Friday, May 27, 2011

The past few days

I'm going to start giving sections of the trip titles to sum up their general feelings.  Tuesday was "Biking".  Wednesday morning was "Macgyver".  Wednesday afternoon was "Tilting at tornadoes".  Thursday morning was "Flatland", and Thursday afternoon was "Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville".  Today is "Ultramarathoners are insane".  Now, to explain each of those.

On Tuesday evening in Santa Claus I wrote about the issues with the bike, about how it had been overheating.  As it turns out, it wasn't overheating.  Or, more accurately, that wasn't the primary problem.  The primary problem was that one of the mufflers had become almost completely detached.  In addition to making the bike annoyingly loud, this also messes with engine compression, hence some/all of the problems.  Luckily, with a mix of muffler tape, soda cans, and hose clamps, I was able to patch the very inconveniently placed holes.  It is probably the ghetto-est looking automotive fix I've ever done, even beating out the time I fixed an engine with just a ballpoint pen because this is nice and out in the open, but for the most part it's been working fine.  All I've had to do is occasionally tighten the clamps.
On a note unrelated to the fix, I also came closer than I'd ever come before to being in a motorcycle accident.  First, a couple informational points for non-motorcycle riders:
1. Head and tail winds can be annoying or helpful, respectively, but crosswinds are straight-up deadly.  If they gust they can force you off the road or into another lane of traffic, and if they're constant they force you to effectively bike at a slight angle to counteract the force (this is especially true for tiny bikes like the one I ride).
2. Tractor trailers (or any large object) block the wind for an area around them.  If there's no wind, the only dead spot is behind them, and a common hypermiling technique is to drive in this area of no wind in order to cut down air resistance.  If there's a cross-wind, there are also dead spots like this on the sides. 
These side dead spots are the important ones.  I was cruising along in the right lane as I usually do when a tractor trailer came to pass me, going significantly faster than I was.  Once it got past me, I hit the dead spot, and because I'd been correcting for the crosswind, I started moving towards the truck, which forced me to correct quickly in the other direction.  As soon as I could do this, the truck got ahead of me and the dead spot passed.  At this point the crosswind came back, knocking me strongly to the right, which was already the direction I was headed to avoid the truck.  As a result I had to screech to a halt on the shoulder to avoid going into the weeds at highway speed, which wouldn't have been very good.
Tilting at tornadoes
While stopped at a delightful combination gas station and liquor/fireworks store (we really need one or ten of those in Charlottesville), a passerby informed me that she hoped I wasn't heading west, because there was a tornado warning just past St. Louis.  Unfortunately, that's exactly where I was headed, and because I was already running late for the day and don't have as much flex time as I would like built into my schedule before hiking Mt. Whitney, I kept going, as fast as possible to make it through the storm quickly.  Not necessarily the smartest move (in fact, I think it's safe to say that it's definitely the  dumbest move I could've made in the situation), but it's what I did because, well, why not.  I ran into hideous traffic going through St. Louis (one of the reasons it's now my least-favorite US metropolitan area, and second worldwide), and as soon as I got through that I hit the storm.
Rain wise, I've seen worse.  Wind-wise, I've seen worse.  Combination of the two, well, I've still probably seen worse, but never on a motorcycle on the highway.  There were parts of it where the only way I could see where the road went was because of the taillights of the cars ahead of me, and the strong winds, plus slick road that prevented quick steering, meant I was drifting the entire width of the lane.  I never went into another lane (I had my default position be the far left side, and the wind was coming from the left), but it was close.  Luckily after Mt. Whitney I won't be on as tight a schedule and I'll be able to stop and sit out storms like that.
Because of going through the storm, though, I made it to Salina, Kansas.  Because of how wet and cold I was I just checked into a motel instead of the campground I'd been planning on using, and it was completely worth the extra cost.

Thursday morning was nothing but heading west through Kansas, and Kansas is flat.  If you've never been there, you really can't appreciate the accuracy of that statement.  There are points where the horizon is, as near as I can tell, a flat line all around.
I stopped for a picnic lunch at the highest point in Kansas, Mt. Sunflower, although calling it a mountain is misleading.  The prominence over the surrounding farmland is a whopping 19 feet, and it takes hundreds of feet in any direction to find a point that much lower.
Getting to Sunflower requires miles of driving on largely unmarked back-country Kansas gravel farm roads, and multiple times I thought I was lost, but I managed to make it there, and then back to the interstate, without any wrong turns.  I also got to experience the rare feeling of not actually knowing which state I was in, because the back roads criss-crossed from Kansas to Colorado without any sort of marking.

Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville
After leaving Kansas, the first part of Colorado wasn't much different.  The elevation was slightly higher but the overall feeling was the same.  Once I got past Denver, though, I finally realized that the unmoving clouds on the horizon were, in fact, the Rocky Mountains.
As I've mentioned before, I ride a 250-cc motorcycle.  That is, by most definitions, quite small, and as a comparison, it generates one-tenth the horsepower of a modern sport bike (20 vs. 200).  On the east coast, that's fine.  It can't quite make it to the speed limit on the uphill parts of I-64 where the limit got raised to 70, but overall it manages just fine.  Here, it struggled at times to maintain 45mph.  I had to drive in third gear (out of five) on the interstate.  However, despite these struggles, it made it, despite the common perception of 250s as being neither touring motorcycles nor good on hills.  And I'll confess, it certainly isn't ideal for either of these, but when you need it to, it can pull through just fine.
Anyway, after all the mountains, both the incredibly slow uphills and probably slightly too fast downhills, I made it to Leadville, Colorado, roughly 1,750 miles west of, and approximately two miles above, Charlottesville.

Ultramarathoners are insane
As some of you may know, it's harder to breath the higher above sea level you are.  I'm not sure about the number for Leadville, but on the summit of the highest peak I'll be hiking, Mt. Whitney, which is 4,300 feet above Leadville's elevation, you're only getting 58% of your normal oxygen.  Here it isn't quite that bad, but it's still enough to make breathing noticeably more difficult, even when you're just sitting there.  This hypoxia (lack of oxygen) causes what is known as altitude sickness, which I'm currently suffering.  The symptoms are headaches, trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite (there are more, but those are the ones I'm feeling).  They've been getting better the longer I spend here and they'll continue to improve as I stay at elevations like this, as my body acclimates to the air.
As some others of you may know, there's an annual race in Leadville, the Leadville Trail 100.  It's been held each August since 1983 and it is, as the name might suggest, a 100-mile trail race.  Such "ultramarathons" have grown in popularity the past few decades after the realizations that humans are actually not all that bad at running seemingly absurd distances.  Leadville was started because someone wanted to combine those absurd distances with altitude sickness, because 100 miles on its own just isn't tough enough.
I feel completely confident in saying that I'll never run 100 miles.  The farthest I've ever run is a little over a half-marathon, and I doubt that I'll break that anytime soon.  Earlier today, I went for a shorter run, just 2.6 miles, and I have to say, anyone who willingly runs in the Leadville 100 is insane.  2.6 was tough enough, although admittedly at the end it wasn't that bad.  You're already out of breath when you start, but it didn't really feel that different from running, say, the last 2.6 miles of a 5 or 8 mile run, from a breathing perspective.  However, running that 40 times is just crazy (not that that's necessarily a bad thing, I should point out.  I'm sure many people would consider a lot of the things I do to be crazy, but that doesn't make me think they're bad ideas).
The rest of the day has been spent getting ready for hiking tomorrow: getting maps, washing all the clothes that unfortunately got soaked and smelly as a result of one of my saddlebag rain-covers blowing away during the storm outside St. Louis, and reading.

I've taken a fair number of pictures, but I forgot that Windows doesn't have built-in support for Canon .cr2 raw files, so it'll take me some time to convert them over.  I probably won't end up posting them until much later, perhaps the end of the trip, but from now on I'll make sure to shoot in both .jpg and .cr2.
And now, time to read more.  Toodles.

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