Hero Dirt

I took the mountain bike out today for the first time in almost 2 months. I normally love mountain biking in the winter, but conditions have to be right. Ideally, you want frozen trails with little to no snow or ice. I know of people who love going out in the snow, but it’s not my thing. Unfortunately, most of February was icy, wet, and slushy, making for terrible trail conditions. The weather finally took a turn in the first part of March, when we had a very long stretch without any precipitation. This morning, I finally ventured out, and I’m glad I did. The trails were in the best shape that I had seen in at least a year. The term “Hero Dirt” is often used to describe ideal trail conditions for riding, and that’s what we had today. The trails were hard packed and dry, but not dusty, and there was no mud to be found anywhere. I’m off this week for spring break, so I took advantage of my extra time and rode for around 2 hours. I rode Morning Choice Trail, Garrett’s Pass, Vineyard Spring Trail, a bit of Santee Branch Trail, Soapstone, Starstruck, and Ridge Extension/CJS, before finally heading home via Rockburn Branch Trail. I saw a few hikers, but curiously, no other riders. That’s unusual, even on a Monday morning with the temperature hovering around freezing.

Another strange thing I noticed this morning was that in spite of the lack of recent rain, Soapstone Branch was running pretty high and fast — enough to make the pavement wet underneath the railroad tracks in the Glen Artney Area. Most of the small creeks that cross Soapstone Branch Trail also had a pretty healthy flow, which made me wonder what was up. I’ve seen Soapstone Branch raging during a water main break in Catonsville, but it wasn’t running that high today. I suppose it could have been a smaller break somewhere uphill, but I’ll probably never know.

Anyhow, it was great to get out on the MTB again today.


Cabin Fever

This has not been a particularly cold winter, but it has been extremely icy. When I was commuting to work every day, I rode my bike regularly, even in icy weather. Nowadays, there’s less incentive to venture out, so I haven’t been biking as much. I still get out about once a week, and I’ve substituted with other activities like running and climbing, but in general, I’ve been home and indoors a lot this winter, and am getting a tad stir-crazy. My treadmill desk helps to keep me sane, as it gives me a great option to get exercise while working, but on the flip side, it’s a further disincentive to go outdoors. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, though: spring is around the corner, and I may get to start returning to the office later this year (fingers crossed on that one). When the weather warms a bit (or the ice melts), I’m hoping to do more kayaking this year, and I’m also considering trying out solo top-roping. More on that later, I’m sure.

It’s getting to the time of year where I start thinking about spring maintenance on my winter beater bike. I checked last week and found that it was in need of a new chain. I try to be pretty good about replacing chains before they wear out, because it saves money in the long term by extending the life of my cassettes and chainrings. This is really important with an expensive drivetrain like the GX Eagle on my MTB. Parts are a little bit cheaper for my winter bike (an old 1993 Specialized Rockhopper), but can be harder to come by due to the bike’s age, so I try to squeeze as much life out of them as possible. I’ve had the same cassette and rings on the Rockhopper for a number of years, so I looked at them closely the other day, and it appeared that they might be worn out. So, I contacted my LBS for a new cassette and middle ring. To my surprise, they had a 7-speed SRAM cassette and a 38T Hyperglide chainring in stock — both of them exact matches. I bought both of them for a sum total of about $28. I brought them home and compared them to the old parts, only to find that the latter weren’t as worn out as I had thought. The thing with these components is that the teeth aren’t perfectly symmetrical (I think it’s to improve shifting performance) and to an untrained eye, this can be mistaken as wear. So, I can get some more life out of the old parts, and when the time does come to replace them, I’ll have new parts on hand.

Anyhow, once I’m done with the Rockhopper, I’m going to move on to the MTB, which needs a good tear-down and cleaning. It’s been a horrible winter for mountain biking, so I really haven’t ridden it much in the past couple of months. I’m hoping that this year will not be as wet as the second half of 2020.


Foot-Healthy Climbing Shoes?

I’ve been exclusively wearing “foot healthy”, minimalist footwear since mid 2017, and it has been life-changing. Since 2015, In 2019, I started climbing regularly, after thinking about it for several years. Initially, I looked long and hard for a climbing shoe that fit my definition of “foot healthy”, before eventually concluding that such a beast didn’t exist. I was caught in a catch-22: if all climbing shoes were bad for my feet, how could I enjoy climbing without worrying about foot problems? It turns out that I was overthinking things, but as with everything else, it took awhile before I came to that realization. Here’s what I’ve learned after doing this for a couple of years.

  • Feet are amazingly tough and resilient. After wearing foot-healthy shoes regularly for awhile, your feet will get stronger. Eventually, they’ll get strong enough to tolerate climbing shoes. Keep in mind that climbing shoes aren’t meant to be worn for long periods of time — just while on the wall. That being said, if a shoe is so uncomfortable that your first instinct is to take them off right after you get off the wall, it’s probably time to shop for a different shoe.
  • Many climbing-related foot injuries are due more to poor footwork than bad shoes. Climbing successfully is all about balance, and as a beginner, I often found myself lunging and slamming my feet down onto holds. Uncontrolled foot movements can lead to “hotspots”, metatarsalgia, nerve pain, and any number of other foot ailments. When moving to a foothold, know exactly where you want to place your foot, and make sure every movement is careful, quiet and precise.
  • Not all climbing shoes are uncomfortable. I love my La Sportiva TC Pros. They may not be as wide as my Lems Primals or Altra Escalantes, but I feel like I could wear them all day if I wanted to. My Scarpa Force Vs are not quite as comfy, but are easy to slide off between climbs. When shopping for my first pair, I found it helpful to go with a stiffer rubber and size up a little bit. You don’t need super-aggressive shoes to climb effectively (at the same time, of course, you don’t want your feet swimming in the shoes, either). If the shoe is comfortable and doesn’t hurt your feet when you climb, then chances are, you’re not going to get injured. Try on lots of shoes until you find something that works. And then, focus on footwork, footwork, footwork. Can’t stress this enough!!

Icy Run

After two days cooped up inside, I had to get outside this morning. We haven’t gotten around to clearing our driveway yet, so driving somewhere was out. It wasn’t really cold enough for mountain biking (32° — trails likely to be a big slushy mess). That left road riding and running as my two options. I decided on running because I was due for a run, and it would get me out the door faster, as I still need to put the rear studded tire on my winter bike, which takes 15 or 20 minutes.

We have a couple inches of snow on the ground with a crusty glaze of ice, so I knew that running with my usual Vibram FiveFingers was going to be out. I decided to wear my waterproof Altra Lone Peak trail shoes with Yaktrax. This combination worked out OK, although compared to VFFs, it felt like my feet were encased in blocks of cement. That said, the Yaktrax give pretty good traction, and was able to run confidently without worrying about slipping and falling. I managed to slog through 5 miles at about a minute off my usual pace, which is not too bad. Just a few months ago, I would have been happy to run 5 miles in any conditions at all. Next time out in these conditions, I may try my Altra Escalantes, which are somewhat lighter than the Lone Peaks. It also may make sense to look at different styles of cramp-ons, as I don’t think the Yaktrax I have were designed specifically for running. Again, not ideal conditions or gear, but happy I got out.

Biking Health Weather

Snow Day Musings

We’re getting our first real snow in these parts in about two years. Looks like 3 or 4 inches fell yesterday, and it’s been snowing off and on for most of today. Not a big snowfall by historic standards (I can still see the grass blades sticking through), but a lot by recent standards. In normal years, this would probably be a snow day, but now that everything is remote, it’s a normal work day for me and school day for the kids. Along the same lines, I used to ride my bike to work in almost every weather condition imaginable, but there’s much less of an incentive to go out and brave the weather when I’m telecommuting. That’s where the under-desk treadmill (which I’m using as I type this) is coming in really handy. Without it, I wouldn’t be getting any exercise on days like this. Of course, one could argue that the treadmill provides an additional disincentive to going out in the snow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m happy as long as I can get my exercise in one way or another. I may try to get out on the mountain bike tomorrow or Wednesday morning. It will be a learning experience, as I’ve never ridden in the snow before. I’m sure enough people will have been out by then that the trails will be very well-packed. Should be interesting.

My lower back is still not quite 100% after I tweaked it a week and a half ago, but I think it’s getting to the point where the injury itself is mostly healed, and I’m mainly dealing with residual muscle/fascia tightness and soreness. Activity in general doesn’t bother it, but I find it stiffening up on me after an hour or so on the treadmill. I have a rather large arsenal of home remedies for it: exercise, yoga, ibuprofen, Voltaren gel, CBD oil, foam roller, heating pad, somatic exercises / pandiculation, inversion table, and a few I’m sure I left out. I’m very new to using an inversion table, and thus far, it has been eye-opening. I was lucky to score one for free, as my parents were getting rid of their Teeter. I have some occasional issues with positional vertigo (BPPV), and as such, was worried that inverting would make me dizzy and nauseous. Well, it did, for the first couple of times I tried it. Then, I got used to it, and now I can tilt back to 60º for several minutes at a time with no ill effects. The keys seem to be to avoid doing it immediately after eating, and to tilt gradually to allow time for the inner ears to adapt. I’ve been getting into the habit of hopping on the inversion table right after getting off the treadmill, when my back is a little stiff, and I have to say that after inverting for 5 minutes, my back feels great. The spinal decompression that you get from inversion obviously has some therapeutic benefit. The one thing that I don’t really like about the table is the ankle retention system — I just do not find it all that comfortable, even after adjusting it several different ways. Teeter sells a gravity boot adapter kit for the table, which looks like it may be a good investment if I decide I want to continue using the table long term. It could also just be that my ankles need some extra time to “adapt”. I’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.

Health Running

Polar H10

I’ve decided to try exercising with a heart rate monitor (HRM) again. I first tried one of these way back in the early 2000s, before I even started this blog. Back then, Polar sold a chest electrode/transmitter strap paired with a LCD wristwatch that received the signal and displayed the heart rate. It was primitive by today’s standards, but worked pretty well. That model had a big design flaw, though — the strap had a non-replaceable battery, and once it died, the strap was worthless. Also, the transmitter was built in to the strap, and activated by moisture. As a result, unless the electrodes were bone dry, the battery would run down. The new design is much better. The model I have is the H10, and the transmitter snaps onto the strap, and has a replaceable battery. The big difference is that it no longer comes with a watch. Instead, it uses bluetooth to connect to your favorite device (phone, watch, gym equipment, etc) where you then run an app of your choice to receive and process the heart rate data. Polar has its own app for this called Polar Beat, but there are many others out there as well.

I mainly had running in mind when I got the H10, but I also plan to use it occasionally while biking. So far, I’ve used it three times: twice while running, and once while using my treadmill desk. The latter was mostly out of curiosity: I wanted to see how high my heart rate got while I walked along at 2 mph. Turns out it tops out at around 80bpm. For running, I’m evaluating 2 different apps: RunKeeper (which I’ve used for many years) and Polar Beat. The jury is still out, but I’m currently leaning towards Polar’s app, as it includes more features without a premium subscription (the premium features are unlocked when you pair a Polar HRM with the app). I’m going to run with it a few more times, and see what I like and dislike about it.

I do kind of miss having a wristwatch, as it’s kind of difficult to get a point-in-time heart rate reading from the phone, particularly this time of year, when I keep it underneath various layers to keep the battery from running down in the cold. It may be less of an issue once the weather warms up. I may go back to using an armband in warm weather. There’s also the Apple Watch, but I’m not sure I’d get enough use out of it to warrant the price. I’m sure I’ll figure something out after I’ve been using the HRM for awhile.

Biking Climbing Health

Another year older

My birthday was last Thursday. It was a great day, except for the part where I threw my back out. I was just finishing up a MTB ride, and was riding a familiar section of trail that I almost always pass through on the way home. It’s a slightly technical spot, with a steep descent, followed by a small creek crossing, followed by a brief rocky climb. I usually just power right through it. I’m not even sure what I did this time around, but I could tell right away that my back was unhappy about something. Five days later, it’s still not 100%. The joys of middle age.

In my 20s and 30s, I wasn’t all that easy on my back, but managed to avoid major injuries. I wised up in my 40s, and have been pretty careful to avoid stressing it, but sometimes it just happens. This time around was unusual, because I wasn’t lifting anything. I started out by taking ibuprofen, but the past couple days, I’ve mainly been using Voltaren gel (recently made available OTC in the U.S.), which helps, albeit temporarily. Yoga helps as well, and yesterday, I tried an inversion table for the first time. The jury is still out, but stretching it that way did feel good. I think I have to ease into inversion a little bit more slowly, though, as I felt kind of dizzy and queasy for awhile afterward.

The good news is, the back issue hasn’t kept me from running, road biking, climbing, or walking on my treadmill desk. I was a little apprehensive about climbing at first, but it actually seems to help. I stuck mainly to gently-overhanging terrain, which kind of naturally stretches the back out as you hang and reach for holds. To an extent, gentle movement in general seems to work better than sitting or lying down. I haven’t yet tried mountain biking, but I’ve got to think the injury was a freak occurrence, as I’ve biked through that particular section dozens of times without issue. I suspect I was seated when it happened, so I probably want to make sure I’m out of the saddle the next time, so that my back moves independently of the bike.

Anyhow, I’m hoping that as long as I’m careful about my activities, this will resolve itself before too long. Keeping my fingers crossed.


2-Month Running Report

I’ve been running regularly for around two months now. I run mainly in the mornings, two days a week, in addition to my usual bike rides and weekly visits to the climbing gym. My regular route is 5.4 miles long, and in the beginning, I walked about half of it. I’m now up to running all of it except a tiny bit at the beginning and end, so let’s call it 5 miles. Initially, I mainly wore my Altra Escalante shoes, but more recently, I’ve been wearing Vibram V-Runs. I’ve been focusing on form, posture, cadence, and breathing, all of which I think are improving. My pace has been hovering around 10:30/mile. All in all, I’m pretty happy with my progress after just 2 months.

I’m no stranger to running. I did it a lot in my 20s and early-mid 30s, but my form was awful, and as did many others, I suffered from numerous nagging injuries, and eventually gave running up in favor of biking and other activities. I tried to pick it back up several times in my 40s, but invariably, some injury shut me down each time. Now, at 51, I’m hoping I’m finally over the hump. I credit this to three things: proper form, minimalist footwear, and perhaps most importantly, much less time spent sitting. Walking on a treadmill 3 to 4 hours a day at 2mph while working, has made a huge difference. I’ve been wearing minimal footwear full-time for 3.5 years, and have studied proper running form for about as long, but the treadmill is a recent addition, and as I’ve written before, I believe it has been a game-changer.

I’ve had to overcome some minor physical issues over the past couple of months. The plantar fasciosis that I struggled with for most of 2020 is not 100% gone, but it’s so mild that I don’t even notice it any more other than my first couple of steps after getting out of bed. I have some occasional tightness in my right hip flexor as well as my right groin and hamstring, all of which are helped by light stretching and yoga. I expect all of these will improve further as my body continues to adjust to regular running. A month or so back, I developed some nerve discomfort in the ball of my left foot, which was helped by wearing Strutz metatarsal pads over my socks during activity. The nerve pain has mostly abated as of this writing, though I’m still running with pad on my left foot as a precaution.

I don’t really have a running goal, other than to incorporate it as another way to stay active. My biking has fallen off somewhat as my running has ramped up, which I expected, and eventually, I’d expect to split my time about 50/50 between the two activities. Eventually, I’d like to run longer distances. I guess the next step would be to run 10K, and I’m pretty close to that, but am not in a hurry to get there. First, I need to get my body to the point where I don’t feel like stopping at the end of my runs. A lot of that is pacing, and possibly also diet, which is an aspect of long-distance running that I haven’t yet studied. I’ve still got some work to do, but I am happy with my progress so far, and hope I can keep this going.


Kayak Repair

In 2014, I bought my first kayak: a used Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125. Based on my research, I believe it is a 2006 model. It had some wear and tear when I got it, and it’s gotten even more wear and tear in the 7-or-so years that I’ve owned it. Last summer, when the keel sprung a leak, I decided that it was finally time for some long-overdue repairs. I don’t (yet) possess any winter kayaking gear, so winter is my off-season, making it a great time for this. One of my winter goals is to get the old Tsunami seaworthy again in time for spring. Here’s what’s on the plate.

Keel repair: The keel leak has broken me of my bad habit of “scraping” myself into the water on concrete launch ramps. Little did I know, but plastic hulls aren’t indestructible. After some research, I learned that it’s possible to “weld” new plastic onto the hull. The important thing is to get the same kind of plastic used for the hull, so I went online and ordered some Wilderness Systems brand weld rod stock. I used my old Radio Shack soldering gun as a heat source, and a putty knife to smooth the molten plastic. It wasn’t all that hard, and everything was going really well, until the soldering gun died. I heard a “pop”, it went dead, and that was all she wrote. I’m pretty sure the leak is patched, but it still needs a little bit more plastic, and some shaping up. I may try using my heat gun, or my 25-watt soldering iron, to finish the job. Then I’ll do a leak test, and sand the finished product a little bit to smooth it out. We’ll see how that goes.

New bungee rigging: My old deck bungees were losing their elasticity, and getting threadbare in spots, so I ordered some bulk bungee cord and replaced them. That’s a rather easy repair, but it can be tricky to cleanly cut bungee cord without it fraying. Similar to synthetic rope and accessory cord, you need to use heat to seal the ends. My favorite trick is to take an old table knife or saw blade, heat it with a propane torch until it is red hot, and then use it to slice through the cord (don’t forget to wear oven mitts 😀). It’s quick, easy, and leaves a nice, clean end.

The bungee cord on the carry handles, as well as the paddle holder, has also seen better days, but appears to be a smaller diameter than the deck rigging. I’m going to need to order some of the smaller diameter cord to replace those.

Bulkhead resealing: This one is TBD. My foam bulkheads have leaked for a few seasons. A couple of winters ago, I tried to fix them with silicone sealant, but the repair didn’t last. This year, I broke down and bought a kayak-specific bulkhead seal kit, and am going to see if that does the trick.

This kayak has taken me on some great adventures over the years, and I’m hoping that these repairs will give it a new lease on life.


Frozen Trails Finally

I finally got back out on my mountain bike this morning, for the first time in about a month. My last ride was not all that enjoyable, because the trails were such a muddy mess. I try to avoid riding through mud, both to keep it off my bike, and to avoid damaging the trails. As a result, it seemed like I was doing as much walking as riding that day, which really takes away most of the fun, because you can’t get into that awesome zen state of mind that you get on a long, uninterrupted trail ride.

Different story this morning. In the winter, when I wake up, my usual routine is to check the temperature. So often this winter, the forecast has predicted a dip into the mid 20s, but I’ve woken up only to find it never dropped below freezing. Today was the opposite. I initially didn’t think it was going to get cold enough, but I woke up to a very solid 26º. I checked the hourly readings, and found that it fell below freezing around 11pm, and stayed there all night. A perfect recipe for frozen trails!! With mild conditions predicted for the rest of the week, I figured today was the day to get reacquainted with the MTB.

I hit the trails a little after 7 this morning. Conditions were just about perfect. It was mild enough to be comfortable, but cold enough that the trails were frozen mostly solid. None of the streams were frozen, so I had no issues with footing on the crossings (I know I could just power right through the streams, but I still think it’s better for the bike to walk it). I’m happy I didn’t wait too long to get out. There were lots and lots of sections of thick mud with deep tire ruts and footprints. When frozen, you can just ride right over them. It makes for a rough ride in places, but it’s far better than slogging through mud. As I write this at about 11:00am, the temperature has crept above freezing, and I suspect the window has closed. On several occasions this past month, I’ve been tempted to head out despite marginal temperature conditions. Based on today’s ride, I’m glad I held off, and will wait for conditions like this before I go out again. I’m hoping the second half of January brings some colder mornings with it.

In spite of my rustiness, I think I rode pretty well this morning. I rode sections of Morning Choice, Rockburn Branch, and Ridge Extension (Captain John Smith) in Howard County; and “Gunned”, Soapstone, “Starstruck”, and Soapstone Reroute/Bull Run in Baltimore County. Out of all my various modes of exercise, mountain biking is the one most likely to get me winded. Lately, I’ve been reading “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art”, and working on applying some of the techniques while exercising. Today was my first opportunity to do this while mountain biking, and I think it helped me power up some ascents with which I’ve struggled in the past. One of these is “Water Bars”, a steep climb up from the Avalon day-use area that joins the trail network on the Howard County side of the park. One of my goals is to make it all the way up this ascent without stepping off the bike. I’ve come close, but the rocky stretch near the top has always tripped me up. Today, I got a little hung up on one of the trail’s namesake water bars about halfway up, but was able to power through the rocky section for the first time ever. I still got pretty winded at the top, but recovered fairly quickly. I think I’m making progress. I just need the weather to cooperate so that I can get more practice now!