Back at the Secret City

I got in this morning. My flight took off at 3:52 am and landed at
5:11 am, which entailed showing up at the airport at midnight and
hustling around after that to get my bags on the baggage pallets. The
good news is that I only had to wait about a hundred hours (105
actually) for a benighted seat.

 Flying at such an hour takes all the things you love about aviation,
like the endless waits, the sorry excuses for nourishment, and the
camaraderie of the airport lounge, and just sets the floodlight on
them. Even better, the girl I was sitting next to had only been on a
plane once before, two weeks prior, and was scared of getting sick.
Thankfully, this remained a mere bugaboo.

 But the absolute best part was the 1000-meter walk across the tarmac
from the aircraft to the terminal. I think the last time I flew in
here it was daytime and we took a shuttle bus back from the plane.
Does the bus not operate at night? I would have been more excited
about the stroll, actually, with the blue taxiway lights and the
bright stars overhead, if I hadn’t been dead tired and carrying my
heavy bags.

 Later in the morning, I got my bike back from where I’d parked it, and
I went for a ride this afternoon, which was great. It was good
weather, with big thick striated clouds that cast clear shadows all
over the landscape, and the wind from the north, and after my nap I
felt pretty alive. I was however a little distracted and didn’t focus
as I should have and I didn’t break 18 mph. It’s my first ride in
February, and I was hoping for something a little stronger to start
out the month with.

Another course record

To follow up on this morning’s apex of achievement, I
eked out a new course record on my favorite seven-mile loop this
afternoon. With the wind coming out of the south, and quite mildly
too, I zipped around the loop in 21:12, which is 12 seconds short of
20 mph, or 19.8 mph. That was the second time around; the first time
was a respectable 22:14, or 18.9 mph.

 I’m so pleased with myself every time I put in a good ride like today;
I apologize for the surfeit of functionally identical posts saying the
same thing.

 Especially riding a single-speed, going faster means pedaling faster
and moving the wheel around more frequently in the same time period.
Or rather, accomplishing the same number of revolutions in a little
less time. It seems a little more elemental than it would on a bike
with a derailleur.

Back to strong

Strong again! Mwah-ha-hah!! I went out for a late-morning run and with that third-person eye one sometimes develops, saw myself careening down the road, past the gorgeous helicopter taxiway and parking lot, up the hill to the pyramid-like revetments and back, past the car wash and the fire station and the stadium.

Is feeling strong just a conjunction of necessary conditions? I was ready to go this morning, it wasn’t too cold or too windy, there wasn’t too much traffic, I was paced by a pair of runners who stayed four hundred meters ahead of me for the entire out stretch. I found myself humming “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor” at an absurdly quick tempo as I turned around at the second revetment, then after the final sprint up the hill between the lodging and refectory I rested a moment on the dirt plain with my hands on my knees, with the sharp taste of my saliva swirling in my mouth.

Photo depicts empty storage tanks at the secret-city scrap yard.

Only one face necessary

I blame the shoddy drugstore batteries someone sent me for expiring just as the photo-moment arrived (or I arrived at the photo-moment): Barack Obama’s three-quarter profile on a sheet cake at the big refectory. It’s another quiet night here at the secret city; dusk has settled over us while folks are still getting into position in Washington.

On the fitness front, another strong day today. I wanted to take it easy but coming up the one hill on my way to the back of the airfield, I felt so strong. And besides, I have to be strong for Obama! Strong for America! Today is no day to slack off, no way no how. Yes we can!

The wind was all over the place in some confusing fashion, and as I did the other day, I guessed wrong so that when I thought I would be turning into the back stretch and heading with the wind, I was actually pushing into a headwind. Is it possible that there could be one certain direction for the wind to blow from so that it feels as if it’s in my face the whole way? If this is so, how (and why) did the Yugoslavs who built the secret city calculate it so that the roads are lined up with that prevailing direction? Were they masochists or something?

Fickle wind, I have my eye on you. I saw how toward the end of my ride, the smoke off the burn pit was blowing west, although I could feel the wind coming out of the northeast again. You try to fool me into giving up, but I am strong today for Obama and have no patience with your silly breezy games! I hit the wide open stretch just west of the big perpendicular taxiway, all the while humming the howling riff from “Hatari” to myself, and getting myself ready for the sharp turn onto the back stretch with the unfavorable wind in my face. What a pleasure to make that turn (after looking both ways for traffic), to feel the push of the sticky tires, warm from friction, against the asphalt as I whip around 135 degrees without losing speed. (Of course, I feel as if the wind is fully ready to turn itself 136 degrees to frustrate me.)

I pulled around the first lap in less than 22 minutes, and did the second one in 22:05, so both laps were over 19 mph, the second day in a row that I’ve accomplished this. I am convinced that by writing about it (most vividly here) I have made it easier for myself to master this skill.

In the running event, today was also a good day. On my predawn jog, I reached the 370-mile milestone that gets me a metaphorical pat on the back from those mysterious secret-city authorities. I have run at least 5.6 miles nine days in a row. I confess, the pegs feel kind of tired, like they were made out of chocolate that has slowly started to melt. I have been just barely shuffling along for the last couple mornings, it feels like, although I suspect that a big part of that is running on the roadside verge in the dark and my anxiety at the likelihood of twisting my ankle. I have three more of those 5.6-mile runs to go before I get to the 100-mile goal I set for January, which shouldn’t be that hard in the 11 days left in the month. We’ve been enjoying pretty good weather lately so I want to take full advantage of it; I dread another cold snap or another rainy day.

(Today’s picture is not the Obama cake, but Freedom Lake, at the east end of the secret city, nestled in the canyon wall. Yes, we drink the water.)

V-for-velocity, M-for-metaphor

What can you say about speed? Stereolab songs, racehorses, gazelles and orbital velocity, and pistons, just to name a few off my recent postings. The more I work on the blog here the more I see speed as a kind of metaphor I’m using more frequently for other things in my life, things that I’m still trying to put their own words to.

Every time I come up with a new metaphor for “fast” it is as if I’m asking myself to identify the mystery object in a game of 20 Questions.

Going faster entails the promise of liberation, the hope of improvement, the badge of hard training, and the motivation to keep pushing. You may not be subject to all these varied forces, but I feel them keenly here in the secret city, my little exile’s bubble.

As you can see from the accompanying chart, this has been a pretty good week for biking. The pink line is January’s rides, the fastest seven-mile lap on each day, and the green line is December’s rides, same procedure. (I have no idea what the background is or where it came from, only that it’s a photograph I took.) My personal theory to explain the improvement is that by writing about going faster, it makes it easier to do it. I hope it works for you, too.

Today, matched against a modest Boreal breeze, was a particular red-letter day. Much as I enjoy complaining about it, I slightly prefer riding with the north wind to the south wind because it means I get an extra ten minutes to warm up before I start doing laps. Today I brought my heart rate up to just over 70% as I turned the corner into the headwind and managed to sustain that level for the next 44 minutes as I fit two entire laps into that time period. I haven’t before done two laps at that speed, more than 19 mph.

As I go over the ride in my head, it seems to be composed of the same little episodes that every ride shares, many of which I’ve written about already: e.g., the Funny Hat People doing their little afternoon run; the potential lapse in concentration (avoided!) on the firehouse straightaway; the flip around onto the back stretch and accompanying realization that I’m making good time and can ride fast with the wind for the rest of the way; even the soundtrack for today, Tune-Yards’ “Fiya,” off the same record that “Sunlight” comes from, this one with a monster ukulele riff. Somehow I put everything together like a good little editor and wound up on a pace to be proud of.


I’m just back from this morning’s run and can gladly report that it was just about the same as yesterday’s run: same number of calories, same time, same distance. The one change is that I was a little faster toward the end today and (conversely) slower in the beginning. My guess, however, is that it’s better to speed up toward the end (reverse split) rather than lag, so I’m pleased by that.

Yesterday’s bike ride was again a model of consistency, although I changed my song to “In These Shoes?” by Kirsty MacColl, the one gem from her otherwise disappointing Tropical Brainstorm album, from the other day‘s “Metronomic Underground.” No me gusta caminar/no puedo andar por caballo, sings Kirsty’s backup chorus, and there I go, andar por bicicleta.

It was quite warm and pleasant out yesterday, and even though the wind was kind of brisk, it was from the south, so it didn’t bother me as much. I knew I would have a good lap when with my torso tucked down and pacing myself briskly along the open spot just parallel to the runway I looked down and saw that I was working at 82% max heart rate. I did the whole 7-mile lap in less than 22 minutes, or a 19 mph pace, which was enough to bring the average for both laps up to a whisker over 18 mph.

Today’s bike picture is from Antwerp. I like the plastic leaves on the fender stays, personally.

I am my own gazelle

Yesterday afternoon I managed to work in a 7.3 mile run, doing a figure-eight, with the first loop down the long hill parallel to the converted taxiway to the west from my lodging, around past the junkyard and the secret city’s front gate, then back up along 2nd Street between the lodging and the refectory, and around to the east along my usual route, past the giant white hangar where they keep the UFO and down to 12th Street, where I turned around and then back past the car wash, the firehouse, and the stadium.

By the time I got to that last mile, from the firehouse back to the lodging, I was nicely warmed up and I had that long stride going, the kind of stride where you feel as if the ground trembles a little bit at each step from the sheer exhilaration of being such an important part of such a good run for you. Where you feel as if the entire earth is canted about five degrees downhill in your direction of travel, that all that’s necessary is to just cast yourself onto that azimuth and gravity will take you along, like being in orbit, where you keep falling toward the earth as is natural, but unlike ordinary running, the earth keeps moving away and a little bit back from you.

This was the second time in a month that I’d done the same route, and I was a little faster on it the first time (although on 12/22 I didn’t have the lovely gazelle stride down pat like yesterday). That day I was all excited because I had managed at the very end to get my heart rate up to what the monitor told me was 100% of maximum heart-rate (but which was actually one measly beat-per-minute short.

Yesterday I had that in mind, and as I was coasting along the earth’s surface there on my last mile, I kept on trying to push myself hard enough to finish strong, without wearing myself down prematurely. There’s some kind of balance there between the kinetic memory of moving your muscles at a certain cadence, the rhythmic impact of the feet on the pavement and the angle of attack of each footstep as determined by the alignment of the pelvis, the memory of how to align the spinal column on that moving platform of the pelvis and how to use the hip flexors and abdominal muscles to keep it steadily upright, the memory of moving breath in and out of the chest cavity using the diaphragm muscle to squeeze and release from the bottom up, pressing for leverage against that awesomely gliding platform of the pelvis, the cadence again of breathing and feeling the air move in and out of the pharynx (with its little skull mounted on top, like a plastic baseball stuck on a car antenna) which is being kept open and inline by the spinal column.

All those kinesthetic memories are flooding back, like a seven-minute-mile madeline, at the same time that today’s energy is flooding out, and an entirely different nervous system is busy checking on that, feeling how hard the heart is beating in its little cozy cavity nestled between the lungs and the ribcage, feeling the deoxygenated air being forced out of the lungs and newly oxygenated air being drawn in through the alveoli, feeling the lactic acid build up in the muscles of the lower extremities and being carried away by the bloodstream: all that is entirely new every time I run and entirely dependent on circumstances; how much I ate for lunch, how cold is it outside, how much water I’ve drunk in the last couple hours, et alia.

And somewhere in the middle is that barely conscious nervous plexus that’s adjusting the kinetic configuration according to the autonomic nervous system’s feedback about how much energy there is in the tank and how much energy it will take to maintain the kinetic configuration. This part changes, of course, also depending on the present fitness level, or to put it in simple one-dimensional terms, how fast the heart can pump the used blood back from the muscles and into the lungs, where the wastes can be expelled into breath.

Maybe yesterday’s answer happened to be “no, not today.” I turned up 2nd Street for the final sprint to the stop sign on top of the hill and despite a hasty cycle through several different kinetic configurations (made different and new because now I was climbing and had to keep lifting the pelvis, using my leg muscles as levers, as well as maintaining that inexorable forward motion of the pelvis and the spinal column), I couldn’t do either one of two things: neither bust that previous HR record, the 99-and-a-half percent one from December, nor shatter my time from the stadium back home; it took another 25 seconds more than it had earlier in the week.

But in the end I can declare victory: I ran further than I did on Wednesday, and I finished feeling stronger than I had on the 22nd, with that gazelle stride and, as I got to 25 meters out from the stop sign, an extra measure of zip drawn from somewhere in my kinetic consciousness: somehow some sense memory declaring, in the haste of the instant, while seeing the finish line, while seeing safety from the saber-tooth in pursuit, while seeing the imminence of rest, “Yes, I have a little faster left.”

(P.S. Picture is the secret city, heading along yesterday’s route from the scrap yard to the front gate. Some forgotten well-wisher sent along the nicely wrapped sanitary roll that’s ornamenting the dashboard.)

Just like Craig Pond

On the bike today, out for my afternoon ride, I hopped off the curb into the road and all of a sudden, everything was calm, like a smooth and tranquil lake of asphalt. It was like that moment diving into Craig Pond first thing in the morning, when the lake is so still and the water is chilly but it just swallows you up into it, so softly.

(No pictures of Craig Pond handy, unfortunately, so here’s one from Oregon instead.)

The ride went OK. I attempted to psyche myself up beforehand by listening to Tune-Yards’ “Sunlight,”, but it was another song, Stereolab’s “Metronomic Underground” that proved to be the key to victory.

As you can tell, it’s pretty hypnotic, and just humming to myself, “Crazy, sturdy, a torpedo” helped me keep up that steady energy needed for the long back stretch with the wind, past the dump. Of course, first I had to figure out what song it actually was, which is kind of difficult, since my Stereolab sampler is on a single CD that I used to play whenever I would drive around the secret city in the truck.

But it worked! I finished lap no. 2 in 22:48, or 18.4 mph. I was pretty much toast afterward, however, and rode home kind of slowly, still in a daze from hearing the song in my head over and over again.

Notes on motivation, two-wheeled version

(I wrote this and am posting it not necessarily to motivate anyone else, but more so that the next time I am in the same situation, I have something to reference it to.)

Cycling this afternoon, I came around my first loop with the straightforward intention of getting in a good ride. The wind had lightened up since the day before and it was actually almost warm, in the low 60s probably. Riding into the wind, I hit the straightaway from the flagpole past the fire station, old chapel and refectory, checked my heart-rate monitor, and set myself the task of raising my heart rate to 80% of max from 64%. I got distracted somewhere along the half-mile stretch and reached the turn with the monitor still stuck at 64%. I passed the Funny Hat People running and singing their goofy songs, as is their custom in the afternoons, then came around for a second loop.

Learning from the first lap, on the second I focused intently on the pedal stroke to get my HR up and when I made the turn I was at 81%. I didn’t get down to below 70% until I got to the Leticia straightaway (There’s a clamshell structure there permanently under construction, with the word “LETICIA” in wrought-iron letters mounted on the crane above the clamshell; it always looks striking because when I ride in the afternoon, I see it with the setting sun as a backdrop.) and felt like I was falling a little short of vim.

Feelings notwithstanding, as I came around the tight turn, onto the back stretch, I checked the stopwatch: it read 1:09:58, and I had started the loop at the other end at 56:50. So I had only taken 13′ and change to complete the out stretch, fighting the wind the whole way. That was a pretty good sign, so I sipped some water, grabbed the drops, tucked in and pedaled hard, with the wind at my back, all the way past the dump around to the loop starting-point by the barrels. The entire seven-mile lap took 22:32, a pace of 18.6 mph (my target is 23:22, which is an 18 mph pace; if I’ve looped around faster than that, it’s a red-letter day).

I kept up a crisp pace on the way home from the barrels, and even sped up a little bit at the end, trying to get in under 1:40, my full-ride reference time (I always assume it takes 100 minutes to get in an afternoon ride), and missed it only by a couple seconds. Not bad for a ride where the first fifty-six minutes were pretty poky.

I guess the conclusion to draw from today’s experiment, which I’ve apprehended before but have been absorbing only slowly, is that the first good push is critical to getting my heart starting to beat fast enough to maintain a swift, satisfying pace. The only times I’ve kept that 18 mph pace, I’ve had an average HR for the loop of over 70%, which means that I need to do some serious hammering over the 23 minutes it takes to loop around. On days when I’m feeling slow, it’s hard to push past 65% at all, so averaging more than 70% is more of an achievement than it might seem. On the other hand, as I go over my records, I see that I only rode an 18-mph loop five times in the entire month of December (twice on the 30th). I’ve already matched that sum for January, although I haven’t felt as strong this month.

Attached picture is my ride, in today’s late-afternoon light.

Boreas vs. Me

I complain a lot about the wind here on this blog, but today was the north wind’s roughest attempt yet to keep me off the road. Today was a bright, sunny cloudless day. I got out on the bike a little early this afternoon and I could notice the gusts even down here in the canyon. When I got up to the plateau there was one smooth bit where I had the wind at my back, and everything was beautiful and quiet, and I could listen to the wheels rushing against the pavement and the chain spinning around the sprockets.

Then 10 minutes later, after passing the dump, I came around and headed directly into the Boreal fury. I’ve noticed about the flat desert around the airfield that there’s no letup. Nothing stands in the way, apparently, between me and Greenland, or Kamchatka, or whatever they call the House of the North Wind these days. It’s relentless, completely different from the gusty winds that blow, careless about their direction and force, back home.

I’m reminded of one evening back in 1988 when I was walking along 14th Street in the middle of the night (on the way to Nell’s, if I recall correctly) and ol’ Boreas was blowing right off the Hudson and wrapping around my bones, poking and twisting with his cold fingers between my muscles and ligaments, like my grandmother taking apart a chicken.

Pictures are stealth-camera shots, taken with my cell phone, on the same 14th Street.