Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Done

Any seasoned traveler knows that traveling abroad is serious business, especially when you're traveling solo as I often do.  For example, you lose your passport in Hungary, at best you're looking at a major hassle, at worst you end up living under a train station on the outskirts of Budapest. Break your leg in India and at best you can expect a painful and very long trip home, at worst you end up with a botched amputation and a nasty case of gangrene.

Then there's that show Locked Up Abroad  which depicts every traveler's worst nightmare: being locked up abroad. Though the people profiled on that show generally suffer from either poor judgment or outright stupidity (here's a hint: don't want to be get caned up in Pakistan? Probably not a good idea to be an opium mule), there is always a risk of being innocently caught in the middle of an unfortunate situation.

As a result, the typical business traveler generally puts up their guard when traveling aboard. There are of course simple steps one can take: putting your wallet in your front pocket, always carrying cash, knowing how to avoid the common scams, and not eating the street food no matter how good it smells.
(Pav Bhaji vendor, Juhu Beach, Mumbai. For the foreign traveler you're looking at dysentary in a to-go box.)

But if you've ever been to Japan you know that its a pretty damn safe place. Leave your iPad wrapped in 10,000¥ notes on a park bench in the morning and there is a pretty good chance that it will still be there in the evening. That is, if somebody doesn't chase you down and try to return it to you. Japan is impossibly clean and orderly almost to a fault. Taxi drivers wear white gloves not to protect themselves from steering wheel cooties but vice-versa. And I know of no other country in which jaywalking is considered taboo, even by teenagers.

So when I am traveling in Japan I tends to let one's guard down a little more than I would in other countries. What is the worst that could happen? You start drinking Suntory whiskey in some smoke-filled divey Harajuku karaoke bar signing Barbara Streisand medleys with a bunch of Japanese salary men and wake up somewhere in the bowels of Ginza Station face down in a pile of soba noodles wearing a Sailor Moon costume. Not that I have any firsthand experience with this. Anyway, the point is that Japan feels really safe because it generally is very safe. 

When I was in Japan last year, I stayed for a night at a chic golf resort/hotel on a cliff overlooking the ocean. My room had a beautiful balcony with a sweeping panoramic view of the countryside below.  It was spring and the sliding glass door to the balcony was cracked open to invite the cool ocean breeze.

As I'm sitting in the room, still feeling a little green after the death defying demonstration gymkhana-style bus drifting I had just experienced on the way in, this giant flying thing comes in through the sliding glass door and begins beating its massive heft against the glass trying in vain to escape. The bug is the most magnificent insect I've ever seen alive--it looks basically like a fly but is about the size of a hummingbird. Now, I've always been interested in insects. As a kid I spent most of my waking moments crawling around our yard looking for bugs. I left no stone unturned in my search for crawling things (I mean this quite literally--I knew that lifting the flagstone pavers in the back yard nearly always betrayed the hiding location of a millipede or centipede). So at at that moment the only thought in my head is "you must capture this amazing bug before he flies away".

I do a quick mental survey of the bug catching tools at my disposal and immediately run towards the bathroom for the ubiquitous little hotel room highball glass (you know the one covered with the paper cap). Instinctively, I also grab the paper comment card sitting next to the glasses.  I run back over to the sliding glass door and in one deft swoop I pin the flying bug to the window under the highball glass, just as I had done with grasshoppers hundreds of times as a kid.  Then I slide the piece of card-stock between the highball glass and window and proceed to carefully move the entire unit safely to the coffee table.

And it is at this point that I realize the insect is very much not a fly. It is, in fact, a goddamn wasp.  Except it is no ordinary wasp.  It is a wasp that is like 2.5 goddamn inches long and who is very clearly no longer having a good time.It is pissed! The thing is biting and stinging and scratching at the table and glass and practically moving the highball glass around the table. It's that exact moment that I realize I have done something terribly dumb.   And, it is at this very moment that I hear a knock on my door from my Japanese business associates who have arrived to escort me to a very fancy dinner.

I tried to appease it with a cash offering.  No dice.

At dinner the kimono-clad servers bring course after course of beautiful food but all I can think of is that there is a gigantic bee in my hotel room waiting to inflict bodily harm upon my return. At some point during the 19 course dinner, I excuse myself to go to the "otearai" and sneak off to the lobby of the hotel which is the only place where WiFi is available (*Sidenote Dear Japan: What the fuck is up with not having WiFi in hotel rooms? You pretty much invented the electron.  Get your shit together.  Yours truly, Eric) and quickly conduct the following google search: "Japan giant wasp".  Here are the top search results I see:

1) "The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World"
2) "Hornets From Hell"
3) "Meet The Real Killer Bee"...

 Dear God, what have I done? I have, in a cup, back in my hotel room, a Giant Sparrow Hornet, the most deadly animal in all of Japan.

The more I read about these guys the more frightened I become. They are nicknamed "Yak Killer" because yes, their sting can take down a Yak.  In Japan they are responsible for some 40 deaths per year. Not only is their sting excruciatingly painful, they can sting repeatedly injecting a flesh melting venom with each sting. They have incredibly strong mandibles for tearing chunks from your flesh.  They fly much faster than you can run.  Best of all?  When they are distressed they can emit a powerful pheromone alerting others from the colony to come to their assistance. Pheromones!  The damn thing is up there signaling the entire fleet!  WTF am I going to do now?

I can't let the thing go or he's likely to kill me and I can't just leave him in the jar because he's likely to kill some unsuspecting housekeeper in the morning. Also, I certainly can't call the front desk and have them take care of my problem because that would be too logical. I've gotten myself into this mess, and it's up to me to figure out a way out. 

As I continue to read more about this terrifying animal I discover, like any super-villain, the Giant Sparrow Hornet has one mortal weakness: They cannot survive temperatures higher that 115 Fahrenheit. Honey bees, a favorite food of the Giant Sparrow Hornet, have discovered this weakness too and when their nest is attacked by one of these big bastards, the honey bees rub their tiny abdomens against the intruding leviathan to kill him with friction (honey bees can withstand temperatures up to 122 Fahrenheit).  Immediately, the answers dawns on me. What is the one thing virtually every hotel room on the planet has?


After the 42nd and final dinner course is served I excuse myself from post dinner Suntory Time and race up to the hotel room and cautiously peek inside. No swarm of angry hornets, just my angry friend under the cup. I dash into the bathroom and grab the hair dryer off the wall and quickly go to work heating the glass hornet enclosure. Within minutes, my Yak killer buddy is twitching a little and shortly thereafter it's starting to curl up and writhe around. I spend another ten minutes or so really cooking the thing. I leave the wasp under the cup until morning just to make sure it's not just playing dead then toss if off the balcony into the forest below. I love it when a plan comes together. 

Note: Since I wrote this last year The Oatmeal (one of the most entertaining blogs on the interwebs) also featured Japanese Giant hornets as part of a segment on Long Distance Running.  Read it, it's really an amazing piece. The hornets show up in Part 5, BTW.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Happy Suffering To You This ‘Cross season.

And we’re back.
I know I’ve kept my fan waiting for too long but now that cyclocross season is ALMOST HERE. I figure it’s time to restoke this campfire. 
Suffering vs. Talent
When I was in middle school was on the school cross country team.  Actually, I suppose I should clarify that statement a little bit.  The thing about middle school cross country is that only the top 5 guys for your team count towards scoring.  Therefore, if you aren’t one of the 5 fastest guys on your team in the race, all you are really doing is going for a jog. Except instead of just being able to go for a jog from home in your comfortable clothes, you have to take a bus from your own school an hour away to an entirely different school to go for a jog wearing ill-fitting school-issue polyester short shorts and a matching singlet that is three sizes too big, both of which were made during the Carter Administration and have not been not washed since. Then after you are done going for a jog you have to take the bus back to school (for the purposes of “team unity” we are told) and have your parents pick you up from said school even though your parents are right there and could easily take you directly back home in their own comfortable car and might even stop at Burgerville for some tasty onion rings on the way home. The truth is that I really sucked at cross country and never finished a race anywhere close to the top 5 on my team so when I say that I “ran cross country” what I really mean is that I went for some jogs of a prescribed length and route with other equally uncomfortable mid-pubescent adolescents and got to wear special clothes while doing so. 
Honestly, I have no idea whether I have any natural talent as an endurance athlete. Back then I figured that the other guys were just naturally more talented so I moved on to sports that involved trying to make a round object go over/into/through a net.  While I’m sure that some of the really fast guys on my cross country team had natural ability, the truth is that they understood something back then that took me years to learn: how to suffer.
Pain is Temporary, Victory is Forever
A friend of mine, let’s call him “Austin”, has fantastic and often-recounted story from his high school cross country days. He was, and to this day still is, one of those guys who goes really fast in a straight line.  Whatever the sport, if it involves going fast in a straight line, he’s your guy.  Swimming? Yep.  Cycling? Check. Running? Yes.  Speedwalking? Probably. ow, Austin has real athletic talent when it comes to endurance sports.  He qualified and raced Ironman Kona last year and has been competing in straight-line sports since elementary school. But, Austin’s greatest asset is to push himself harder than anybody I know. There is an index I use to measure self-inflicted suffering scale (SISS).  It goes to eleven.  Austin, unlike pretty much anybody I know, is capable of going to eleven on the SISS pretty much at will. 
Austin ran cross country in middle school also.  Unlike me, he was consistently vying for points and quite often the win.  Anyway the story goes something like this. It is districts and EVERYTHING is on the line.  The problem is that a new kid has just moved to town who has been jeopardizing his chances of being district champ.  Austin goes out fast--way too fast--and ends up an incoherent stumbling mess at the finish line.  He is convinced that somebody is tilting the earth beneath his feet (in reality he was just falling over). Then he “sees the light” and, convinced he is dying, starts bequeathing all of his worldly possessions to his friends and teammates in the presence of his distraught mother.  Just as the EMTs are inserting the IV into his arm he is heard shouting “pain is temporary, victory is forever” (note that he didn’t actually win the race) then immediately passes out.
There are so many instances of Austin going to eleven on the SISS throughout his athletic career.  Pretty much this exact scene is repeated by him three years later in high school. Then, during his first marathon a few years later, he was on pace to go sub-3 hours by mile 20. At the finish line, 3:00 passes, then 3:15, then 3:30. Finally at about 3:45, a bedraggled Austin totally covered in dirt with a twig sticking out of his hair comes stumbling up to the line. It took him just over 2 hours to run the first 20 miles and almost two hours to run the last 6. Apparently, somewhere between mile 20 and 22 (nobody is quite sure where) he decided that it was time to take a nap so he crawled into some bushed and slept for some 30 minutes before waking back up and finishing the race. 
I began my relationship with suffering on my road bike after college on the hills that surround San Francisco and Oakland but I cemented my love of suffering once I began racing ‘cross. The best cyclists in the world have a rare combination of natural talent and the ability to take themselves to eleven. I think Jens Voigt is the poster child of this.
Though I’ll never possess the natural talent of a world class cyclist, for me learning to love suffering has been the key to making do with what my momma’ gave me.   Good tidings and happy suffering to you this ‘Cross season.  
Mouth turns into a square at SISS Level 9

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Race Report: Marty's Cross 2012

As much as I'd like to believe that the Men's Elite/A's race is the main event at a local "small-time" cross race, the reality of the situation is that nobody really give a crap about it.  Inevitably, 40 minutes into the Men's A race, bored spectators start thinking out loud "How many more laps do these idiots have left?  Put them out of their misery and let's get the show on the road."

Sure, everybody enjoys Women's Elite/A race because, frankly, who doesn't like watching bad ass ladies beat the snot out of one another (and themselves).  But since we already know that cyclocross is really a participation sport, most of the spectators are either a) racers waiting patiently for their own start time, or b) the family members of other racers waiting even more patiently for their wife/husband/father/mother/son/daughter/grandmother to race, or  c) officials/waffle vendors/event organizers to just want to get home and have a beer. Besides, most of the A racers have long ago used all of their excuses to con family and friends to attend races.

The only thing more boring than watching an A race is  reading a poorly written recap of a race!  It's your lucky day because I have just such a race recap for you!

Since Marty's CX was at a new location this year, I sent my people to recon the course and they reported back about a fast flowy course with lots of climbing.  All good things.

Unfortunately the National Weather Service forecasted 1-2 inches of rain on friday.  Now, I know its customary in cross to idealize epic mud conditions, and at the risk of sounding like a big weeine, I can admit I was pleased to learn that the actual rainfall we received was much less than expected. Also, the entire course was set on a tilted plane, not unlike those wooden marble labyrinth games, which allowed for quick drainage.

(bottomless holes were not present on the course)

There was talk of it being the HILLIEST COURSE IN CYCLOCROSS HISTORY. It wasn't, but it certianly had a lot of climbing.  Nonetheless, after doing an initial pre-ride it was clear that it would be a race which would weight power over technical ability. And since it's the State Championship race, it brings out a few of the big guns: Bill Elliston, Maurice, Gavi Epstein, Roger Aspholm to name a few. Coffee is for closers only, and these guys get to drink coffee.

I get to watch Allison race and take a few pictures for the first time this year.  She has an amazing start but drops her chain over the barrier and loses a few spots on the second lap.  By the end she has clawed her way back into 4th overall and 2nd on the NJ State podium!

Despite the fact that I have more time between Allison's race and mine I lose track of time and basically forget to to warm up. But it's an hour race so I figure I've got plenty of time to warm up during the race, right?  I just need to start sensibly and not go out too fast.

Since I virtually nailed the registration holeshot, I get a front row call up despite not having any series points.  Soon enough, the whistle blows and I do the usual start sequence:  pedal-clip-pedal-pedal-drop 2 gears-pedal-pedal-drop another 2 gears. By the first turn 200-300 yards in, I sense that nobody is near me and I immediately think that something is wrong.  There is no way I can take the hole shot with this bunch. I must have false started. At the top of the first climb, I take a look over my shoulder and see the group is a few seconds back. Yeah, I definitely must have jumped the gun because there's no way I'm ahead of those guys. But, did I hear a whistle or not? Now I can't remember. Wait a munite....the referee was standing right next to me when she blew the whistly and my ear is still ringing.  This means I'm winning the race!  What could possibly stop me now?


It's at this point I remember that the race is actually an hour long, not 3 minutes and that maybe I should chill out for a little bit. I try to dial it back but being in the lead feels so magical it's hard to slow down.  I know that at some point the time-space continuum will re-align itself and a group of very fast guys is going to catch me. I know that I have to recover a bit if I'm going to have any chance of latching on to the chase group.

Predictably Gavi, Roger, Bill and Maurice catch me on the long power section on the last 1/3 of the first lap and drop me like a corporate sponsor dropping Lance. Well that didn't work. On to plan B.  The group of Fred, Neon-Kit-Guy and Dag are charging hard and look like they are going to catch me.  I plan to latch on to them as they catch me and have them pull me around for a few laps.  Then, that group proceeds to blow by me.  Ok, I've got more tricks up my sleeve. On to Plan C.  The group of Andrew, CRCofA and Northeastern Hardware are closing fast.  I'll just stick with that group for a while.  Finally I'm able to hold position in that group.

For a lap or two I sit in this group. Northeastern falls off pace.  Then I gap Andrew and the Century guy after I ride the run-up and they are forced to dismount.  I drill the climby section to make the gap stick and begin to count seconds to the next group.  The group of Fred, Neon-Kit-Guy and Dag has shattered with Dag out in front and Fred behind (not really sure what happened to Neon-Kit-Guy but I think he has abandoned the race near the pits).  So I start counting seconds to Fred and realize I'm closing the gap pretty quickly.  I catch Fred, who is clearly having a bad day, with maybe 3 to go and sit on his wheel for a half-lap and make the pass right after the run-up. Somebody tells us we are 6-7.

I start counting time gaps to Dag and I'm seadily closing the gap. With 1 to go I give it everything to catch dag but never get closer than about 12 seconds and end up 6th.

After the race Maurice says to me "dude, you have to be careful starting like that".  I think this might be the understatement of the season.  I may not be smart but I am slow. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Providence CX 2012 Race Report

I don't consider myself a particularly religious person but cyclocross "holy week" is an idea I can get behind. The week is bookended by Gloucester and Providence with a Wednesday night witch burning/race thrown in for good measure.

Though I generally try to avoid going to church (and religious metaphors in sport for that matter), I happly make the annual pilgrimage to the hallowed temple of cyclocross that is Roger Williams Park in Providence. If racing bikes constitutes communion with the gods of cyclocross--namely Grifo he god of grass, Limus the god of mud, and Fango the god of tacky dirt--then consider me converted. The stacked fields, crowds, and great course make the long drive worthwhile. So we loaded up the Ark with two bikes of every size,embrocation smelling of frakincense and myrrh, Nuun tablets with which to turn water into holy electrolyte water and set off for Mecca.

The drive through Hades (a.k.a Connecticut) was as you would expect so we arrived late and had to rise early on Saturday. But at this point in the season we've got our routine pretty much dialed: arrive just in time for Allison to pre-ride, I child watch, get my act together, take her bike to the pit, eat, drink...the list goes on. Today we have the luxury of grandma to watch the child so I get to work the pit for the first time. 

Allison is especially nervous today because her field has over 90 women registered, which is the largest she has ever raced against. Like church on Easter Sunday, everyone shows up for this one. She has a decent start and uses a crafty line on the downside of an off-camber she learned two years ago to pass about 8 women. By the time she passes the pit for the first time she's sitting maybe 14th. She rides a great race and passes a few more people but washes out her front wheel on the techy off-camber turn after the beer garden barriers to lose a spot ending up 13th. A really great ride nonetheless. Later we learn that during the race her headset has worked itself loose because her mechanic is an incompetent asshat and also that trying to drive a bike on a technical course with a sloppy headset is like bringing a wacky noodle to a knife fight.

In New England, "Killer B's" races are limited to Cat 3 only which means I'm only eligible to race UCI elite or Masters of the Universe (35+ 1/2/3).  While I have ambitions of racing UCI at some point, I have absolutely no business lining up against the likes of Johnson, Powers, Trebon and The Euros so it's 35+ for me. Apparently I'm not alone in this thinking because most of the front row is comprised of guys who not only race elite but who regularly do pretty well in UCI C2 events. That and a couple of guys who happen to be wearing National Championship jerseys for their respective masters fields.  

It quickly becomes clear to me that there will in fact be three races:  1) the actual race, 2) the battle within the cream-filled center, and 3) the race not to be DFL. But everybody here, even the slow dudes, know what they're doing: put on the suit and tie, catch the 8:15 into the city and go to work. All business.

I do my usual warmup which consists of futzing over tire pressure, going to port-a-john confessional about a dozen times, chat chatting too much, then finally riding around for a few minutes. Then I realize my number is pinned on the wrong side so I scramble to find Allison to quickly re-pin my number. Like I said we are all professionals here.

Today I'm seeded 32nd of maybe 65, which puts me squarely into the nobody-gives-a-crap-about-you zone but I'm determined to give it a good effort. My starts have always been my best asset and today I manage to clear the first pinch in the top 20 or so.  Passing is nearly impossible until halfway through the first lap and I make a few advances and get passed by a few guys. During the race the wind picks up and I get abused by it every time I hit a long road section. The course flows really well and I just sort zone out and go to work solo. Send a few emails,  make a couple copies,  hit the flyover,  ride the double stairs,  file the TPS report and hold off the two guys surging from behind to finish 24th.  Honestly I'm thrilled with a top 25 in this field.

For the rest of the day I do everything possible to avoid sitting down and resting my legs. We go for a long beach walk, chase the child around, make a big dinner, then do a bunch of chores to close up the house for the winter. Neither the wine nor the apple pie stops the morning from coming too soon and before we know it another racing day is upon us.  I briefly consider bailing but one must not upset the gods of cyclocross so I dutifully suit up and head to Sunday service.

 The Day Lord Fango Hath Made

And unto the faithful the cross gods have bestowed sunny skies and a course with lines of pure gold. Again Allison's field is huge but she is undaunted by a poor start and she rides steadily and smoothly, passing ladies the entire time including a couple of ladies who beat her yesterday.  One of her best results to date.  

By the time my race goes off skies have darkened but the course has firmed up to tacky perfection. The lineup today is virtually unchanged at the pointy end but the middle is than yesterday.  Somehow despite being seeded around 30th I find a 3rd row spot. Score. The officials send off the children and give us the 1 minute warning and with perfect movie-soundtrack timing, the loudspeaker positioned 15 inches from my head begins to blast "Paint it Black." It's on bitches.

We start fast as usual but I get boxed and hit the dirt around 20th. Suddenly around the first sharp turn I see a cloud of bodies-it's Maurice curled up and rolling like a hedgehog. I sneak by on the outside and for once I can count the bodies between me and the leader.  13.  I sit in and hold wheels. At some point Auer passes me with another guy in tow (Langlois I think) and I grab that group for a lap or so. Surprisingly I feel good sitting on them and belive I can stay connected. As we hit the rideable run-up, Auer fumbles the ride-up and has to dismount but knocks me off my bike into the tape. I'm back up and running in no time but a small gap opens and that's all it takes.

For the rest of the race I battle with a guy who beat me yesterday.  I make a couple of attempts to pass but he pinches me against the tape each time so I'm content to sit on his wheel and get pulled around for a while. The dude tries a bunch of times to shake-n-bake me off his wheel but I know he's not going to drop me. I also knew I didn't have legs to drop him.  With 1 to-go there's nothing but daylight behind us so we both know it's all about the end game--basically whoever hits the pavement first wins the battle and whoever hits the last grass section first hits the pavement first. Dudeman murders the penultimate road section and is just able to block my pass and hit the last grass section first and easily wins the sprint. Well played. He and I end the day 17th and 18th respectively and I'm really stoked with a top 20 finish.

All in all a great weekend. Sunday's course was the most fun I've done in a long time. The promoters really nailed this event.

Lastly, what would a holy week be without a little inspiration? 
 1) Ernest Gagnon competes in the Cat 4 race on Saturday wearing spandex. This makes me happy on many different levels.
2) Emma White (racing age 16), who won't be eligible to race UCI for another couple years, enters the very competitive Cat 3 men's field and finishes better than mid-pack. 
3)Zach McDonald warms up in the mud and rain while the rest of the pros warm up on their trainers under their team tents. Then he puts on an absolute clinic in bike handling and line picking and earns his first ever UCI win. He's was only guy who able to ride the run-up and was able to peddle through sections other guys could hardly ride. Oh and BTW, he's still actively pursuing an aeronautical engineering degree.
4) Approximately 150 (147 to be exact) unique women raced during the course of the event. Hopefully this trend continues and someday the term “equal payout"  will seem as antiquated as "co-ed".