Get a man to do that. Well, I’m calling BS — start with a kayak and pretty soon she’ll be doing pushups like Ahhhnold.

The sore muscles are a badge of honor after a long paddle. They remind you that you did it yourself, you propelled a watercraft and succeeded. You tamed the wind and were challenged by the tides, but you survived. Pretty soon the desire to tackle more physical challenges takes hold and the sky is the limit: a 5K run? climb a mountain? anything is possible.

Shopping: This is the gateway, it’s one of the ways a woman’s mind works when her options are limited. Bear with me: If Mom/wife/daughter is used to handling the family shopping, she will love a kayak because it opens a new world of choices and decisions. Cruise through a scenic harbor and she’ll begin to imagine herself aboard a variety of yachts or looking down from the balcony of a chic townhouse (whether as a Bond Girl or maritime skipper, that’s up to her). Glide by some cute seaside shacks and she’ll consider the scenario of running away from responsibilities to make a new life without the SUV and 9-to-5. She may be immersed in the suburban lifestyle now while raising a family but things will change eventually and unless she’s got some inkling of her next step (through “shopping”) the transition could be rocky.

It’s liberating to enjoy sights and sounds and sensations that aren’t loading up the car, getting kids to school, or the same old power walk around the neighborhood. You might have let the genie out of the bottle, but that’s OK because she will escape one way or the other.

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Note to readers: if you’ve read this far, I have one small item of advice — DO NOT buy a tandem/2 person kayak. If she’s timid of the water then start on a quiet, windless day on a small pond in separate kayaks. Tandems simply accelerate the implosion that I warned you about.

Also, don’t buy a crappy $300 kayak. Spend the $1400 and get something above 12 feet with a bit of a keel. If she’s nervous about controlling it, get a rudder installed. Mom is worth it.

Agony of the feet

March 12, 2017

There’s a phobia for everything. Podophobia is fear of feet. Agliophobia is fear of pain. So I have Agliopodophobia, I guess. And the headache to go with it.

Some runners have shin splints or sore knees. I have feet that have morphed and changed over my 40ish years of running. They no longer conform to traditional running shoes, and shoes that worked in the recent past have been discontinued, so finding the right pair is an endless cycle. The pain issues are kept at bay when I’m home chugging around my usual trails and cross training on my bike or swimming to keep from wearing my feet out, but right now I could use some relief.

It’s with great irony that I write this as Nike unveils the shoe that’s supposed to help the most elite runners in the world complete a marathon in less than two hours. That’s great, but what kind of resources is the shoe giant expending to keep over-50 runners on their feet a few more years? We’re certainly a bigger demographic than those twiggy Kenyans who defy gravity.

So, this is what’s on the floor next to my workspace.

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Worst part is that they’re all rejects, collected within a week. I had high hopes for each that they’d solve my issues and allow me to keep hitting the pavement. So far, no dice. I even went off the reservation for the Altra Impulse (yellow/pink ones) which look like “corrective” shoes of a bygone era. I had such hope — I waited for their delivery with desperate anticipation — but sadly their weirdly exaggerated square toe shape just didn’t do the job.

Not shown are the Hoka Cliftons that I wore for a couple weeks then sold online when they caused one of my toenails to violently detach from my foot. That wasn’t good, but other than the toenail they mostly didn’t hurt my feet, so I kind of liked them. They’re the kind with almost clown-like huge soles, called “maximal” cushioning. It was a new feeling for me to run a good 8-10 miles one day and not have sore feet the next day (other than the one toe that was in pretty constant agony), so the Hokas had some redeeming value.

The reason for this exercise in footwear testing is that there’s a race event on my schedule this spring that I already have something like $300 invested in. I don’t want to miss out on training and I’m actually enjoying “long” runs again (long for me). I’ve figured out the right mix of Tailwind to avoid dehydration and cramping (which is HUGE), started getting some speed work in on short run days… it was all lining up for me until I had to admit I couldn’t wear the Hokas any more. Back to square one, and no running for a week as I waited for new shoe orders to arrive.

Don’t tell me to check online reviews — I’d catch holy hell if Someone knew how much time I’ve spent trying to research the right shoe. Forget the online gurus and comparison guides and “best of the year” articles. It all comes down to how it feels on YOUR foot, which today meant blowing most of a Saturday trying on one pair after another.

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Apparently after working my way down the above pictured wall of shoes today IN EACH OF THREE DIFFERENT STORES, the simple request for shoes that fit and don’t harm my feet may indeed be elusive. It’s strange that New Balance makes great trail shoes that work for me (Leadvilles) but it’s been such a challenge to find NB road running shoes that fit right (note the purple Vazees in the “rejects” photo — never even wore them across the living room!). There were even Nikes and Asics in the mix during a full day of running shoe shopping today, and I haven’t worn those brands in many years.

I’ve thought about keeping a spread sheet of all of the different types of running shoes I’ve had — or remember having — so I don’t go back to bad ones that didn’t last or caused problems. It’s a waste of time though because manufacturers are always coming up with new styles and materials.

Here’s my rating:
“fresh foam” soles that everyone is selling: good if there’s enough in the right places. not everyone is a heel-striker and the foam is too thin under the ball of the foot in so many shoes

stretchy mesh uppers are a great addition to shoe options, especially when paired with fewer stiff design components that rub against the foot over long distances (even some Asics have bonded designs rather than their old stiff style on the sides as shown in photo below)

integrated tongues that are seamlessly part of the upper rather than a separate piece sewn in — fantastic!

 

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I love running shoes, but I love running in them most — not spending a beautiful Saturday schlepping from one store to the next, hoping to find something adequate and not painful.

In the end, I forked over an extortionate amount of money at a specialty running store after trying on at least 10 pair and listening to the advice of a saleskid who wasn’t born until I’d been running 20 years. I took the shoes home and did 6 miles in them.. and will probably take them back tomorrow. The struggle is real.

My Walmart century ride

March 6, 2017

Sitting home was not an option, but neither was running another mile in the shoes that had just claimed a toenail. (Sitting at home hadn’t been an option yesterday when I ran 7 miles in them and regretted it all evening as I hobbled around on a swollen toe.)

So today I set out on the uber craptastic Walmart bike of my nightmares. My approximate destination was a state park about 10 miles away that has mountain bike trails. As I got closer I realized it wouldn’t be fun on a busy Saturday afternoon when lots of other people would be on the small circuit I rode a few years ago. Despite its full suspension and knobby tires this bike is just a look-alike, it was never meant for actual mountain biking. I do it because I would lose my mind if I didn’t get a dose of trails once in a while — even if I worry about snakes and gators the whole time.

I rode at that state park back then the Walmart bike was brand new and I was pretty cocky about how easy the trails were (swoopy but flat, with a few obstacles thrown in). But now the bike isn’t new. In fact, I think I it’s neutered itself into a fixie with just one gear thanks to a combination of the corrosive elements in Florida and the stress of throwing it on the bike rack again and again (sometimes for 2,500 miles). Oh, and then there’s the issue of genetics: it was born bad, made of cheap components designed to appeal to 12-year-old boys who dream of pump tracks but really just sit on their bikes in the 7-11 parking lot eating Cheetos. Last summer I took it to the Vietnam trails out of desperation and was mortified that someone might see me on it. Mike bought its craptastic twin at Walmart and his is so bad that he has a screwdriver taped to the crossbar for those (frequent) occasions when the chain pops off and gets stuck between the sprocket and the frame. And he never even shifts gears. It’s pitiful.

So when I got to the state park entrance I just kept going. How far could it possibly be to do a big loop around the next town and back through some nice scenery? Not an awful way to kill a Saturday afternoon, right?

Except I became obsessed with how awful the bike is. I decided that riding 25 miles on it counts as 100 on any other bike, therefore I did a Walmart century. Pushing the pedals became a cathartic exercise in forcing the bike away from me. The miles melted away as I longed to end the agony of its existence.

There’s squeaking from the suspension that reminds me with every revolution of the pedals that I’m on a lousy bike. So I turned up my futuristic MP3 player and sang along with Shakira.. it was especially fun when a serious biker came up next to me, hunched over his aero bars and I was wailing away, a capella:

“Whenever, wherever
We’re meant to be together
I’ll be there and you’ll be near
And that’s the deal, my dear..”

As if that didn’t compound the shame…

Its one redeeming quality is the loud shuddering scream of the brake pads on the rims that generally gets attention from any driver pulling out of a street or driveway. So I guess I have the Walmart bike to thank for not being road kill yet (note to self, rear brake is almost nonexistent). So maybe if I had a nice, squeak-free bike with gears and disc brakes I’d be dead by now.

 

Flip Flop to Costa Rica

February 4, 2017

This Central American country had been on Mike’s bucket list a long time. He showed me magazine articles about traveling there in the first month we were dating, but it remained the elusive, exotic goal for a few years.Costa Rica surfing

We were there a year ago this week. Was it amazing, was it worth the wait? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

First, we had visions of dipping our toes in the Pacific as soon as we got off the flight, but that evening we were instead schlepping chicken and canned beer from a street vendor to an unanticipated overnight in a city hotel room. That’s because we’d arrived too late to make the drive to our guest house by the sea. And because the car rental agency had abandoned us when we got stuck at an airport. Travel in Costa Rica is still pretty third-world. Our hostess had warned us that the 30+ mile trip from the airport to her guest house near Manuel Antonio National Park would take two hours or so, depending on traffic. I didn’t believe her until we were zig-zagging around food vendors who walked in traffic with bags of snacks for sale. Or maybe it was when we got on the main highway and discovered it was only one lane wide.

Narrow roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and I won’t exaggerate but I need to be clear. They’re often twisting, steep lanes where it’s risky to walk or drive because cars come at you at top speed only to skid to a stop just as the Grim Reaper has his hand on your shoulder. Once we arrived in our little village we decided we wouldn’t travel far for that reason. But this location would be just what we needed for relaxation and access to what matters: great waves on a long stretch of beach on one side of the peninsula, a calm lagoon for snorkeling on the other.

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The first thing we discovered is that the calm lagoon contained very little sea life. We had hoped to snorkel to some coral or pretty fish or SOMETHING to look at,  but there was very little. The water was also MUCH warmer than expected (yeah, I know we were close to the Equator but this is the largest ocean in the world..). Swimming was barely refreshing because of the ocean temperature. Everyone told us it was a warmer than average January, but isn’t that what we’ve been hearing everywhere?

The surf side of the peninsula was pretty spectacular. Big waves rolled in across a sandy break. We could walk for miles along the beach, right to the national park entrance. We both rented surf boards and had a great time practicing that (despite the bandage-covering-stitches-and-wrapped-with-duct-tape on my hand).. until Mike caught some waves that were a little too big and got freaked out (what’s sport without near death experiences??). But the sunsets here were to die for!

[I wasn’t joking about the lines at Manuel Antonio National Park, nor the monkeys]

Our outings included a morning in the National Park (honestly my assessment was a resounding MEH because of the crowds, the heat, and the damned monkeys). It was scenic but a chore to shuffle through with a million other people looking for sloths sleeping in the trees, and much of the park was closed to hiking without a permit and a guide, which was disappointing. When we took a sanctioned hike around a not-so-crowded peninsula to see cliffs and jungle we were accosted by a couple nasty monkeys on a bridge who wanted snacks. Also had a nice conversation with a giant iguana that got between me and my stuff on the beach — those suckers look lazy but can move really fast!

Another interesting day trip was to zip lining recommended by our hostess at the guest house. It included a bus ride with a ton of other American tourists into a very scenic area of the interior of the country (about an hour each way). We weren’t disappointed by the big trees we were frequently jumping off of! My issue (and this isn’t a minor one) is that the crew here made the quickest, most cursory equipment checks I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done a lot of rappelling or rock climbing or zip lining, but I know that  the way they were slapping on the carabiners that were going to hold a person 125 feet above a river isn’t enough of a safety precaution. I was nervous much of the time on this side trip but tried to put a good face on it. Also, I couldn’t help but analyze the return on our investment: we saw a beautiful area, we can say we did zip lining, but the reality of it was a lot of driving and standing around and perusing the base camp’s butterfly exhibit with a total of about 45 minutes of actual zip lining thrown in.

One of the aspects of the trip that we revisit is that we met some great people. Our guest house had a common room with kitchen that allowed us to relax and interact with couples from Europe, Canada, and the US. We had sundowners at a bar one night and met a naturalist who works at a local hotel and was very fun and interesting to talk to. There were people on the beaches who enjoyed sharing their suggestions and travel tips. All in all, the people were friendly, unlike the monkeys who were cute for about a day then got pretty annoying.

[Monkeys were cute for the first day or so.. and grocery shopping in foreign countries is so amusing to me!]

This blog item might sound cynical — Costa Rica is beautiful, but go with your eyes open. Don’t expect American-level facilities or infrastructure. Don’t try to pack in too much.

We had fun but we’re not in a big hurry to go back unless I decide to do the cross-country MTB race… which would probably result in the Grim Reaper REALLY getting his hands on me. (Check out this story!)

 

An exotic domestic trip you’ll remember

January 30, 2017

Winter getaways are so sinfully fabulous: you go back to the office after a week or so with a mild tan, refreshed attitude and a secret smile about “something I just thought about.” Yes, that means the absolute best part is that your coworkers wish they’d done the same rather than blowing their vacation time on an extended Labor Day weekend stuck in traffic.

Here’s one to do, and it’s incredibly simple: Puerto Rico.

Want to be out in the sun, to enjoy a tropical vacation without going broke, and not have to endure the snobbery of resorts? PR has it all, plus surfing and mountain biking and easy-to-navigate services. And, there are ways to avoid the crime that the little island was once known for.

[It took us about an hour to end up bushwhacking to a beautiful rocky overlook on Day 1.]

Jet Blue flights are pretty inexpensive to the island (you don’t need a passport!). We took a late-night flight to save a few bucks (Orlando-Ponce). The island is small enough to travel the perimeter by car in a day (but why would you?), so distances are easy to cover as long as you avoid San Juan-area traffic. Don’t expect high rise beachside resorts here (maybe in San Juan if that’s what you like) — better yet, skip them entirely! We found a lovely AirBnB accommodation that allowed us to enjoy home cooked meals on the wide veranda with other guests and offered local info from the owner.

Our route was Ponce-Guanica-Aguadilla, running from the south-central coast to the northwest coast on Route 2. If I were to go back (yes I would), I’d love to spend more time around Aguadilla, a small city with a decent airport and great beaches/surfing nearby, including the surfing hotspot Rincon.

In the south, the coast has small waves and from what we could determine, not much to look at when snorkeling. There are many mangrove islands offshore that make an interesting destination if you rent a kayak (just don’t rent a tandem, a.k.a. “Breakup boat” with your partner unless you’re prepared for all of the possible ugly ramifications). Guanica’s coastline in particular is bounded on the east and west by nature preserves, so the water was clear enough to see the sea urchins lurking on the bottom, waiting to stab bare feet!

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It only took a couple hours to drive from the Guanica area to Aguadilla on a Saturday afternoon. The main highway is 2 lanes in each direction but goes directly through several towns including mid-sized Mayaguez and Rincon. There are lots of opportunities along the way to stop and check out beaches or surfing but we were rewarded for waiting until we reached Aguadilla and Borinquen.

Weekdays were the best time to access beautiful stretches of beach, long rolling waves and some colorful snorkeling around Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach and Surfer’s Beach.

[Crash Boat Beach above]

[Surfer’s Beach above]

We also visited the north shore’s premiere surfing beach, Jobos, on a stormy day when the waves were crashing over offshore islands of lava rock in spectacular fashion. The beachside bars were empty and Mike’s memories of the place included being swept out past the surfers by a killer current. He learned later that more people die at Jobos than any other beach on the island due to the current. He made a joke about it at the Coast Guard gathering he spoke to but few people laughed (ahem).

Please note: Undertow and currents at these beaches aren’t funny! If you go, scout first and use caution. Crash Boat Beach had a great gradual break but the undertow would leave you at least a quarter mile south if you had a good run on a wave. Many beaches have  waves that can land you on rocks.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got a reward: the best hike you can do in the NW of PR. Go to Surfer’s Beach and take the little bridge on the northern end to a trail. Here you’ll begin a spectacular jungle and cliffside journey to the remote, secluded Coast Guard beach, which is the sort of strand of sand and palm trees that your Caribbean dreams are made of.

The day we went, the surf was pounding the rocks. While it made for a spectacular walk, it cut off access to the beach at the end and was a little worrisome as we’d gone out with just enough time to get back during daylight (nothing new for us!).

The route was just challenging enough to make it worthwhile, the scenery was gorgeous, and there were some huge, spectacular lava rocks where the surf spume roiled and hissed. Plus, we saw a huge iguana on the trail on the way back. It was hard to keep moving as I wanted to take so many photos. If you go, you MUST try this hike.


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