My Blog by Stephen Venters

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years later

Over the last 15 years, I've worked on the memoirs of my experiences at 9/11 in an on-again, off-again fashion. When I started the project, I thought I'd breeze through it and hit print. Well, I learned writing a book is a lot of work and takes a lot of focus. I feel I have a lot of it done, maybe 75%. Someday I'll finish it.

I've often wondered if my friends and family where interested in my story and I never have fully told it. So, for the 15th anniversary, I thought it might be good to post one of my chapters. I've chosen one that contains no gore or anything horrific, those chapters are much harder to re-read.

This chapter starts when I'm in a convoy of vans delivering medical supplies to Stuyvesant High School, which only a couple of blocks from where the towers stood. It's about 6pm Tuesday evening on 9/11/2001.

Chapter 5

Stuyvesant High School

The World Financial Center sits in the southwest corner of Manhattan, almost at the very tip. The West Side Highway, which spans the entire length of Manhattan, bisects the World Financial Center just west of the North Tower and is known as West Street in that area. It is a major artery through there and eventually enters the Battery Park tunnel at the very southern tip of the island.

Just north of the World Financial Center, we returned to West Street in our attempt to reach Stuyvesant High School. There it is a wide six-lane highway with a grassy median dividing it and lined with sidewalks. As we turned south onto it, I could see that every bit of that space was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of dust-covered firefighters. They were sitting, lying and resting on the sidewalks, median and in middle of the highway. They were everywhere and they were covered in grey dust, completely covered. I knew now why the highway had been blocked off a few blocks north forcing us into the small streets of downtown Manhattan. Some were milling about or chatting, but most were sitting or lying down in exhaustion.

I watched a group as they geared up to walk the two final blocks to the edge of the pit. Then they marched two-by-two south through the snow-like dust, towards the smoke and the heat, carrying over their slumped, tired shoulders shovels, axes, saws, and other extraction tools.

Here, only several blocks away from where the World Trade Center buildings stood, the street and sidewalks were covered in a several inch thick mixture of grey dust and loose sheets of office paper. Occasionally, I would pick one up and look at it. It would be a spreadsheet, or a fax, or a page from a contract or memo. I would wonder what its story was. Who printed it? What floor did it come from? Was it on someone’s desk or filed away in some cabinet and forgotten? I found a dry cleaner tag with someone’s name on it. I wondered if those clothes would ever be picked up. I briefly thought about keeping the tag and attempting to contact the name on it as to return it to him. But returning laundry to its rightful owner was not why I was here, so I dropped the tag and moved on. Though I would always look for a date on what I picked up, I never did find anything with that Tuesday's date on it.

Through this office wasteland, the firemen marched. We immediately began to hand out the dust masks contained in our two big boxes. "Would you like a dust mask?" I'd ask the worn faces of the firemen, looking into their bloodshot eyes that were clearly scratched raw from the thick smoke. Most accepted them graciously, though a few declined, knowing they wouldn't be much help. Some already had ones that were filthy and filled with dust. So I offered them a new mask. The reality is, those thin dust masks didn't help much nor did they protect your eyes. Later, when I was on the edge of the pit, my mask was utterly useless. It allowed smoke to get sucked in around the edge of the mask rather than through it. They also obstructed and muffled your voice in an already loud environment. I think most of the firemen ended up not using them at all. It wouldn’t be for a few more days until gas masks arrived with asbestos filters and, by then, a lot of smoke had already been inhaled.

I continued walking around handing out the masks and occasionally asking how it was down there. "Hell," "War Zone," and "Hot" where common answers. No one I spoke to had seen any survivors. I would tell them about Chelsea Pier triage and how no one had gone through there, either.

After handing out all the masks, I had lost the group I had come with, so I walked to the high school that was being set up as a field triage. It was chaos there, too. No one was in control, so things were getting done, undone, then redone. Tables set up here, then moved over there, then moved back. I offered my assistance and was pointed to a girl handing out labels to be taped to us stated our job, either "EMT" or "Doctor" or "Vol." I told her I knew how to do PAD (Patient Administration Detail). She handed me a handwritten sign on an 8.5x10 piece of paper which was then taped to my back with 2 inch medical tape.

"ESCORT"

Firefighters were going about, using the restrooms, eating food set out on tables, and resting on the stairs. The medical people were moving tables, chairs, and boxes of medical supplies. I was hard pressed to find anything to do but get in the way so I went outside. During this time, I made two phone calls: one to Susane and one home.

I had been playing phone tag with Susane all day and really wanted to talk to her in person. Thankfully she answered, but to my surprise, she was very irate that I had gone down to Ground Zero. I was taken aback. Though it bothered me that she was angry with me, I was too focused on my situation to see she what her needs were. It never occurred to me that she would be afraid and would need a friend around. Having just spent the last five months traveling alone in foreign places, I had shed the idea of “a home” and I didn’t understand that to her it wasn’t just New York that had been attacked, but her home. More so, I didn’t understand that she felt incredibly alone and unsafe and scared. In the years since, I’ve come to realize I missed a real opportunity to really help someone through the 9/11 attacks and has become one my life greatest regrets.

My second call went home where I talked to Cassy, my stepmother, for a few minutes to tell her I was at Ground Zero to help out and "safe."

After those two calls, I sat down, wondering what to do next. How could I help now that I was there?

--

Direct Link: http://http://www.StephenVenters.com/Blog/1076


Sunday, August 10, 2014

To the Limit at the Leadville 100 - 2014

What's the hardest thing you've ever done? Physically, I mean, not emotionally. I'm sure watching your family get swept away and then eaten by Sharknado scarred you for life, but I digress.

Leadville, Colorado

Was it hiking a fourteener? Maybe running a half or full marathon? A particularly long bike ride? Or en epic climb such as El Cap? Maybe it was just completing a Physical Challenge on Double Dare. For me, the hardest thing I've ever done was the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, a.k.a. The Race Across the Sky.

Background

Beginning in the 1860s, the area surrounding Leadville, Colorado was heavily focused on mining gold, silver and lead. Over the years, however, the mining diminished until in the early 1980s the town was near economic ruin. To save his town, local Ken Chlouber organized a running race in 1983 which snaked 100 miles through the nearby mountains along the "Leadville Trail." It soon became a popular challenge for ultra-endurance runners. Later, with the growing popularity of mountain biking in the early 1990s, he added a 100 mile mountain bike race along much of the same trails.

Leadville sits at a lofty 10,152 feet above sea level. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, a chest full of air only contains 70% of oxygen than it would at sea level. From the middle of town, you ride 50 miles out on a mixture of pavement, gravel, Jeep roads, and single track to the turn-around checkpoint which sits well above the tree line at an even more lofty 12,600 feet. There the oxygen level of a chest full of air is a mere 64% of that at sea level. Then you turn around and ride it all back to where you started for a total of 103 miles and 11,500 feet of ascent (see the elevation profile below).

Elevation profile

You can't just sign up for the LT100 MTB, instead you enter into a lottery and have to be one of the lucky few that get a spot. Those people know in February, when the results of the lottery are announced, that they are riding in the LT100 MTB the following August. I, however, did not get a spot via the lottery. Instead, I had to qualify for my spot by racing in one of the half-dozen sanctioned races held in various locations around the US and earning a gold qualifier coin.

LT100 Qualifier

On June 22 (a mere 7 weeks before the big event), Rebecca (my loving soigneur) and I drove up to Whiteface Mountain, New York, so I could race the 68 mile qualifier. There I got a taste of what the LT100 MTB would be like (long climbs) and earned one of the coveted gold qualifier coins.

LT100 Qualifier Coin

The next 7 weeks were a flurry of travel planning, last minute training, packing, and preparing to be gone for nearly a month. To help with acclimation, I opted to head out to Denver three weeks early. That would allow me to ride at altitude as well as check out Leadville and the course. Conveniently, I was able to work remotely so I didn't have to take time off work. Even more conveniently, two good friends most graciously allowed me to live in their spare bedroom my entire time in Colorado.

Race organizer Ken Chlouber often states this will be the "toughest race you'll ever do" followed by "you're going to have to dig deep." Event promoters say things like that all the time, to the point it's become cliché, thus I didn't give it much credence. Sure, it wasn't going to be easy, but the toughest thing I've ever done? I mean, it's 90% roads without even a single log to ride over. How tough could it be?

Besides, I had trained for 8 months specifically for this race. Starting in January, Rebecca and I were doing hour and half long spin classes. Every Saturday during the Spring I had been riding in the NYCC SIG rides which had ranged in length from 50 to 110 road miles. When the Summer came, I began racing my mountain bikes again for practice there. It wasn't like I had simply gone from my couch to the start line.

All the while, however, a feeling of being overwhelmed nagged at me. I remembered how tough the Whiteface qualifier had been, but I had finished it without any real issues. For some reason, though, the LT100 MTB seemed so much higher, longer, BIGGER. Nevertheless, I kept to my plan confident I would be as ready as I could be.

One of the biggest confidence boosters was Rebecca, who had decided that, despite the cost, she would fly out and support me for the race. It was a huge relief knowing she would be there to help me along the route and, more importantly, to cheer me on. During the Whiteface qualifier, due to a miscalculation (and lack of knowledge of the course), I had run out of water at the start of a 6 mile climb. But Rebecca was on the other side waiting for me with water and food and that thought alone kept me focused and in control so I wouldn't cramp or blow up. Rebecca being in Leadville meant everything was going to be alright.

The Race

Race day came and I had my normal race-morning nerves. They don't bother me much anymore because they always blip away the moment the race gun fires. Still, I never have learned how to make them go away earlier. Standing in the starting corrals with 1500 other riders all ready to embark on this epic was exciting. The 33 degree air was chilly, but I hardly noticed. It wasn't until all 1500 of us were screaming down the first roads did our hands and noses freeze. My only thought was no sudden movements in this mob of riders.

6:30am start

The first climb came soon enough: a mere 2 miles and 1,000 feet up St. Kevin. The dirt road was ditch to ditch bikes as far as I could see. The accordion had started and it was time to be diligently careful of other riders. Due to some sage advice I had been given at Whiteface, I stayed to the outside which meant there was one less direction to worry about a rider weaving into me. I tried to focus on riding a straight line, keeping my heart rate low(ish), and managing the washed-out ruts efficiently.

About half way up, the grade eased and I started to accelerate. People were passing me. I was passing others. All of the advice I had read about riding the LT100 MTB said the same thing: don't go out too hard or your burn out too soon. The order in which people perceived that advice was starting to sort itself out. Having pre-ridden this section, I was feeling pretty good. The sun had risen above the eastern peaks and the golden light caused the orange dirt to glow beneath my tires. Plus I had warmed up significantly from the climbing and the morning sun.

I crested the top and began the long decent down to Turquoise Lake, passing the St. Kevin checkpoint (mile 10.5) along the way. With the second half being on pavement, I was really able to get some speed topping out at 40 mph.

Next was the climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, which I had also pre-ridden 2 weeks prior. It is a long, low grade climb started on pavement, then switched to a gravel road and finally finished with a rocky Jeep road. I fell into my pace near a guy from Texas. We chatted a bit as we climbed together. Again, we were passed by a few and we passed a few, but by now the initial stampede had thinned out significantly. About half way up, I began pulling away from him. Again, I wasn't pushing it; my legs and heart rate were under control, but I was feeling strong.

After the crest of Sugarloaf (mile 19), there is a long decent called Powerline, which goes straight down the mountain side in the clearing cut for huge power lines. It is steep, rutted and, with dozens of other bikers of various skill levels nearby, is the most dangerous part of the entire 100 miles. Years of descending in the Ozark Mountains got me down it very fast, passing many along the way. I was relaxed, focused, and in control and hit the bottom surging with adrenalin.

Per the second most common piece of advice given, I grouped up with about 6 others to pace line for the next 5 miles of flat pavement to the Pipeline checkpoint (at mile 28). My skills from group riding all spring really paid off here. We were averaging a solid 17 mph (fast for a mountain bike on flat) and were passing loads of single riders.

Me

At the Pipeline checkpoint, I refilled my bottle with GatorNuun (my Gatorade and Nuun mix) and took off to ride the remaining 13 miles between me and where Rebecca waited at the Twin Lakes Checkpoint (mile 40). Again, I was feeling good and confident; I had been eating on schedule, drinking plenty, and not pushing too hard.

The next 13 miles, however, seemed like they took forever. This was the only section I hadn't seen at all and knew very little about. In retrospect, I probably held back a little too much due to the unknown factor. I learned this with about 2 miles left when a woman struck up a conversation with me about my BT Epic jersey and then casually said, "We're cutting it close."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"We have to be there by [10:30 AM]," she responded.

"Shit?!?! Really?" That was in 15 minutes! Stupidly, I had not been paying attention to the time cutoffs; a beginner mistake I should not have been making.

She said, "If you have it, you'd better go." So I went! I shifted and began to hustle. I had it in my legs. I wasn't even tired. Actually, I had been going sort of slow as I took in the amazing views. This was the first time I realized my time was at jeopardy.

Conveniently the remaining 2 miles were downhill then flat, so I hammered through them and reached the checkpoint with 9 minutes to spare. Whew!

The crew area beyond the inflatable arch was a zoo. I knew it would be busy, but I didn't expect this. There were literally thousands of people and hundreds of tents. Wisely, Rebecca and I had scouted out a spot the day before so I had an idea of where to look... and there she was! Standing there in her white linen shirt and floppy sun hat was my wonderful Rebecca… and the food box.

I was fatigued from the last 2 miles and stressed at barely making the checkpoint, but wasn't overly concerned about my time. I would make it up. We refilled my CamelBak, bottle, and pockets. I chocked down half of a banana in one mouthful, a bite of PB&J and a sip of Mountain Dew. I took a Red Bull for a top-of-main-climb treat. I kissed my love and took off. I wouldn't see here at this spot when I passed back through it; instead she was to meet me at the Pipeline checkpoint (mile 72).

The next 10 miles was up to Columbine Mine at 12,500 feet; a solid 3,500 feet of non-stop climbing. I had ridden the lower half already and was mentally prepared for it. The road was wide and the grade was manageable. I got in my grove and settled in. Riders having reached the turnaround at the top were now passing me regularly heading back towards Leadville. I soon began overtaking people walking their bikes up the mountain. It struck me as odd that they were already walking with so far to go and the hard part still to come, but I was too focused to care. I did care about the fact that my chamois had begun chafing me. To get momentarily relief, I would have to peddle hard a few strokes so I could stand on the peddles and up off the saddle as I coasted uphill for two seconds. The whole thing was very distracting and annoying, but I made due and kept climbing.

Despite my sore saddle, I was feeling good when I reached the tree line where the gravel road switches to a rough Jeep road. The first quarter mile is steep and filled will loose, baby-head-sized rocks. There's a line, sort of, but at 11,500 feet it is much more easily (and safely) walked. So, I began trudging up what was to become the first of many steep, rocky sections. It wasn't that they were super technical. I mean, on a normal day of riding I'd make it up any of them, but after 48 miles and at 12,000 feet of elevation, my legs were having none of it. I probably hiked half of last two miles to the top which greatly added to the time the entire climb took.

Above the treeline, you can look far, far up the valley ahead and see little bikers way off in the distance. And once you get to that spot, you can again, look far, far up the valley and see small bikers. And once you get there, you can finally see the checkpoint, but it, too, is small and farther away still. The last mile seems to take a very long time since you can see your goal, but it moves closer ever so slowly.

For a brief moment when walking, I stopped to take in the view. My oxygen starved brain registered its serene magnificence. Surrounding me was an alpine meadow of light green grass heavily peppered with a half a dozen types of small mountain flowers. Nothing over the height of two inches grew there: no bushes, no trees, no shrubs. I wanted to lie down and relax in the soft grass, but alas, it was not the day for relaxing. So up I continued, passing racers who had succumbed to the scene and were sitting on the side of the trail next to their bikes.

The temperature had dropped significantly. Not just due to the elevation, but the afternoon storms were now forming overhead. Wind and clouds whipped around fiercely. As I finally arrived at the Columbine Mine checkpoint (mile 50), sideways sleet and thunder had started. The brave volunteers, tough as they were, struggled to help the riders as well as keep their supplies from blowing away. I knew this stop wasn't going to be long.

Rumor had it that they had chicken noodle soup there, and sure enough, a cup of it was put in my hand. I pulled out my light jacket and drank the broth with trepidation. By now, I had lost my feeding schedule due to my lack of awareness of time it took to get up the mountain (a full 2.5 hours) and my stomach was starting to complain. I made another bottle of GatorNuun, gulped half of the Red Bull, and swallowed another half of a banana.

With the weather turning bad fast and I knew I had to get off the top of the mountain or risk get delayed due to lightning. Without fanfare, not even a made-it-to-the-top selfie, I began the 10 mile decent. The rocky sections I had walked an hour ago flew under my wheels; no walking to be had this direction. As I passed tired faces still heading up into the weather, I called to them as had been called to me, "Keep going! You're almost there! You can see the end!" knowing "That's easy for you to say," was in their heads.

971

Back at Twin Lakes (mile 60), I was a full 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. That gave me some confidence and erased my close call a few hours ago. Rebecca was 13 miles away at the Pipeline checkpoint, but they were the 13 miles I hadn't seen prior to that morning thus I didn't know that riding back to Pipeline was going to be more taxing than riding out. The climbs where steeper and longer this way and I had 60 miles in my legs.

Plus, my eating schedule was really out of whack at that point. Having forgotten about eating during the Columbine Mine climb and not being able to on the decent, I had woefully under eaten during the last 3 hours. Further, my stomach was not thrilled about the arrival of additional sugary or salty material. I was able to keep drinking, but still wasn't eating enough.

During that stretch, I began feeling very despondent. It was dawning on me how much further I had to go and I could feel my energy levels fading. All of this, combined with the short, steep climbs, caused me to slow down my pace significantly. Which was very unfortunate because about a mile out from the checkpoint a spotter called out to me, "You have 5 minutes to get there."

"Oh, shit!" I thought, "I've lost time again; I'm barely going to make this!"

I dug in to my very tired and hungry legs and pushed forward. It was a hard, flat dirt road between here and there, easy to be sure, but my bike felt like a 1000 pounds. It just wouldn't go; I couldn't build up any momentum. I began believing my brakes were somehow dragging on the rotors creating friction (which I later found was not the case). Still I pressed on. I had to make this cut off. With 300 yards to go, I received a 2 minute warning. It was going to be close, but I knew I'd make it. Then another thought struck me like lightning.

I had a big problem: Rebecca was going to be stationed right where we had agreed, which was 100 yards on THIS side of the actual checkpoint (where I had to arrive at with my timing chip). We hadn't considered this cutoff situation when we were scouting spots for her; what an oversight that had been. I would simply have to ride back to her after checking in. At full speed, I blew passed her confused look and yelling, "I have to get to the checkpoint now!"

In a panic, she grabbed the first things she could think of and began running down the crewing area behind me. Upon reaching the timer's station, I stopped and looked back. Rebecca was dutifully running full gate down the crew line with a bottle in her hand and her big sun hat flopping up and down. I loved her so much right then. When she arrived, she was heaving (remember, she had just flown in from sea level!). I felt like the biggest jerk in the world having to tell her I needed more than the bottle she had just run to me, but was too exhausted to express it. I rode back up the crew line to her set up. Disappointed, she trotted back, too, as I was reloading. It was a lesson learned.

I was feeling my chance of earning the sub-12 hour buckle slipping away. I knew what I had left: 28 miles and two major climbs, one of which was going back up the stupidly steep Powerline cut. I had heavy doubts in myself now, too. I had no thoughts of quitting, but I didn't believe I could finish all that in the next 4 hours. Those two climbs seemed impossible to my tired legs.

"I don't think I can do this," I said, choking back tears, "I don't think I'm going to make it [under 12 hours]."

Rebecca rubbed my shoulders and comforted me, "Of course you can."

"I haven't been eating and those climbs," I nearly sobbed.

Rebecca coaxed me to eat. "What can I get for you?" We refilled my liquids and I ate would I could. I refilled my pockets knowing I had to catch up on my nutrition soon or I'd totally bonk out.

"I'll be waiting at the finish line," she encouraged as I rolled away.

I rode through to checkpoint again and then across the 5 miles of pavement towards Powerline, this time alone and at a much slower speed all the while trying to ignore the dread of what was coming.

I looked up at it. I could see people scattered along it all pushing their bikes. From here to the horizon, no one was riding. It had been a long, tiring (albeit fun) downhill, which meant it was an even longer uphill, especially on foot. I rode up a pitiful 50 yards then stopped and resigned to walking up the hard packed dirt. Oddly, even with my tired legs and bad ankle, I was still passing other racers. As slowly I as walked, they were slower, yet. I knew how they felt.

I walked and I walked. On the few stretches where it leveled out for a hundred yards, I'd ride it, but soon would be walking again. It was slow and exhausting; pushing your bike uphill saves no energy. I took baby steps on the steepest parts while pushing my 1000 pound bike. I imaged if I was a zombie, this is how I'd walk.

After an hour and a half, I finally reached the top. I hopped on and began the long, relatively easy decent back down to Turquoise Lake. I had one more climb and about 15 miles to go. I checked the time. I was at 11:30. It was certain now that I wouldn't be earning a buckle. If I hadn't been so drained, emotionally and physically, I'd have cried. My goal for all these months was to get that buckle. I was going to wear it with pride. I was going to show it off to my friends. I was going to boast about how it really wasn't that hard to earn. Now I wouldn't get one.

I wanted to quit. I wanted to call Rebecca (I had my phone with me because service was surprising good there despite being a rural area) and have her pick me up at the St. Kevin checkpoint a few miles away (mile 90). I was so tempted. I hated that I had failed. But I also I hated that I wanted to quit. I couldn't decide what to do, so in my indecision I just kept doing what I was already doing: peddling. In the back of my mind, I hoped there was a time cutoff at the St. Kevin checkpoint that I had missed so I wouldn't have to decide. To add to the mood, it had begun to rain lightly so I put on my light jacket. It was getting chilly, rainy, and dark. Slowly I made my way up the mountain along the empty road eventually catching up with a man who had stopped to put on his jacket, too.

As we peddled together in the drizzle we chatted lightly. It felt good to talk to someone; it eased my mind. I commented on our time and he acknowledged that neither of us were getting a buckle. "I don't need a buckle," he said, "I just want to finish; that's the real feat." I kept my disagreement to myself, but, at the same time, was struck at his casual dismissal of not receiving a buckle. The buckle did not symbolize his success as it did mine. It sparked in me the thought that just finishing this damned thing was a success itself. It was a perspective I hadn't considered. In his resolve to finish despite not receiving a buckle I began find the desire to finish myself.

We pulled into the checkpoint 5 minutes before the 12 hour mark. They had already begun breaking down their operation, but they were still very attentive to us and even had hot ramen. I drank the broth and a bite or two of the noodles.

As casually as I could I asked, "Is there a cutoff time here?"

A young volunteer cheerfully responded, "Nope, not at this one." He must have sensed my lack of enthusiasm with his answer and continued, "You can't be thinking about quitting?!? You don't want to go home and tell your friends you did 90 miles then quit! You only have 10 miles left; you can do it. It's just some rollers, up a few climbs, and then it's downhill and flat back to town."

He was right. There was NO WAY I was going to return to New York City without a buckle AND some lame excuse for why I bailed at 90 miles. I had to see this through! I had to finish! With renewed resolve a little extra adrenalin from my pep talk I started up the second half of St. Kevin. I was going to finish all 103 miles no matter what!

With no fanfare, I crested the final mountain climb and started the descent. I caught up with my partner halfway down. We shot out onto the valley floor together and cruised along the final miles side by side as kindred spirits. The hardest was behind us with only the finish line ahead.

That being said, the final 2 miles to the finish line, called the "Boulevard," is a grueling uphill dirt road. I call it grueling not because it's steep or even remotely difficult, but because it is miles 102 and 103. My partner and I started together, but soon began to separate. I was happy for him that he had it in him to go faster, but my legs had no power and I resigned to spinning slowly up the very low grade. I didn't care; I knew nothing could keep me from finishing now. Even if I had to start walking, nothing could stop me!

As I rolled through the streets of Leadville, a lone group of spectators yelled encouragements to me. "Go 971!" "You've got this!" "Finish strong!" I smiled and, as one of them ran along beside me cheering, pretended I was surging for the win. Mountain bikers are awesome!

I crossed the nearly abandoned finish line at 13:06. Dutifully waiting there was Rebecca. I rolled right up to her and hugged her. I don't know if I was more happy to see her or more relieved to be done. Regardless, it caught by surprise when a Finisher Medal was hung around my neck. I had forgotten I'd get one. I thought, "At no time would I ever feel as proud of the buckle as I am of this medal right now."

Finished at 13:06 LT100 MTB Finisher medal

Ken Chlouber himself happened to be one of the few people at the finish line. Standing there with half a dozen Finisher Medals in his hand and a dinner plate of a buckle on his belt, I felt inclined to say something to him.

"That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And I've done a lot of hard fucking things!"

He smiled and said, "And you finished."

Epilogue

Someone once said of me, "Stephen is the type of guy who can pick up any [physical] activity and just do it." I was lucky to get athletic genes and have done many incredible things with them. Whether it was climbing, skating, team sports, biking, dancing, or surfing, I've always been able to pick them up fairly easily and maintain a relatively good aptitude despite long breaks. Simply put, unless it's been injured, my body has never held me back.

However, for the first time in my life I believe I have felt my age. I had prepared heavily for the LT100 MTB. I had spent months riding 1000s of miles. I had lived at altitude for weeks to acclimate. I had scoped out much of the course. I had done a lot of reading and planning. I was prepared. Yet, this ride nearly destroyed me; it was so hard I felt I just physically couldn't go on. I almost quit and I never give up like that. My body was taxed to the point where 2 hours after finishing I was sweating and shivering in bed while fading in and out of consciousness. Perhaps I will get old after all; perhaps I really am mortal.

Love

Truly, I wouldn't have finished without Rebecca's help and encouragement. More than once you've been the only thought keeping me going.

I'd also like to thank a few others who helped me prepare and complete this epic event:

  • Aarrun Marcus and Christopher Grano for letting me live in their home for 3 weeks prior to the race.
  • NYCC & A-SIG Classic for getting many miles in my legs that spring as well as solid group riding skills.
  • Chris Hadgis and JackRabbit Sports for getting me a solid base to my training with tough spin classes.
  • Rob Ballou for giving me the tour of Denver's local single track.
  • Marcus Skala for letting me borrow his handy bike travel bag. (again!)
  • Jay Tender for riding many laps around Central Park with me.
  • Andree Sanders and Trips for Kids for giving me emotional support! (and a sweet jersey)
  • The guy whose ambivalence towards the buckle helped me realize that missing my sub-12 hour goal wasn't a failure.
  • The guy at the St. Kevin checkpoint who so eloquently enlightened me to the lameness of quitting after 90 miles.
  • The woman who informed me there were time cutoffs.
  • The group who cheered me to the finish line 13 hours after the start.

I haven't decided if I'm going to try the LT100 MTB again. Though I more or less followed my plan that day, seeing riders who looked downright unfit finish with better times than me, it is obvious I can do better. In hindsight, things I would do differently include riding harder early on, being more aware of the cutoff times, not getting behind on feeding, and chatting less with other riders. Working with a coach would help, too, I'm sure. I just need to decide if the time commitment is worth the satisfaction that I can, indeed, do better.

Plus, I still want that buckle.


--

Direct Link: http://http://www.StephenVenters.com/Blog/23


Monday, May 5, 2014

How to Clean your Bike in a NYC Apartment

Having moved from Missouri where houses have spigots and hoses with spray nozzles, I was accustomed with the ease of washing my bikes outside. You just roll your bike outside, turn on the hose and start sprayin'. All the mud, road grime, and chain goop just falls on the ground and gets washed away.

Cleaning your bike in a New York City apartment is a different matter. First, it's likely you don't have access to a hose unless you have an in with the Super who will let you use it while spraying down the sidewalk in the front your building at 6:00 AM in the morning. Second, it's even more likely you have a small apartment with an even smaller bathroom.

A friend of mine once told me he just takes a roll of paper towels and wipes his bike down with them in his living room. Well, I guess that's a solution, but it creates a good amount of trash and how clean can you really get wiping down your bike with damp paper towels? There's no way I could get caked-on mud splatter off my Full Suspension bike effectively using paper towels.

I need spraying water and a brush to do it right. Furthermore, I need a method that doesn't take up a lot of space or makes my shower unusable. So, here is a fairly easy and inexpensive way to wash your bike in a NYC shower.

Setup

  1. Hose You'll need a shower head on a hose. These can be very fancy and expensive, but just for washing your bike, you only need a basic one. Home Depot sells a very inexpensive one (about $20) that is very easy to install. All you need is a pair of pliers.

    1. With the pliers, you remove your existing shower head
    2. Screw the connector onto the pipe (be sure not to under tighten so it leaks, but not to over to tighten so you crack the coupler since it's plastic)
    3. Screw the shower head onto the other end of the connector
    4. Done! Now just attach the hose to the valve on the connector and turn the water on!
    Installed connector Installed connector with hose attached
  2. Hose You'll also need two metal rods that are long enough to span the width of your bathtub, but also thin enough to set into your fork (in the same location as the skewer). I got a couple of 36 inch long, 1/4 inch around metal rods from Home Depot which were about $3 each.

    1. Take some duct tape and wrap it around one end of the rod.
    2. Lay the rod across your tub with the taped end against the wall and wrap more duct tape where it lays on the lip of the tub. The tape will help it from sliding around as you clean.
    3. If you want to really fancy, add a small piece of wood to the rod to help it stay in place better, especially on the inner/outer edge of the lip of the tub.
      Installed connector
  3. Now you're ready to start cleaning!

Cleaning your bike

  1. Remove the wheels from the bike and clean them first in the tub. When you're done, lean them against the wall.
    Wheels
  2. Next, take the frame and carefully mount it on the 2 rods with the chain on the drain side. The fork should easily accept the rod in its jaws. For the rear, you'll need to feed the rod between the frame and the chain. If I'm going to be brushing aggressively, I'll bungy the frame to the rods, but in general, the weight of the bike allows it sit securely.
    Fork mount Rear wheels mount
  3. Now you can wash your bike with brushes, soap and warm water. When you're done, just leave the bike in the shower to drip dry. If you have company coming over, simply put the shower curtain back in place and, VOILA, your dirty work is hidden from sight.
    Drip dry

Notes

  1. The chain, depending on how grimy it is, will drip oily grime into your shower. This is why I mount it towards the drain. Regardless, you'll probably need to give the shower a quick once over when done.
  2. On a related note, I DO NOT recommend lubing your chain in the shower. Those drips will be hard to clean up.
  3. This works for mountain bikes, too!
Drip dry Drip dry

I hope this helps you with the pain-in-the-ass task of cleaning your bike in confined quarters. Good luck!


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Direct Link: http://http://www.StephenVenters.com/Blog/20


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Living the Dream

This morning as I walked in to the kitchen pantry here at ASME one of the building attendants was cleaning the sink. He’s an older, black gentlemen with whom I’ve gotten a bit friendly. I did my normal, cheery, two-toned “Heh-low” as I always enjoy seeing him and I was about to get some fresh coffee. He returned the sentiment, with a “how ya doin’?” to which I responded with, “Livin’ the dream.” With a short chuckle, he said as he finished up, “Ha, yeah, right,” as in, “Yea, here we are, all chugging away up the endless hill with little or no hope of ever seeing the top.”

It seemed like a reasonable response to my statement since a lot of people say"Living the dream" sarcastically. Even though that day I had really meant it, I knew he’d take it in the ironic, self-defeating way as most people mean it. In my own manner, it was a joke, inside if only to myself because, right now, I really am living the dream. The joke was that I was really being honest.

Certainly, the dream is different for everyone and it would be more appropriate to say, I’m living my dream. But that sounds less grandiose.

I mean, I live on Manhattan which is a dream I’d had for well over a decade prior. And, not only do I live on Manhattan, I’m “making it here” as Sinatra said. In that, I mean I’m conquering one of my biggest fears I’d had about living here.

In the last year or so, I’ve been checking off lifelong goals like a grocery list. Goals, that at one time, were the mountain peaks far off in the distance and seemingly unattainable.

Despite having one been drowning in debt, I am now debt free by paying it all back. Two days ago I purchased the most expensive piece of jewelry I have ever owned fulfilling a 23 year goal of owning a Rolex. Not only that, I had the cash to buy it.

Two months ago I moved on up to a deluxe apartment on the 20th floor with the fabulous and fantastic Rebecca G. It’s a huge upgrade from my old apartment and has amenities seldom seen in buildings here. It has a fantastic view of the Hudson River, New Jersey and every sunset as well as a second full bathroom.

My career is really blooming too.

The only problem I have now is I need to dream up some bigger goals.

This living the dream is not without its difficulties, but life without difficulties is impossible, even on a theoretical level. But I have the confidence that I can manage and handle any that come my way. For example, tomorrow is my last day here. I’ve been a contractor here for the last 11 months and they’ve run out of money to pay my fees, so I will be looking for another gig next week. For many, the thought of being unemployed is a nightmare. For me, it’s just part of the process. I am confident in my abilities and career and have little doubt I’ll find another position at a great rate.

I didn’t get that confidence over night, I had to earn it.

I had to not only accept change, but be apathetic to it. It’s a misnomer to think you’ve gotten comfortable with something and change removes you from your comfort zone. That’s not an accurate perspective. Being OK with change isn’t defined by being out of your comfort zone all the time. Who wants to be out of their comfort zone? That sounds like a nightmare, not a dream.

I approach change with a mix of apathy and interest. Apathy in a, “it was once this way, now it’s that way” perspective. A long time ago I realized that change was scary when it was coming, stressfully when it was happening, and after a while, life felt fairly normal again, only the commute to work had changed and if it was worse commute, something else was better to balance it out. Now, with change on the horizon, I just fast forward that perspective and trust that it will all balance out in the end.

Change comes, change goes, but it rarely threatens your entire way of life.

I am living MY dream. Not because I have riches (which I don’t!) or an easy life, but because all of the hard choices and hard work I’ve put in thus far are paying off. Despite the problems of life I am still reaching my goals.

I am living the dream. Are you?


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Direct Link: http://http://www.StephenVenters.com/Blog/18


Friday, December 20, 2013

Learning the Songs of Travel

Songs of Travel

For over ten months I have been working on learning the nine pieces of the Songs of Travel which is a classical song cycle written in the early 1900s by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ten months may seem like a long time for some to learn a mere nine songs, but, remember, when I started the endeavor I had had only been studying singing for eight months, so I was only in the infancy of my learning. It has been an inspiring process however and what I learned during it has far exceeded the mere mechanics of nine classical tunes. In many ways, it was the perfect challenge at the perfect time.

When I moved to New York in late 2011, I knew very little about singing, or music for that matter, and what I did know was merely a random scattering of bits and facts that I had absorbed over the years. Interested in studying opera, I took up private singing lessons with Joseph Charles the next summer, a friend I had met across a poker table earlier that year. When the fall came, I also started taking classes at Juilliard School of Music, which is conveniently only two blocks from my apartment.

Over the next number of months, I worked on a myriad of things from classical opera to Broadway show-tunes to Billy Joel. In the spring of 2013, at the recommendation of my Juilliard instructor, Jane Olain, I began working The Vagabond, the first song of the cycle. It was a fairly easy song that was up beat and exciting. Over the next two months, I learned it and performed it "off book" (by memory) at my class's Spring recital.

Soon after, I learned Whither must I Wander?, the cycle's 6th song, so I could perform it in tribute to Ed Elliott, a former Boy Scout leader from my childhood back in Jefferson City, Missouri. I was going back for my 20 year high school reunion and offered to sing at our old church for his widow. It, too, was a fairly easy song.

After two successful performances, I was driven to learn the entire cycle. Little did I know what that choice meant and the challenges that were to come. I was about to test the limits of my abilities in rhythm, pitch, and musicianship. What I came away with was an immense amount of knowledge about music and composition in addition to the songs themselves; far more than I would have if I had just learned 9 random arias.

In a way, learning the complete Songs of Travel was the perfect lesson plan for me as a beginner male vocal student and here's why:

  1. First and foremost, since the lyrics are in English (actually Welsh, but close enough), I already knew how to pronounce them and give them the proper inflections as they fell within the poem's sentences. Furthermore, it made it much easier to interpret the story of the song and imagine actions to suit. Thus, I could afford more mental attention to the pitches, rhythm, and musical interpenetration.
  2. Musically, the cycle has a few easy songs, a few medium songs, and a couple of very hard songs. Initially, I had learned two of the easier songs. They wooed me into the rest and by the time I realized how challenging the rest of the cycle was it was too late, I was already committed. There are some very difficult rhythms to deal with that took me a great amount of time and practice to get right. Also, I learned how to work together with my accompanist so that if I do get lost, we can get back in sync again. In the end, though, it allowed me to challenge myself as a singer, but not overwhelmingly so.
  3. The entire cycle fits the baritone range perfectly (it was written specifically for it). However, it required me to push my upper range a bit to reach the high notes (several Ds and an E-flat). But, it also had some easy low notes later in the cycle allowing my voice some rest (and showcase a low A-flat).
  4. Most people know that a symphony is one big piece of work with smaller pieces that all work together, however, many don't know what that actually means on a composition level. Certainly, I didn't having grown up in the age when most musicians creating bodies of work (i.e. albums) have foregone that concept. However, learning an entire cycle helped me see how a body of music works together on levels beyond that of its lyrical story. I was able to see how a work comes together from start to end musically including a complete musical summery in the last song.
  5. Something I never realized I'd have to get used to is the skill of "switching between songs." I remember the first time I sung the cycle through, song-by-song, without stopping. Before that, I had just worked on an individual song over and over, but now it was different. It was a shock to go from the happy, upbeat intro song to the next that was much slower. The change in "feeling" was drastic and I had to present that. Basically, this cycle helped me learn to go from song to song and present the various "feelings" quickly. It also helped me understand how a cycle like this is really an entire story and not just a collection of songs.
  6. Part of performing a song is that of understanding and presenting the message the song is telling. The lyrics of the songs were originally poems written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Having to read and understand them was an excellent exercise in poetry interpretation and recital. Vaughan Williams later put the sequence to music meaning I had to match the interpretations of the poetry with the interpretation of the related musical composition. I had never done that before.
  7. The cycle, straight through, takes about 22-25 minutes to perform and comprises of about 35 pages of music. This makes it a reasonable, yet challenging body of music to prepare, memorize, and sing. It's no 5-hour Wagner opera, but its far more impressive then a 8 minute aria.
  8. Finally, being who I am, I was able to relate to many of the aspects of the cycle's story and main character who was a man living a carefree life of travel and love, spending most of his life outdoors. Having traveled alone for extended periods of time myself and having felt the mixture of independence yet loneliness leading to the ultimate struggle with one's life choices, I understood the words on a deeper level. This connection not only drove my desire to master the cycle, but, I believe, allows me to more accurately perform its message.

Given this experience, I'd recommend all beginning baritone or bass-baritone singing students to learn this cycle.


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