Ride Around Washington: We did that!

A few days ago CFL and I completed a very big bike ride: we rode 400 miles from Ilwaco, up the Columbia River Gorge, to Walla Walla, Washington. That’s three-quarters of the way across Washington, from the far southwestern corner at the Pacific Coast, nearly all the way to Idaho.

It was the biggest thing either of us has ever done as an athlete. I still can’t quite believe we did it!

I started researching active vacations back in January, and quickly focused on Ride Around Washington, organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club. The 2015 edition was the 17th annual RAW. Each year they follow a different route, visiting different sections of the state. I first learned about RAW last year when they rode through and camped in my town.

The ride is relatively small and and intimate, with only 250 cyclists. We camped each night in state parks, county fairgrounds, and the like. Our luggage was transported and our meals and snacks were provided — all we had to do was ride our bikes, pitch our tents, and pack up our stuff each morning. We were expected to fix our own flats, but additional mechanical assistance and other support was provided by a fleet of roving support vehicles.

Piece of cake, right?

Every bike ride I’ve taken this year has been focused on preparing for RAW. We knew that our longest day would be 88+ miles, that our hilliest day would have 4,500+ feet of elevation gain, and that we could be facing 100+ degree days in eastern Washington. We tried to train toward those numbers, but the longest ride we did before RAW was 73 miles, our warmest ride was about 90 degrees, my biggest climb was about 3,300 feet, and my longest riding streak was 5 consecutive days and 244 miles. In short, we prepared as well as we could, but we weren’t entirely sure we were ready.

Perhaps you noticed the big bandage on my chin in the photo above. No, I didn’t fall off my bike! But I did trip over a curb while trying to board the bus in Seattle on the first morning. I managed to land squarely on my chin. Event staff arrived promptly with a first aid kit, but it was clear that I needed more than a band-aid.

Our bikes and luggage were already loaded on the trucks, and we couldn’t think of anything to do but get on the bus and go to Ilwaco. As soon as we arrived in Ilwaco, I dashed to the nearest Emergency Room. I didn’t need stitches, but they did glue the laceration closed and applied the huge bandage that you see. I was in and out of that ER in an hour and ten minutes.

The truck with the bikes was running late. When I walked back from the ER they were still unloading bikes. Yet I needed some time to collect my thoughts (calm down) before I was ready to get on the bike. CFL and I were the last ones to leave the parking lot, but we weren’t very far behind the others.

The route for Day 1 had a 6-mile possible short cut. We took that, so we rode just 48 miles to Skamokawa. I had a tough time. I was hurting, I had a headache, and the bumpy road was hell on my chin. We rolled into camp at nearly 7:00 PM.

We ate, pitched our tent, and were asleep very soon thereafter. The next morning my alarm went off at 5:15 AM. We had to break camp, drag our luggage to the truck, eat breakfast, and be on the road before 8:00. That schedule would become our norm for the week.

On Day 2 we rode from Skamokawa to Vancouver. My chin was not nearly as sore. It didn’t hurt so badly to hit bumps. We rode nearly 89 miles and I arrived feeling reasonably fresh and strong. A highlight of Day 2 was about 6 miles of riding along I-5. While the shoulder itself was relatively smooth and wide, the 18-wheelers flying by were… thrilling. A couple of times we passed obstacles on the shoulder that forced us over the bone-rattling rumble strip and into the traffic lane. Frankly, it was terrifying.

On Day 3 we started the morning with a brisk ride over the I-205 bridge into Oregon. We rode down the bike path in the center of the freeway. That was fun! From there we took surface roads eastward to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

It was a relatively short distance (just under 59 miles), but the narrow, winding road and heavy tourist traffic made it scary. It was especially tough right at Multnomah Falls where tourists in cars were looking at everything but us cyclists. The inherent tension of the situation caused my left shoulder to stiffen up and begin to spasm.

Still, it was a beautiful place to ride.

The last thing we had to do before arriving at camp in Stevenson, WA was ride over the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks.

This is the location at which the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Columbia River (it’s Cheryl Strayed’s destination in Wild). CFL had looked forward to riding over this bridge for months. To his delight, we actually passed a thru-hiker on the approach to the bridge.

The wind had come up by then. I started over the narrow bridge, which was a bumpy open grate, and got blasted by side wind. It was all I could do to keep moving forward, but I had to keep going because of traffic on the bridge right behind me. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever done… way scarier than I-5.

We were slower than most of the riders so we didn’t have much time for sightseeing stops along the way. Each day we rolled into camp around 4:30 to 4:45, which left us just enough time to put up the tent, grab a celebratory beer, and take a quick shower before dinner. Then we’d be off to bed by 9:00 or so.

Of course, Slow Ride session IPA from New Belgium was my go-to beer of the week.

Day 4, from Stevenson to Maryhill, was the day I have been worried about from the beginning: 77 miles with 4,500+ feet of elevation gain.

It started out fine. We picked up a nice little tailwind and sailed along. We rode several miles on I-84, with a narrow shoulder and construction blocking one vehicle lane. It was scary but manageable. Then later, as I was nearing a viewpoint at the top of a hill for our late morning water stop, I got hit by a sidewind that almost knocked me over. From there, coming down the hill on the far side was a series of wind blasts from different directions at every turn. Again, it was terrifying.

We arrived at the lunch stop in The Dalles at 49.2 miles. We had another 27+ miles and 2,000+ feet of elevation gain to go. I told CFL I was done for the day. I arranged a ride into camp on one of the support vehicles. The guy praised my decision to “sag,” as he said there was a 35 MPH headwind on the bridge we were about to cross.

CFL kept riding. I marveled at all the hills we went up and down as we drove past a long line of riders.

The driver asked if I’d like to be dropped off at the Stonehenge war memorial and ride down the last hill to camp from there. I decided I’d do that. It was another 2.3 miles, so I ended up doing 51.50 that day.

While waiting for CFL to arrive, I somehow managed to pitch the tent myself in a 25+ MPH wind. He did not get into camp until after 6:00. In addition to battling the winds, he’d had a flat tire.

On Day 5 we rode from Maryhill to Umatilla, OR. This was the day we’d been promised big tailwinds that would allow us to “put it on autopilot.” We did get some wind early in the day, but then it petered out and it got hot. Sometime in the mid-afternoon CFL noticed that my rear tire was low. It was still inflated enough that I rode carefully for another 3 miles to the water stop. There, a friendly and gracious volunteer helped us (mostly CFL) patch the leak… something we were supposed to be able to do for ourselves. I had picked up a tiny curlicued bit of wire. He gave us some pointers on how to quickly and effectively fix a flat. I appreciated his instruction.

We got back on the bikes and finished the ride, ending with a bike path over a Columbia River bridge that (because of the lack of wind) was not scary. We were among the last few riders into camp. Day 5 was an 85-mile day.

On Day 6 I was tired again. We got a late start and were among the last riders on the road. This guaranteed that we would be almost last, if not the last, to finish.

On that last day, everything hurt: my knees, my shoulders, my butt, and once again my chin (which had quieted down but now seemed more sore again). I was ready to be done. We got to the afternoon food stop (at a winery) and the “sweep” riders (those who would escort the last few to the finish) showed up right behind us.

Of course we didn’t taste any wine. We were hot and that was the last thing we wanted. Still we stuck around there for a while, drinking ice water and cooling off.

The sweep riders were polite and said we could take all the time we needed. We cruised into camp with them right behind us. (A few riders actually finished behind the sweep riders, as they’d stopped somewhere to sightsee.)

There was an actual “FINISH” banner at the end, as well as a person handing out a RAW patch on a cord… a finishers medal of sorts. I got a bit emotional but only for a few seconds. I felt better as soon as I learned that the beer would be free until all of it was gone.

The next morning felt rather sad, packing up the tent for the last time and putting our bikes on the truck and ourselves on the bus back to Seattle.

While we were certainly ready to stop riding, we knew that we would miss our little traveling community.

Will we do RAW again? Probably. Next year will pick up where this year ended, in Walla Walla, and traverse the eastern half of the state, the region known as The Palouse, from south to north. We’ll see lots more beautiful, stark scenery like this.

It will be hot, windy, miserable, and no doubt terrifying in places. But we’ll know what to expect, and we’ll be better prepared. And when we’re done, we’ll know that we’ve again accomplished something very big.

It’s no piece of cake, but it’s a savory and satisfying experience indeed.

Cycling, cycling… re-cycling!

I’ve been riding my bike a lot this year. Since my last half marathon on June 7, I’ve focused almost exclusively on cycling. Well, there was a two-week beer tourism adventure in southern California, but even while there I borrowed a bike and cruised around on beachfront San Diego trails.

When we got home from California my plan was to run and ride on alternate days. After all, I do have this marathon that I’m registered for in October, so I wanted to keep the running edge fairly sharp going into summer. I planned to do a couple of easy 7-10 mile runs per week, and then ramp up the marathon training in mid-August.

Why the delay until mid-August? Because CFL and I are also registered for a 6-day, 400+ mile cycling tour in early August. I naively thought that I could keep up with the running while also training to ride multiple days’ worth of 70+ mile rides.

I was wrong about that. Something had to give, and it was the running.

My first big cycling test of the summer was a ride up to Hurricane Ridge. I’ve written here about CFL’s adventures with Ride the Hurricane. I used to be in utter awe of him or anyone who could do this ride. It’s the steepest climb in Washington state and in the top 100-rated climbs in the country. On the first Sunday in August, the road leading 18 miles up to one of Olympic National Park’s supreme tourist areas is closed to all but cyclists. On any given day in summer, however, you might see a dozen or more cyclists winding their way up 5,000+ feet… and then speeding back down the hill!

I have attempted to do it, beginning my ride from home, several times, but never got past mile 3. CFL kept telling me the first 6 miles are the steepest.

When we heard that 125+ cyclists were coming over from Victoria, BC on July 1 (Canada Day), we decided to tag along. The road wasn’t closed but we figured there was safety in numbers. I decided I’d start my ride 6 miles up the road, giving myself a starting elevation of about 2,000 feet with only 3,200 feet or so to climb.

It took me a long time but I did it. I think I got passed by every Canadian rider on the way up. I was pretty tired at the top, but not too tired for the obligatory, celebratory photo.

I was really nervous about riding down, but it wasn’t too bad. I stopped a few times along the way just to remind myself that my brakes do, in fact, work perfectly well.

After that, my next challenge was a 70+ mile ride. We figured out that we could start at a trailhead on the north side of Lake Crescent and ride from there to Forks (of Twilight fame) and back. All but a dozen or so miles each way would be on a bike path, while the rest would be on US 101, which does at least have a wide shoulder.

The day we planned to do it, there was rain in the forecast. Being intrepid Pacific Northwesterners, we put our rain gear in our waterproof backpacks and off we went!

It rained. A lot. 24 miles out we’d had enough, and we turned around.

A week later we tried it again. This time it was an unusually warm day. We actually liked that, as our tour will be in a warm area and heat training is hard to come by where we live.

By the time we reached Forks, it was nearly 90 degrees. Of course we had to stop and get photos at the “Forks welcomes you” sign.

We found a small cafe where we had sandwiches and ice cream, and refilled our water bottles. Then we started back.

Six miles out of Forks CFL got a flat tire. I watched closely while he fixed it. In my cycling career I have yet to get a flat tire. I’m still not sure I’d be able to fix it when I get one… I am keeping my fingers crossed!

We got very hot and tired riding back. We refilled our bottles a second time. I then nursed my bottle back to the car, while CFL took to topping his off at likely-looking small streams.

That ride turned out to be 73 miles, round trip. We figured we’d earned an immediate beer, so we stopped at the Lake Crescent Lodge on the way home.

Since that ride, I’ve been focused on trying to ride as much as possible, as many days in a row as possible. So I cycle one day, I re-cycle the next day, you get the drift. A 50 mile bike ride, followed by another, does not seem like all that big of a deal anymore. However, the idea of stringing together several 70+ mile days still has me a little anxious.

With one day left in July, I’ve ridden 659 miles so far this month.

I’m a bit tired.

But I think I’m ready for a very big, very long bike ride.

I can’t wait to tell you all about it… but first I have to DO it! Stay tuned…

So many photo ops!

It has been much too long since I last blogged here! As usual, I have a good excuse: I’ve been too busy living to write.

So what have I been up to? Instead of trying to write about it all at this point, it might be easier to show you.

We had a short, if occasionally dramatic, winter. A series of large rainstorms in February did major damage to our Olympic Discovery Trail. The mudslides have long ago been cleared from the waterfront section, but the big bridge across the Dungeness River is still closed. The river has permanently (well, for the foreseeable future) changed course, and the whole western side of the bridge will need to be rebuilt.

It’s possible to detour around this section of the trail by road, but it does make long bike rides a bit more complicated.

To the west, the Elwha River is finally running clear again after the historic removal of the two large dams. It’s great to see that pure blue-green water!

In April we drove down to Monterey, California to ride the Sea Otter Gran Fondo. The Sea Otter Classic is one of the largest competitive bike events in the country, and the Gran Fondo is one of the few non-competitive events included in it. We rode 51 miles of the beautiful coast of Monterey and Pacific Grove. We were having so much fun riding that I never took any photos along the route! But here we are enjoying the lunch afterward.

We came home with 24 bottles of Pliny the Elder, which we happily shared with several of our friends.

Meanwhile, Port Angeles has been in the news. You may have heard about the Polar Pioneer, a large off-shore oil rig that Shell wants to deploy in the Arctic. It was moored in our harbor for nearly a month before making its way to Seattle, where it was greeted by hundreds of protestors. We didn’t like it being here either, so it was a relief to see it go, even though each move puts it that much closer to its intended destination.

It is huge! At over 400 feet tall, it was the largest thing in view from everywhere in town, but especially imposing viewed from right on the waterfront.

We’ve been so busy we’ve hardly had time to brew beer, but we’ve gotten a few batches done. Meanwhile I’ve judged several times and have now been promoted to Certified rank. I was also asked to judge at a commercial competition, the Washington Beer Awards, where I judged mostly robust porters and barleywines. It was a real honor to participate, and I can’t wait for the results to be announced so I can find out who brewed those tasty beers that my team judged!

This past weekend I ran another half marathon, and earned another PR on a very warm day. You can read more about that here.

Yesterday I celebrated my half marathon with an easy hike. We had a destination in mind, but we turned around early when we met up with this mother and baby.

We could have just shooed them off and hiked on. The Park management wants hikers to shout and throw rocks to discourage them from approaching people. But we could see and hear other hikers shouting just a bit further up the trail, so we knew there were several goats and that some of them were refusing to budge. Soooo, it was time for us to go.

And it’s time for me to go now too. I haven’t ridden my bike since a couple of days before the half marathon. It’s time to get out there and enjoy this beautiful day!

Spring has arrived!

Spring always seems to take forever to arrive here in the Pacific Northwest, but when it does, it comes with breathtaking speed. You go along for seemingly endless days and weeks of frosty rooftops and mere glimpses of the sun, and then suddenly the cherry trees are blooming!

Given the weather extremes that many people in various parts of the country have experienced this winter, I can hardly complain. The winter of 2014-15 was exceptionally mild in my part of the world: much warmer than any of the dozen-plus winters that I’ve experienced here. While I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to get outside and be active, the snowpack in the Olympics is now at something like 10% of normal. This doesn’t bode well for our summer water supply, as we have no reservoirs but rely on snow-melt as our water source.

Yet no matter how mild the winter, every year by the time early March rolls around I am more than ready for spring to arrive. As the days start getting noticeably longer, I begin to search eagerly for the subtle signs of approaching spring.

As the sun begins to swing northward, the light changes. It seems more luminous, shimmery — even on a cloudy day.

March brings unsettled weather — showers and sunbreaks instead of ceaseless drizzle. On the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day, as we were walking downtown in search of appropriate libations, we were rewarded with a stunning full double rainbow. I decided I wouldn’t try to capture its scale with my phone camera, but when it produced THIS visual effect I had to photograph it. A double rainbow with a checkmark — surely there is a pot of gold at the end of this one!

The best I can figure is, this must have been a reflection of the rainbow, straight up out of the water.

Last Friday, shortly before the arrival of the Vernal Equinox at 3:45 Pacific time, I went out for a long walk along our waterfront trail.

The salmonberries actually began blooming a couple of weeks ago, but just before 3:45 I came across this nice patch and had to stop and capture them at the moment the northern hemisphere crossed into spring.

Just moments later I came upon this small flock of buffleheads. Mating season has begun! The six males (black and white) were jockeying for position and intently following the three females (dark).

A bit later I encountered this little guy who’d ventured out for a spring walk. I believe this is a rough-skinned newt.

Lest you think all is rosy out there, this is the time of year when I can never take the Olympic Discovery Trail for granted. This winter’s rains (being of the downpour variety rather than the usual steady mist) have really taken their toll. In the next town to the east, a river jumped its banks and partially destroyed a pedestrian bridge, rendering that section of the trail impassible. When we ride our bikes over that way, we have to take a long detour on a busy road.

Closer to home, the section of the trail that I use most often runs for nearly three miles at the base of an extremely unstable bluff. We’ve had mudslide after mudslide. Our city does a good job of cleaning the debris off the trail, but on any given day there might be one to several new slides. This makes planning a run of a specific distance difficult because I never know how far out along the trail I’ll be able to run before being forced to turn back. I usually end up doing a lot of short out-and-backs between slides to get the distance I want.

Last Friday, because I was walking, I didn’t mind the slides. Rather than turn back, I carefully ventured across a couple of them, all the while with a careful eye turned to the bluff above me for signs of new movement.

This is a typical sight: a couple of shallow-rooted alders will just sort of walk down the bluff and come to rest astride the trail. This type of slide I can easily detour around.

The mud flows are more annoying. This one was about 20 yards long and a couple of feet deep in places. It’s tough to cross this type of slide without getting my feet muddy and/or wet.

Hence while I’m delighted that spring is here, I’m eager for warmer, sunnier weather to dry out that bluff and improve conditions on the trail. I’m running a half marathon here only eleven weeks from now!

Meanwhile, I’m content to watch and catalogue the ongoing signs of spring. Yesterday dozens of turkey vultures flew overhead. They and hundreds more are gathering just west of here. One day soon, the winds will be just right and they’ll all make the big flight across the strait to Vancouver Island and beyond. And soon enough, it will be summer again.

What about you? Are you noticing signs of spring in your part of the world? I hope you have many chances to get out there and enjoy it. Slow and happy!

Not so chilly, but very hilly!

The other day CFL and I took a bike ride with a few thousand other cyclists. The Cascade Bicycle Club held its annual Chilly Hilly, a 33-mile ride around Bainbridge Island near Seattle.

Last year we pre-registered for the ride, but woke up that morning to the threat of snow, so we decided not to risk driving 75 miles to the start location, having an miserable day, and then driving home.

So far this year we’ve had unusually warm and dry weather. Our local mountains have received barely any snow, while we’ve watched the east coast get hammered by winter. We started talking a couple of weeks ago about the possibility of doing the Chilly Hilly, but we agreed we’d wait until the morning of the event to make the decision.

By last Friday the forecast was looking so perfect that we decided we’d drive over on Saturday, enjoy the afternoon and evening, have a nice dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and go for a bike ride!

It was indeed chilly (in the high 30s) when we headed out on Sunday morning to join the throngs of riders who were coming over from Seattle on the ferry. But the sky was bright blue and the temperature quickly reached the low 50s.

So the “chilly” part was a non-issue, but there was no avoiding the “hilly” part. The route was a roller coaster! We went up–and then down–our first big hill in the first mile.

We soon reached our first “photo op,” where we joined dozens of people who were stopping to take photos of happy faces and the Seattle skyline.

The Mountain was out (as the locals say about Mt. Rainier)! It’s visible on the far right of this photo.

The route basically circumnavigated the island; we rode right along the waterfront most of the time. Over the entire 33 miles, I only recall one relatively long, flat section. Most of the hills were short, but very steep. I confess I had to get off and walk in two places, but then so did a lot of other people. The official elevation gain is listed as 2,675 feet. Counting the ride uphill back to our motel afterwards, my GPS watch registered 2,726 feet. By the end, we’d had enough hills for one day–but we felt very proud of what we’d accomplished.

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So far this year I’m doing a bit less running and more bike riding than I’d expected. We’re starting to really enjoy riding for 30+ miles, and we’re talking about training to do some much longer rides this summer. We have a big cycling event planned, but I’ll tell you more about that later.

Right now, the trail is calling me and I plan to go out and run about 9 miles!

I’m a Recognized BJCP Judge!

On February 2 I finally got word that I had passed the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) tasting exam that I took back on October 25. I am now a Recognized BJCP judge!

I celebrated my success by immediately volunteering to judge in a few competitions. I’ll need 5 judging points to advance to the next BJCP rank, which is Certified.  I’m already partway there because I’ve judged on two prior occasions. Generally, a day’s worth of judging (morning and afternoon sessions) is worth one point.

Last Saturday CFL and I were up verrrry early to drive to Tacoma to judge (and in CFL’s case to steward) at a competition being held on a military base. The competition organizer met us at the gate to sign us onto the base, then treated us to a tour of a C-17 before we began judging at 9:00.

Drinking beer at 9:00 AM sounds very odd (and not particularly inviting) on the face of it. Especially so because I was judging strong ales–big beers that I would not want to gulp at any time of day. However, I quickly found that I was able to assess and describe the beers I was judging based only on big sniffs and tiny sips. Three of the six beers that I judged were perfectly lovely examples of the category, and thoroughly enjoyable to sniff and sip! The other three weren’t bad, just not quite as good. I held up fine all through the morning and began the afternoon eager to taste more beers.

Then I got assigned to judge American Amber Ales in the afternoon. Frankly, the best Amber out there is “meh” as far as I’m concerned–just sort of middle of the road on malt and hop flavor, well balanced and inherently bland. I and my co-judge had to taste and evaluate 11 of these beers. There were no clear standouts, nor any really awful beers. By the end of the day my taste buds were rather fatigued and I was struggling to come up with fresh adjectives to describe what I was tasting.

Still it was an enjoyable and educational day overall. I’ve now earned 3 judging points. I’ve got my next two competitions lined up and I should be promoted to Certified by April.

After that, I expect to remain at that rank for the foreseeable future. To advance to National rank, I’ll have to re-take the tasting exam and score above 80 (I scored a tantalizingly close 77 on my first exam), and pass a written exam that will make everything I’ve done so far seem easy. I’m in no hurry to do all that!

It is nice, though, to have a genuine credential in the world of beer geekdom. And now you’ll know that the next time you see me drinking a beer, it will be for the purpose research and evaluation.

Mostly. Also for enjoyment.

Cheers!

 

2015 — off to a great start!

I wrapped up 2014 with a total of 3,167.60 combined running/biking/hiking/walking miles — which was 1,002 miles further than I did in 2013!

Running            670.04
Biking              1,143.97
Hiking               243.80
Walking           1,109.79
————
TOTAL           3,167.60

By the end of November I’d logged 2,865.55 miles. As December began I started thinking about “1,000 miles further than last year” and wondering whether I could do it. Then we had some very cold, icy days and I wasn’t enthusiastic about going out just to ring up the mileage.

Fortunately my treadmill and my bike trainer made it possible to do 10+ miles a day without having to set foot outside the door.

I dreamed up this routine that I called “30/30.” I start with 3.1 miles on the treadmill (which I can do in just about 30 minutes). I catch my breath for a few moments, then I jump on the bike trainer for 30 minutes (during which I’ll usually ride the equivalent of about 7.5 miles). 30/30 = 60 minutes = 10+ miles. Then I’m  off to the shower and I’ve earned the right to sit and read for the rest of the afternoon.

We had some nice weather between Christmas and New Year’s and I was able to get in some bike rides in the real world. Between the bike rides and iterations of 30/30, I covered 86 miles in the last week of the year and met that seemingly impossible goal.

Given that in 2015 I’ll be training for a full marathon and also planning to do a lot more bike riding, I’m thinking it should not be too difficult to do a total of 3,600 miles in 2015. 300 miles a month sounds doable, right?

CFL just bought himself a new road bike. We started 2015 off right with a 23-miler on New Year’s Day!

The Dungeness River was still flowing high from all the recent rains. Lots of big trees were down.

Today we think we’ll ride the other direction, out to the Elwha, to check on the condition of that river!

What about you? What are your big plans for 2015?

How a beer geek becomes a BJCP judge

It starts out innocently enough. A new home-brew supplies store opens up in your town. You stroll in there a few times. You think about how you used to home brew, long ago, in the late ’70s. That was right after home brewing became legal, when the easiest way to enjoy the hard-to-find English-style ales that you’d come to love while living in Europe was to brew your own. So you buy some equipment and you start to brew again…

Home brewing has come a long way since those early days. Back then I brewed with liquid extract that came in a can. I did use whole hops; I can’t recall which variety but there was probably only one choice, and it was probably Cascade. The beer I brewed was very drinkable, but I’d only brewed a few batches before good imported beers became easier to find and brewing no longer seemed worth my time. I gave away my equipment and didn’t think about it again for many years.

But then the home brew store opened, and CFL and I were intrigued. We joined the local home brew club, but it took us a couple more months to plunge in, buy the equipment, and actually brew. That was a little more than two years ago. From that point it was another ten months (and 20 batches) before we plunged again, bought some more equipment, and became all-grain brewers.

At first all I wanted to brew was English ales (mostly ESBs and porters) and all CFL wanted to brew was American Amber Ales. Neither of us cared for IPAs — they were just too bitter! But then the club decided to have a competition, and we were all asked to brew an IPA.

We tasted a few IPAs to try and get an idea of what they were supposed to taste like and why anyone would want to drink anything so bitter. We learned that they do have a refreshing “zing” that began to grow on us. We brewed an IPA, but it didn’t come out hoppy enough. So we brewed another. And another. Then Stone came out with their “Enjoy By” series and then somebody told us about an amazing beer called Pliny the Elder. Then we brewed a rye IPA and an imperial IPA and a black IPA. And then some more IPAs. Dang, these IPAs are addictive!

I found myself critically evaluating beers, discussing their relative merits with other home brewers, small craft brewers, and anyone else who would listen. Gradually I crossed the invisible line between beer drinker and beer enthusiast, and then I embraced my new identity as beer geek. PhD-holding, marathon-running, left-handed, vegetarian beer geek. Yeah, that’s me.

We heard about Hop and Brew School put on by Hop Union, the hop-processing cooperative that is the primary hop supplier to the craft brewing industry. We went to hop school in Yakima where we saw mountains of hops and our senses were overwhelmed by lupulins.

We came home with fresh Citra hops and we brewed a fresh-hop IPA.

Throughout this process I was using an app called Untappd to record, rate, and comment on every commercial beer I drank (you can find me on Untappd — I’m Slow Happy, of course). After a few hundred checkins I couldn’t help but develop a vocabulary to describe what I was tasting. CFL started to say that I had a great palate and I really should think about becoming a beer judge.

The American Homebrewers Association has a formal judge certification program called, you guessed it, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). I first learned about the BJCP because, in addition to certifying judges, they maintain the style guide which describes over 70 distinct styles of beer (not to mention a bunch of meads and ciders). Each beer style description specifies a given beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, history, ingredients, and “vital statistics” (ABV, gravity, and so on). As a home brewer, I prefer to brew specific styles and try to produce authentic, recognizable beers — as opposed to just tossing whatever I want into the kettle and calling it “beer.”

So CFL was urging me to become a judge, and I was reading and learning and thinking about all aspects of beer anyway. I’m always up for a challenge — why not study for the BJCP exam?

The BJCP program is structured and rigorous — it is NOT just about drinking lots of beer for fun! First I had to secure a seat in a judging exam. I sent some emails to exam administrators and was told, several times, that seats were usually reserved for the local club. Months went by before an administrator replied that he could fit me into an exam this past July. But I was getting ready for a three-week vacation in June and I knew I wouldn’t have time to study. So I asked to be wait-listed for a future exam.

I was offered another seat for October 25. I grabbed it! But to be eligible for the judging exam, I first had to pass the online entrance exam. This is a test of beer style knowledge. I spent weeks reading and rereading and rereading the BJCP style guide. The exam consists of 200 true/false, multiple-choice, and multi-choice-multi-answer questions that must be completed in 60 minutes. It was an intense, humbling 60 minutes, but on September 23 I passed it on my first attempt.

That left me a month to prepare for the judging exam. I got my hands on as many commercial beers representing as many styles as possible. This included styles I don’t enjoy like hefeweizens, Belgian ales, and (ugh!!) smoked beers. To find the more obscure styles, we made a few 150-mile round trips to a nearby city with a large bottle shop. CFL and I would come home with our goodies, sit down together, and open a bottle of beer. He’d happily quaff his half while I swirled, sniffed, sipped, savored, and filled out the judging sheet on my half.

Well, sometimes I just drank beer out of my shoe. We were camping and my hands got cold! Yes, that’s Fremont Interurban IPA — yum!

But mostly I was a serious student.

On October 25 we departed very early to drive 125 miles to the exam location for the 9:00 AM exam. I tasted six beers representing six styles and scribbled frantically for the 90-minute duration. I think I did fine for the first four beers, but my taste buds got a bit confused for the last two.

I won’t know whether I passed for three months or more! Because judging is, in some respects, a subjective exercise, the exams go through a rigorous review process by a panel of nationally-ranked judges to ensure that all judges nationally are doing things as similarly as possible.  This process takes time.

I seized an opportunity to sit again for the next exam, on January 25. Most people actually do pass, but this way if I didn’t pass I’ll have another chance. If I did pass and I can improve my score in January, that will help me advance more quickly up the beer judging hierarchy.

As a new “rank pending” BJCP judge, I was encouraged to volunteer to judge at an upcoming local competition. I did just that this past Saturday! I judged stouts and strong ales — and had fun and learned a lot. There were 29 judges, most of whom were bearded males, many no more than half my age. Yeah, these are my people. CFL came along and worked as a steward, bringing fresh glasses and crackers, and whisking away our discarded bottles. He enjoyed it too.

So that’s how a home brewer becomes a beer geek and then somehow goes all the way down the rabbit hole and becomes a judge. Or so I hope. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the email that says I passed!

P.S. While I was writing this today, I received the email giving me my official BJCP judge ID. I haven’t yet passed the exam, but I’m officially a member of the organization. Say hello to BJCP member D1404!

 

On being a mediocre middle-aged athlete

The other day CFL and I were looking at the calendar and thinking about what else we’d like to accomplish this year before the rainy season begins in earnest. He mentioned a couple of hikes that he still wanted to do. I reminded him that at the beginning of the year we’d agreed to do a metric century (100 kilometers or 62 miles) bike ride in honor of CFL’s 60+ years of age.

We’d picked out a group bike ride that we wanted to do: the Chuckanut Century in Bellingham on September 14. But then I had to go and break my arm, which put a serious crimp in my cycling and running plans for this year. After I was finally cleared to ride again in July, we thought long and hard about that century, but by then we had a date conflict with another event.

It was looking like the metric century just wasn’t going to happen this year. Autumn arrived quite dramatically; high temperatures dropped precipitously exactly at the time of the equinox. We’ve had nearly half an inch of misty rain over the past week. Still, I watched the weather forecast and found a small window of opportunity. On Friday morning I casually suggested to CFL that we go for a bike ride on Saturday. What would you think, I smoothly added, if we were to get up early, take our time, and ride to the end of the Olympic Discovery Trail and back? How about if we throw in an extra three miles somewhere along the way and make it a 62 mile day?

Our longest ride to date had been 43 miles. We were talking about going almost 50% further than that! Yet I was reasonably confident that we could do it, assuming that we’d take our time and take breaks along the way.

It was a perfect day for a bike ride. It was sunny but cool, about 50 degrees, when we started out at 9:00 AM. It never got warmer than about 65. There was no wind — hence no annoying head wind all the way home. The trees were beginning to turn colors in earnest. In many places there were leaves already down on the pavement, which made giant swishy sounds as we rode through them.

At the end of the trail my GPS watch read 29.25 miles. We continued on a quiet road until that road ended at the busy highway at exactly 30 miles. We turned around at that point and stopped soon after to eat our lunch of mixed nuts, dried apricots, and Clif Bars.

On the way back we stopped at a local diner for milkshakes. We figured we’d burned at least a thousand calories by then and the shakes tasted really good.

We picked up the pace in the final few miles because we’d promised ourselves dinner out at our local gastropub. I was smelling and tasting the beer in my mind as I pedaled! I didn’t even mind the extra 2+ miles we rode along the downtown waterfront just to get our total mileage to the right number.

At the end we were tired but we mostly felt elated. We’d done it! 62.3 miles. Our total elapsed time was a leisurely just over eight hours. Actual riding time was 6:11:52 — we’d managed to average ten miles per hour.

After dinner, at our second pub stop to be precise, we ran into some friends. They asked us what we’d done that day. We told them, and they were dumbfounded.

Later I posted a quick status on Facebook: Just finished a 62 mile bike ride. My first metric century!  Friends commented: Wow! Impressive! Congrats! I could never do that!

Wait a minute. What?

Well yes, you could. It’s not like I just got on my bike for the first time and rode it 62 miles. You have to work up to these things.

If I can do it, so can you. I look at photos of myself from six years ago. I was never fat, but I was quite flabby. I carried myself awkwardly. I looked old and world-weary.

Want proof?

Here I am on one of the happiest days of my life: on graduation morning from my PhD program.

I felt old. And I didn’t like that.

When I started running, I wasn’t merely slow. Most of the time I wasn’t even running! It took me months to work up to running a quarter of a mile without stopping to walk. I used to tell myself, Just run to that tree, to that shadow, okay now you can walk — and now run to that rock!

My feet hurt. My knees hurt. My hips hurt. But somehow, my brain liked it and was happy about doing it. So I kept going.

One step at a time.

I like myself much better this way!

I was 53 years old when I started to run. I was really, really slow. I’m still slow, but I’m not as slow as I used to be — and as I complete my sixth year as a runner I now have 3,456 miles of running experience behind me.

I have a daily activity streak (walking, running, cycling, and/or hiking some distance) that now stands at 636 days and 4,538 total miles.

If I keep running, I might have a shot at qualifying for Boston. The older I get, the slower the qualifying standard becomes. There is still a chance that those lines might someday cross for me. 4:40:00 at age 65? Yeah, that sounds doable.

As for cycling? I don’t know where I’m going with that, but I hope I’ll still be able to ride my bike for many years to come. CFL and I have talked about doing a multi-day ride someday. I’d love to tour around Scotland by bike.

I’m a mediocre middle-aged athlete and I feel healthier and more vibrantly alive than I ever have in my life.

I don’t mean to imply that I’m fearless or invincible. I’ve said those “I can’t” things just like you have:

  • I could never hike up that hill.
  • Run a whole mile? No way!
  • Break a 10 minute mile? Impossible!
  • Break a 9 minute mile? In my wildest dreams.
  • I’ll never run a marathon, no way not ever.
  • A bike? I’ll crash!!!!

But what I’ve learned is that a lot of seemingly impossible things become not merely possible but fun if you simply practice and tackle them one step at a time.

Now I’m going to step away from this computer and go for a walk. It’s sunny and brisk outside.

Won’t you join me? We’ll start out slowly. :-)

 

We hiked the PCT! Well, a tiny bit of it…

Recently CFL and I made yet another trip to southern Oregon. It was bittersweet in a sense. We’d made so many trips down that way to see my dad over the past two years, and now we were returning less than two weeks after he’d passed away. But we’d planned this trip nearly a year ago as a fun vacation, and we were determined to enjoy it.

Our first stop was at the other end of the state, in Portland, where we again rode the Providence Bridge Pedal. This year more than 18,000 cyclists participated in the various events. We did the 32-mile 10-bridge ride, which followed the exact same route as last year. Although the Bridge Pedal is a RIDE, not a RACE, I was pleased to complete the ride almost an hour sooner than last year! My new road bike is such a joy to ride compared to my heavy first bike. Of course, we still took time to stop and enjoy the view from atop the bridges.

 

In the background of the photo above you can see the new “Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People” now under construction. Given that CFL is a bridge-loving architect, we have studied and admired the progress of construction on each of our recent travels through Portland. Scheduled to open late next year, the bridge will carry light rail, streetcars, buses, bicycles, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles — but no private cars or trucks. Next year’s Bridge Pedal, the 20th annual ride, will feature a sneak preview crossing of this bridge. Eleven bridges! We’ll be there.

But what about the PCT, you ask?

After Portland we headed south for a quick visit with my stepmom. From there we went to Crater Lake where we camped for three nights.

As I’ve mentioned here before, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs for nearly 2,700 miles from Mexico to Canada. Each year several hundred people “thru-hike” the entire trail. CFL has dreamed of doing this for many years, and he and his daughter are talking seriously about it for 2016. I haven’t yet caught the bug, but I was entirely game for day-hiking a small section of it this summer.

The 33-mile section of the PCT that passes through Crater Lake National Park is one of the highlights of the entire trail. Although the main PCT skirts around the caldera rim, most PCT hikers take an alternate trail that travels up to and along the rim.

On our first afternoon we walked out from the campground to the trailhead, which crosses the highway within Park boundaries but just before the west entrance gate. From there, we hiked to the junction with the alternate trail, and back. That was an 8-mile warmup that got us very excited about going further!

We got back to camp just in time to cook dinner — in the midst of a dramatic thunderstorm! I went to bed that night wet, cold, and unhappy, but still looking forward to hiking the next day.

Morning was beautiful!

We got an early start and again hiked north from camp. This time we hiked all the way up to the rim. It’s a climb of 1,100 feet in a bit over four miles.

As we continued to hike along the rim, the clouds increased and thunder began to rumble across the lake.

We kept a close eye on the sky. All the action seemed to be well south of us, so we hiked on. Our goal for the day was Watchman, a former fire lookout about six miles past and several hundred feet higher than the point where we’d reached the rim.

The climb up to Watchman was worth it. We could look down into Wizard Island’s mini-caldera.

It was cold up there! I was wearing several layers. I felt as lumpy as I looked!

As we were leaving Watchman I took note of the time and realized that we had a long ways still to hike! We walked part of the way back by road, which saved a bit of time.

We decided we’d try to catch the free shuttle from Rim Village back down to the campground. But when we got to the lodge at Rim Village, we were chagrined to learn that the last shuttle of the day had left more than two hours earlier. I was a a bit freaked out, but CFL proceeded to chat with other visitors at the lodge. It didn’t take long for him to meet a nice young man wearing a T shirt from a craft brewery in San Diego! CFL and “B” swapped growing-up-in-SD stories and we bought a couple rounds of beer. Soon we were all driving back to a restaurant near our campground for dinner. Mission accomplished! That was a 15-mile hiking day (not including the 7-mile return in “B’s” car).

On our third day we hiked the PCT south from the campground. While we’d seen a few thru-hikers traveling north with us on day two, this time we were hiking toward the thru-hikers. We met about 20 of them, and chatted with as many as we could. Everyone was excited to be approaching Crater Lake, with its campground, showers, laundry, store, post office, and BEER!

Although we didn’t have a view of the lake, this section of the trail was gorgeous. Lots of boulders and interesting trees!

 

We hiked all the way south to the Park boundary and back.

Including a few side trips, we hiked a total of 19.5 miles — our longest hike ever! We were the only day-hikers out there. We impressed some of the thru-hikers who hadn’t expected to see day-hikers so far from a trailhead.

So that was a total of nearly 43 miles of hiking over three days at Crater Lake. Looking at the map, we noticed that the entire Park is only about 25 miles from south to north. We’d hiked considerably further than that distance total, and our out-and-backs had encompassed the entire southern half of the Park. Not bad for a couple of middle-aged day-hikers.

But wait — there’s more to our PCT story! A couple of days later, on our way home, we stopped off at Mt. Hood to admire Timberline Lodge and hike a bit of that section of the trail.

We only had time to do a couple of miles, but it was great to see “our” trail again — and to share it with another thru-hiker or two.

Of course we did other things on this trip (beer tourism, anyone?) but that will have to wait for another post. Now, however, it’s time for me to go for a walk! Our activity streak is at 602 days and counting.