Tipping Point

No matter what I do, there inevitably comes a true seasonal tipping point.  For me, this last week has been it.  Outside riding is on the wane; I am back on my e-bike.  Whereas I don’t do much stretching before I ride outside or inside in the summer, in the winter before mounting the e-bike I have a ten-minute routine, much-needed to make up for the lack of constant muscle movement I get on an outdoor ride.   For example, indoors I never have to turn my head and body to look behind me for oncoming traffic.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was still in summer mode, hitting a couple of stretches of four out of five days on the bike.  Then things happened.  A day of rain; a Saturday museum class; a couple more days of downpouring rain; a wonderful weekend trip to celebrate grandchildren, anniversaries, and family; a monster storm with two straight days of tornado watches and all-time record barometric lows for non-tropical storms;  three days of all-day conference commitments; weekend guests.  Bingo!  I will not have taken an outdoor ride for ten days, and only one or two in two weeks.  Yesterday I rode indoors for the third straight day and got into my winter riding routine.  It would take more ghoulies, ghosties, and thynges that go bump in the night than live in all of Cornwall for me not to take a ride Sunday afternoon before we start handing out Snickers bars.  Then a week later I lose that precious late-afternoon light of DST, though I might gain a bit by being able to start earlier on cold mornings.

When I don’t ride at all for a couple of days, some of my muscles and joints start aching; when I ride only indoors I lose form palpably, even though the e-bike is better at keeping me in a steady, constant resistance level.  Absent those regular, frequent outdoor jaunts maintaining optimum conditioning level is impossible for me, so when I do get outside I’m almost always in the mode of slowly building back my form.  It’s a Sisyphean situation.  However, if the weather holds and my schedule is gentle, I will be pounding the pedals into the Christmas holiday season, beginning on Halloween!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Winter Fat

Margaret, this blog’s honorary wildflower expert, reports that on a recent weekend hike around Mt. Rainier in Washington state she saw lots of bears fattening up for winter.  They were so desperate to pack on the calories that they paid no attention to the humans in their general area.  Seems that the berry crop was light this year because of the weather, and panic is setting in among the ursine population.  Gotta gain weight fast before the Big Snooze!  So a wider range of nutrient sources is in play, and competition for it is more intense.  (I stopped short to check the spelling of “Rainier.”  Bet there’s some local jokes about that, because there aren’t too many places rainier than the Seattle area.)

I see the mild, Virginia version of the same tunnel-vision focus when I’m riding these days.  Many squirrels are pancaked on the road, having forgotten about traffic dangers in their hunt for those extra acorns.  Even on the bike trail, they’ll manically dart halfway across, reverse direction, and zoom for cover into the underbrush from which they just emerged.  Their tiny rodent cousins, the chipmunks, do much the same thing.  Flocks of birds are fattening up to migrate or overwinter, seeking out those late-season bugs and grubs who thought they had made it safely through the summer.  House sparrows and starlings (two non-native pest species, I’m afraid) are the most frequent.  The former swoop like giant locust clouds through the trailside shrubbery, and the latter carpet lawns and grassy areas in their quest for bugs.

Other trailside fauna prepare in other ways.  Snakes are bolder, actively hunting while they still can revel in a bit more warm sun before they go dormant for the winter.  I saw a garter snake scoot across the trail, nearly ran over a smaller grass snake who didn’t see me passing the bike he was originally fleeing from and put on the mother of all frenzied wiggles, and a 30″ black snake who was in no hurry to go anywhere and only reluctantly left his warm beach of asphalt.  Tooling along the Fairfax County Parkway trail yesterday through long dry grass, legions of grasshoppers and other bugs rose up around me as I passed.  I was reminded of the Aesop Fable of the grasshopper and the ant.  These guys are still partying like winter will never come, jumping all over.  Amusing enough, except for the ones that land on my skin and hold on with the tiny hooks they use to grab.  Feels kind of eerie, especially when they land on the inside of your thigh.  Where are those bug-eating birds when you need them?

Meanwhile, my resolve is to watch the buildup of extra pounds this fall and winter.  Seems the human body tends to want to do that, in a vestigial impulse from the cave man days (you know, back in the Creationist Age, when people dressed in animal skins and there were dinosaurs).  The human genome hasn’t gotten the word about central heating, apparently.  So I will be trying to enjoy the heartier foods of the season without making a bear of myself, rooting around for all the extra calories I can find.  All too many of those calories will find me out without my collaboration.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

In the Air

Going out on the bike last Wednesday, it seemed like a vandal had been down the Trail.  Somebody with large spray painters and crimson, russet and burnt amber pigments had tagged whole swatches of leaves at random.  The same tree would have some old green and some of the new, warmer hues.  Dogwoods and some of the vines were especially hard-hit.  The painter had started out in Sterling and Herndon but was running out of paint nearer Vienna, where nights have been a tad lass cold.  Nevertheless the change was unmistakable.

Today the vandalism was different.  Rain and wind had stripped some of the leaves from the trees and scattered them messily all over the Trail.  And it was still going on as I rode.  One forgets how punishing a persistent headwind is until one heads into it.  As we left the National Gallery of Art after my morning class tour the downtown DC leaves were scuttling madly along the marble steps.  Out on the trail it hadn’t let up, and I wondered why my quads hurt so much as I plowed my way through the air out to Herndon.  On a day like this every effort needs to be redoubled; climbing Hunter Station Road into the wind took my velocity way down to about 5 mph.  I nevertheless steamed past a young woman who was gamely trying to keep her machine going forward but was veering all over the place, and made a sort of supportive/sympathetic comment on the way by.  On days like this it is I who gets passed a lot, because the casual recreational riders find less strenuous activities, while the serious ones come out to test their mettle.  I was passed by a number of carbon fiber bikes (Cervelo, Specialized, Trek) today, but I handily passed my own bike, or at least the same Trek 2.1 model I own and often ride, on the silver Jamis Coda Comp I used today.

Persistence is its own reward when the wind is blowing, because the homeward-bound ride is effortless.  I always head out into a strong wind, because if I am being pushed to the limit I want to feel it and react to it as I see fit, knowing that whenever it is that I can’t take any more riding into the wind, I can just turn around and enjoy a nearly effortless homeward leg.  Today the George Hincapie quip “no chain!” seemed just right; pedaling was about that effortless.  Despite my reluctance to freewheel, I can at least control the degree of my effort, decide just how much burning sensation in my legs I want to deal with.

On the last leg of the ride today I looked at the sun low in the sky, feeling its warmth as an antidote to wind chill.  Even at 62° that chill is a factor; 20° lower and the wind truly starts to hurt in a different way, compelling the body to work harder to maintain a warm enough core temperature.  But today it was warm enough even in shadows.  Nonetheless I pondered the reality that in a couple of weeks the sun would be that low more than an hour earlier, as Daylight Savings Time gets rolled back.  Carpe diem for the long afternoon ride.  Change is in the air, and every extra degree a bonus.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Tick-(tick)-Tick-(tick , tick)-(TICK)-(tick)-(—)-Tick-(tick)

My mother complained of heart arrhythmia over most of the last 30 years of her life.  Sometimes her heart would beat extra fast.  Sometimes it would beat fast and heavily too.  Her physicians all told her that such behavior is disturbing but not correctable or even treatable, and probably not life-threatening.  Needless to say, that was not very comforting to her.  But she lived to 91.

Looks like I got most of my mother’s Dutch health genes, along with the obvious bicycling one.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  Strong bones, good teeth, generally excellent health (last time I was in the hospital as a patient was age 12, for an ingrown toenail operation).  That may be changing; I suspect my next general checkup in two weeks is going to show higher blood sugar levels and blood pressure.  But overall I can hardly complain.  But along with the good stuff, I seem to have gotten her slightly irregular heartbeat.

For two decades, I’ve tended to have dizzy spells and elevated heart rates very sporadically, but mostly when the seasons change from winter to spring, and summer to fall.  Ten or fifteen years ago, these episodes began to occur several (6-8) times a year, with varying degrees of intensity.  I’d have a little trouble catching my breath for a minute or two, and  I might sweat heavily or feel a tingling sensation.   Those symptoms would quickly fade, but I’d be left with a heartbeat just about twice normal (120 instead of 60 bpm), perhaps a heavy, pounding beat, especially every other beat.  This would last for an hour or two, and then things would subside fairly quickly to normal.  During the episode, however, I couldn’t do much exercise because my heart was already working twice as hard as usual just to keep enough oxygen supplied to my whole body.

My doctors all said they’d love to catch me during an episode to observe it, but they couldn’t do much besides giving me a stress test, which I easily passed every time.  They couldn’t diagnose my arrhythmia if they couldn’t observe it, and it never happened at a good time.  Usually I would be doing something totally banal, like visiting a museum, or walking from the house into the garage, or even sleeping at night.  A few times it happened on bike rides, at times that could be related to some stressful efforts, but not during any stressful moments.  I once got one crossing Maple Avenue on the pedestrian light after a longish ride on a hot day.

On the bike, the symptoms included a sudden sharp drop in power and reserve strength, and a deep muscular soreness in my shoulder and neck area.  After the street-crossing event I had to lie down on the grass at the Vienna Community Center for an hour, and then gingerly pedal home at half of normal speed.  Any faster and I’d be out of breath, and even for that short two-mile hop my shoulders and neck really hurt.  All symptoms rapidly disappeared when my heart rate and rhythm returned to normal two hours later.

Over  the last year my emphasis has been on proper nutrition, electrolyte balance, and hydration.  These concerns have been greatly aided by Vitamin D pills, electrolyte-boosting drinks after rides, and two great backpack hydration systems.  And since a year ago August, I have had only three episodes, only one on the bike.  Unfortunately the one on the bike was yesterday.

I had just ascended Hunter Station Road, a challenging effort for me, but one I do regularly when I ride west on the W&OD trail.  The feeling came on as I was swinging around on the loop that takes me back to the trail.  Halfway up a hill I confirmed what I thought I felt; my legs were strong but I was out of breath anyway, and I had to rest for five minutes or so before continuing on.  For about 90 seconds it felt fine, but then my body ran out of oxygen again and my overworked heart could not provide more.  So I gently went on for a couple of miles, called Jane in Herndon at her child care post, and decided to work my way out there.  In Herndon I rested at my usual trail spot, the old railroad station, for 15 or 20 minutes.  I debated just going back the 10.5 miles to home; after all, it’s mostly downhill.  After my rest my heart rate was down slightly (100 bpm or so) and I was feeling good!   Discretion is the better part of valor, I wisely decided, and rode on gingerly to Fantasia Drive, noting that once again I felt fine only until the oxygen that had built up during my rest ran out of my muscles again.

After a half-hour lie-down I drove home.  You can’t fool Mother nature, and it’s best not to mess with her either.

Today was a new day, though.  I began one of my usual rides, to Shirlington and back through North Arlington neighborhoods, taking it relatively easy.  Feeling fine, my body and mind soon enough got instinctively in the groove.  Won’t say I hammered it the whole way, but on a picture-perfect Saturday, sharing the route with all kinds of riders and other trail users, not one person passed me in 21.8 miles!  I’m the baddest, fastest, coolest cyclist on the road!!  Or the luckiest.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Cycling in the 50s

. . . not as in The Decade, not as in The Birthdays, but as in Fahrenheit.  Less than two weeks ago I was planning my rides for early in the day to avoid the sweltering 90°s of the afternoon, worried about dehydration on long rides, and wondering whether the breezy dry heat would lead to brush fires.  Now, ten or eleven days–and 5″ of tropical rain, two cold fronts, and more showers later–I have logged my first ride with long sleeves, and the biggest question for the last couple of days has been whether lightweight leggings are in order (my answer has been “no”).

In the last forty-eight hours I have ridden twice under leaden gray skies, cool breezes, and occasional cold, liquid pinpoints of drizzle.  Riding in that kind of weather changes everything.  The decisions I make are different from those of summer cycling.  Do I even need my hydration system?  Should I take a rain jacket along?  What kind of underlayer and outerwear combination goes best with this temperature?  Will the sun shine at all?  Do I want sunglasses?

You know the season’s changed when the sun brings with it a truly comforting warmth.  With a north wind every short burst of sunshine feels so nice, at least on my south side.  My north, shady, side remains cool, a bit like the side of the moon that never gets sunshine.

Out on the trail most of the casual cyclists are gone.  Everybody I saw today was a distance tourist with panniers, or someone going from point A to point B using a bike as basic transportation, or a serious recreational/fitness rider.  The three categories were represented about equally among the 14 cyclists who passed me going the other way and the 5 I passed going my way (nobody passed me).  I figure that if I go on a 24 mile ride at a given speed, then I see about 48 linear miles of bike traffic going the other way, assuming that the others are riding roughly as fast as I am (a generous assumption for the lot I just described).  And I survey roughly 24 linear miles of traffic going my way.  So seeing 19 other riders over a total of 72 linear miles does not reflect a very great amount of traffic on the trail: about one every 3.7 miles.

In little more than a heartbeat we have shifted from a Labor Day environment to what seems like a Thanksgiving environment.  The meteorological prognosticators (or “Weathermen,” not a bad name considering how often their forecasts “bomb”) are predicting some perfect September weather (sunny, highs in the mid-70s) for tomorrow through Monday.  It’s about time!  And just right for Indigenous Americans Columbus Day.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Fall Light

We wake up these days in the eerie predawn twilight, half-expecting the bright morning of summer.  But that’s gone.  The cats are less anxious about early rising, sleeping in as long as we do.  The neighbor’s young cat Alice spends her whole day cavorting around her own and the next-door backyards, occasionally getting as far as our place, two houses away.  She futilely stalks squirrels, chases invisible mice, climbs a few feet up big trees after a running start.  She’s done it all summer, and without her probably even knowing it her hours are more limited and her kittenish days are numbered.  Soon it will be too icy for cavorting, and by next summer Alice will probably be less exuberant in her ways.  I enjoy her antics, and the daylight, while I can.

Alice is playing now, at 4:50 p.m., in a yard of lengthening and darkening shadows.  Night falls sooner just as day begins later.  We had some 90º days only last week, but the mornings warmed up slowly, the less humid high temperature marks were hit briefly in mid-afternoon, and then almost immediately it started dropping again, well back into the low 60°s.  There’s so much more nighttime now that the  air is cooled more intensely during the night, the earth stays cooler, and the daytime heat of the sun has more to overcome.

And it’s at the wrong angle to do so.  Lower in the sky, it casts long shadows even at noon.  No matter what time of day I ride on the W&OD now, half the time I’m in deep shade, feeling cooler, sometimes even cold.  The spots along the trail where that cold air lurks and concentrates now radiate an authoritative chill, just as the heat traps radiated hot pockets of air all summer.  And the shady spots are truly dark.  An approaching runner shouted to me today as I passed another bike, afraid I would not see him and get back over.  I’d seen him already, but better safe than sorry.  I do the same thing.  So the traditional Saturday dodge-’em game goes on with new rules.  You have to peer into shadows, especially when there are scads of long, slow family trains, totally unattended toddlers on tricycles (yes, there are!), conversations on the trail among “walkers” who are standing stock still to gab, and riders on cell phones (they hear “hang up and ride!” from me).

Today would attract anyone outside, I’ll admit.  The sky was that “Bellini blue” that only Venetian renaissance masters had in hand.  It’s intense, it’s dark, almost all the way down to the horizon.  Giovanni Bellini’s sky in “St. Jerome Reading,” Titian’s in “Bacchus and Ariadne,” are like that.  Our Bellini skies come from dry northern air masses, and they’re so dark because there are few water vapor particles, atmospheric pollutants, and other floating matter in the air to reflect sunlight.

And we’d all been waiting through two days of extraordinary tropical storminess for this air to arrive.  After a solid month and more of hot drought we overshot our average September rainfall thanks to 4+” on September 30 and some additional showers the next day.  The deluge was the remnants of some tropical storm, and the upper air currents it was generating pulled air from Antigua, Jamaica, and vicinity up along the Atlantic coast all the way to New England.  Even the Red Sox and Yankees were postponed in Boston (in a game regrettably devoid of meaning) by Caribbean rain.  The new air gustily blew in last night, and today all was dry and calm, bright and shady, crowded and happy, on the Trail.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.