Monday, September 25, 2006

Welcome Back, NFL in New Orleans!!!!

I freely admit my apartment got a litte dusty during parts of the U2 / Green Day performance, and when the New Orleans Saints took the field for tonight's game. A very emotional night for many of us, including those like myself who do not have ties to the city. I still get shocked when I see all of the pictures of what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf Coast Region. Living in New England for nearly twenty-eight years, Colorado for four, and Northern Virginia for the last five months, I have only lived through two realatively weak (Category 2 at strongest) hurricanes, and can not even imagine the havoc a storm like Katrina could wreak. Therefore, I cannot even imagine what the people who lost their homes, posessions, loved ones, et al are still going through. Words cannot express how I feel for them, and am rooting for the entire region to come back in a big time way.

It is great to see the National Football League back in the city of New Orleans tonight. While from what I have gathered, the city and region have a very long, difficult road to recovery, and really need to build up schools, fire, police, and overall infrastructure before anything: Football serves as a rallying point like nearly nothing else can. These people need things to cheer about and get behind. Few things bring thousands upon thousands of people together with a common cause like football. Not to mention the visibility the city will get from tonight's game, and that NFL games will pump a lot of money back into local economy (think hotels, restaurants, and bars).

Speaking of visibility, I will stay off the soapbox other than to say I feel it is totally appropriate to mix the reality of the storm-caused devastation and the resulting long, hard road to recovery with the celebration of the Saints' triumphant return to their home city. The large ESPN audience (I will go ahead and predict their largest ratings ever will come tonight) will see that while the Saints' return is a start, there is still a lot of work to do to rebuild the city. The Saints and their economic and psychological boost are both awesome, but let's not pretend New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Region have recovered to pre-Katrina levels yet. It's going to be a long, hard road, but the car's on the road and is ready for a ride. Send some thoughts, prayers, and money their way to help the continued recovery. I know I will.

Commentary on commentators: many have wondering why Tony Kornheiser was hired to join the Monday Night Football broadcast team. While he's known for being a sarcastic smart-ass who like to rile people up, he has been nothing but utmost, pure class tonight. From his thoughts on his tour of the city to his general game commentary, he has reminded viewers of the reality of the situation in the context of tonight's game.

On a more lighthearted note, the fans are getting into the game to the point where they're booing the Falcons kicker, and ex-Saint. Rock!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Pikes Peak Busted! Denver is as great as ever!

Part One - Getting Ready For the Hike

Remember my entry called Pikes Peak or Bust? Well, I have returned from my annual charity Pikes Peak Challenge hike. And I busted it! Finished the 14 mile, 7400 vertical feet, trip in 8 hours hiking (breaks not counted) time! Most important is the journey to raise money for the Brain Injury Association of Colorado, but it definitely felt great when I finished in light snow.

I would like to begin from the beginning of my vacation. Thursday, Sept. 7: After scrambling to get everything done at work and at home, I made my way to the Metro to get to BWI via a MARC Train. My trip could have unraveled before I even got on the plane. First, the Yellow Line had major backups due to a train breakdown. This caused the trains to be rush-hour packed and then some. The next problem was completely my fault, as I got off the train at L’Enfant Plaza out of habit, as the last few times I took Metro I got off there. Oops, two stops early so I needed to get another Yellow Line Train to a Red Line before making it to Union Station with two minutes to spare.

The MARC Train was a pleasant, quick trip to BWI, which is a million times better than Dulles Airport. Easy to get around, short security lines that are organized (yes Dulles I am sucker punching you), and overall quite clean and inviting. Both flight segments were typically uneventful, read a magazine, try to sleep but pretty much fail at that, blah blah. I did walk right past USA Softball pitching standout Cat Osterman at DFW Airport, so that was interesting. The Colorado Springs Airport turned out to be a pleasant surprise: 2 minute walk to baggage claim, then 1 minute to rental cars and the respective lot. Small airports like Springs and Manchester, America’s Best are really cool to fly into after dealing with the Logans,O’Hare’s, and Dulles of the world.

Friday, Sept. 8: Time to do an acclimization (sp) hike and see some old Victorian Buildings that are now limited-stakes casinos in Cripple Creek. The drive through Ute Pass then south to Cripple Creek was scenic like most mountain drives in Colorado are. The 4 mile hike I did through Poverty Gulch on the Gold Camp Trail was fairly uneventful, but had some old mine remains for sights (I left my disposable camera in my rental car and am trying to get it back). I only huffed and puffed for breath once, at the very start. This was encouraging because I really needed to go on this acclimization hike, coming from sea level and all. The town of Cripple Creek rests at just over 9,500 feet above sea level, the hike took me just around 10,000 feet. Going into this trip, I felt that even though I don’t live in Colorado anymore, I was actually in better shape this year because of more focused, more intense, midweek training. This short hike helped confirm that and got me ready for the big hike the next day.

That night was the pre-hike dinner and rally. They give you tips to get ready for the hike, a brain injury survivor who is hiking tells a story of their recovery, which is the most inspiring 10-20 minutes of the weekend. Very riveting and quite emotional to hear this year’s speaker, Rick Hughes, who has done some amazing hiking and skiing stuff since his recovery. I met him briefly the next day, he is a great person as well. After hearing about what these survivors had to deal with, I will not complain about a sore hip or leg at mile 12, that’s for sure.

There was one potential trouble spot, the weather forecast. Pretty good chance of thunderstorms, so we were warned there was a chance we might get turned around before the summit. I have no problem with being told to turn around if the weather is dangerous, regardless of the hike. From experience, I have nearly learned this weather lesson the hard way via severe thunderstorms, once on Mount Washington and once in a foothills park west of Denver. Better to be safe than sorry. For this hike I try to get six good hours of sleep with a 3 AM wake up call and 5 AM start time beckoning, but I barely get it. Can’t wait to hike but am also nervous since it’s by far the longest, most challenging hike I do all year.

Part Two - The Hike

Wake up call, get dressed, eat breakfast, no problems. I even get to have M&Ms as part of the breakfast since I need all the sugar and energy I can get to hike nearly 7,500 vertical feet. No morning coffee, since that can help to dehydrate you. This can turn into an issue as I am a certifiable caffeine addict, to the point where I can develop headaches if I do not have coffee or team within an hour after waking up. I would get a headache later on, but for a different reason.

I start hiking a fairly steep stretch at the start of the Barr Trail, beginning at 6,700 feet and remember why I was told last year that the start of the hike is great for getting your heart rate up and the rest of your body in gear. Mine definitely went up, but I did not have to gasp for breath at the beginning of the hike. This was huge because it made me feel like my midweek conditioning, weekend hikes/bike rides, and acclimization (sp) hike the day before really paid off. Barr Camp is halfway through the trail, and basically halfway there from a standpoint of vertical feet gain. I made it in three hours, a kick-ass clip of over two miles an hour. When I first started hiking in 1998, I could barely hike fairly flat parks near Boston at that rate. This was close to 4,000 feet climbed at the quick pace.

While last year’s Pikes hike was extremely rewarding, one thing I would have done differently is not spend 45 minutes there while refilling water bottles, eating a 9 am lunch, using the facilities, you name it. This year it was get water, user facility, stretch, eat, put on sunblock, and go! 25 minutes this year. Why is this important? I’ve found that if I take too long of a break, it takes me a lot longer to get going and feeling strong again. Being too (relatively) idle slows me down for a long while, basically. While I most definitely was not under a time schedule, hikers had until11:30 to get to Barr Camp before the cutoff (for safety) time and I was back on the trail before 9:00. I didn’t want to be on the mountain forever either.

The one fairly non-descript part of the trail is between Barr Camp and A Frame Shelter. Just a multitude of switchbacks. All I’ll say is I started getting a headache around mile ten or so. UH OH. This was a lingering concern, coming from sea level less than 48 hours earlier. But I knew how to get through it without disrupting the hike: drink more water to hydrate even more, then drink my 32 ounce Gatorade at A Frame. Bingo! Headache gone.

A Frame shelter is 3 miles from the summit, but with 2,400 or so vertical feet or so from the summit. Thankfully, it was still sunny because once you get here, you’re past treeline. Wide open, beyond gorgeous views, but very exposed views at that. There is ZERO protection and/or shelter from the elements once you wander above treeline. To top it all off, you cannot tell if there are dangerous clouds coming from the other side of the mountain from the A Frame area. But with the warming sun, onward! 3 real tough miles ahead, but this is all about the journey and the cause.

I’m getting tired at this stage but with the headache one, it was time to make the move towards the summit. I think I had more conversations with more people between 3-1 miles to go than the rest of the hike put together. Everyone’s getting so tired that they don’t hike as far without slowing down, hence they talk more. Talked to a couple who just moved to Colorado from Iowa this summer, and were hiking their first 14,000 foot peak. They were doing very, very well. Another couple was from Colorado Springs via Minnesota, others were local area hikers. I didn’t get to what I call “Five steps, stop, four steps, rest” territory until was maybe one and one half miles from the summit. This hit a bit later in the hike than it did last year, so now I really knew a lot of the spinning classes paid off!

Thirteen miles down, one to go, but here come the darker clouds!!!! About 20 minutes earlier I decided to just keep my ski cap on even if the sun peeked through the clouds. It had started to get chilly so I put the cap on to keep heat in around my head area. No headaches, but needed more water nonetheless at this altitude to keep on keepin’ on. Everyone was slowing down their pace by this point, regardless of fitness and hiking levels. I was just hiking as quickly as possible without pushing myself to the point of risking injuries or cramps. But it wasn’t very fast!

There are staff volunteers at every checkpoint of the Pikes Peak Challenge. Some checkpoint volunteers have fun gimmicks to make people laugh. At the one-mile-to-go marker, keeping in line with the summer movie scene, one of the volunteers dressed as a pirate, all the while reciting pirate lines. He was funny, my “we have a weather situation, nothing to do with me of course” Johnny Depp imitation, not so much. D-. From one mile to one half mile to go, you lookup at the Summit House and think you are so much closer than you really are. Ouch! Walk. Stop. Ouch. Drink Water. Repeat.

Speaking of one half mile to go, I get one last picture taken of me pointing to the summit (I’ll get these developed as soon as I can). I had to ask the El Paso County Search and Rescue officer if I had time because as I approached this checkpoint, I heard the infamous Emergency Broadcast System buzz alarm. The thunderstorms were for the Black Forest area, northeast of Colorado Springs, since Pikes is on the far southwest side, bingo! Onward again after the picture.

The last half mile was agonizing from a physical standpoint, but otherwise beyond awesome. Realizing I was a half mile from completing this hike, and thinking about all of the heartwarming stories about brain injury survival, adrenaline kicked in. There is one final set of steep switchbacks called 16 Golden Stairs. Some of these switchbacks look exactly like stairs, some do not, but everything is tough at this point. Finally, after eight hours of hiking time, the end of the hike appeared at the last switchback. I made it! Two years in a row!

Now for an emotional moment. Everyone gets a medal presented to them at the end of the hike. The presenter was a brain injury survivor from Oklahoma who has hiked the trail before. I met his son at one of the checkpoints, he drove all the way from Stillwater, OK to volunteer for the event. Another brain injury survivor received his medal right before I did. When him and his wife received their medals, it was very difficult for me not to start crying. This was the most heartwarming moment of the vacation for me by far. When I received my medal, I was congratulated by the presenter. I turn congratulated him and then some. Him and others are the ones that deserve praise, not me. What he went through to get to where is he today, hiking mountains like this, after his injuries, was far, far more daunting than my hiking Pikes Peak, heck anything I have ever gone through. Just seeing everyone who has survived some of these horrible injuries is what will keep me hiking Pikes Peak annually, for the Brain Injury Association of Colorado, until I either die or cannot physically hike it anymore. Should the latter hit, I will volunteer for the Pikes Peak Challengein another way.

I need to give a big shout out to all the Pikes Peak Challenge Volunteer staff, and the El Paso County Rescue. I cannot even describe how hard they work to make this event happen.

Part Three - Denver

I spent the final two days of my vacation back in Denver. While I enjoy the D.C. area, I did not realize how much I also dearly miss Denver until I went back there. Great weather: sunny, 70s, great seeing friends. Great beers from Flying Dog at Blake Street Tavern while watching my beloved Patriots kick off the season by coming back to beat Buffalo in a typical AFC East struggle. The Scottish Porters are as tasty as ever. I saw a lot of my old friends in Denver (Al, Will, Art, Greg, Sheryl, lots of the REI crew, wish I could have seen more of you), went to Pete’s Kitchen, My Brother’s Bar, and the REI Flagship store, all three must-hits when you visit Denver, especially the last two. My Brother’s have the greatest wax paper burgers on the planet. Normally I would never pay $8 for a double cheeseburger, at My Brother’s I don’t even blink before paying it.

Check out The British Bulldog at Stout and Broadway if you’re a soccer fan. Great pub just east of downtown. Kick-ass beer specials, and not just at the Bulldog or Blake Street, should you choose to drink a few beers, which I like to do once in a while. Tons of recreation opportunities that I will really miss come February when it’s 43 degrees, gray, rainy, and four hours away from snow that sticks. Finally, it’s the total vibe and atmosphere of Denver that I miss. Should D.C. not work out after a couple years, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. I won’t bore you with details of my flight home. That and I don’t want to get RSI.