Rite of Passage

The year I turned 50, I entered a bike/run duathalon being held in a small mountain town in the foothills west of Denver, Colorado. It was a a new race, and there was a small turnout of 120 people or so. When I went to pick up my bib, the woman at the registration table told me the race would start with the bike segment and pointed to the start area in a nearby meadow.

I went back to my car, took a long drink of water, pulled on my helmet and gloves, then rolled over to the start. I took a position behind the first line of riders with their front wheels on a rope barrier demarcating the start.

I'd been there only a few minutes when a race official came up to me and said, "Sir, you're in the wrong wave. Your wave is the next one back. Look at your bib." Sure enough, "Wave 2" was scrawled in magic marker in the upper right corner. "Sorry about that," I said. He nodded and smiled, and I worked my bike backwards and made my way to the far side of the rope marking the second wave, which was just forming up. Again, I took a position in the second line as other bikers closed in around me.

A voice on a bullhorn called out, "Two minutes to start." I watched as the riders in Wave 1 hunkered down over their handlebars, one toe clipped into a pedal, ready to go. I noticed that all the people in Wave 1 were all young men. There was not a woman to be seen. Then I glanced around my own wave, which was all women except for a couple of older men scattered here and there.

It occurred to me that it was the first time in my life that I had been seeded in a race with women. I was well aware that many women are excellent athletes and many of the young women would easily beat me. I had come to terms with that years earlier when my daughter scorched me in the bumps while downhill skiing.

But still, when the starting gun sounded, and I watched the wave of young men pumping away up the hill, I felt a mix of anger and sadness. Somehow I felt demoted.

When Wave 2 started a few minutes later, we raced across a flat section that narrowed to a single track making a long climb into the trees. The top racers quickly pulled away, and over the next couple of miles the field spread out. It was a bumpy, winding course. The track was narrow, and rocks and trees flanking both sides made it difficult to pass or be passed.

For the first half of the bike segment, I was tailed so closely by a girl that several times her tire bumped against mine. A couple times she called out "On the left" for me to pull out so she could pass, but I just cranked harder and pulled a few feet ahead to tire her just enough that she couldn't get by.

With about three miles left, which was mostly downhill, we were descending fast through a stand of lodgepole pine that hat been thinned for fire mitigation. The trail was brand new, blazed just for this race. On a tight turn my right pedal hooked onto a stump which had been hidden by a clump of grass, and the bike pivoted and hit a tree trunk, throwing me off to the left where I rolled on my shoulder. The girl who had been behind me hopped over my rear wheel and sped down the trail. Luckily, I had fallen onto soft pine duff. I had a few scratches, no broken bones.

My bike had not made out so well. The right front brake was twisted. I pulled it away from the wheel. The front rim was slightly bent, but rideable. I completed the last two miles with no front brake, but had a smooth, slightly out of control, ride despite a wobbly front wheel.

The 5 mile trail run was challenging because of the high altitude and the leaden feeling you get in your legs when you run after riding a bike. Breathing hard and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, I forgot all about waves.
I finished 2nd in my age group of male TOJs. There were only 5 of us. That was the last time I paid any attention to waves or any other measure. They don't matter. Whether riding alone on a trail or running in the Bolder Boulder with thousands of others, the prize is the joy you feel while doing it, no matter where you start, no matter where you finish.

Book recommendation:

Cycling Past 50 by Joe Friel is a good book for any TOJ, whether a biker or not. The first section provides an excellent overview of physiological changes in older athletes. If you are a biker, you'll find plenty of useful information and inspiration.

Does your doctor speak TOJ?

Whenever you read a book or go to a website about exercise, somewhere will be a warning that reads someting like:

Before you start any exercise program, see a doctor.
Speaking as a TOJ, this could be dangerous advice. A better warning is:

Before you start any exercise program, see the right doctor.

Every medical student conditioned to follow this injunction: “First, do no harm.” It’s a handy reminder when they become doctors to practice cautiously so they don’t hurt someone (and risk malpractice suits). But it also makes many doctors very conservative when it comes to exercise recommendations, especially if their patient is older. There is a good reason for this: empirical evidence shows the older you are, the higher the odds that you will get injured doing exercise or even die. However, most TOJs are aware of the risks and, more importantly, are fit and healthy enough that odds are they won’t die any time soon.

Despite a volumious body of evidence on the benefits of exercise and nutrition, especially for un-youngs, many doctors remain woefully ignorant of both. Their training has taught them a lot about pathology, but little about wellness and prevention.

I work with doctors every day. About half of them get it and exercise and eat smart to improve their own health and well being, but the other half do not. If you are a TOJ, you need to be wary of the non-believers - they will not understand you and, with best of intentions, could do you harm by making you old before your time. The average doctor is okay if you need treatment for a step throat or minor laceration, but you don’t want to trust them with your metabolism, strength, balance and endurance.

Year ago I had to go to an orthopedist to get the torn meniscus in my right knee scoped. He was a serious fellow, only a couple years younger than me. You could tell he was one of those guys in high school who went home after classes, practiced piano, and then went straight to his room to do calculus problems. He had smooth, unscarred hands, and although he was not overweight, he had a soft, pasty look to him, like he probably didn’t get outside much or work up a sweat very often.
On the follow up visit after the surgery, he sincerely suggested that I stop trail running and take up golf. He warned that if I wasn’t careful, I’d be right back for an ACL reconstruction because while inside he took a look and the ligament looked like frayed fishing line. Three years later when I returned to have the meniscus on my left kneee scoped, he suggested again that I stop running and take up golf or I would risk getting arthritis. I could tell when he said it that he didn’t really think I would follow his advice, but felt medically obligated to make the recommendation. I bet he even noted it in my chart a second time.

He was half right. I did ignore his advice. It has been over 10 years since the last surgery. He did a great job on my knees. And I’ve run thousands of miles since. They don’t hurt much unless I torque them while carrying extra weight, like a backpack, so I avoid this.

Maybe someday he will be proven right when I have to get artifical knees, but maybe he won’t. So far there are no signs of arthritis. If I had listened to him, I would have missed out on many great runs and cut off a vital source of joy in my life. He was a fine surgeon, but when it comes to exercise, we speak different languages.

By way of contrast, my primary care doctor understands my mania. He is a much more centered person than me and almost 20 years younger, but he mountain bikes. We have even compared scars from falls. He still has some jock in him. You can always tell. He has that glint in his eye when sometimes he talks about his adventures in the outdoors.

He does what he can to help me age gracefully, and gives medical advice appropriate for a TOG, such as to get tested for calcification in my arteries as a precaution if I am going to max my heart rate with strenuous exercise. When people over 40 die during exercise, it’s usually because plaque breaks loose and causes a heart attack. He knows exercise and nutrition promote heart health, but are no guarantee of escape from cardiovascular disease.

But he never suggests I abandon the sweaty trail to happiness and take up golf. He knows that would kill me.

Book recommendations:

Written by doctors, both these books have the obligatory warnings, but also have very trustworthy information about exercise and nutrition.

Move Yourself: The Cooper Clinic Medical Director’s Guide to All the Healing Benefits of Exercise (Even a Little!) by Tedd Mitchell, M.D., Tim Church, M.D, Ph.D, and Martin Zucker

The Source: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger by Woodson Merrell, M.D.

The Lion Crossing--Part 3

In the days following the encounter with the lions, I thought a lot about them, trying to recall every detail. It made me want to learn more about lion behavior, so I went to the library and found a book by David Boran, entitled “The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator’s Deadly Return to Suburban America.” At first, I wasn’t sure it was worth checking out. From a cursory look, it seemed to be another hysterical rant to a society already whacky with fear of terrorists, Avian flu, pit bulls, anthrax, illegal immigrants, etc.

However, the book was thought provoking. His thesis was that naive animal lovers in places like Boulder, Colorado (where I once lived and visit often), were screwing up the natural order of things. By not allowing hunting in the foothills in the open space west of the city, the government was causing a surplus of deer to wander into the suburbs seeking food. The deer were acting like bait and luring lions into the suburbs as well. The lions were becoming habituated to humans. Boran feared it was just a matter of time before a lion ate one of the drunken coeds partying outside a frat house on a warm summer night, or snatched a toddler from a redwood deck at one of the million dollar houses lining the western edge of the city. It would be a horrific reprisal of the movie “Jaws” at altitude.

In fact, in the foothills nearby Boulder, lions had already eaten a few dogs, even large breeds, and there had been a couple of harrowing human encounters, but nothing too serious yet - with one exception. Boran got my attention with his description of an deadly lion attack that occurred in 1992 near Idaho Springs, not far from Boulder as the bird flies. A teenage boy went for an afternoon trail run and never returned. Near sundown that day, a party of law officers and friends went searching for him and found his body, still clad in running shoes, covered with dirt and pine needles, laying under a bush. He had been partially eaten. The lion was standing guard nearby.

After a brief chase, they shot the lion, and sent the carcass to the state university for necoropsy. The results were surprising: the lion was healthy, not sick, and female, not male. Often human-lion conflicts have involved sick lions or young, half-starving males trying to find a territory. And this lion had attacked in broad daylight, though lions are nocturnal hunters, and tend to be spotted at dawn or dusk. This lion had broken all the rules for “normal” attacks.

Then I picked up a copy of Kathy Eting’s “Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind.” A fact crammed book, it details numerous attacks and has very interesting and useful insights from field biologists who spend lots of time observing lion behavior. The book gives you an appropriate respect, tinged with fear, for mountain lions. One clear message you get is to give them their space.

So I decided that while the lions hung around, it was best that I did not. Being nomadic, they wouldn’t be around too long. For the next couple of weeks, I ran on the flat asphalt road that winds through the ranch in the valley. It’s bucolic country, with little traffic, but it wasn’t the same running by herds of cows, standing by their calves and nervously eying us from the other side of a barbed wire fence. I’d look up the side of the hogback where the old road zig-zagged by the abandoned mine. I missed the pull of gravity and smell of sage. One day when my knees ached from pounding the asphalt, I resolved that I’d go back up, lions or not.

I decided it would be pushing my luck to go without a weapon, just in case. I rummaged around in my camping gear and got out my old hunting knife. I removed it from its worn leather scabbard, touched the knife with my fingertip to make sure it was sharp, slid it back in the scabbard, and tucked it in the webbed water bottle pocket on a fanny pack, where it would be readily accessible for a quick draw.

As Zorro and I ascended the first time since the standoff, my anticpation grew with every step. Before coming around the bend to start the uphill section where the lions had crossed the road, I pulled the knife out to be ready, but of course it was a silly gesture because the lions were gone, though as I looked at the spot where they had been, I could imagine every detail of them standing there.

Over the following weeks, the fear gradually receded, then completely vanished. I realized the knife was really just a talisman to ward off imaginary fears, like a crucifix repels vampires, and returned it to storage. Besides, I wouldn’t have the time or reflexes to use it anyway. Mountain lions usually ambush their prey from the back with terrific force. The lion’s long incisors would be slipping between the vertebrae in my neck before I could get the knife out. Besides, the odds of an attack were slim. There have only been two fatal lion attacks in Colorado in the past 100 years. Nationally, on average there are 6 lion attacks a year with 1 fatality. In contrast, 90 people a year are killed by lightening.

I figure that through my years running in backcountry, the lions have often been nearby. No doubt our paths had crossed many times in space, if only that once in time. As evolution would have it, we must keep our distance, and the lions normally see to that. That one time, I was lucky, and they revealed their presence to me.

For several months after the encounter I’d spot a lion track once in a while. But now it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen any there. Running with my eyes down so I don’t trip, I’m always searching for prints. I know the lions are out there somewhere, but I don’t worry. Zorro keeps watch for me.

The Lion Crossing - Part 2

A few weeks after the first lion sighting, on the first Sunday in May, we started, as usual, right at sunup. It was one of those global warming kind of days - already past 50 degrees before 7 am. The sun had just peeked over the big mountains to the east, bathing the top half of the hogback in amber light.

As I had every time since the sighting, I slowed to look up at the clump of juniper where we’d seen the lion, but of course it was no longer there. On a rational level, I knew it was not going there again. Experts say a mountain lion typically wanders around in a territory that is 25 square miles, so odds of a repeat encounter in the same place were slim. But that particular juniper was burned into my memory, and it was pure reflex to check.

About a quarter mile further up, the road becomes badly eroded and covered with loose rock, and bends abruptly to the west to begin the steep climb to the top. The run had felt harder than usual, maybe a couple too many beers the day before. As we made the turn, I was trudging more than running, breathing hard, my feet clattering noisily on the loose rocks. Dreading the climb, I glanced up to confirm to myself that the end of the uphill was near, just as two mountain lions walked slowly onto the road from behind some bushes about 40 yards away. Zorro and I froze.

The first mountain lion was enormous, larger than any I’d ever seen in a zoo. The second, four to five inches shorter, followed behind, as if to keep a respectful distance. The large lion’s ears turned in our direction, but its eyes stayed straight ahead. That was the only hint it gave that it was aware of our presence. Both were panting slowly through slack jaws, their bellies moving with each breath.

I stood motionless, admiring them. They were magnificent, muscles rippling under gold fur, their long tails curved in identical arcs. The first lion lifted one large paw then another, placing each down very gently, almost as if to soften the feel of the sharp rocks. They looked stately as they walked, very erect and relaxed, and seemed healthy and content. Almost across the road, they both stopped.

Then, ten yards below them and closer to us, a third lion stepped onto the road, and made a quarter turn in our direction. Resting heavily on its front legs, it looked directly and calmly right at us with golden eyes. It too was panting, and I could see its pink tongue sliding back and forth between long white teeth. I glanced down at Zorro, who was staring back, the hair slightly raised on his back. I was trying to figure out what the lion was doing, what might happen next, as its eyes shifted between me and Zorro. Its ears were up and there was no swishing tail, which they say is a good sign. But who knows what lions think?

We were in a standoff, our path blocked. They were not going to run away. Something about the impassive stare of the lion registered deep in my brainstem where murky ancestral memories reside, and the adrenalin let loose as I realized that lion could close the space between us in the blink of an eye. My brain gushed with surreal images and fearful junk. I tried to remember if I had ever read about a lion attacking a man with a dog. I remembered an old Tarzan movie with Johnny Weismuller pinned on his back by a lion, and pulling a knife from his belt and plunging it into the lion’s neck. Then I wondered why the first lion was so large. Was it a female with two cubs, which can hang around for a year or two with their mom before taking off on their own? The lion looked too big to be a female. But males don’t pal around with cubs, and often kill them. I remembered a show on Animal Planet in which three African lions pulled down a zebra, one riding on its back, the second coming up to bite the throat, and a third pulling the rear leg out from under the doomed animal. I wondered if mountain lions attack in groups like those African lions.

Experts say if you encounter a lion to look as big as possible and, if they attack, to resist any way you can. Maybe the perspective of looking up or being chemically-altered by adrenalin made the lions look larger, but I felt especially puny and vulnerable. Zorro shrunk to half his size. I looked around for something to use for a weapon. I could pick up a large rock, but I would have to bend over, which makes you look smaller and could provoke an attack. I realized if those lions were the slightest bit annoyed or hungry, we were no match. The fight-or-flight decison was made: we’d better get our butts out of there.

Without taking my eyes off the closest lion, I walked slowly backwards, stumbling a couple of times, while pulling Zorro, who kept trying to look back, not wanting to take his eyes off of it either. I moved awkwardly backwards until we were around the corner, out of view. I bent and picked up a rock, then continued sideways for another thirty yards, waiting to see if it would come around the corner followng us. I listened carefully in case there was any sound in the bushes above us. Nothing. And then I started down in a slow jog, glancing often over my shoulder. Zorro acted as if he had forgotten the whole thing. For him, it was out of sight or smell, out of mind.

Adrenalin might be a survival mechanism to enable a short burst of speed, but it is an enemy of distance running. I had trouble breathing smoothly though I was barely moving. Gradually we went down, stopping once in a while to make sure we weren’t being stalked. By the time we finally arrived at the car, the adrenalin had started to wear off. I was elated, and couldn’t wait to tell my wife what happened.

Edward Abbey once said that if you see a mountain lion in the wild, you are very lucky. I’ve seen two presidents. One even said good morning to me. I was in a small audience with the Pope. I saw the Beatles twice, and stood a few feet from Mick Jagger while the Rolling Stones warmed up for a concert. But seeing these lions trumped them all. The entire encounter had probably lasted less than 2 minutes, but was one of the high points of my life. I looked at Zorro, who was wagging his tail. I wondered if he knew how lucky we were.

Intro to "The Lion Crossing"-

The Lion Crossing--Part I

A few times a week, I run up an old mining road that climbs along the flank of a rocky hogback. It’s the kind of place most people drive by without a glance because they are bound for aspen and alpine lakes on the Flat Tops ten miles away. The hogback is scarred by the road zigzagging up, and here and there, mine tailings spilling down its face. On a map, the road doesn’t seem to go anywhere. But it does, climbing through oak, sage, juniper, currants and feather bush, past an abandoned mine, around cliffs and outcrops, and along edges of deep ravines cutting through layers of red sandstone and grey shale. Three miles and a thousand vertical feet later, it arrives at a summit where you see mountains in every direction.

My dog goes with me on these runs. He’s a Red Siberian Husky, Golden Retreiver, Chow mix named Zorro, the Spanish word for fox, an apt name because his deep orange fur makes him look like a fox on steriods. He weighs 70 pounds, but thick fur creates the illusion he is much larger. If you don’t know him, he can seem detached and menacing.

When running, most of the time I keep my eyes down, scanning a few feet ahead for ruts and rocks to avoid tripping on my face, or in a couple of places, falling down the mountain. Occasionally I pause to enjoy the vista of the valley below. But most of the time I’m looking at what is right in front of me. It would be a problem to break an ankle here. Except for a couple months during hunting season, the road is deserted. Once in a while a 4-wheeler passes through, but I don’t see them because I usually go up with Zorro at sunrise.

A couple of Novembers ago, we were a mile up the trail after a rain-snow mix had fallen the night before. I was savoring the cool air and sweet smell of damp sage when Zorro yanked me sideways to sniff some animal tracks. He was on a leash because when he’s in hyper-aroused hunting mode, as he always is in this wild place, he’ll try to chase anything that runs. If he were loose, he’ll run for hours, forgetting altogether about time, and that here he is not on the top of the food chain.

I stopped to take a closer look at the tracks he’d found - large, round…four toes spread widely apart and shaped like asymmetric teardrops…clawless…a distinctive v-shaped heel pad - mountain lion. It’s paws had left perfect impressions in the wet clay. The lion had come down out of the sage, turned to look down the road in the direction from which we’d come, then cross the road back into the sage, headed towards the valley below. The tracks were very fresh, with crisp edges and water just beginning to well in the bottom of the impressions. Likely, it’d been there only minutes before we arrived. It might have stopped because it heard us coming or caught our scent. Zorrro sniffed around as I looked across a large open area covered with sage, but I saw nothing.

Coaxing Zorro with the leash, I aligned him parallel to the tracks, placing his rear foot even with the lion’s. The lion was almost a foot longer than he was. Then I placed Zorro’s rear foot into the lion’s rear print. It was over 3 times larger than his. The thought of how large that cat must be sent a chill through my body. Once again, I peered across the sage, still deserted, and we continued on our way.

Over the years, I’ve run, biked and hiked on lots of roads, paths and game trails in marquee wilderness areas and national parks, and less popular places in the boondocks, like this hogback. Only a couple of times had I come across lion tracks.

The following April we were on the mining trail, less than a half mile to the top. I was jogging slowly, gazing down on the ranch in the sprawling valley below. The cottonwoods that line the stream flowing out of the Flat Tops were already tinged with pale green buds. The stream, just starting to swell with runoff, glittered as it made lazy turns through the pastures. Suddenly Zorro stopped, his eyes trained up the hillside to the left. They say dogs don’t have very good eyesight, but he has an infallible eye for movement. Four legged and sure footed, as he climbs his head rotates back and forth like a radar dish. Once he stepped over a large bullsnake that was right under his feet because it remained perfectly still. But if something moves, he locks on it. He’s pointed me to deer, elk, coyotes, fox, even birds of prey circling overhead.

I stopped too, and followed his line of sight just in time to see the hindquarter of a tawny-colored animal slip behind a clump of juniper a little less than 100 yards away. It had a long tail and was too big to be a coyote. Something about the way it moved was different than other animals I’d seen. We both kept watching, and a few seconds later it came out the other side, then turned and looked at us. The stubby ears and angular face were unmistakable. After several seconds, the lion turned and bounded rapidly up the hill and out of sight. I wished it had waited just a few more seconds so I could study it before it ran away, but it should have been no surprise because mountain lions are supposed to be furtive and shy.

After thousands of miles in running and biking in the back country, I had finally seen a mountain lion in the wild. And it would not be the last.

Heaven on Earth

My moments, sometimes minutes, of deep spiritual joy most often occur when I'm running or biking on a trail. I don't know exactly how it works, but during hard outdoor physical exercise, in any kind of weather and at any time of year, I often feel profound contentment, at oneness, in the now, flow, whatever you want to call it. Somehow, for me, the equation is: the beauty of nature + long physical exertion = happiness.

Pagan as it sounds, I think the spiritual is physical. It is no coincidence that many of the famous prophets and gurus experienced their deepest spiritual insights while wandering in the desert or sitting outside under a Bodhi tree. I can't help but wonder if they would have attained transcendence sooner if they had picked up the pace a little, say tried running at 80% of their maximum heart rate for a half hour or more. This is not to disparage in any way the incredible devotion or discipline shown by religious devotees, whether meditating, reciting mantras, or praying, rather just to suggest that heaven or nirvana may not be other-worldly, but just a few hard breaths away right here on earth.

I wonder if anyone has ever compared the brain pattern of a Tibetan monk in deep mediation to that of a trail runner experiencing the state called a "runner's high." I figure something similar and as profound happens during vigorous outdoor exercise. It's as close as an average TOJ like me will ever get to enlightenment, and that's good enough. I don't want to be spiritually greedy.

Conventional wisdom attributes the runner's high to the release of endorphins like sertonin and dopamine. There's an excellent and inspiring book by winning triathlete Christopher Bergland, entitled The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, which offers a fascinating discussion of the electro-chemistry of the brain during exercise. His father is a neuro-surgeon, and Bergland made it his own avocation to dig deep into the runner's high phenomenon. He says current neuroscience points to the endocannabinoid system, specifically, he writes, "anandamide, the bliss molecule." He recommends "using the knowledge of anandamide flooding your brain when you exercise as a prime motivating force to lace up your sneakers and break a sweat." (Note: I'll do a more in depth review another day because this is a worthy book.)

I have never understood why people dread exercise so they need "a prime motivating force" when it gives such pleasure and fulfillment. But Bergland lives in New York, thus is limited to jogs around Central Park and working out on a treadmill. In fact, he holds the Guiness World Record for treadmill running, an incredible 153.76 miles in twenty-four hours. That's a feat that ranks right up there not only with great athletic acheivements, but also the greatest feats of religious austerity, like a yogi lying on a bed of nails.

I have nothing against training indoors. Sometimes I lift weights inside or workout on an elliptical, but not often or for long. Those are just means to an end, to build stength and stamina for running uphill, preventing injury, or maintaining balance on rocky terrain. The same way a Bergland trains to win, a TOJ trains to be able to keep going out there.

But when I go to lace up my shoes, neurochemicals are the furthest thing from my mind. I'm thinking about the joy I'll feel in a few minutes when the cold air bites my cheeks or the snow flies before my eyes.

Into to Self-Made Road to Hell and Back

The Self-Made Road to Hell and Back

Age is no guarantee of wisdom. The Zen Buddhists say you make a heaven or hell of the place where you stand. It's true for where you ride bikes too, though I didn't know it at the time

A couple years ago, I decided to go ride the first 20 mile stretch of the Kokopelli Trail, which starts a few miles out of Fruita, Colorado, and winds all the way to Moab, Utah, over 140 miles away.Kokopelli Trail goes up, over and through mesas, sand washes, canyons, slickrock and desert. It is well known in Colorado biking circles, though few people do more than the first few miles of it. I had never been on it. Most of my biking had been confined to high mountain single track or jeep trails that looped out and back. But one day the Kokopelli called my name to come ride it.

I ordered a booklet online called "Kokopelli's Trail: The Utah-Colorado Mountain Bike Trail System," written by Peggy Utesch in 1990. It described the entire trail, though backwards from where I would start because it followed the trail from Utah to Colorado. The book included distances in tenths of a mile to turnoffs and noteable milestones like cattleguards. The introduction consisted largely of cautions which I skimmed through to learn more about the route and terrain. Reading the book made me excited to hit the trail. The ride would be rugged,remote, solitary and challenging.

At daylight Saturday morning of the ride I gathered my gear, checked my tires and brakes, got a couple bottles of ice and water for the two cages on my bike, and put an energy bar and some sunscreen in a small rucksack hanging from the handle bars.

When my wife saw me packing the car, she asked, "You have plenty of water?"

"Sure, I'm only going 20 miles. I should be fine." I figured I'd be out there for three to four hours at most. I remembered running many times over the years in the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona, where I got in serious water/heat trouble only once. I liked heat. And I'd biked way beyond that distance many times.

"How about some food?" she asked.

"I have an energy bar," I said.

"That all?"

"It's enough," I said, feeling stuffed from a large bowl of cereal and some grapefruit. I was carbo-loaded.

"Take the cell phone," she advised.

At first I didn't want to. It was going to be on a ride in desolate country. Why would I need a cell phone? There probably wouldn't be cell coverage out there. When I started to balk, she insisted. I tucked it into the rucksack. No big deal, it was lightweight.

She drove me to the start of the trail, near the Loma exit off I-70. We got there about 8:30 am. Our plan was that she would go back into Grand Junction, 25 miles away, to shop or whatever, then meet me in four hours at the Rabbit Valley exit, another 20 plus miles from where she was dropping me off.

I waved happily as she pulled away. It was a beautiful May morning in the desert. I had glanced at the temperature guage before getting out of the car; it was aleady in the high seventies. I took a swig of ice water, and started cranking up a dirt road to find the Troy Built Trail, the first leg of the Kokopelli Trail, which is actually a loose chain of single track, dirt and paved roads, deer trails (which I thought was a joke when I read about it) and, sometimes, a cairn here or there to indicate where there was no visible trail at all.

The trail started with a steep uphill, first over a wide section of loose rock, then onto slick rock with frequent layers of sandstone steps. I realized why this trail was considered "technical" and "difficult." You immediately dump lactic acid into your leg muscles because of the angle of ascent and the effort required to pull the front tire up and over the many long, irrregular rock steps.

When the trail leveled off, I was already sweaty and paused to drink some water. I knew I was generating a lot of body heat, but it felt like the air was waming fast too. The sky was clear and the sun was beaming down. While the scenery was fantastic, I couldn't spend much time looking around. In several spots, the trail followed along a sandstone ledge only a few yards from sheer dropoffs that plummeted several hundred feet into the Colorado River, flowing greenish-brown below.

The trail pulled away from the river and went up and down several rocky hillsides with more sandstone steps and loose rock. After cresting an especially difficult section, I stopped and finished off my first water bottle and started on the second.It seemed to get hotter and hotter as I rode for a long time over twisting, gnarly stretches of dips, climbs and drops. The clock was ticking. I had been out for at least two hours, but my odometer indicated I had only travelled a little over 5 miles. At that moment one of the cautions Utesch mentioned in her book nudged into my memory, something to the effect that the terrain could "cause difficulties estimating the time" it would take to cover a certain distance. At that rate it would take 8 hours, way too long.

I pedaled harder, as the trail shook my front shock and my body. Then I fell down for the first time as I tried to hump up a rock and caught my chain ring, tipping me sideways. I wasn't going very fast, so I just got a little scrape on my left arm. Another of Utesch's insights popped into my mind: that the rocky and sandy surfaces of the Kokopelli "diminish traction and speed, which makes climbing and descending ever more hazardous."

I stopped and drank most of the water in the second bottle; the ice had long since melted and the water was tepid. And I ate my only energy bar. I looked at my watch. I had been on the trail for almost three hours. The odometer read around 10 miles, but when I looked at the map, the terrain didn't match where I should be. Something was wrong. I had to be off course.

I thought about it. A few miles back I had come to a three way intersection. Although the Kokopelli is supposed to be well marked, that is not always true, and sometimes when you have your eyes locked on the trail, you miss signs even if they were there. I looked at the map again and realized that I had probably left the Kokopelli and was on Mary's Loop or Horsethief Bench. I doubled back to the intersection and, after pedaling a few yards in each direction, found a small Kokopelli sign pointing north, which felt right.

Off I went, pedaling even harder, but going slower because real fatigue was setting in. I just concentrated on turning the crank, rolling the tires. Finally, a half hour later, I came to a long downhill. It was steep terrain and dropped quickly. I knew I was on course, descending into Salt Creek.

The trail narrowed to a notch on the mountain side, and footwide mix of sand and loose shale. As I braked a little too hard to slow my speed, my rear wheel skidded off the side of the trail. I flipped and slid down the side of the slope for about twenty feet in a mini-avalanche of loose rock. Slowly I scrambled with my bike back up to the trail then glided slowly the last quarter mile with my foot down and rolled up to the bridge across Salt Creek.

Finally on a flat spot, I paused to survery the damage. Not bad. I was bleeding from abrasions on my right arm and leg. Also I felt something warm on my scalp. Just below the back of my helmet a rock had grazed my scalp and blood oozed there too. Nothing serious. I biked across the bridge and short sand flat to the ascent on the other side, then got off the bike to follow a steep switchback up through rocks. Then the trail went almost straight up. It was unmarked and just a feint line in the rocks. I remembered a reference to the a deer trail that rose steeply. Maybe this was it, maybe it wasn't. My odometer was no longer useful for navigating because I had deviated off the trail for an hour.

I laid my bike down and sat down to assess the situation. I had been out for just over four hours. I was out of water. I remembered Another Utesch caution: "It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of taking and drinking enough water when riding in the desert." I felt stupid, but that was no time to grovel in self-criticism. I know what it is like to be very tired, but this was different. I was totally exhausted and dehydrated. My muscles were trembling. My glycogen and electrolytes were depleted. I had bonked. If I miscalculated my next move, I could get in trouble.

According to my watch, by then my wife would be waiting. If I had guessed my location corrrectly, I still had 8 or 9 miles to go. If I didn't show up in a couple hours, she would go to try to find help. I decided right then to abort the trip. I looked at a map and saw that the Rio Grande railroad, which was only one hundred yards away, would lead back to I-70. I got back down the hill, and walked my bike through the cheatgrass and willow, and climbed onto the trestle.

I biked a couple of bumpy miles over railroad ties, the black creosote sticking to my tires in the heat, out to the freeway, luckily without encountering any trains. When I climbed onto I-70, I tried the cell phone, but there was no signal. So I biked on the side of the freeway back toward the Loma exit. At the top of a slight rise near the exit, I picked up a signal. I called information and asked them to connect me to a bike shop in Fruita. When the bike shop picked up the phone, I told them about my situation and told them I would pay $60 if someone would come pick me up and drop me at Rabbit Valley.

Thirty minutes later a college kid in a shiny silver Audi showed up. He gave me a funny look and asked if I was ok. I told him I was just tired and thirsty. I guessed I wasn't the first he'd seen beat up by that trail. He sped me up to Rabbit Vally, where my wife waited, hot (she had turned off the AC to conserve gas) and worried. By then it was just under 95 degrees, over five hours since she dropped me off. I thanked the kid, paid him, and off he went. My wife looked at me and said very little. She didn't need to.

We went back into Grand Junction and stopped at Starbucks. I was covered with dirt, streaked with rivulets of sweat, and, here and here, trickles of blood. I went into the bathroom and washed the worst of it off.

Then we ordered some drinks. I got something iced and sweet. It was a Venti.

Postscript: Two weeks later I returned, after having studied a couple more books, including Dan D'Antonio's "Mountain Biking Grand Junction and Fruita" and David Crowell's "Mountain Biking Moab," which has a good description of the Kokopelli. I also was armed with a GPS, plus I had two water bottles (one with a sports drink loaded with electrolytes), a camel pack, and several energy bars.

I doubled back down the trestle, and continued up the deer trail that connected to an easy jeep trail at the top of the mountain, just a few hundred feet up. I finished the first segment, then completed the second segment a week later. Someday I will return for more of the Kokopelli. If you are interested in finding out more about it, go to the Colorado Mountain Biking Association at

www.comba.org or Colorado Plateau Mountain Biking Assoc.at www.copmoba.org.

Kokopelli's" Trail : The Utah-Colorado Mountain Bike Trail System : Route 1 : Moab to Loma (Canyon Country Series Number 22) (Canyon Country Series, 22)

Intro to "Some Shoes Have Souls. . ."

Some Shoes Have Souls, Not Just Soles

On a rack outside the door to the garage are more than a half dozen pairs of (mostly) trail running shoes of various brands, ages and condition. Some of them are just beginning to fall apart. One pair is only a few months old.

I hang on to several pairs of shoes for lots of reasons. That they are still on the rack means they are good shoes and have some miles left in them. I'm attached to them because they have carried me through beautiful places or protected my feet on hard trails. Until they are totally shot, I won't toss them into the trash. They are like friends to me, with personalities, strengths and weaknesses. They are your soulmates out there and take a lot of abuse so your feet don't have to.

I've never found a perfect shoe for all trail and weather conditions, but I've found shoes that, for me, are perfect in certain conditions. My North Face give a great ride on trails with an even mix of dirt and rock and have lots of grip in all conditions. The Vasques, with Goretex uppers and and a high cuff, are good in snow. The New Balance are great on pavement, which I try to avoid (except for the Bolder Boulder) because asphalt is hard on by two scoped knees. The Montrails are great in the rocks because of the sturdy underfoot padding. When I buy a new pair of running shoes, which is a couple times a year, I usually let one of the other pair go. But I still have one pair of battered Adidas I won't let go, even though the rubber toe protectors are peeling off, because I've had some great runs in those shoes. We are like soulmates.

I bought some of the earliest Adidas and Nike shoes. My first pair of true running shoes were leather topped green and white Adidas Cross Country's. First time I ran on them, I felt a dramatic improvement over the black canvas topped Converse sneakers I had worn throughout my early youth. Running shoes have gotten better and better ever since. Although the shoe business epitomizes planned obsolescence and fashion mania with all the garish designs and lacing gimmicks, the materials, comfort and durability have steadily improved each year.

I figure I save lots of money by not playing games like golf, so I can spend a lot on good shoes for what a set of golf clubs, golf spikes, lost balls and green fees would cost. And I see good shoes as an investment in fun and injury prevention. When you run distance, your feet take a beating. As Gretchen Reynolds pointed out in the New York Times: "The foot is at such high risk of injury largely because it has so many small, frangible parts - 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 tendons, ligaments and muscles, any of which can fail." (Experts in her article even recommend stretching your foot to prevent injury. Go to http://footankleinstitute.com/ to learn how.)

If you run very far, say more than a couple miles, the damage can be pretty impressive. Ever wonder why your feet feel sore after a run? Her experts say it's because they have been damaged: "small cracks in the bones, tiny broken capillaries, and fluid build up in bone marrow." Even young, strong runners often suffer stress fractures. Well, as you age, your feet will take even more of a beating because the padding under your foot starts to thin.

All my shoes are snug, comfortable, laterally stable, offer good underfoot protection over the full length of my foot, and they grip the surface I am running on. You want to be able to run for a long time, not just over a few miles, but over many years of your life, for as long as you are able. A smart TOJ needs good shoes.

Surviving the Medicine Show

TOJs have a natural interest in health so that they can keep being TOJs. In the Information Age, separating the signal from the noise (that's the hip digital metaphor), or the truth from lies (old fashioned knowledge), ain't easy, especially when it comes to how to best maintain your health. There are a few reasons why this is so difficult:

1. The human body is very complicated. Modern science finds more and more to marvel at as it goes deeper and deeper into electro-chemical physical processes.
2. Each of us are more different from one another than science wants to admit. Complex factors like genetics, environment and age can make what is good for one person be poison to another.
3. Science is for sale. In the western world, scientific method is the accepted means by which truth is discovered. But we have also discovered that scientists are not above biases and skewing data (maybe even unconsciously) so their tainted conclusions are eventually rewarded with money, whether it's doctors selling their own concoctions to endowed chairs at prestigious universities.
4. A numbing barrage of advertising promises easy sleep, unbounded energy, four hour erections, etc. Much of it is not true.

So what's a TOJ to do, especially one like me who took a one too many shots to the head playing football and boxing causing my synapses to misfire here and there? I think you need to be skeptical, cautiously experimental, and open minded. What does that mean?

There's a good book by Robert Davis called The Healthy Skeptic: Cutting through the HYPE about Your Health. In addition to a hilarious (he didn't intend this) history of health scams through the centuries -everything from enemas, sexual deprivation, zany diets and food fetishes - he exposes some of the popular ones now like supplements, diet books, sunscreen mania and anti-aging doctors. After each chapter, he provides excellent sources for credible health information. Like him, you've got to dig for facts.

By cautiously experimental, I mean if something seems to have some encouraging evidence, and often it might be anecdotal, check it out yourself. Take glucosamine-chondroitin. I first heard about it from a neighbor and happened to mention it to my brother, who was a professional football player. He said he and other players he'd spoken with found it helped their battered bones. Academics have come out with recent studies that say it "probably" doesn't do anything. In my case it did, and it isn't the placebo effect (and if it were, so what?). I read about the pros and cons, got a reliable brand, varied the dosage, and gave it time to work. My knees feel better.

Finally, by open minded I mean you need to be curious about research and studies going on. I listen especially closely to people who are not being paid to endorse or recommend something. Health care consumes 16% of the country GDP. It's going up every year. The Boomers threaten to break the Medicare bank. Armies of researchers are looking for valid solutions to health problems. More than ever they will be making important discoveries, many of which will help TOJs, and I will discuss here.