Antelope Island (and visiting the Great Salt Lake)

Rob called me crazy when I told him I was planning on going for a five and a half hour bike ride on Monday… two days after another five and a half hour bike ride.

He might have been right.

But when you are training for an Ironman, you end up doing crazy things to fit in your workouts, and since I had a race coming up that weekend, I needed to fit my long bike ride in earlier in the week.  Fortunately, the 4th of July was perfectly timed to allow this.

I did make a concession—instead of doing my typical fairly hilly route, I decided to do the flattest route I could find.  Essentially, this meant that I was riding north to Antelope Island, which is a peninsula (not an island!) that sticks out into the Great Salt Lake.  I knew absolutely nothing about it except that it was called Antelope Island and that the ride out there was flatter than anything else I’ve ridden in Salt Lake City.  I hoped the flats would be easier on my legs, and even though I’ve been living here a year and a half, I had never actually made it out to the Great Salt Lake, so it was about time to check that off the list.

I left early.  Since I typically wake up before dawn anyway, I figured I might as well get out on the bike as early as I could so that I had some time to relax and recover after the ride.  So, at 6:30am, I headed out the door.  It was a nice morning, but it’s usually nice before 7:00am.  I wasn’t sure what kind of day this particular pleasant morning would turn into.

I rode through town a bit and then I was out on the open road heading north.  I’m not used to riding long, flat stretches, so when I got down into aero position, I felt like I was flying.  At one point when I reached a beautifully paved bike path, I thought, “This ride is criminally beautiful.”  It wasn’t long before I realized I’d been out for 23 miles, and I still felt completely fresh and excited about my ride.  The path I was riding on was surrounded by trees and grassland with mountains on the horizon.  Even when I left the bike path, I was riding through some pretty neighborhoods.

And then, I turned west to head out to Antelope Island.  Pretty soon, I could smell the salt water.   Eventually, I hit a booth guarding the entrance into the state park (Surprise!  Turns out it’s a state park!).  I had to pay $3 to get in, even on my bike.  It was good to see the place, but I’m not sure I’ll be going back anytime soon.  It wasn’t even 10:00am yet and it was already warm and a little stinky.  The road was newly sealed which was great for riding, but I imagine the heat radiating off that road during the hottest part of summer days is nearly unbearable.  When the water is high, the road is a causeway, and you’re basically surrounded by water.  However, the water isn’t high this year, so I was mostly riding by some patches of water and some salt flats (which was still beautiful in its own right!).

SaltFlats
Can you imagine how hot this area would be in the afternoon?

I stopped a couple times to get photos, but those attempts were mostly aborted early because of the bugs.  I have never seen horseflies so big.  These must have been prehistoric horseflies that drank the blood of the dinosaurs.  And whenever I stopped, they swarmed around me immediately, landing on me and biting me.  Needless to say, that kept me moving.  I did eventually get a little further away from the water and climbed a bit of a hill and actually got a good view of the lake.  Despite the stink, the Great Salt Lake is an impressive and beautiful body of water.  I’m glad I made the trip out to see it (even though I don’t particularly want to go out there again!).

Plains
The bugs attacked me when I took this photo.

As I headed back over the causeway, I started being buffeted by crosswind.  During a couple of strong gusts, I actually felt my wheels just barely start to slip out from underneath me.  At some point, I realized that this very strong crosswind was coming almost directly from the south, at which point I felt a sinking sense of dread as I recalled my route for the day…. about 35 miles straight north, then west towards Antelope Island, then back.  I was going to battle this headwind straight on for 35 miles.

I made it to the gas station where I was going to fuel up before turning south.  And I took my sweet time.  I went to the bathroom.  I ate all of my trail mix while sitting in the shade in front of the gas station.  I may have played a couple rounds of a game on my phone.  And then, with a resigned sigh, I got on my bike and rode into the wind.  It wasn’t so bad at first.  I was going through neighborhoods, and the houses and trees served as wind blocks.

Then, I hit the pedestrian/bike path.  My wind blocks were gone.  And it was tough. I am not a strong rider in the wind.  Having a bit of mass to you helps in the wind because the mass helps keep your momentum moving forwards.  Despite being pretty tall, I don’t have a lot of mass, and that basically turns me into a wind sail.  The wind just kept beating me down.  I eventually made it to Redwood Road, the north-south boulevard that would finally take to my last eastward turn.  The wind was even worse here, nearing 20mph.  In fact, I’m sure the gusts exceeded that.  I was struggling to turn the cranks over and just trying to keep a 15mph average.  Even though I was so close to being done, I felt more demoralized than ever.

Finally, I had to stop and give myself a pep talk.  This doesn’t happen very often.  Usually, I’m good at soldiering through workouts without having to play many mind games.  But not during this ride.  I needed to talk myself through the next few miles in the wind.  “Okay.  You have, at the most, four more miles until you turn out of the wind.  You’ve been holding a pretty good pace.  So that four miles will take you, at most, twenty more minutes.  Twenty more minutes and you’ll be on the home stretch.  Twenty more minutes, and this whole thing will be over.”  I started up again and was soon met with a particularly nasty gust of wind.  “This is just a gust.  It won’t be this bad forever.”  That was my mantra every time I was smashed with another particularly bad gust of wind.

After a miserable fifteen or twenty minutes, I finally saw my turn.  It was like sitting down after a long run.  I still had a few miles until I was done riding, but I knew the hard part was done.  Once I wasn’t battling a headwind, I was riding around 17mph, even with my tired legs.  I got back to Rob’s place, and he welcomed me in and took my bike for me, like my own personal T2 volunteer.  (He also commented on my slow transition as I languished on the couch trying to avoid my transition run!)

This was my furthest training ride so far at 94.5 miles.  I almost rode a century on my own two days after a long, hard ride.  This was a pretty serious milestone in my training.  On a flatter course (even on tired legs and with some serious wind), I averaged 17.1mph over almost 95 miles.  I still have work to do.  I have a little more fitness to gain during the next few weeks.  I need to dial in my nutrition a little more.  I’ve got a few more tweaks to make to my bike.  But for the first time, I’m starting to think I might be (nearly!) ready.

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Crash!

The weather was ominous from the start.

The forecast had predicted some rain on Monday afternoon for a while, but a little bit of rain when cycling in warm weather is hardly the worst thing in the world, so I planned to ride home from work on Monday anyway.  As I left, I was greeted with a stiff wind and overcast, threatening skies.  The rain started not long after I reached the Jordan River Parkway Trail.  It wasn’t raining hard, but it did rain steadily for about twenty minutes or so, and the path was wet.

I came up to a turn in the trail.  It wasn’t a particularly sharp turn, but it was going downhill and the asphalt had been sealed recently which made it quite smooth.  As I made the turn, I felt my back wheel lose traction and skid out from under me.

I knew I was going down, and time suddenly slowed down.  As I fell, I remember thinking, “Wow, it’s a good thing I’m wearing a helmet… I could have gotten a serious head injury otherwise!”  I literally always wear my helmet on my bike, so I’m not sure why this was what came to my mind.

And then I hit the ground.  I went flying across the path.  My bike went flying in a pile of mud.  Just as I skidded to a standstill, I heard my Garmin beep as it paused automatically because the bike was no longer moving.  Oh good.  I would have forgotten to do that on my own. The moment that thought crossed my mind, I thought it was absolutely hilarious.  Of course that was the first thing I thought of.

But then, I started checking myself for any serious injuries.  I stood up and seemed to be in one piece.  My head felt fine, but my elbow and hip hurt.  I checked my elbow and saw a few bloody abrasions, but they were small and not all that serious.  My hip hurt more than my elbow did. I know that sometimes the shock of a crash can dull the pain of an injury so I had no idea what to expect.  I could see that my cycling shorts were scuffed up, and I was worried about what I’d see underneath the shorts.  I braced myself and pulled up my shorts.

Relief.  There was no road rash.  I hadn’t even broken the skin.

Elbow

I knew I was in pretty good shape, but the crash had shaken me up.  I felt sick to my stomach, and my mind was still racing.  So I walked my bike a few dozen yards until I was under a bridge and out of the rain and then sat down and called Rob.  I wasn’t sure if I should get him to come pick me up or not, but I wanted to talk to someone.  That usually helps me calm down*.  He didn’t pick up, so I sent him a text telling him I was fine but had crashed and I’d call him again if I needed him and dialed my dad.  We chatted for a couple minutes and I realized that it made more sense for me to ride home.  I had no major injuries, and since it was about rush hour time, it would have taken Rob a long time to reach me and a long time to get back.

So I (rather cautiously) got back on my bike and continued my ride.  I was much more careful to slow down for any turns, and I didn’t ride aggressively.  Because of the abrasions on my elbow, I didn’t even risk trying aero position until I was almost back.  My elbow hurt a bit when it started raining, but it was otherwise fine.  My hip ached when I pedaled, and it hurt whenever I hit a bump in the path, but it was manageable.

About an hour and twenty minutes later, I got to Rob’s house.  I took some Advil, washed out my elbow wounds, and then spent the evening on the couch while he made me dinner and brought me ice cream.

Maybe I’ll have to try this “crashing” thing more often…

DirtyKit
My jersey was a little worse for the wear, though.
ScratchedBike
My bike was like me… mostly okay, but a few scratches and bruises.

*I was acting calm, but I could tell that I was in a bit of shock and still not quite thinking clearly, and I didn’t want to make any decisions until I was a little more in control.

A bike fitting and aero bars

Over the weekend, I got my first professional bike fit.  I had been meaning to add aero bars to my bike for, oh, two years now.  It’s a pretty big investment, though, so I never got around to it.

I knew I was approaching crunch time to get my aero bars on and learn how to ride in the aero position before my Ironman, so I finally bought a pair of clip-on aero bars and made plans to get them installed and get a bike fitting.  I wanted to get my fitting done at TriTown, which is the triathlon/bike shop that Rob and I frequented when we lived in Boise.  The staff is friendly and more than competent, and the owners are great.  Antonio even tweaked protocol and scheduled my bike fitting for a Saturday (they normally try to keep bike fits on weekdays) to fit in with Rob’s and my travel schedule.

We showed up a little bit late (when you live out of state, you forget what the exact commute times are!).  There’s nothing like someone doing you a favor and then showing up late to the appointment.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a problem because Antonio was pretty busy with a few customers right when Rob and I got there anyway.  I had a general idea of what to expect (hop on the trainer, do some spinning, get some adjustments), but I didn’t know how involved it would be.

Antonio started by measuring the current set up of my bike and watching me ride to see how I looked on it.  Right away, one big thing stood out.  I was sitting too far back on the bike which resulted in my feeling too stretched out as I reached for the handle bars.  I had actually commented to Rob in the preceding months that I thought my frame might be a tiny bit too big for me because of how stretched out I felt.  I couldn’t imagine adding another 4-6 inches to that (which is essentially what happens when you add aero bars).  Fortunately, the frame wasn’t a problem at all.

BikeFit1

The first step to fixing the saddle position issue was picking out a new saddle.  Tri-specific saddles allow you to sit further up on the nose of the saddle comfortably as well as lean forward at a much sharper angle comfortably.  It’s not a good idea to try to ride aero on a regular road saddle. TriTown has this great little contraption that helped me pick out a saddle quickly.  Basically, it’s a stationary bike, and certain parts (including the saddle) can be replaced in 10-15 seconds.  So I went through a pile of saddles.  I’d ride for 10-30 seconds in both the aero and non-aero position, then Antonio would switch the saddle out and I’d try the next one.  Eventually, I settled on one that felt comfortable and had positive reviews from other female triathletes.

SaddleThing

Once I was mostly situated on the stationary bike, I moved back to my bike on the trainer to dial in the fit.  He made a few adjustments and then took a look at my pedal stroke.  My left knee collapsed in a bit during the phase of the pedal stroke where I applied force, and my right knee, while it was perfectly aligned during that portion of the stroke, collapsed in right at the very end.  However, because neither leg was terribly misaligned nor did I have pain on either side, Antonio didn’t feel the need to adjust my equipment to correct that.  He did move my cleats back a little bit on my shoes, though.

Shoes

After the fitting was done, I took my bike on a quick test ride.  And it felt great!  I could feel a huge difference with the saddle adjustment.  I actually felt like I was riding a smaller bike.  I didn’t feel nearly so stretched out, and I was comfortable even when I was in aero position.  I was surprised at how comfortable the aero position was.  I guess I should have expected it to be somewhat comfortable as people aren’t generally able to sit in a completely uncomfortable position for six hour straight, but somehow I had gotten the idea that aero position was uncomfortable and miserable by definition.  I didn’t feel any annoying pressure from my saddle.  I didn’t feel overly crunched up.  I didn’t feel limited at all by my sub-par hamstring flexibility.  Now, my aero position is not overly aggressive, but Antonio said it’s not really conservative either, so I was pleased with how right it felt.  You lose some control over the bike in aero position, so I definitely looked a little drunk as I rode it for the first time around the block.

FinalProduct

I’ve ridden my bike a few times since then.  Handling my bike has progressively gotten easier.  I even hit a huge pothole the other day without crashing.  I haven’t had any significant chafing from my new saddle or pain from my new position on the bike.  With over two months to get used to the new position, I think I have the time I need to acclimate to my “new” bike so I can take full advantage of the benefits it provides come August.

Global Bike to Work Day

Strava hosted their first ever Global Commute by Bike day on Tuesday, May 10.  When I first read about it, I decided that I wanted to participate.  I miss commuting to work by bike.  When I lived up in Idaho, I worked about 15 miles away, and I commuted by bike about three times a week.  I loved it.  In the mornings, once I got out of the city, I was riding through gorgeous farmlands.  Every day, I rode past a field of mint which always smelled heavenly.  I would welcome in the morning on my bike.  And even though riding home could be hot and miserable, I loved getting home and feeling accomplished.  It also (perhaps ironically) helped me avoid the post-work slump that I get when I commute by car, commonly referred to in my family as the knock-down-drag-em-out-driving-home blues.

But when I moved to Salt Lake City, commuting by bike (at least regularly) stopped being feasible.  My work is about 30 miles away via bike.  Thirty miles a day is totally manageable.  Sixty miles a day is far less manageable.  I decided that National Commute by Bike day would be a great opportunity to experience that commute, even though it wouldn’t be a regular thing.  So I scheduled my long ride for Tuesday with the idea that commuting there and back would likely last three and a half hours, which was the duration of my long ride.  Usually, I wouldn’t split up a long ride like this, but it was for a special occasion.

Utah loves to play up its outdoorsy culture which makes it an awesome place to live if you are involved in any outdoor and/or active hobbies.  Case in point, there is a paved bike trail that runs from north of Salt Lake City all the way down to the city where I work (and beyond!).  After posing the question to my triathlon club, I determined this was the best route to take.  Thirty nearly traffic-free miles before work?  That doesn’t sound so bad!  I was going to go on an adventure!  I was going to ride through beautiful landscapes and welcome in the morning alone with my bike!  And it was going to be totally awesome!

When I had mapped out the course a few days before, it came out to 31.5 miles.  So I planned to leave at 5:00am and get to work around 7:00am, though probably a little later because of brief stops and such.  I knew I wouldn’t face much traffic, so I thought my dead time would be minimal.  On Tuesday morning, I set out and was excited to see a new trail and get in some good miles on a weekday.

Two hours and forty-five minutes (and 34.5 miles!) later, I arrived at work.  It turns out that my assumption that following the main trail south would be completely intuitive was… well, a bit Pollyanna-ish.  I made several wrong turns and had to backtrack several times within the first seven miles or so.  It’s hard to navigate in the dark when you’ve never seen the area before.  My terrible sense of direction certainly didn’t help.  After one particular error that left me at a busy cross-road, frustrated with myself and with no idea where to go, I busted out my phone to use Google maps which I then consulted whenever I had a question about the route.  For a while, this meant stopping every mile or so to pull up my route and see if I was heading in the right direction.  Fortunately, my work hours are supremely flexible, so I knew the unplanned for time wasn’t a huge deal, even if I got in an hour or more after I had planned to.  The frustration added a little stress to the morning ride, but the majority of the trail was so pleasant that it would have been impossible to be too terribly stressed.

Dawn
It was still pretty dark when I took this photo, hence the poor quality.

My actual ride time was two hours and ten minutes.  I faced some fatigue during the ride about an hour and a half into it (complete with crushing Ironman doubt!), but I got a second wind for the last half hour or so of the ride.  I was feeling strong when I rolled in and was riding the high of 34.5 miles before 8:00am.  And, since I had worked out all the navigation kinks on the way to work, I had no doubt that the ride home would go much more smoothly and be much less frustrating.   I felt surprisingly good throughout the day.  I wasn’t consumed with an insatiable hunger.  I wasn’t terribly cold from the chilly ride in.  And when the end of the day rolled around, I was ready to have a pleasant ride home, this time without the navigation mishaps.

I suited up, got on my bike, and was blasted with a truly vicious, likely sentient, headwind.  It reminded me of a comment by Boromir in The Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship tries to cross Caradhras: “Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.“  The wind was an ill omen.  The first few miles of my ride where there was nothing at all to break the wind were miserable, especially the miles that were uphill.  Finally, finally, I reached an area with some buildings.  The wind was more manageable and I was just watching for the entrance to the Jordan River Parkway trail.

Somehow, I missed it.  I’m still not sure what happened.  I was looking exactly where the map said it should be.  Maybe I’m blind.  Maybe the map wasn’t 100% accurate.  I suspect I was expecting a paved entrance when there was actually a long-ish dirt path going down to the trail.  Whatever the reason, I started looking for alternate entrances to the path, using an app on my phone as a guide.  Finally, after rolling around one particular neighborhood for a good fifteen minutes, I saw a dirt path (although the word “path” is generous…).  My phone said it connected with a larger trail, so I decided I’d brave the brush to get to the main, paved trail.  I picked up my bike, cyclocross style, and started the cross-country trek.  So there I was, ducking under branches, trudging through mud, and constantly checking my phone to make sure I stayed on the trail, all while wearing the full spandex cycling get-up and carrying a way-too-expensive carbon road bike.  I finally reached the trail.  At least, I did according to my phone.  I looked up at the vehicle tracks in the mud in front of me and then down at my phone.  I looked back up, just to confirm that I was not, in fact, standing on asphalt.  The truth began to dawn on me.  I scrolled farther left on the map and saw, to my dismay, that the Jordan River Parkway trail was quite a bit farther west.  I had someone found my way to a random (completely unpaved and probably no longer used) vehicle path.  “No.” I said, despairing.  “Nonononononono.”

Being tired and hungry and (in general) stressed really makes situations like these seem world-shattering instead of actually kind of hilarious.

There was nothing I could do.  I couldn’t just sit down and wait there until I died (although you better believe I considered it!), so I turned around and hiked back up that hill in my cycling cleats and carrying my trusty bicycle.  I had just about given up on the trail and had almost decided to go with the shorter, but more traffic-heavy route back up to Salt Lake City.  However, when I searched for a route home on my phone, I saw that there was an access point that I actually remembered seeing on my way down just another mile or so north.  So, after digging out the mud in my cleats with a tire wrench, I headed in that direction with a healthy dose of pessimism.

Miracle of miracles, I found my way onto the trail.  When I saw the sign reading “Jordan River Parkway Trail,” I swear I learned how the pioneers felt when they first laid eyes on the Willamette Valley.

CanopyTrail
Glorious, beautiful pavement!!!

There were a few small navigation errors throughout the rest of my ride, but for the most part, I was familiar enough from my ride that morning to find my way.  Now that I riding in an area with quite a few trees, the wind wasn’t nearly so bad.  Still, I was tired and hungry, and I couldn’t get home fast enough.  I retreated into my thoughts, which soon took a turn for the worse.  The barrage of insecurities that had started that morning picked up again, stronger than ever.  If I couldn’t even handle a broken-up 70 miles, how would I ever be able to ride 112 miles followed by a marathon?  I knew once I got home (and finished my half hour run!), I’d have about an hour and half before I had to go to bed and wake up to face yet another long, exhausting day.  How could I maintain that until the Ironman?  I was stressed and cranky and horrible enough already.  How horrible would I be after three months?  Maybe I just needed to drop out.  Maybe I just needed to admit that it was too hard.  I wasn’t ready.  It was all just too much.  I was a failure.

Somehow, these dark thoughts seemed to power my legs forward.  Or maybe it was just a desperate, innate homing instinct.  Whatever it was, over the last three or four miles, I was pushing a nice speed (17-19mph) despite the headwind, and even despite a slight incline for a large portion of those final miles.  I got to Rob’s house and wheeled my bike in.  “Good job!  You did it!” he said.

Despite my horrible attitude just minutes earlier, this made me break out into a giant grin.  “Sixty-nine miles,” I said, reporting the total mileage for the day.

“Sixty-nine?  You aren’t going to go out for a few more minutes to hit seventy?”

“Nope.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yep.”

I left for my run, and while I was gone, Rob made dinner.  I got back and inhaled probably half a bag of pretzels while he finished up dinner and then sat down to a glorious, cheesy plate of pasta.

I had an adventure all right.  But I think Bilbo Baggins had it right when he said about adventures, “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

Sneak peek of my new bike

If you follow my blog much, you probably know that last week, my car was stolen.  With my bike inside.  It’s been a rough week as I’ve figured out my car situation, but I’ve finally purchased and registered a car.  It’s unfortunate because car shopping (and bike shopping) should be a really fun and exciting experience.  However, every time I look at my car, my heart drops a little as I remember my poor little Honda Accord.  Turns out, rebound relationships are hard.

Now it’s time to switch my focus to replacing my bike.  I find myself facing the same dilemma.  When I start thinking about a new bike, I remember my wonderful Cannondale CAAD10, and any excitement I am feeling about finding a new bike is dampened considerably.

But on Tuesday, I had a moment.  Rob found a great deal on a carbon aero road bike frame through a friend of his.  I was excited on a practical level to find a nice frame for an excellent price, but I couldn’t muster up the feeling of love I get for my favorite toys.  I had decided to go with that frame, but Rob surprised me by bringing it home from work on Tuesday evening.  When I got over to his house, he took it out of the box, and I felt a familiar stirring of true excitement over this gorgeous frame.  The excitement was muted, of course, by thoughts of my Cannondale, but it was nice to feel the stirrings of joy over a new bike.  Once I have grieved my Cannondale* and built up this new bike, I think I’ll be ready to fall in love with it.

BLUE

*I get strangely attached to inanimate objects.

Little Cottonwood, or the hardest climb I’ve ever done

When you’ve been around Salt Lake City and involved in cycling long enough, you’re bound to hear a little snippet of cycling lore about the local ride up Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Apparently, it has almost exactly the same profile as the notoriously grueling Alpe d’Huez climb in the Tour de France.  If you’re anything like I was when I first heard this, you are currently nodding and saying, “Cool!” so that you don’t reveal your absolute lack of cycling knowledge.

It’s okay.  I still only think it’s cool because other people think it’s cool and they know more than I do.

Little Cottonwood profile (from climbbybike.com)
Little Cottonwood profile (from climbbybike.com)
Alpe d'Huez profile... notice it's in kilometers and meters, not miles and feet (from climbbybike.com)
Alpe d’Huez profile (from climbbybike.com)

But it’s an iconic climb in the area, and I wanted to try it out.  Plus, since I’m dating a cycling fan, I now follow the Tour de France every year.  And if I can climb Little Cottonwood, next year when I’m sitting on the couch eating candy and watching Nairo Quintana climb Alpe d’Huez, I can nod knowingly at the television and say, “I feel your pain, bro.”

I decided to tackle Little Cottonwood Canyon this past weekend for one main reason—I was housesitting for Rob’s parents, and they live fairly close to the mouth of the canyon.  That meant I didn’t have to do a 50 mile ride or drive to the start of my ride.  Because Rob was out of town with his parents, I decided to try to find someone to do the ride with me.  I thought perhaps having company would dull the pain a bit.  However, I burned through my list of the one person I know in Salt Lake who isn’t Rob and might not be busy pretty quickly.  So, I just decided to go solo.

The one benefit of the end of cycling season is sleeping in.  When the high for a day is 65°, there’s no need to get out the door by 8:00am or even 10:00am.  For the first time in who-knows-how-long, I didn’t set an alarm at all.  (Of course, I was pet-sitting a cat and a dog who missed their respective parents, so I didn’t get the glorious night of sleep I wanted.)

This guy kept me awake all night with cuddle demands
This guy kept me awake all night with cuddle demands

After a relaxing morning filled with kitty cuddles and walks with the dog, I started preparing for my ride.  When you climb a canyon in the fall, you need to bring some warm clothing for the ride down.  65° and sunny is perfect weather going 15-20mph in the valley.  When you’ve climbed to 8500ft and suddenly turn around and start going 30+ mph, it’s not nearly as pleasant.  So I packed arm warmers, knit gloves, and a wind-vest.  The wind-vest is amazing.  It keeps your core warm for cold descents but can be rolled up small enough to fit in a jersey pocket.  I always borrow Rob’s, but I really should get one of my own.  Cycling gear can get superfluous, but this item works wonders.

Actually, the gloves aren't mine either...
Actually, the gloves aren’t mine either…

I packed my stuff, filled my water bottles, and headed off in high spirits.  This was going to be great!  Yeah, my high spirits didn’t last long.  The ride to the mouth of the canyon was the perfect fall bike ride.  Then I, you know, hit the canyon.  I guess there’s a reason the Alpe d’Huez is notoriously difficult.  If Little Cottonwood mirrors Alpe d’Huez as much as they say, then I think I discovered that reason.  This canyon never let up.  Every second hurt for miles.  And miles last a long time when you are going six miles per hour (or less!).  There were some gorgeous landscapes, but I spend most of the time looking my feet.

Why look at this...
Why look at this…
...or this...
…or this…
MyFeet
…when you can stare miserably at this instead?

I was miserable, and every time I looked down at my computer, it seemed like I had made absolutely no progress.  I almost turned around at around ten miles because I could not even imagine making it to the top of the canyon.  I soldiered on, more due to stubbornness than anything else.  Clearly, the canyon was eternal and I was going to die there.  I decided when I wrote about the climb, I would make sure to mention that the ride was no fun at all—absolutely none.  I even had to switch the display on my computer so I couldn’t see the time I had been out or the distance I had gone.

Finally, the grade lessened a bit.  Instead of chugging along at 5mph, I was flying at around 7.5mph.  I passed one ski resort and then another.  And then, in the distance, I saw a parking lot—a parking lot that didn’t seem to have anything leading out of it.  Once I reached the Promised Land parking lot, I called Rob in Alabama to make sure I had made it to the true top of the canyon.  I wanted to check this sucker off my list, and the last thing I wanted was to realize the next day that there was another half a mile left and feel obligated to climb it all over again.  He confirmed that I was indeed at the top.  I was done.  Finally.  And it was time to turn around and go back.

My obligatory
My obligatory “made it to the top” photo

It was at this point that I decided I couldn’t actually report that no part of this ride was fun.  Descending is fun.  Terrifying, but fun.  And when I wasn’t spending the whole ride looking at my feet, I saw that I was surrounded by some pretty amazing scenery, too.  Of course, I was way too terrified to stop, so I missed any photo ops.  I was flying down this canyon.  I topped out at over 40mph, and probably could have gone faster if I were a little braver.  To give a bit of perspective, it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to climb the canyon and under fifteen minutes to descend.  Even with my warm clothes on, I ran into some shady areas during the descent that were uncomfortably cool.  Canyon climbs are coming to an end for the year.

SuperFast
Max speed for the ride

When I got to the driveway, I had gone just over 29 miles, so I rode around the block a few times to hit 30.  And then I went inside and watched Netflix for the rest of the day.  I was spent.  When it comes down to it, I think I reached a bit beyond my ability for this ride.  I was able to complete it, yes, but just barely.  I think at a certain point, a ride is difficult enough that a slightly easier ride is actually a better tool for conditioning.  And I think when you are struggling to hit 5 mph and keep obsessively checking for an easier gear even though you know you’re already in your granny gear, you know you’ve hit that point.  Regardless, I’m glad I took on the challenge.  This is an iconic climb in Salt Lake City, and it’s one more canyon crossed off my list.  Next year, I’ll cross the rest of the off.  And I will definitely enjoy feeling like part of the brotherhood when the pros are climbing Alpe d’Huez during next year’s Tour.

Big Cottonwood: A Beginner’s Trek

Living at the foot of a mountain range means that I am surrounded by a lot of amazing climbing opportunities on my bike.  But I’ve spent most of my time in Salt Lake City pretty scared of most of the these opportunities.  I’ve got Emigration Canyon down and recently surprised myself by making it up East Canyon with a (very) slow but steady pace. Still, I haven’t felt like a cyclist who is really ready to handle Salt Lake City’s terrain.  There’s a gate-keeper that has been standing in my way, keeping me from exploring the many varied and difficult climbs in the area.

Big Cottonwood Canyon.

When I first moved here, I asked Rob what the second easiest canyon in Salt Lake was, and he told me it was probably Big Cottonwood.  So from that point on, I rather arbitrarily felt like I needed to ride Big Cottonwood before I could tackle any canyon besides Emigration.  I put Big Cottonwood on my list of goals for the summer, but I never really found the right time to do it while training for Jordanelle.  With Jordanelle being only an Olympic distance race, I only had one three hour ride scheduled, and I knew that Big Cottonwood might take longer than that.

But with the mornings getting a little cooler than they have been and with my training focusing on cycling for a few months, it was the perfect time to tackle this ride.  Rob, being the more socially competent of the two of us, got together a group of folks from work.  We planned to drive over (the ride would be a little too long for a fun, social ride otherwise) and meet right at the base of the canyon at 9:00am.

This only sort of worked out.  Rob was running a bit later, as were another couple we were meeting there.  We ran into more delays when we got near the mouth of the canyon.  It turns out there was a big marathon going on which meant closed roads and no easy way to make it to the meet-up point.  So, a few harried phone calls and detours later, we all managed to find our way into the same church parking lot just a couple miles away from where we had originally planned to meet.

This is what happens when Rob and I take both bikes somewhere.
This is what happens when Rob and I take both bikes somewhere.
GettingReady
Everyone else unpacking and gearing up for the ride

A lot of unpacking and a bit of small talk later, and we were ready to take off—at about 10:30am.  It was a much later start than intended, and I was a little worried about the heat during the climb, but that turned out to be (mostly) unfounded because as the time passed, we climbed higher up the canyon where it was cooler.  We were climbing with one other Big Cottonwood first-timer, and she and I were a bit nervous because we had both made it partway up in previous rides and been intimidated by the difficulty.  The veterans in the group assured us that the hardest part is actually the first several miles which offered a bit of solace, but I think we were both still a little skeptical.

I wish I could convey, either with words or iPhone pictures just how gorgeous this ride is, but I’m pretty sure I can’t.  Just know that it’s by far the most gorgeous ride I’ve done in Utah.  That should be telling.  However, for the first few miles, I wasn’t able to enjoy it much.  It was pretty warm, and it was steep.  Pretty early on in the ride, you hit Storm Mountain.  Storm Mountain is what turned me around the last time I started up Big Cottonwood.  I had been (unbeknownst to me) just minutes away from the top when I finally decided that Big Cottonwood (and climbing and cycling in general) sucked and started back.  This time around, I had the both knowledge that it didn’t last forever and a few companions with hi-tech bike toys so I could know the grade and feel justified in my pain.  According to them, the grade was ranging between 9% and 11%.  Ouch.

Near the bottom of the canyon
Near the bottom of the canyon

But then, before I knew it, things felt easier.  I looked over at Rob.  “Was that the end of Storm Mountain?”  He confirmed that it was.  I played it cool, but I was pretty stoked that the worst part was (apparently) over.  After that, the ride levels out a bit into some gorgeous meadows.  And I found out what a “social ride” actually is!  I chatted with Tara (the other Big Cottonwood newbie who also happens to be a triathlete) about injuries, swimming, races, and the like.  And some of the more cycling-minded of us (in other words, not me!) played a game of charades by impersonating various professional cyclists for the others to guess.  It was… fun!  I even lost track of time for a while, and I realized why people talk about doing group workouts when training for Ironman races.  It’s a lot easier to get through a long ride when you are focusing more on the conversation you’re having than on the fact that you are still on your bike.

During a flatter portion of the ride
During a flatter portion of the ride

A few miles before the top of the canyon, the road gets fairly steep again, but it was easier for me to focus and feel positive than it was during the first steep section because I knew we were almost there.  As I was huffing and puffing up a steep grade at nearly 8,500 feet elevation, I just thought about Ironman Coeur d’Alene and how much easier it will feel to ride a much flatter course at just 2,500 feet elevation.  I foresee that being a continual comfort as I chug up the canyons here in Salt Lake City.

When we reached the top, I was most excited for a chance to get my poor, aching butt off my bike.  I was secondarily excited that I had finished a good workout and had finally climbed Big Cottonwood Canyon—and at a conversational pace, for the most part.  Tara and I high-fived to celebrate our first summit of Big Cottonwood, and we all sat around and chatted a bit before starting back down.  The ride back down was less absolutely terrifying that I thought it would be, too.  My fear of descending has mostly gone away over the course of the last year or so, so the only thing I hate about descents now is the wind roaring in my ears (but it’s worth it for the fun of going fast!).  I think the ride down may have been even prettier than the ride up, if only because I wasn’t too involved in climbing up a mountain to pay attention to the scenery.

Views from the top
Views from the top
During the descent (don't worry-- I definitely stopped to take this photo!)
During the descent (don’t worry– I definitely stopped and dismounted before taking this photo)

When we got back to our cars, we had been out for 2:38:08 and done 31.43 miles, including over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.  I was really encouraged by this ride.  Not only was I able to socialize without embarrassing myself (gasp!), I was also able to climb a canyon that I don’t think I would have had even a chance of climbing a year ago.   Plus, this ride pushed the total odometer on my bike computer past 1,000 miles (which would mean more if I could remember exactly when I got this computer—it was something this year, though).  I’ve been feeling strong and confident far more often than not lately, and I’m thankful for that.  I know that Ironman training will have its ups and downs, so I want to make sure to actively enjoy the encouraging moments.  Maybe taking note of encouraging rides like this will help when I’m feeling flat and frustrated in the future. This is just another goal achieved and puts me one step closer to being a strong, competent cyclist. So here’s to goals achieved and setting new goals in the future.

I broke 1,000!
I broke 1,000!
PumpkinPie
Homemade pumpkin pie– the best post-ride recovery food

(By the way, the first of those goals is to remember that elevation matters in regards to the sun and to be much more diligent about applying sunscreen, especially when climbing a canyon.  My poor forearms are burned to a crisp.)

Group rides and the continuation of a quest

I have a confession to make.

I moved to Salt Lake nine months ago, and I have yet to make a single friend.

I had really good intentions of making friends after moving here.  I’ve been going to church (almost) every week and dutifully going to the coffee hour afterwards.  But while I’ve made some acquaintances, none of them have turned into friendships, probably primarily because of my horrible social skills.  I’ve made at least one really poor effort at “getting out.”  A few months ago, I saw a dinner for people in their 20s and 30s advertised in the church bulletin.  A dinner?  For people my age?  I’m totally going to go and nail this whole “making friends” business!  So I planned for it.  I psyched myself up (out?) all week for it, and every day I dreaded the approaching dinner a little bit more.  It was in a restaurant… what if things were awful and I couldn’t just sneak out because I had to pay the check?  I would have to awkwardly ask for the check while people around me were still effortlessly having intelligent, humorous, meaningful conversations.  I would have to bring attention to my own social failure to even leave the situation.  For some reason, that worry haunted me and just kept growing and growing until it was the primary thought I associated with this event.  I was sure it was going to be terrible. I was going to want to leave the moment I got there and would be pitied and judged accordingly when I asked for a check before I had even started on my food.

Still, the day of the dinner, I intended to go tough it out.  I was going to be social if it killed me.  And at that point, I was pretty sure it would.   I was driving home from work that afternoon and gave my sister a call to help motivate me.  But as I was spilling out my worries to her, I had a fleeting thought: I wish I had some ipecac.  Then I could just take that and get out of this thing altogether. Guys, have you ever taken ipecac to get out of a social obligation?  I have.  Ipecac is horrible.  It had me on the ground feeling just as bad as the worst stomach flu has ever made me feel.  And here I was, voluntarily attending something that I would literally drink ipecac to avoid.  So I just didn’t go.  I decided it was really stupid to force myself to do something that was causing me that much misery, and I went home and played video games instead.  Great decision.  But also one that put a stop to my quest to make friends.

Until today.

I recently signed up with the Salt Lake Triathlon Club.  It’s relatively inexpensive, and the members seemed really friendly when I ended up helping them man their aid station at the Utah Half Toughman.  I thought it would be a great way to both meet new people and become a better triathlete.  Early this week, I was looking through the group workouts and noticed that there was a group ride up Emigration Canyon scheduled for Thursday.  I’ve climbed Emigration a lot this summer.  It’s close to Rob’s place, and it’s a good, quick workout.  So I decided to try it.  There is minimal social pressure when you are on a group ride which makes it pretty much ideal for me.  I was a little nervous about it, but in a completely manageable way, not in an I’d-rather-be-sick-on-the-bathroom-floor-all-night kind of way.

After work, I ate a snack, cuddled Rob’s cat, and then left for the group ride.

Rob sent me off to the ride and took a picture like it was the first day of school
Rob sent me off to the ride and took a picture like it was the first day of school

When I got to the parking lot we were meeting in, I didn’t see anything that looked like a group getting ready to ride.  After waiting for a few minutes, I was thoroughly convinced that no one was going to show up, and my very good attempt at being social would be for naught.  But then a car pulled up and a woman grabbed a TT bike from the back of her SUV.  They were the group!

There was a pretty wide range of experience for such a small group, so we spread out pretty quickly after starting up the canyon.  I did some intervals on the way up, and I noticed that my legs felt really good.  I’m fairly certain that I could have hit my PR up the canyon if I hadn’t walked my bike around the parking lot and started off slower than usual because it was a group ride.  I’m not sure what made my legs feel that good—probably a combination of a light tailwind, getting started later in the day, and the miracle of rested legs.  I was riding in a harder gear than typical and it was easier than usual.  The ride was gorgeous. Most of the climb was lined with black-eyed Susan flowers in full bloom, and the trees were casting shadows long shadows over the road.  The sun was setting but was still hitting the tops of the trees in the canyon, giving them a golden glow.  After living here for nine months, sometimes I take the beauty of the mountains for granted.  It’s nice to be reminded how fortunate I am to be so close to such great landscapes.

Even with all the delays, I made it to the top just two minutes off my all-time PR (and I had a pretty decent tailwind for that PR), so I felt great about the ride.  When I hit the top, I circled back down and picked up the group and did the final climb again with them.  It was one of the woman’s first times climbing the canyon, and it was great to get to the top with her because she was (understandably) pretty excited about it.

The view from the top of Emigration Canyon
The view from the top of Emigration Canyon

The woman leading the ride and I went fast on the way down—I don’t typically push myself that hard on the way down Emigration Canyon, but I did today to try to keep up with her on her TT bike.  The more comfortable I get on the bike, the more I love going fast downhill.  It actually got a bit chilly during a few sections of the descent, and it’s the first time I’ve been chilly on a bike (during the day, at least) for a long time.  When we got back to the cars, she and I chatted a bit.  Yes, you read that right—I actually chatted, as in held a small-talk conversation for a respectable amount of time.  When I got back to Rob’s place, I had clocked in just over 25 miles and met three new people—not bad for a Thursday evening! Maybe this whole “quest to make friends… eventually” will turn out okay after all.

Back at Rob's place at just over 25 miles
Back at Rob’s place at just over 25 miles