Monday, January 31, 2011

LT100 - Registered

Signed up before price goes up. Haven't signed up for a race this early in....ever?
Time to start training and hit the bike more.

Wait...I signed up for the run? Ugh, that's gonna take, like, forever! Alright, guess I better run more.

Already got some friends that might help J with a little crewing. Would love to see any other family/friends along the way. Nothing big, just an afternoon/evening boost which seems to do wonders for morale. Not sure about pacing yet, might get some help there, might go random, or meet people on the trail (with 750 racers), or anybody else that wants to slog along for bits and pieces of it -- looking forward to the adventure!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Century Ride: Aurora, Parker, Castle Rock, Elizabeth

Hadn't been on the bike much, but with 60+ degree temps and sunshine in January, it seemed like a good option.

I didn't think I had a particular attachment to the distance, but it's a good psychological fitness gauage. I always wonder how easy/hard it is when I haven't ridden as much, though the running should (and does) make up for much of it, as I generally estimate it as a (very roughly) ~25 mile run equivalent. Still, I started wondering last month if I had ridden one in 2010 (and thought I would count a run instead of I wanted to consider some sort of annual non-motorized streak), and then reminded myself that I had, back in May. This is probably the longest gap of time between centuries in awhile or ever, but I'm happy to have a streak of 7 years now -- which pales in comparison to Felix's streak of double centuries, something which I have never done!

Unfortunately, it takes me 20 miles of soul-sapping and time-sapping traffic and MUPs just to get out to country roads to start a decent ride. Nonetheless, I headed down to Parker again to do some exploration between Parker and Castle Rock. I lost my hand-drawn map before I left my own zip code, so I improvised heavily (I initially intended to go further South instead of East to Elizabeth). The meat of the ride is shown here:

Everything in either direction of Franktown is gorgeous, and it was all new terrain to me. I thought that the Elizabeth-Kiowa area would have been flatter plains I enjoyed riding Black Forest a few times in the past, and I've suggested it to several people who were looking for rolling hill training (e.g. Ironman Wisconsin). I'm happy to say that this section, closer to Denver, has the same feel of rollers, some decent shoulders (especially towards Elizabeth) and a woodsy feel and scent of pine, with glimpses of Pikes. Some great climbing and descending between Franktown and Castle Rock, and back down into Parker from Hilltop Dr.

The early/middle miles were tougher than when I've been riding more, but I was happy to feel stronger deeper into the ride. Great to get out there on the bike this early in the year!

Crossing the Andes by Bus

I had seen pictures years ago, of a crazy road with all kinds of switchbacks that crossed the Andes, and always wanted to see it.

Many North Americans may have a connotation of buses that is vastly different than the reality in other parts of the world. Well, like most things, it depends on price range: you can get remarkably far for a couple bucks (which is still a fine way to travel on a budget), but you can also get a very comfortable, near-luxury experience in buses for longer distances for a fraction of the cost of an airline ticket or renting a car. And in any case, the bus system in both Chile and Argentina are part of a public transportation infrastructure that is vastly superior to the Third-World public transportation in the United States.

With many different options, we went with Andesmar, which had double-decker buses with fully reclining seats for just over $30/pp for the ~7 hour ride, and was known for having a good safety record. You could do this ride overnight and save daylight as well as a lodging night, but he gorgeous views from the 2nd level especially were worth the price of admission. You also get coffee/tea and a meal, as well as a movie and/or obnoxiously loud Latin American music videos, for better or worse.

And it costs the same as taking a shuttle one-way from Fort Collins to DIA.

On the Argentina side, I found the Uspallata Valley to be incredible and worthy of more exploration as we went through, but we continued on to our equally beautiful destination in the Mendoza region.

Cajon del Maipo Waterfall

After finishing our hike at El Morado, I had thoughts of checking out the Banos Morales hot springs, or heading further to the Banos Colinas hot springs, but J didn't think that was incredibly appealing in the mid-afternoon sun. Instead, we headed a bit deeper into the canyon.

Just down the road is a turnoff for Refugio Lo Valdez, a historically German lodge and restaurant, where we stopped for lunch.

There, we enjoyed sandwiches, beer and wine, and delicious kuchen (German pastry adopted as a Chileno food), and expansive views of the Argentina-Chile border. This place also has assorted maps and is a great launching point for ski-touring and climbing.

On the somewhat steep and tight climb up here, though, the little Yaris wheels spun a bit on steeper, loose dirt, so it seemed like a good time to head back down the canyon.

On the way back, some of the same exact mountain view from the morning took on a breathtaking emerald hue that the pictures don't properly convey.

We also spotted an impressive waterfall just off the south side of the road that somehow we had missed earlier. The convenience of being right of the road made it seem less of a destination than had it been at the middle of a hike, but that didn't take away from the grandeur. Put this waterfall in Colorado or Wisconsin or many other states, and it would be a prime attraction.

We parked on the side of the road and hiked up a dry streambead and some talus to reach some trails that headed right up to the waterfall. Several other parties were enjoying it as well. Comically, some young Chilean guys were very tentative and daring each other to go underneath the icy falls while a friend videotaped and encouraged them. As they hesitated, I walked right in and gladly washed the day's worth of dirt off of me.

The other guys then took a quick turn underneath it and we talked and joked, they asked where we were from and I told them how it was winter in Colorado and so the water feels very nice compared to the hot temperature outside.

We headed back to the car, now as it was getting to be late afternoon, ready to head the half hour or so back down to San Alfonso.

That's when the hitchhiker, heading in the same direction, asked for a ride...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parque Nacional El Morado

Hike to San Francisco Glacier
10 miles roundtrip, ~2000 feet gain, 4.5 hours

After spending the first night in the canyon, our plan was to hike to the San Francisco glacier in Parque Nacional El Morado. This was another hour or so (conservative) drive up the canyon. As I mentioned earlier, some websites warn about needing a 4x4 due to deteriorating road conditions, so I was unsure if we'd be able to make it up there. Fortunately, the road was hardpacked dirt and rock, and the Yaris handled it just fine. The worst of the road itself was merely washboards, but no deep ruts or anything. I would compare it to Weld County dirt roads here in Colorado. The traffic was light enough, even on a weekend, that riding a bike would have been a fine option as well (although one would need to carry a sufficient amount of water), preferably a mountain bike or a cross bike.

Climbing the dusty canyon and getting closer to the park, all of the sudden the gigantic Volcan San Jose glows white with snow in the distance, where the Chile-Argentine border hangs in the air above 19000 feet.

Then we reached the turnoff for the park itself. The driving became a little more interesting here, as we climbed a steeper, rocky hill. But not to worry, as there were boards spaced for tire tracks to help the climb! All you had to do was line up the car tires and drive on the boards up the hill!

It's like pulling up a ramp in your garage, which always makes me nervous, except like 500 times longer. I knew there was no turning back, so I focused on some sort of rhythmic yoga breathing as if I were climbing a hill on a bike, and kept a steady slow speed. I was afraid of slipping the Yaris off the side and getting stuck and hitting the nether regions on some rocks. It wasn't as bad as I thought, and I guess it's something you'd get used to.

After that short climb, we entered a little town with some market stalls, but we were a bit earlier than most folks, so I was unsure to park. I asked a friendly woman and she talked about two different lots up the road...but over this sketchy bridge:

Luckily, that bridge was Yaris-ready, too. She had said that the "CONAF" (National Park) entrance was up further on a bridge, so I kept driving up a narrow road, but that was for CONAF only, so I needed to back up the road. I parked just over the other side of the sketchy bridge -- I would have been just fine parking by all the stalls in the first place, as it only saved a few hundred yards of walking.

Next, we walked back up the hill to the entrance on the bridge. The park opens at 8:30, and we were there at 9:30. There were only 3 parties ahead of us, which is good since it was a weekend. We paid $1500 pesos/cp, which is $3 per person. The friendly ranger had hiked the Grand Canyon as well as Rainier in the US, gave us a map, and sent us on our way.

The park has exactly one trail, ascending from South to North. It is 8km one-way to the base of the San Francisco glacier, at the foot of El Morado. Climbing on the rocks is "forbidden", though climbing of the mountain (El Morado and El Mirador), I believe, is allowed, though I don't know what sort of permits one might need. However, along the way are some small pools and a small lake, and many people hike to one of these areas, which is still surrounded by stunning alpine scenery.

After 8km is a sign warning against climbing on the glacier itself, but it still looks somewhat distant. Then, I realize, "That's no moon, it's a space station!" That is, I was staring at the higher, obvious snow fields, without appreciating the rock and dirt-covered mass right in front of us.

Crossing a short boulder field gives an up-close view of the glacier itself.

These pictures don't do any justice to the actual experience. While it's hard to imagine something as slow as a glacier as "powerful", that's exactly what it was. Beneath the melting ice caves were rushing torrents of water, and a cool breeze coming straight out. The ground beneath us was squishy and unstable. Ice chunks and sizeable rocks regularly dropped from the ceiling or rolled from above, splashing into the river below. That is, as tempting as it seemed to go inside the gaping glacial maw itself, it was alive and intimidating. After a few pictures, we headed down a bit for a lunch break, and then enjoyed more views in the opposite direction.

Also not obvious in these pictures is exactly how purple (morado in Spanish) the mountain and rock really is. I picked up a few small stones, and in any light, you would call it "purple." It is closer to the "America" song and Colorado Rockies logo than anything I have seen in Colorado, absolutely sublime.

On the way down, we saw a few dozen friendly folks, most everyone smiling and greeting each other. Still, it was nice to have arrived early and enjoyed the glacier up close by ourselves. J held a great pace and passed numerous parties in both directions, suggesting to me that she'll be nice and ready for some more hikes this summer. I also saw one trail runner, it turns out he was part of a group. He had gone for a ~40 minute run, I asked about having run all the way to the glacier or not and other runs but he mainly talked about the upcoming Santiago marathon in April. I showed him the Denver Marathon shirt I had on -- represent! Interestingly, in this and another conversation I had, the races were always referred to by the sponsor -- Adidas, North Face, etc.


In short, this was a gorgeous, memorable day in the Andes. I enjoyed the beautiful summer day in January, while simultaneously being motivated and making plans for further local exploration this summer in Colorado -- only 6 months away! It's amazing how different mountains can be both completely foreign yet somehow reassuringly familiar at the same time.

Cascada de Las Animas - Cajon del Maipo, Chile

Cascada de las Animas is an "eco-tour nature sanctuary" in the Canyon. It has a long and interesting history, having been family land for generations that essentially formed a private nature sanctuary that was eventually declared protected as such by the Chilean government, but not before a lengthy battle that prevented a gas pipeline from going through the land.

The building we stayed in has a cozy, open common area that was perfect for relaxing, drinking wine, and reading:

In addition, they have a relaxing and cool piscina which was perfect for the 30-degree days:

This was a nice place to sit and drink a beer if you were an adult. And everyone under the age of three was either running around fully naked or else breastfeeding.

But the real attraction of the area is the source of the name: "Waterfall of the Spirits"

The waterfall is on the land of the sanctuary, and is less than 3km of a "hike." The route is marked by signs, and hiking here is free with permission by staying here. I was told we could hike sin guia as long as we were back by 4pm, as we would need a key for the bridge. However, when I went near the trailhead, the guide said, "I don't think this is possible," but with some assurances we were able to go off on our own. It would have been free to go with the guide as well, so that wasn't the issue, but this is a clear cultural difference I've run into in the past when wanting to hike in Latin America: much of it is guided and costs money. Part of it is probably a preference of people that travel there, and part of it is a way to make money, understandably, but I've seen many traveling natives of the country partaking in guided tours as well. I previously had a discussion with a native in Costa Rica about wanting to hike around Arenal Volcano, and she was somewhat incredulous: What if you get lost? Or hurt? Isn't it better to have a guide point out different things to you? etc.

In any case, I do not take for granted the ability to roam around my home state and country at will, and in some respects I think it's a fairly unique cultural value to desire to explore openly and freely (admittedly, this limited observation is often on the peripheral of larger urban areas, which is likely biased towards observing folks who only occasionally leave the city). One last thought here: I think the key to protection of lands is empowering people everywhere to feel like they can partake in their public land freely and creatively, without a power-relationship to a bureaucracy of permits and rules, etc. But clearly I digress!

So the 25-minute hike to the waterfall was peaceful, and we were able to enjoy it ourselves. We crossed a few little suspension bridges, including one that twisted at odd angles when I got cocky and started (but didn't finish) running across, until we came to the falls themselves, which had an upper and lower cascade, and were quite inviting in the afternoon heat.

Sure enough, when we headed back, a couple of small, guided groups were heading out.

For a few of our lunches and dinner, we headed to the local market and made a meal in the lodge. Our staples were fresh torta bread (easy to find everywhere), some vegetables (tomato, pepper, garlic), and some creamy cheese. We enjoyed watching the guy at the counter wipe a crusty knife on a dirty apron before cutting off a block of cheese, but the cheese was delicious and luckily we never got sick. We also picked up a boxed liter of wine (Santa Rita 120) for like $2, which I think is about 1/5th the U.S. cost by volume.

One night, though, we did try the restaurant on the lodging grounds, which was actually quite excellent.
Specifically, they had a fabulous seasoned mushroom appetizer and salmon entree. The restaurant wraps around trees and overlooks the river and canyon itself, and was a great place to hang out and enjoy a long meal:

Cajon del Maipo, Chile

So after a few days in Santiago, it was time to go up to the Andes.

Above and to the southeast of Santiago is the Cajon del Maipo, which is essentially the canyon carved out by the Maipo river. In 60-90 minutes driving time (most of it spent getting out of the sprawl of Santiago itself), you'll find yourself in a completely different world of cool little towns, ranches, and incredible scenery. Public buses and tour buses run into the canyon with varying frequency on different days. The problem was, I was hoping to check out some different areas and towns with a fairly open-ended schedule, and the only way to do this easily (outside of hitchiking, which is fairly common and reasonably safe, supposedly) would be to rent a car. The main road eventually turns to dirt road of reasonable quality, and then progressively worse quality, as it approaches the Argentina border, and some of the places I wanted to visit (El Parque Nacional del Morado) recommended 4 wheel drive, so I had difficulty determining if they really *meant* that. It's easy for visitors who had $150-$200/day to spend on a truck to retroactively justify their need for it, but that was out of my budget. And since it was summer and the forecast was clear, so I shouldn't have to deal with mud and definitely not snow, but I did have some apprehension about figuring out what car to get.

I've never rented a car in a foreign country (although I've driven my own vehicles in Canada and Mexico), as everywhere we've visited has had sufficient public transportation for the areas we wanted to visit. I checked around a few locations in Santiago on foot and on the internet, and although I stay away from chains on everything else, this is one thing where it felt better to recognize a brand.

1. Hertz, in Providencia: They had economy cars for $100/day. The cars looked great and trustworthy, but it was more than I wanted to spend.
2. United car rental: They had a nice website and better rates. However, in person, the car selection and overall operation seemed so-so. And on the internet, they only had a pickup truck left, but it was around $100, though I couldn't tell if it included insurance or not.

So I visited them in person, and they said they didn't have economy cars, so I asked about the camion I saw on the internet. The two ladies looked at me and laughed, and then asked if I meant a camioneta, or pickup-truck, as opposed to (apparently) a big industrial truck. So sue me if we stared at a picture of a generic truck back in Senora Villa's Spanish class in Mukwonago, Wisconsin and learned the word "camion."

Anyway, the price was a bit higher, though they did have a truck, but I was a little less sure about this place.
3. Alamo: Got a quote online for $65/day on a subcompact (Yaris) with full insurance (which ends up being an $800 deductible, but better than risking even more). I made it early enough in the day that I'd have some time in case there were monkey business, but it was the most I felt comfortable paying.

So the cars aren't in pristine condition by any means, but I'm OK with that, as long as they mark it properly. They were great about proactively marking down every scratch and dent, of which there were many, and the guy was careful to explain and show me every control of the car (windshield wipers, lights, etc.)

She wasn't too sure about riding in a tiny deathtrap in the crazy city traffic, let alone mountain roads. And her other question: "How long has it been since you've driven stickshift?" Well, there was only one way to find out how this was all going to work out.

Here's J in the Yaris:

And driving stick is like riding a bike, just like I told her.

We followed the proper road south out of town, and I just drove conservatively, but no problems. The same road changes names like 4 times, and then was under construction so we took a detour, but the key was just heading south out of town. Eventually it opened up and got much more laid back as we started climbing in the canyon.

Of course, here you have everything from cars to buses and slow rickety trucks, and J didn't want me to pass anyone, but eventually she started getting sleepy and comfortable enough to take a nap...which meant I could pass some people as necessary. Go, Yaris!

We made our way through a few smaller towns. I had made a reservation at Cascada de las Animas in San Alfonso. They had cabins that were all full, but we had a private room in a separate lodge building with a shared bathroom. It was like $50/night with breakfast and beautiful gardens and sheer rock cliffs behind us, well worth it!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

NFL Win-Win

Nothing like being gone for 2 weeks...and still having Packers football left to watch!

Win: Pack in the Super Bowl
Lose: Go skiing on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the best weekend days all year.

Win-win situation!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Santiago de Chile

Just a quick update here, J and I have spent almost 2 full days in Santiago, Chile (after a full layover day in Atlanta). It´s great here so far, even without much timezone jet lag, still took a day to get caught up on sleep. So we ended up sleeping in until 9:30 this morning, and though I was cursing myself for wasting part of the day, everything happens at night anyway, so we´ve gotten used to dinner at 9pm.

We´ve been enjoying our stay at Hostal Romandia, and have been walking around the city and taking the Metro to various places. Although I have the usual paranoia about walking around with a passport and more cash than I would like, we´ve been feeling pretty safe. Much better than Lima. It´s been a high of 29 deg C and blazing sun all day: Santiago has the heat, flavor, and smell that seems common to Latin American cities, for better or for worse. It´s cursed with the common post-industrial smoggy haze, but the smog hasn´t been irritating our lungs or anything.

At the North of the city are Cerro San Cristobal and Cerro Santa Lucia, two green and prominent hills that protrude above the city. A statue of la Virgen presides over San Cristobal. I immediately made plans to run up Cerro San Cristobal, as it couldn´t have been more than an hour run from our hostel, but J said she wanted to head up as well, so we hiked up this afternoon and enjoyed the view. We also hiked up the shorter Cerro Santa Lucia this morning, which has some beautiful sculptures and piscinas.

Jessica realized a life goal today (shoot for the stars!) as we visited the Concha y Toro winery, famous for $4-5 passable wines in the U.S. (actually, I still quite like them), but they have a long 127-year history and some fantastic reserve wines and others less likely to be found in the U.S. They also experiment more with mixing grapes from different regions of Chile. We hadn´t made reservations, which are highly recommended, but just showed up after an hour and a half of walking, metros, and buses, but we were able to join a Spanish-language tour. This one seemed more enjoyable and intimate, with maybe 9 or 10 of us total, compared to 25-30 folks in the full English-speaking tour, including a sizeable contingent of TCU fans. TCU stands for Texas Christian (redundant) University (oxymoron), and recently beat my alma mater in the Rose Bowl. No sour grapes or anything. Seriously, though, our relaxed tour filled with Chilenos was quite relaxed and interesting, and hopefully we understood half of what was said.

Otherwise, we´ve had simple breakfasts in the hostel, and makeshift lunches and snacks during the day, followed by delicious dinners, where we´ve been mixing ceviche and other Chilean seafood, along with pizza (always better outside of the U.S.), ample wine, and cheap South American beer by the liter(!) for $3. So far, I´m recommending Brahma over Escudo.

Above us, in the clear night sky, are gorgeously foreign Southern hemisphere constellations. Since my only other chance was a week´s worth of nighttime clouds in Peru, I have finally seen the Southern Cross.
To the East (not my usual direction) lay the Andes mountains. What a gorgeous site, as this mountain range has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. I just seemed to have read more about the Andes than the Himalayas, and it is the namesake of one of my favourite candies (sorry, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory).

And those mountains are calling us, away from the city, as the plans are to drive up the Cajon del Maipo tomorrow, up into the high country.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2011: "Nace con estrella"

New Year's Eve, 2008.
I had a light conversation in broken Spanish with the taxi driver in Lima, Peru.

I asked him what he was doing for New Year's eve. He said he would be having some sort of dinner and party with his family.

I asked about seeing any fireworks, or watching them on TV. I had thought about this ahead of time, trying to be culturally sensitive, thinking that folks often can gather at a friend's house or public place or a friend's business that has a TV, so I certainly wasn't implying that he should own one...and I certainly wasn't able to explain that I didn't have a TV at home capable of picking up any channels.

He became more animated and described how hard things were in Lima. I don't think he was necessarily upset at me -- I've learned that taxi drivers can become animated about many things -- but he was clearly trying to make a very important point.

It's not that easy here. You, you are lucky. He explained. Tomorrow, you can take off on a plane and leave Lima and he gestured with his hands.

Nace con estrella. Me entiende?

I was born under a lucky star.

Ironically, he was picking on me, a young person wanting to experience and share in different cultural experiences. Many of the Americans he would encounter would likely be similar idealistic young backpacking types -- what would he think of the even wealthier upper class citizens that would never venture past a cruise ship terminal (if they left the country at all) without a guilded guided tour?

But as far as he was concerned, I was a rich, privileged American. And on the world stage, he's exactly right. But everybody has a habit of looking up, and looking at how much easier it is for other people, the ones who inherited wealth or happened to be employed at the right time (internet, finance, or real estate 15 years ago), that it's easy to forget the billions -- literally -- of folks that are much worse off. Is that a comfort? Absolutely not.

I cannot come up with any life philosophy that scales to everyone, including the whimsical luck and random misfortunes across the world. I've read books, I've scoured the major religions...and I'm still mystified.

So what do we -- I -- of guilty conscious and some privilege owe to ourselves and the rest of the world?

The best I can come up with is
Make the best with what you've got.

More crudely:
Don't piss away what you've got

If you're healthy, don't piss it away by smoking or filling your body with crap.
If you have leisure time, don't piss it away watching TV. Spend it with family and friends, or doing something that enriches your mind or body or soul, or helps somebody out...or all of the above.
Extra money? Figure out the things that make you happy long term -- travelling with my wife and other experiential activities has fit the bill here for me, but buying the latest and greatest disposable crap rarely does for anyone.

What are the things you look back on and think, I wouldn't trade that for the world?
I clearly fail often at these simple ideas, but its a good framework.

So what does this have to do with running?

Running -- ultras, especially -- is clearly an indulgence, a luxury of health and leisure time. But most of those experiences, I wouldn't trade for the world. These experiences come at a cost of 10-15 hours per week, on average -- which is around half of the time an average American spends watching people they'll never meet do things inside a box.

I think the constant around the world isn't just simple envy, but rather that we all get frustrated when others are privileged, and seemingly waste it. We think about it mostly in terms of highly visible superstars that crash -- hard -- but it applies to all of us.

Yes, I am privileged, and incredibly grateful. I intend to continue to use a vital mind and body, as long as I've got it, to push forward and experience the world.
Anything less is just pissing it away!