Climbing Kayaking Pool

Early Fall Ramblings

It’s that time of year where I always feel like summer has slipped away before I had the chance to do everything I wanted. This year, in particular, I didn’t get out in the kayak very much; lately, though, I’ve been making up for that. Last weekend, Michael and I joined a few of my geocaching friends for a really nice 9-mile paddle on the Patuxent River in southern Maryland, and today, Cathy and I drove over the bridge for a morning paddle on the headwaters of the Chester River. I love paddling this time of year, as the temperatures and humidity start to drop and the leaves start to turn. I hope to get out one or two times in October. I’ve occasionally considered starting to acquire some colder-water paddling gear, so that I can keep paddling later into fall and early winter, but have yet to take the plunge. It seems like a paddling jacket, wetsuit and neoprene socks might be an economical way to extend the season for a few weeks. Then, I could see if I get enough use out of that gear to warrant a larger investment in a dry suit, which would allow for year-round paddling.

Many years, I find myself wishing that I had gotten in our pool more often, but not this year. According to Apple Health, today was my 83rd time in the pool in 2021. Working from home 3 days a week provides more opportunities to swim during the day, as I can keep an eye on the weather and pick the best time to jump in the pool. The weather this month has helped to extend the season, as well — we have had a lot of sunny days, and no extended runs of cool, damp weather, which is what led to the early demise of last year’s pool season. I can’t even remember the last time I was in our pool as late as September 30. We will see how long we can keep the season alive. In October, the leaves make it tougher and tougher to keep the pool clean, and eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns, where the hassle of cleaning the pool exceeds the desire to swim.

I am hoping to do a little bit of outdoor top-rope climbing this fall. I have still been climbing regularly at the gym, and still really enjoy it. Earlier this year, I picked up some equipment to rig up a top-rope self belay. When I can get my act together, I want to head to Ilchester or Alberton Rocks and do a couple hours of solo top-rope and rappelling. I had been waiting for cooler, less humid weather, and it seems like it’s here now.

Anyhow, that’s enough for now…


Beach Ratio

I’m back at the shore this week, and as always, have been exploring the area a lot by bike. For the past couple of years, I’ve brought my single speed road bike. It’s perfect for the coast, because everything is flat, so there’s really no need for multiple gears. At home in the Patapsco Valley, I ride a 42/20 gear ratio. I kept the same ratio the past two years at the shore, but it was way too low for the flat terrain. On a long, flat stretch with a tailwind, I felt like I was spinning like crazy and not going anywhere. This year, I changed to a 42/16. I already had a 16-tooth freewheel sitting around, so all I had to do was put it on the bike and take a link out of the chain (a SRAM PC-1 that is at least 7 or 8 years old and still going strong). It made a huge difference. It takes a little bit more effort to get going, but once the bike is moving, I can go a lot faster and cover longer distances more efficiently. With a good tailwind, the gearing still feels a tad low, but I think that if I went any taller than 42/16, it would make uphill slopes and headwinds a bit of a chore. I may change my mind again down the road, but it seems pretty good the way it is now.

The only thing that might be a pain is when I get home and have to switch back to 42/20, because I’ll need to add a link back to the chain. I may just keep a second chain around that I can swap in and out along with the freewheel, but either way, I’ll need to break both chains to swap them on and off the bike. Sounds like a pain either way, but if it’s only once a year or so, it might not be too bad. I guess we will find out.


Home Office Ergonomics

When UMBC abruptly switched to full-time telecommuting back in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, I had to make some adjustments to my home office setup. Prior to then, I never telecommuted, and our basement home office sat mostly unused. Our printer is there, and I used to have a desktop Linux server there as well, but I now use a laptop for most all of my computing needs at home, so I got rid of the computer in favor of a Raspberry Pi to run the printer and a couple of other things.

As I settled in to the new routine, I slowly morphed my home office into something that worked well for me ergonomically. I brought my iMac home from work, as well as a Varidesk to give me a sit/stand option. Several months later, I bought a Lifespan under-desk treadmill, which necessitated some additional changes. I had to prop the Varidesk up on 2x4s, because it didn’t have quite enough extension to account for the treadmill’s extra height. I also bought a Kinesys Freestyle 2 split keyboard so that I could get my hands a little farther apart, as it felt unsteady typing on a standard keyboard while walking. This setup served me pretty well for quite awhile.

This spring, we got word that we could finally return to the office. Starting in July, I’ll be splitting my time about 50/50 between home and office. That means I need to get an ergonomic work environment set up in both locations, which means more changes. I’ll be taking the Varidesk back to the office, so I needed another sit/stand solution so that I could continue to work on the treadmill at home. I thought about purchasing an identical Varidesk, but quite frankly, with Varidesk, you pay a lot for the name. There are other products out there that are just as good quality for less money. Also, I wondered if maybe I could find something that wouldn’t require 2x4s to get it up to the proper height.

To make a long story short, I ended up buying a Flexispot M3. While the quality is by-and-large the same as the Varidesk, the Flexispot is built differently. It uses an ‘X’ shaped lifter system, vs the ‘Z’ lifter on the Varidesk. While the Varidesk surface moves toward you as you raise it, the Flexispot moves straight up and down. It seems a little bit more stable when fully extended, and perhaps more importantly, goes up a couple of inches higher, which means no more 2x4s.

The Flexispot has a larger top desk surface than the Varidesk, but a smaller keyboard tray. The keyboard tray also sits a little bit lower relative to the upper surface. The Varidesk’s tray was at about the perfect height for me, so I was a little bit worried that the Flexispot’s might be too low. I was also concerned that I might not have enough room for my mouse. The only way to find out is to try it, though, so I went ahead and set everything up and started my usual walk-and-work routine.

It turns out that my keyboard height concerns were well-founded. With the Flexispot fully raised, my screen was at the perfect height, but the keyboard felt too low. Surprisingly, though, in spite of the minimal space (there isn’t even enough surface for a standard sized mouse pad), I’ve had no problems using my Apple Magic Mouse. It turns out that the Magic Mouse only needs about an inch to inch-and-a-half in all directions to be fully usable. I’m able to work effectively with it, and have never had the issue where I run out of real estate and have to reposition the mouse.

I played around with the keyboard height for a little while, propping it up on 2x4s, loose-leaf binders, and whatever else I had on hand, just trying to figure out what would work. None of these MacGyver-esque hacks really worked all that well. When I tried to raise the keyboard up, I found that I lacked space to rest my palms, and also couldn’t see the top row of function keys, because they were hidden by the upper part of the desk. Eventually, I bought the VIP3 tenting accessory for my Kinesys keyboard. It includes integrated palm rests, as well as risers that raise the center edges of the keyboard halves, allowing for a more ergonomic wrist position. That got the keyboard up to a height where it felt comfortable to type. Also, the palm rests allowed me to slide the keyboard toward me far enough so that I could see the top row of keys.

This setup seems to work pretty well, but I’m at the top of the Flexispot’s height range, and to be honest, the keyboard still feels a tiny bit low when I wear shoes. Down the road, I may yet need to shim the desk up a little bit to get things perfect, but I’m going to try it this way for awhile before making further adjustments. Overall, I am happy with the Flexispot M3, but do kind of wish the keyboard tray height could be adjusted, as it would eliminate this one issue.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this some more once I’m back at the office and settling into my new routine.


Farewell Brood X

I’m trying to remember to write down my observances of this year’s Brood X cicada emergence, so that I have some data points to refer back to when the next wave shows up in another 17 years. I don’t have a single photo or note from 2004, which is somewhat unfortunate, but my priorities were elsewhere back then. I guess that’s yet another neat thing about periodical cicadas — they provide reference points for different stages of life. Anyhow, this year’s crop is really winding down. Yesterday, I took a 5 mile walk. Most of the cicadas I saw on the ground were dead, although there were a few live ones here and there. The chorus in the trees is trailing off. Today was cool and rainy, and there was no real sign of them at all. So… for posterity: in our area, things kicked off around May 20, peaked around June 7, and wrapped up around June 21-22. Goodbye, Brood X. Hope to see you again in 2038, and maybe a few of you in 2025 and 2034.

Biking Pool


Summer is definitely here. Yesterday, we got in the pool for the first time this season. It was a bit later than we usually do, but it took a long time for the water to warm up this year. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, our pool got a LOT of use. I think I got in the pool more times last year than the previous 10 years combined. I used it quite a bit for exercise. Our pool is 40′ long, and it’s possible to swim laps in it, but you have to stop frequently to turn around. It wasn’t until last year, when we acquired a swim tether, that I really started swimming a lot. Swimming with a tether is akin to walking on a treadmill. You don’t go anywhere, but you can swim forever, and I now feel like I’m getting real exercise rather than constantly having to stop to turn around. I’m hoping to keep up the regular swimming this season.

I get the feeling that we are near the peak of this year’s Brood X cicada emergence. They are everywhere, and I’ve been spending a lot of time fishing them out of our pool. Unlike some other insects, periodical cicadas seem to be completely helpless once they hit the water. They can survive awhile in the water, but they can’t get out on their own. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve rescued. Once you get them out, though, they seem no worse for the wear. They really are fascinating creatures. If all goes according to the grand plan, we’ll be out of this house before the next emergence in 2038, so this will be the last year I have to fish them out of the pool.

I went out on the mountain bike this morning. Last year was my first exposure to summer mountain biking in a very long time, and I forgot how much more I sweat on a MTB than when biking on the road. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the activity — it requires a lot of short bursts of exertion, the speeds are slower (meaning there’s less cooling from air movement) and sometimes I have to get off the bike and push for short distances. All of that adds up to a LOT of sweating on hot, humid days, and last year, I quickly learned that a single water bottle was not sufficient to keep me hydrated through a 2-hour mountain bike ride. Also, when riding technical single track, it’s a lot harder to find opportunities to grab the water bottle and drink. Put those together, and I found myself getting dehydrated and running out of energy frequently. This year, I decided to start using my Osprey hydration pack in lieu of a water bottle, and it has been a clear winner. I can drink whenever I want, even through technical sections of trail, and I find myself drinking much more often and staying hydrated, and I can complete a 2-hour ride without pooping out and with plenty of energy to spare afterwards. Today, with temperatures in the mid-70s and the dewpoint hovering just under 70, I rode for 2 hours and went through 2.5 liters of water.

Miscellany Weather Work


I have not been motivated to post much here recently, because quite frankly, life has been kind of repetitive over the past few months. I wake up, eat breakfast, bike/walk/hike/run/climb/etc., work, sleep, repeat. Not much to write about, but there are signs that normalcy is slowly starting to return. In a few weeks, our entire family will be fully vaccinated against COVID. Work has told us that we can return “en masse” starting July 6. The weather is warming up, and we’ll soon be swimming, and sometime in the next week or two, I hope to take the kayak out for the first time in 2021.

The return to the office is going to be the biggest shake-up in my daily routine since we all became instant telecommuters in spring 2020. There are things I like about working from home, but I really need to get back to the office just for a change of scenery. I also have missed commuting by bike. I can’t say exactly how my weekly routine will eventually shake out, but I think I’m going to start by going to the office 2 days a week and working from home the other 3. One of the challenges is going to be getting a proper ergonomic workspace set up in both places. I’m going to take my VariDesk sit/stand desk back to the office, which means I’ll need to get a standing desk for home to use with my treadmill. I’ll probably also need a new iMac. Lots of stuff to think about, but I’ve still got several weeks.

The other big news is the emergence of the 2021 Brood X cicadas. It seemed like they got a slow start this year because the first half of May was so cool, but I don’t have an exact recollection of when they started emerging in 2004 (let alone 1987). However, they’re out now, and making their presence known. A lot of “early bird” Brood X stragglers emerged in 2017, and a log I wrote on 5/25/2017 mentions that they were quite loud in Columbia on that date. So, maybe they’re more-or-less on target after all. I have a lot of memories of periodical cicadas from 1987 and 2004. The cool thing about them is that they provide reference points for different stages of life. In 1970, I was an infant; in 1987, a teen; in 2004, a young parent; and this year, a middle-aged father of two teens, one about to start college. Next time around, in 2038, I’ll be retired, and my kids will be in their 30s.

I’ve read up a lot on perodical cicadas over the years, and know a lot more about them than I did last time they showed up. I’m trying to learn the differences between each of the 3 species. I have noticed that the so-called “pharaoh cicada” (Magicicada septendecim) begins singing earlier in the day than the other two species. My son likened the sound of these cicadas to the sound the rails make at a train station when a train is approaching. The other two species (M. cassinii and M. septendecula) sound somewhat similar to each other, and kind of like a cross between a weed-whacker and a garden-variety summer annual cicada. These two species seem to begin singing a bit later in the morning than M. septendecim — after the sun is up and the day is warming up. It is hard to believe that we only have about 6 weeks with these guys before they die off and the 2038 brood hatches and burrows underground. I will miss them when they’re gone, but look forward to seeing them again later in life.


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.