Exploring the Schuylkill River Trail Again

I must have passed the Smith Run Ravine too many times to count. It’s nestled in between Conshohoken and where the pavement ends and the towpath to Manayunk begins, easily missed on my numerous training rides for Ironman Maryland as I made my way back and forth from Betzwood. I stashed extra food in my parked car near Valley Forge, so it was vital to pass it every two hours to get a solid 5+ hour training ride in where it’s safe from drivers and flat and windy like the race course in Cambridge, MD. The Schuylkill River Trail is one of the flattest stretches nearby, compared to the 3,000 feet of elevation gain possible in 30 miles on the roads of Gladwyn.

But by the time I passed Smith Run during Ironman training, I was almost an hour into my ride–fresh legs spinning into the headwind. The second time, there was a crosswind, and all the other times after that, my head must have been down from sheer exhaustion. Sure, I noticed it, but I never stopped. I never read the sign. I never looked and wondered.

I learned a lot from my Ironman training about what it takes to do something that is really hard, but I also learned how important it is to slow down and enjoy the ride. I’m currently training for the Ohio 70.3, but I have a much more relaxed approach, scheduling easy rides and making sure they are easy and doing the hard training solo on the trainer or outdoors without distractions. I’m consistent, but not perfect. And, that’s OK.

I’m glad I stopped in the middle of the ride to read the sign for the Smith Run Ravine, and, if next time is a longer ride, I’ll stop and eat my snack there too so I can enjoy the view.

Learning to Ride

I thought I knew how to ride a bike, but riding a mountain bike is a totally different experience. On the road, I avoid potholes, debris in the shoulder, and look out for drivers all while riding fast and holding my line. I corner and brake properly and know how to climb massive hills. My body is narrow and the pedals are spinning as fast as I can go. Not much of what I know about road cycling applies to mountain biking; however, riding a mountain bike will make me a better roadie, and it will make you a better cyclist too when you head for the trails.

Fortunately, Deborah Leedale-Brown of dlb2-Full Potential was ready to teach me the basic skills needed for tackling some of the local trails with ease. We started in sloped field filled with cones and a sky blue ramp that didn’t look all that intimidating until I realized that the ramp is about as wide as the handlebars on my new Fuel EX 8 GX, and every time I approached it, I noticed the downward grade to the nearest tree. I would like to avoid hitting trees and falling off the ramp entirely. The ramp was only a foot high, but when Deborah took off the 2nd ramp that drop seemed much, much higher off the ground.

Of course, I didn’t start on the ramp. She reviewed everything from proper body position on the bike with my heels down and wide knees to how to shift and brake while I slalomed in and out of the cones. I soon realized that on my previous mtn bike ride, I was gripping the brakes with all available fingers–white knuckles all the way down. When I did ride the ramp, I practiced different positions on the bike, and was able to do a nice peak and push when that second ramp was removed, placing the front wheel where I wanted it to go. I surprised myself when I did it, jarring my brain a bit the first time.

At the end of the lesson, we did ride some of the trails nearby. Rocks and roots were scattered about like forgotten toys. Logs crisscrossed the path, and I had to pay attention, holding my line and ignoring the drop off to the left. I didn’t second guess myself and knew so much more about how to handle my bike thanks to Deborah’s expert coaching. Mountain biking allows me to be comfortable and take up more space as I roll over all the obstacles in my way. That’s why I love it. And, I’ll be signing up for another lesson soon.

Birthday Ride

The best birthday gift is warm weather in March and a ride with Phil. We headed out after a leisurely breakfast and made our way down to the Philadelphia Museum of Art before heading to Manayunk for coffee at Volo. This is an easy ride to do with Martin Luther King Drive closed to cars for the time being. Usually, it’s only closed May-October on weekends for cyclists and runners, allowing more room than the Schuylkill River Trail on Kelly Drive that tends to be filled with people.

With temps in the mid 50s, on a Wednesday, it wasn’t too crowded. Recent snow melt and rain filled the Schuylkill and there was the usual headwind throughout the ride. The sun was shining, and it’s always a good day when you’re on a bike.

If you’re interested in rethinking MLK Drive in Philadelphia, check out the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia’s post and sign the petition at the bottom:

https://bicyclecoalition.org/the-future-of-mlk-drive-your-questions-answered/

Before Morning Coffee

I started running in 2010 when we moved back from Japan, even though I dabbled in the sport while doing run/walk intervals along the Odakyu Line that stretched out from the center of Tokyo to Kamakura. It was the only flat road, and I would go back and forth from our house to the local playground. Phil would run with me when we started, offering encouragement, even though I ran/walked super slow. If he ran ahead for a mile or so, he would come back to check on me before heading father once again. By the time we moved back to Florida, I ran my first ever 5K race without walking.

Since then I’ve added triathlon when my friend, Cathy, found out I used to swim in high school. She wanted someone to go to the pool with her because she knew that if she made plans to meet me there, she would show up without fail. It was a 50 meter indoor pool, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to swim there, being a much better swimmer than runner. We would go twice a week and swim 1600 meters for the swimming gods before hopping out. I also ran with her every day at 6:00 AM and the whole 6@6 group, and after many runs, she convinced me to get a road bike since I was already swimming and running–why not add the third sport of cycling?

And, that’s just what I did. I bought a used road bike for $500. I then went on my first road ride with Cathy and Gene to the Norfolk International Airport and back and just about died trying to keep up. Within a week, I got myself a pair of road shoes, clipped in, and proceeded to fall a few times while practicing in the apron of our driveway. The kid came out and drew chalk outlines of everywhere I fell so that our driveway looked like a crime scene.

I’ve managed to stay on my bike more often than not, and have kept up with swimming and running, but it’s way easier to get out there when you have friends waiting for you in the cold, pre-dawn hours. Marianne is that friend. We typically run at 5:00 AM to beat the traffic, the heat of summer, or crowded streets during COVID, and she’ll ride with me for miles in winter as we chase the sunrise to the city and back. One thing we always do is get coffee afterwards, which makes all of that hard work in the cold, the dark, the windy, the rainy, the snowy, totally worth it. We’ve talked about just meeting for coffee at 5:00 AM, but I’m still asleep at that hour because it’s the running or the cycling that wakes me up so I can really enjoy the coffee.

Throughout my time in this sport, meeting my friends in person or virtually has helped me get out of bed when I would rather hit snooze. Because most days, I’m not motivated to be getting up at 4:30 AM, and there are many times I hope to see a text from Marianne before 4:30, saying she can’t make it. I often stare at my messages with one eye open, hoping to see that cancellation text that will never come. So I shut off my alarm and get up for the run or ride before coffee.

3,000 in 2020

There is still snow on the ground from last Wednesday’s storm, masters swimming is on hold through the New Year, and I’m currently going to PT for my elbow injury that decided to flare up in September, although my recovery will have to wait a little longer with my next appointment canceled.

I found out I was exposed to COVID-19 last Monday, but wasn’t informed until yesterday. I quickly made an appointment with my doctor for a test, and even though it’s unlikely that I contracted the virus, I’m taking precautions and staying home like my doctor recommended through the next seven days, even though I have no symptoms, and I will know my test results on Thursday, just in time for Christmas.

Until then, I’m staying home and doing my best to keep others safe. I have been wearing a mask, social distancing, and only going to work or running errands as necessary when this exposure happened, but nothing is 100% fool-proof.

So, since I can’t leave the house, I decided to take on a new challenge: ride 3,000 miles on my bike for 2020. I’m less than 200 miles away from this goal and will be riding virtually on Zwift to reach it. In addition, I’m checking to see which courses I haven’t completed to earn those badges too.

When I’m finished riding, I’ll have extra time to bake and give these kitties some much needed attention. Stay safe, stay home, wear a mask, and wash your hands.

The Ride

The knobby tires rolled over tree roots like a fat thumb over the whites of the piano keys. If I could see my knuckles under the two glove layers, they would be white and bloodless with the way I was gripping the Top Fuel as I bounced down the single-track at what I thought were breakneck speeds. Suddenly, the trail went straight up, and I squeezed the brakes when I should have shifted to a bigger ring while picking up my cadence. Instead, I balanced on the bike with the pedals at 3 and 9 o’clock for a split second before tipping to the side.

I put my foot down and breathed. My legs were shaking uncontrollably.

Colleen was at the top of the hill, having rolled over those roots effortlessly, using her bike like some nimble monster truck crushing cars like soda cans. I walked the rest of the way until the trail leveled off, and I could get my foot back on the pedal to start once again. I knew then if I hesitated, I was finished.

So for the rest of the ride, I tried to make a quick decision and stick to it when descending or climbing this trail I could barely walk on, let alone ride a bike over all of those rock gardens and long sections of tree roots strung across the trail like garland. If I took too much time to think, I failed. I had to trust the line I chose and follow it through.

For a few fleeting moments on the ride, the trail flowed below the bike like water as I stood up with level pedals and weight slightly forward. But then, there was no trail, just a stream six feet down, and I thought I was going to die and be buried right then and there because I was too scared to cross the narrow frosty bridge to the other side where a sharp uphill topped with a rock garden greeted me. I didn’t die. I just fell off my bike a few times. Thankfully, the ground was soft and met me half way.

Once I get another bike, I’ll return to the trails because I might just be part daredevil.

And now this…

I think I have found a fourth sport I like: mountain biking. With my masters’ team on hold for the time being, I snagged this fun demo bike from my shop and plan to hit the trails on Monday. So far, I rode it around the neighborhood, over a few curbs, and up and down the alley behind my house to test out the full suspension frame of this Trek Top Fuel. Yes, it has SPDs, and yes, I clipped in. If I really get into this sport, I’ll use flat pedals to work on my skills that I’m clearly lacking.

As soon as I heard the click of my cleats, I was off and flew down the alley. I soon felt like a little kid tooling around the neighborhood as I rode past other moms at the playground while bouncing up and down over obstacles I would usually avoid on my roadie.

So, I know the fourth and fifth sports of triathlon are transition and nutrition, but I think this triathlete can certainly benefit from the strength of mountain biking. Wish me luck on Monday! Yikes!

Go By Bike

Going by bike is best the way to get around your neighborhood, and if you can substitute one car ride with a bike ride per week, you are helping to reduce your impact on climate change. Here are some tips for getting around town by bike:

Make sure you ditch the fancy cycling gear for everyday clothes and some Vans over your road shoes for a meandering ride around the block or running errands. Yes, my road bike hub has 108 points of engagement and wants to go fast, but when I ride around, I take my time. Even though I have clipless pedals, I can still ride my road bike with a pair of stiff shoes on my feet and not clip in as long as I’m not going too far. If I’m going more than a few miles, I’ll take a backpack with an extra pair of shoes for more comfortable riding.

Say hello to everyone. When I drive, I have a tendency to get annoyed by pedestrians and everyone in general because I should have left my house ten minutes before I actually did, but on a bike, I wave and say, “hi”. It’s just more enjoyable.

Remember the times you were a kid on a bike while you ride as an adult. As a kid, or a college student studying abroad in England, a bike was freedom and transportation. It still is. The leaves are falling and crunching under the tires, the wind might blow, it might rain, yet you get a better sense of your community from behind the handlebars since you see your neighbors outside rather than passing by them in a car, or going from your house to your car. The point is to get out of your car and outside.

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. I didn’t say that, but I stole it from a Scandinavia phrase. It’s true though. You can go out in all kinds of weather if you have the right gear and layers, which I’m sure you have somewhere in your closet for most weather conditions.

Last of all, wear a bike helmet and attach some lights to your bike so drivers can see you. Follow all traffic rules and signal where you are going so everyone knows. Get out there and ride! Trek Bikes started the movement, so when you do ride, snap a photo and tag it with #GoByBike if you would like to share it.

Tell Me Something Good

Flats happen, the hour falls back, the moon stays up late, and sometimes my feet carry me faster and faster until I fly above the ground. Gravity can’t hold me down.

With all the craziness going on in this world, tell me something good. Just one thing. It can be a small thing too. I’ll start, but please leave yours in the comments:

  1. I fixed Phil’s flat on the side of the road with freezing hands so that he was able to ride home.
  2. What’s yours?

Stay Gold

They say that nothing gold can stay

with each falling leaf

drifting down–

damp with rain

and brown.

Wheels munch and spit out

gold through spokes

digested down

to the trail’s edge

where brown

covers gold.

My eye catches

the fading light,

riding through gold–

alighting

and landing in my heart.

Gold stays.