Monday, February 15, 2010

Something to be Jealous Of

Depending on how effusive I'm feeling when you ask me about it, I'll often say that I love mountain biking, or that off-road cycling is my first love in cycling or something like that. When I was in college, in Santa Cruz, it was easy to love mountain biking. Like a girl I saw every day, the Santa Cruz mountains were there whenever I had a moment to hop on my little red Schwinn and throw some dirt around. I had no idea how lucky I was.

Here in Seattle, I can ride mountain bikes fairly easily if I'm willing to drive for a while. But I can also walk out my front door and ride my road bike, so it's a lot harder to love mountain biking than it was when I was at Santa Cruz. I don't do it nearly as often as I probably would if I could ride my bike for a few minutes and hit some trails and I didn't feel I needed to ride for a certain amount of time to make it worth the trouble. So my love for mountain biking is a little more theoretical than concrete lately, and certainly no threat to any of the humans I care about.

Yesterday was different. I've been trying to get some sort of group ride going for a while, and that's meant that my teammates are hearing, probably more often than they'd care to, that I'm looking for people to ride with me. So two of them invited me on one of their rides. We did the Grand Ridge trail to the Duthie Hill bike park and back. Grand Ridge has about 1100' of climbing over about 7 miles of trail (according to the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site.) I'm not quite sure how they're counting, but it's a steep climb in, over a ridgeline, down into a valley, and out to Duthie Hill. It's a net gain, but the descents turn into climbs on the way out, and it's a physically very demanding route. I've done it a few times in the past, but I haven't had time to do the whole thing since the very first time I rode it, later in the spring when the ground was dryer. It was a lot harder yesterday. In the northbound direction, the trailhead is on a gravel service road. The first half mile or so climbs about 500', and that's the easier option. Last time I rode it, it was almost like riding a sidewalk because of all the gravel that's gone into hardening the surface on that part of the lower loop, but all that's been buried under a layer of autumn leaves and then rained on - now it's mud, with slick rocks and roots sprinkled in for variety.

After that, the trail rolls but trends upwards and has frequent small stream crossings and erosion bars. It's not too technical but does require some attention. Steep mud climbs are difficult because it's easier for me to maintain the power output to do a steep climb if I'm out of the saddle, depending on the climb, but it takes a lot of finesse to keep the rear wheel hooked up that way and it's usually easier to climb seated if the traction's poor. Anyway, it took me a while to find my rhythm. After it crosses a road at about 1000', the forest gets a little less dense and becomes very beautiful. There's a new bridge and a boardwalk in one of the two bogs, but the other still has hub-deep mud puddles and requires a lot of hiking. After my first time doing that system, I didn't bother to work my way through it until today, but since Duthie Hill is on the other side and that's where we were going, we picked our way through.

Duthie Hill is new and under construction by local mountain bike groups. It's really quite inspirational - it doesn't have a ton of elevation change, but there's enough for some flowlines and to make the cross-country trails tricky. There are lots of very well-banked turns, log rides, and stunts for those inclined. My friends and I took a lap around the cross-country trails there, which are deceptively long given the size of the park, and then headed back to Grand Ridge.

I felt like a million bucks before we started the climb out of the larger bog, and then discovered that actually I was quite tired and it's really hard to ride mud tired. I caught up with my friends again at the bottom of Grand Ridge, where one of them was changing a flat, after guessing (correctly) that they'd take the difficult option at one of the forks. Once we were on the service road I felt pretty good again, but I think I was several gears lower than I had been in the morning. The rest of the day was spent on lunch, a nap, hosing down my bike, and deciding that I was too tired to figure out how to fix my front shifter. This coming weekend is my first race, but if the world is designed for my pleasure, I'll fit in another ride like yesterday's on the 27th...

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"That Guy"

I think that part of maturing is realizing the areas in which I am "That Guy." Who "That Guy" is varies, but people from at least some points of view will hate him. He might be "That Guy" who drives around and commutes in the city in a powerful sports car or a jacked up truck, or "That Guy" who runs out of gas on the freeway during rush hour or "That Guy" holds up the line at the supermarket checkout counter to go through every item on his receipt because he suspects the checker is trying to cheat him. I think that, at least from time to time, we are all "That Guy." And none of us want to be.

I've always been good at school, and there were a lot of classes in high school and undergrad that I could do well in with almost no effort. I don't think I was that good at concealing that, so in school I was "that guy" who doesn't have to work that hard but still screws up the curve. I even made a deal with my high school physics teacher in which I did only the problems with stars from each assigned homework section, rather than the assigned problems. The starred problems were, of course, the hard ones, but I was "that guy."

In undergrad, for the first few times in my life, there were exceptions. A couple of times, I couldn't just sit down and write the week's computer program in two hours, and lost points because of it. Most of the time I got away with it, though, and I was "that guy" who came to class once a week to get the homework assignment. In pyjamas. And while I managed to pass first-year calculus with about a 50% attendance rate, Multivariable Calculus defeated me.

One of the other aspects of growing up is failing at things. I don't think any of us likes to fail, but anyone who likes a challenge and attaches value to succeeding at something difficult will fail at something sooner or later, and probably more often when they find the level of challenge appropriate to their talents. Depending on one's attitude, a failure can become a learning opportunity facilitating success on the second, or third, or nth attempt. I was "That Guy" all through high school, and while I may not always have done well at all of my classes, I never did poorly at something I tried to be good at. That's true of college too, but I've had to admit that I blew it on Multivariable Calculus. If I'd tried to pass Multivariable, I might still have failed or at least had a hard time at it, but I might also have succeeded. If I was ready to work hard at an academic subject.

Part of falling in love with dance, for me, was that I wasn't "That Guy." Dance was a lot of work for me, and that made it much more compelling than anything else that I'd done. There were other things that I loved about it, but it was the first thing I've tried to be good at and not had come easily. Ultimately I couldn't make a career out of it and drifted into stagecraft and back into being "That Guy," more-or-less. When I took some courses to round out my knowledge, I was "That Guy" who remembered enough trig to understand rigging math (not a high bar, IMHO.) On electrics calls, I got used to being "That Guy" who could calculate Watts, Volts and Amps. There's a neat mnemonic for that - "West Virginia" abbreviated W.VA for Watts = Volts * Amps. I was always apologizing for being "That Guy" though. If someone commented on my ability to solve (easy) math problems, remember knots, use a ratchet strap, figure out weird ways to assemble disparate pieces of theatrical lighting equipment, etc., I'd shrug and act like it was a slightly shameful thing, maybe imply that I'd worked at learning my knots.

Anyway, I've always believed that my ideal career will exist somewhere near the intersection of what I love and what I'm good at. So I'm done being embarrassed about being "That Guy," whether it's being able to solve physics problems, knowing way too much about the sizes of bike parts for different applications, or not finding it difficult to remember how to tie a clove hitch. One of the results I hope to achieve in doing my current project is to find myself a context in which we are all "That Guy" and none of us are - where it takes vector calculus and differential equations to make us say "math is hard" (Zach, you seem to remain "That Guy" then too, and I hate you. :P) and we can all find some problems that are hard to solve and build some really cool stuff. After all, if everyone has a context in which they are "That Guy," then everyone has to have a context in which they aren't. For now, my classmates will just have to put up with me; I can only raise the mean by one point anyway.