Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Tribute to Running

I have always had an affinity for running. I had the example of my father, who was a cross country runner, and later amateur competitor when resumed his hobby around the early 1980s when I was a child. I was also fairly good natural runner in grade school, and placed well in cross country events without training, although never won, but I was a better sprinter, and once won a sprint in 5th grade, again without training. It’s a relatively inexpensive hobby, and is logistically easy, if not physically easy, the only significant cost being special shoes, which must be replaced every 300 to 500 miles1

My favorite place to run in Flagstaff, Arizona - Buffalo Park. The snow-capped San Francisco Peaks loom over the trail.

Finishing a 5k on Signal Mounain, Tennessee, February 5, 2011.

Unfortunately my running career got derailed somewhat by difficulties with my right knee around junior high school2. I had this surgically corrected after I graduated high school in 1992 and got back on track.

I ran about 2 years while I was in college, and was in Air Force ROTC one year, but injured the knee again doing a standing long jump, which was part of the fitness test3. This caused me to quit ROTC, although the knee did eventually heal back to about 90% and again became almost pain free. After that I switched to walking and hiking, but eventually started running again, to get the cardiovascular benefits, and because I felt a very strong compulsion to run.
Another beautiful place I've been able to run: atop Cameron Hill overlooking the downtown of Chattanooga, Tennessee and the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachian Mountains, 2012.

In my late twenties, I fell in love with a young woman, and decided that I needed to lose weight and get in shape, and began running again, very seriously. I increased the mileage, and ran up to 6 days a week. By the time I reached 30, I realized that I needed to back off. I didn't get the girl and knee injuries kept plaguing me, but I figured out that I could continue running if I ran only intervals, so I usually ran .1 to .2 mile intervals with equal distance walking intervals between. Running took me to many interesting and beautiful locations. I stopped running on concrete, then stopped running on pavement, finally becoming a full-time trail runner. The softer surfaces of trails helps avoid joint injuries and combines running with my lifelong hobby of hiking.

The view from the East Overlook on Raccoon Mountain, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, March 13, 2014. The Tennessee River is below a nearly full moon in the fading evening light.

Running has taken me many interesting historical places. This is a trail I ran at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, when I was on a business trip in 2009.
I've seen lots of wildlife trail running over the years, everything from deer, to javelina (peccary), turkeys, mink, and have narrowly avoided treading on snakes several times, twice this year alone! Photo from Valley Forge in 2009.

A few years later, a beautiful young woman talked me into starting again, and I ran my first timed 5k race at 37. The time was terrible, and I was embarrassed by it so I trained up pretty well for another 5k race and put in a time somewhat above 27 minutes, which I considered good, and then quit again due to injury. 

Yet another beautiful young woman talked me into training for obstacle course races the next year (see the pattern?). I did a couple of those. Then I got pretty significant injuries to my right knee and left ankle and had to take about a year off. I was not happy with that and knew that I wanted and needed to resume running. Unfortunately I put on a lot of weight that year, waiting for the injuries to heal, and generally feeling sorry for myself instead of rehabbing properly and controlling my diet.

At an obstacle course/adventure race in Lookout Valley near Chattanooga, October 27, 2012. I can't remember if this was in Tennessee or Georgia. The things women will talk you into!
At the Warrior Dash obstacle course race in Tullahoma, Tennessee, September 22, 2012. Terrible photo of me but as I recall I had almost no sleep the night before. That was also back when I was working on a beer gut.

Things I have changed this year:
  1. Lost over 20 pounds
  2. Clean diet - mostly pescetarian to vegetarian during the work week
  3. Elevate legs about 30 minutes after running for about 10 minutes.
  4. Sleep on a bed with elevated legs.
  5. Stretching - I can touch the floor for the first time in many, many years.
  6. Cut back on ibuprofen. I know this counter-intuitive, but anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen are believed to have the side effect that although they provide pain relief and reduce inflammation in the short term, they prolong healing. I’m down from a minimum of 600 mg per day to 200 mg first thing in the morning. I originally did this because my back pain lessened when I got a new bed, but I think it has been beneficial for running as well.
This year, I was very successful at building up my running distance to the point that I could run as much as 3.8 miles in a single run, although I rarely have run more than 3 miles continuously. Usually my total distance is much farther, anywhere from 4 to 6 miles including walking segments. As I have gotten older, and after many years of fighting injury, I learned to simply stop running when I felt the distinct twinges of pain that indicate coming injury. I enjoy running enough that I prefer to avoid injury, even at the cost of time. Many runners are very competitive and would never allow a slow time, even at the cost of injury. Therefore, for the most part, the only successful competitive runners have durable muscles and joints. You can't succeed a racing unless you can avoid injury. I'm personally more interested in running for general fitness and enjoyment.

Perfect trail for running at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, in Colorado Springs.
This year I was able to use running as a tool to train myself for a single day hike across the Grand Canyon (a "rim to rim"). This was a 24 mile day hike with more than 5000 feet of downhill from the North Rim and over 4000 feet of elevation gain climbing up the South Rim. Much of the trail was steep but I was still tempted to take off running when I saw the smooth, gradually downhill trail in the canyon of Bright Angel Creek. It was such a great feeling to hike so far and still feel so good. Running has provided great joy as well as great fitness to me in middle age. I hope to not have to stop running until I'm in my 60s.

The North Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. No, I did not run here, but the temptation to take off and leave my hiking companion was almost irresistible given the perfect trail and the epic scenery, especially since I had chosen to hike in my trail running shoes. I was feeling great even after hiking a dozen miles and could easily have run 3 or 4 miles at that point. I completely attribute my ability to do this hike to the fitness provided by running.
I love running. It keeps me in shape and enables my other hobbies that require fitness. I'm 44 years old, feel better than ever, and have no plans to quit running anytime soon.

Footnotes and Commentary

1 Although many sources claim running shoes will last 500 miles, in my experience, current running shoes must be replaced every 300 miles. I believe that the manufacturers could make shoes that last longer, but won’t because they would make less money. They control the longevity of shoes vs. price based upon how often the consumer is willing to spend the money.

2 I suffered from a fairly severe case of Osgood-Schlatter’s syndrome, a very painful swelling on the tibial tuberosity on the front of the knee, just below the kneecap. This prevented me from participating much in athletics, although I sometimes think I spent too much time indulging worry of injury more than the reality of it. I know it was extremely painful though. I sometimes would lay in bed and the knee would throb for hours, keeping me awake, even the weight of the bedsheets at night would hurt the knee. The injury eventually calcified and I had surgery to file off the bone. This achieved good results but I re-injured it in ROTC and has recovered only to about 90% over the years.

3 The Air Force got rid of standing long jump as a requirement for a long time but I read somewhere that it is back. What does that have to do with serving in the Air Force? The requirement is senseless, in my opinion.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Animas River Whitewater Park at Low Flow

A view upstream along the Animas River in Durango. This is at the foot of the takeout ramp below the whitewater park. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the setting looks like we are in a desert, but actually it is a microclimate that just affects this side of town. Durango actually has plenty of trees and the mountains on the other side of the valley are forested.

I went to Durango, Colorado in 2015 but the Animas River was on the brink of flood stage after a snowy winter and unseasonably warm temperatures. As a result, I just ran a class II section upstream on the verge of flood level and didn’t bother with the whitewater park. The water levels were so high that commercial rafting shut down, and the difficulty goes up in the park with a constricted channel and increased gradient. This time I wanted to actually paddle it, even though conditions were lower than optimal. Someday I hope to get it at a moderate flow but fluctuating levels are part of the sport of whitewater paddling and we ignore these details when we are on the river having fun.

The level was pretty low, around 240 cubic feet per second, but still adequate. I scouted some other sections of the river and it looked too low for a long float. I really was interested in the City of Durango’s Whitewater Park anyway, since it offered convenience and greater likelihood of getting help if something went wrong. It also has a nice concentration of rapids in a short distance.

The entrance to Smelter Rapid flows over these wing dams that raise the water level upstream to provide a reliable inlet for the public water supply for Durango.
Unfortunately the top rapid, and the most well know, Smelter, is formed by “wing” dams on either side of the river, originally installed to provide a reliable water intake for the city, and at the low water level and it definitely was not something I was interested in running, nor did I see anyone else running it. The only clear line was on river left and featured a very dangerous looking pour over into an obviously retentive hole. I can’t approve of modifying a river bed to put in a feature that will create such a dangerous recirculation.
A view down Smelter at September low flow. This rapid looks completely different at snowmelt levels. It was a bit bony looking though runnable and I had to resist the urge to launch into it below the wing dams after I had time to knock off the rust. It didn't seem wise to try it. As always, everything looks a little smaller, and the current looks slower in the photos.

Anyway, the drops below were good to go, and ranged from pushy class II to class I riffles. A rock-garden rapid below the park had just enough water to navigate to get to the conveniently situated takeout ramp. I did 3 full laps, although I admit I was afraid to play in the larger holes, since I haven’t done an eskimo roll in 3 years. But it was fun to run down the rapids and practice fundamentals like ferrying, eddy turns, j-turns, and edging drills. I discovered that I was little bit tippy, having lost some of my edge awareness of the playboat, but was pleased that having lost over 20 pounds this year, and nearly 40 pounds over the last three years meant that my Wavesport Project 52 “spud” playboat handled much better than the last couple of times I paddled it. I’m very happy with myself for having lost the weight.

The first drop below Smelter.
The second drop below Smelter. This one looked like a good play hole, despite being a bit frowny, but I skipped it since I couldn't be sure I could hit a roll.

The next two drops were good, splashy fun, and good places to rebuild my fundamentals. I spent quite a bit of time doing ferries, peel outs, s-turns, and practicing edging. It all came back eventually and I started surfing.

I took plenty of time front surfing on one of the nice constructed waves and found I was soon front surfing automatically on the smaller waves, controlling the boat with my edges and the occasional rudder with the paddle, and staring off into the distance at the Rockies. It felt really good to be back on the water. It felt so good that I didn’t want to go back. On the fourth lap, I didn’t bother running all the way to the bottom and just took out after the last of the artificial drops. I was getting a little tired, probably mostly from carrying the boat back up, and needed to hit the 5 hour drive back to Flagstaff to be ready for work the next day, so I reluctantly left the park.

Here is a GoPro video I made of one of the lower, "easier" drops in the park in June 2015, when the snowmelt had the river at a higher level.

It’s a good whitewater park, although not quite as good as the nice park on the Arkansas River at Buena Vista, Colorado. But it is much better than the unforgiving Olympic Section of the Ocoee River in Tennessee. It also features easier access to the river bank than other parks I have seen, and I have never had parking issues. I will be back for sure, hopefully next spring when the levels are up again. My intermediate plan is to get some winter runs in on the Verde River in Arizona, about 45 minutes from Flagstaff. If I can stay sharp enough, I should be ready for the higher levels with the spring snowmelt season.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

In the Valley of the Sun

Pinnacle Peak beneath the burning sun of the Sonoran Desert.

I never entertained much interest in living in the desert, but a trip to Arizona when I was a small child created a mythical view of it in my head that has persisted. Of course I eventually landed in Flagstaff in 2015, but the climate in Flag is alpine and cool compared to the famous and somewhat notorious deserts of southern Arizona, and defies preconceived notions about the extreme heat of the state. It's actually much snowier in Flagstaff than anywhere I have lived, and I lived in north central Indiana for many years. The summers are cooler than most people could imagine, but the winters can get long after a while. Relief is achieved by a visit to the hot part of Arizona, the valley of the Salt River, containing greater Phoenix and the various suburbs, and the beautiful Sonoran Desert. The area is famously too hot for outdoor activities during about a 4 month period through the summer, but is actually very nice most of the year, and the desert greens up and blooms with wildflowers. The valley of the Salt River is also known poetically as the Valley of the Sun.

For the second winter in a row, I almost waited too long to go visit the Sonoran Desert. The first year I moved in only at the tail end of winter and got pre-occupied with the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This year I got preoccupied with winter sports, but the snow started fading by mid-March (a characteristic of snow in the desert southwest due to the low humidity and direct sunlight of the latitude), and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to visit the Valley of the Sun before temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I originally intended to hike the famous Camelback Mountain trail, but I failed to get up at the 6:00 am alarm, and the park is notorious for being closed when the parking lot fills up on weekends, so I chose one of the numerous alternative hikes in the greater Phoenix area, the Pinnacle Peak trail in Scottsdale.

A sign and golden flowers welcomed me to the park.

There is only a single trail at Pinnacle Peak, an out-and-back that ascends from the parking lot around the side of the pinnacle, then across a saddle and around a second part of the mountain with a separate summit. The vegetation is classic Sonoran Desert with saguaro cacti, palo verde trees, and an abundance of green brush, blooming with wildflowers in the spring sun. The temperature was around a relatively moderate 80 degrees when I arrived but soon I was sweating my way up the side of the mountain, which is taller than it looks from the parking lot. The temps seem to have topped out in the upper 80s.

Typical trail for the Sonoran Desert. Yep, it's sandy!

The McDowell Mountains beyond one of the outer neighborhoods of Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.

There were numerous signs labeling the various desert plants that were present. I was pleased that the heat had not yet burned off the flowers. On previous occasions it has seemed that my photography failed to capture the color of the non-summer desert, but I got several nice shots this time, mostly with my iPhone 5S. Although desert is usually represented as a dead place, the Sonoran Desert actually brims with life and is green and colorful most of the year. It is only during the four and half months or so from May to September that it becomes brown and scorched by the extreme temperatures that climb to over 100 Fahrenheit every day. Last year points in the Salt River Valley reached as high as 119 degrees. That type of heat is lethal and it is amazing that so much life can thrive.

Strawberry hedgehog cactus, proving that the scorching heat has not yet arrived in the Sonoran Desert.
Brittlebush blooms.
Creosote bush with the McDowell Mountains in the background.

The slopes were covered with the amazing saguaro cactus, icon of the Desert Southwest. The elevation of Pinnacle Peak reaches to the upper half of the saguaro's tolerance, but they seemed perfectly healthy. I was interested to see a small juniper growing up in some rocks. There was a sign labeling it as a relic of a previous, cooler climate. It's the only juniper in the area.

An isolated pocket of classic Sonoran Desert, revealing the greenery of the desert in the spring.

Relic redberry juniper, a native to cooler climates and higher elevations, with a saguaro peaking over boulders.
Ocotillo with a view.
Close up of the ocotillo flowers.

There were too many people on the trail but as usual the crowds thin out the farther you get from the parking lot and soon I was enjoying the hike, harried only by a couple of horse flies and a few people who talked too loudly. It got pretty hot eventually but I couldn't resist following the trail all the way down to the point where it ended in a wealthy neighborhood of Scottsdale, on the far end of the second part of the mountain. This meant that I had to hike back uphill to get back over the mountain to my car. Fortunately I was well prepared with a preposterous amount of water and Mountain Dew. I stopped in a small pocket of shade to eat some protein before climbing over the second mountain of the park. I carried too much fluid and ended up packing out a few pounds of water. I needed the workout anyway.

The second part of the mountain, and unnamed peak connected by the saddle to the left. The trail can be seen winding along the near flank of the mountain, ending just beyond the end of the golf course.
The high point of the trail.
Saguaros on the reverse side of the pinnacle. The small bundles of cacti in the foreground are cholla.

By the afternoon the smog and haze had obscured much of the valley. There really are too many people in the Valley of the Sun, driving too many cars, and using too much water. Fortunately there are numerous areas that are preserved, like the Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale. It's an amazing place to hike, if a little suburban, but it's like going on a safari after living for decades east of the Mississippi River and then skiing and snowboarding through a snowy winter in the high country of northern Arizona.

Photo Dump

A view from the saddle: the Phoenix Mountains and the Sierra Estrella are in the distance, including Camelback Mountain, and I think the far mountains lost in the haze and smog are the South Mountains.
A palo verde tree. The branches are green indicating that they have chlorophyl and therefore can perform photosynthesis. Palo verde means "green stick" in Spanish.
Desert vegetation on the slopes of Pinnacle Peak.

A view of the saddle with one of the near peaks of the McDowell Mountains in the background.
Serious wealth down at the base of the mountain. There were huge homes backing on the park and the golf course with artificial waterfalls and luxurious green lawns with palm trees. It's no wonder the west is facing a water crisis.

Baby saguaro on the right. I would not want to fall into that thing on the left.

Strava GPS Track

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Further Adventures in Air Travel - Rebooting the Airplane

Due to some difficulties at work I did not buy airline tickets much in advance of the Christmas season (as I was not sure I would have a job at that point). I originally had in mind making two separate visits to my parents in Tennessee and Indiana but the delay in buying tickets resulted in me having to plan for a single, very lengthy stay away from Flagstaff. The logistics of such an endeavor are enough to bring down even the most optimistic person to a very low place, and I am not known for optimism (except in the sense of overcommitting to project timelines, but that is subject for another blog post).

The Phoenix skyline from Sky Harbor International Airport.

My cats had to be kenneled. Therefore the cats required a feline leukemia vaccine, which required an unscheduled visit to the veterinarian, which I did not have a vet in Flagstaff yet, etc. I also had to figure out a way to get gifts shipped across country without checking extra bags into the airline. At least we now have the world of online shopping. Before the advent of the online store this problem was three times worse and required more advanced planning. I also had to arrange for somehow getting from Tennessee to Indiana and back to Nashville to catch my flight home, and so on and so forth. Travel, in general, is usually not that bad, but the logistics and planning of Christmas family visits will kill you.

This led up to the morning of my flight. Due to acquiring the airline tickets rather closer to Christmas than was a good idea, I was not able to get a flight from Flagstaffs very small, convenient airport, which has free parking, and had to drive to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport down in the Valley of the Sun (a.k.a. the Salt River Valley, a.k.a. the Sonoran Desert). I arrived 3 hours early at the airport, as planned, checked in and made it through security in roughly less than 1 hour. This gave me plenty of time to stop into the Four Peaks Brewing Company restaurant and bar next to my gate. They have an excellent Oatmeal Stout and I had a Spinach Salad with added grilled chicken. It was good but I followed up with a White Ale, which was overwhelmingly orange tasting. It was not very good in my opinion.

I boarded fairly normally and assumed my seat near the back of the plane, which was an American Airlines Airbus A321. The seats were wide and comfortable for economy class and I had no trouble fitting my light backpack and winter coat under the seat in front of me. I also got lucky in that there was a no-show for the middle seat (the A321 has two rows of three seats each). This was truly fortuitous considering the delays that were to follow.

After everyone had boarded, things seemed to be proceeding normally until the pilot announced that there was a problem with the fuel indicator. He then said that they would follow the recommended procedure of rebooting the computer to see if that resolved the issue. That’s right, they rebooted the airplane! I found this hilarious even as my mind wandered to worst case scenarios, like, what if they have to reboot mid-flight? Better to not even think about that.

The reboot was predicted to take “several minutes.” This quickly ballooned to about 30 or more minutes before the pilot announced that the reboot was successful but they now had to complete the mandatory FAA paperwork. This led to approximately another 30 or more minutes delay before the aircraft finally showed signs of departure. At the last possible second I got a voice mail from American Airlines that was a little confusing but seemed to provide an alternate flight number and new and later departure and arrival times from Dallas. There was also a confusing email from Orbitz that indicated the same except erroneously showed arrival at Phoenix rather than Nashville. I decided that the voice mail from American made more sense so I ignored the email from Orbitz. I’m not super impressed with that mistake on the part of Orbitz.

The White Mountains? They look a little too rugged so perhaps are the southernmost spurs of the rockies.

Unfortunately I made the mistake of shutting off my iPhone upon departure rather than just putting it in airplane mode, which would have allowed me to take photographs of the fairly spectacular desert mountains around Phoenix that were visible in the afternoon light. At least I got the phone going to take some very nice photos from cruising altitude before sunset.

This is almost certainly a portion of New Mexico.

Below I saw a labyrinth of mountains and occasional volcano fields while the aircraft was, I assume, over New Mexico. One of the facts about the American west that I have become aware of since I moved to Arizona if that it is dotted and pocked with volcanic craters all over the place. There are many, many more volcanoes in the United States than I original was aware of. Many of these are not huge and have not erupted recently, but they are a testament to widespread volcanic activity in the U.S. Many of these locations have erupted within the last few thousand years and therefore we can conclude that there will be more eruptions around the west in the future. If we are lucky, we may see such eruptions within our lifetime, without being turned into lava toast.

Agriculture in West Texas.

Moon over my wingy.
The passenger cabin of the A321 in evening lighting. My seat was near the back of the plane, my preferred location, except for the smell from the lavatories.

As the A321 crossed over into Texas I got nice views of the circular patterns of irrigated fields juxtaposed with oil operations, and finally, as the sunlight faded, the glowing cities of mega-populated central Texas. I’m sure I could see much of their 27 million people out the left window alone. My flight landed smoothly at Dallas - Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) and I concluded that the A321 is not bad to fly on as long as the computer is rebooted regularly. I realized in the air that I would definitely miss my connection and wondered what should occur next but I found my new flight number on one of the boards and started looking for my gate.

In the airport I realized with consternation that I had to go from one terminal building to another. It quickly became clear that the best solution was to ride the “train.” This is an elevated contraption that runs on a hot monorail but also on a concrete paved surface with conventional wheels. The trains are two car pilotless automata that basically feel like a subway, only they are elevated to a ridiculous height. I failed to take a picture but the ride is very bumpy and you get the feeling the train is simply going to tumble over the retaining wall of its concrete slot and you will plunge a hundred feet or more onto the highway below. Fortunately that did not happen, even though it felt like it might.

I arrived at my gate with 17 minutes to spare, checked in and got my new boarding pass. I still had 14 minutes or so to get food. Fortunately there was a snack bar near the gate. Unfortunately it was about to close so I grabbed a sandwich and Mountain Dew from the grab-and-go shelf and ate the sandwich so fast it hurt my esophagus. I made the boarding onto my 737 for the ride from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Nashville and we departed on time.

The Boeing 737 at this point is an old design, although it continues to be produced in variants  [strangely enough, I couldn’t find a good manufacturer website for this aircraft. They only have promotional pages for the next generation 737]. It was immediately noticeable to me that there was much less seat width. Fortunately the man seated next to me was thin and I was on the aisle so it was not much of an issue, except when people were walking past, which is to say shoving their way through the aircraft. I usually prefer window seats but none were available due to my relatively late booking.

Passenger cabin of a 737. The walls ahead separate first class from us proletarians in economy class. Due to darkness, and seating assignment, this is the only photo I took from the 737.

The 737 is a proven, reliable aircraft, but I thought it was apparent this particular aircraft was pretty old. The ride was predictable though, and we avoided some thunderstorms that could be seen outside the window and we experienced some minor turbulence before the ride smoothed out and we landed in Nashville safely. I believe the pilot came in too fast because he seemed to brake unusually hard and locked up the wheel brakes and throttled the thrust-reversed engines to maximum trying to make his assigned ramp. It was the cause of some humor among the passengers. I was watching and he landed so close to the beginning of the runway that I thought he was going to clip the light posts so I’m pretty sure his airspeed was unusually high for some reason.

These two “short haul” airliners, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A321 represent two different eras of the aircraft design. The 737 is a 1960s era design and is noticeably narrower than the A320 series, which emerged in the late 1980s. The A321 was introduced in 1994 as a stretch version of the A320. Both the 737 and the A321 are still in production. The progress of the A321 seems obvious but there still was the issue of the computer needing to be rebooted. Either way I arrived at my destination safely, if a little late, and I would say I was satisfied with the service from American Airlines.