all that and breakfast! ~ part one

The incessant rain of recent weeks around here has been replaced with punishing heat. Cloudless skies rain down scorching heat as though some cosmic balancing mechanism has been turned off.

It’s not so bad on the biking trail, though. As long as I keep moving, the breeze evaporates my sweat and seems to keep me cool. I know where all of the (working) water fountains are on the trail, and the hills (for the most part) are manageable. There is a lot of shade and even relatively cool tunnels under major roads. And of late, my rides have taken me to a particular destination where I get to pursue the edifying effort of learning about the many kinds of beer in the world. I haven’t even once veered off the trail and into the creek from heat-induced delirium or clutched my chest after getting up (or not) a bad hill.

In my years I have run or ridden on every bit of the Indian Creek Trail, a riparian, asphalt quality-of-life “park” maintained by the various communities it passes through. And like the song says of Lake Shore Drive, it passes from rats on up to riches (and then more rats).* And I can say, very literally, that I have spent thousands of miles on this trail, running and riding.

So it came to pass in my little head that I should ride the entire trail in one continuous effort. The trail has mileposts on it, so I knew with pretty good accuracy the total distance, which is only a few miles greater than the longest ride I’d done to date. I thought I could do it.

The only trouble was the brutal heat. (Yes, by August a 90-degree day will feel pleasant, but in June that’s still a bit high.) As I said, as long as I keep moving, the breeze keeps me cool, but I suspect that’s a deceptive cool, especially if relied upon for a long-haul effort like the entire trail. And my solution was to get on the trail at first light, before the heat fell onto the asphalt trail. I’d been toying with this idea for a few weeks, and I realized that if I put it off much longer, the first-light heat of the morning might be worse, so yesterday became the day.

I had discussed my idea with my wife (my ground crew) before and suggested that yesterday would be the time to do it. When I woke that morning, I was ambivalent, but she seemed charged, so I slid into some plastic clothing (from my running days) and loaded my bike in the back of the Prolechariot. We drove out to the current terminus of the trail, at a place called Hampton Park in the suburban town of Olathe (which figures prominently in the settlement history in this part of the country). The mileposts on the Indian Creek Trail count up from State Line Road (thus from Missouri), and the nearest one to Hampton Park is mile 19, so I called the Park mile 20.

Just after 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning I strapped on my helmet, climbed on my bike, and rode the paved circle within the park to “ensure” that I could call it mile 20. Then it was onto the trail.

I had chosen to start there because the journey is a net downhill to the finish going east. There are a few hills that seem to make up for the loss in elevation as you go, but going the other way truly was uphill, and if not visually then certainly in muscle fatigue.

This part of the trail passes through neighborhoods and parks and is nicely paved. There are a few major streets to cross, but I timed it well and managed to reach them when there were breaks in the scant early morning traffic. There were also many people on the trail: on bikes, on foot, with strollers, with dogs. They had the same beat-the-heat idea I did, I guess.

I really wanted my ride to be continuous, that if the hills didn’t defeat me, I’d be astride my bike the whole way. And so, when I came to a boulevard stretch of the trail early on that was being watered with lawn sprinklers, all I could do was ride through them. I got a thorough soaking, which would have been better near the end of my ride than at the beginning, but aside from the spots on my glasses, I knew the water would evaporate soon.

After about four miles I was entering a stretch where I knew the pavement was in rough shape. Since much of it runs stream side, there are parts that are cracking and slowly sliding down the hill toward the water. And the recent big rains had washed out a few places where the trail was fenced off to prevent riders and runners from going over the edge. It’s also kind of trashy along this part because the stream brings down debris and leaves it when the high water recedes.

But it’s a familiar stretch that I’ve run and ridden many times, and just after mile post 15 is the establishment where my beer education classes are held, so despite the drawbacks, I liked being along there.

And I was doing fine. I felt no fatigue, and the heat of the morning hadn’t arrived yet. About the only complaint I had at this point was that in some spots I was riding directly into the rising sun, which made seeing hazards ahead of me difficult. This also made passing under roads through dark tunnels a challenge. Eyes adapted to bright light are suddenly thrust into comparative darkness, and the tunnels can hold their own hazards, like mud, collected trash, and even other trail users. I had no mishaps in the tunnels (and, sadly, the graffiti is being painted over), but in two cases, coming out of the tunnels back into the bright sunlight caused me some trouble.

I continued along the familiar path with no trouble. The short hills, to rise onto bridges to be crossed, for example, were all known to me, so I could build up enuf momentum to meet them well. But what I found along here, barely five miles into my adventure, was that if I didn’t think about how far I had to go, the present distance was not difficult at all. You could say I was “in the moment” or the “pleasant present,” but let’s not, okay?

When I say this part was familiar, I mean from the opposite direction. Most of my riding along here is to get to the beer education establishment (where a ride home always awaited me), which I had passed already. So I was gliding down hills that had always challenged me before and grinding up ones that I had breezed down in the past. That was refreshing in its way, which broke up some of the tedium of the trail.

I had not carried water, and I had passed the few water fountains on my route thus far because a) I wanted the ride to be continuous, and b) I wasn’t thirsty. I know from my running experience that thirst is not the best way to judge dehydration, and I probably should have at least sipped some water at the fountains, but I hadn’t.

The trail passes through my neighborhood, only 6/10 of a mile from my house. When I got there I would have traveled about a dozen miles, and I half expected my wife (and likely the dogs) to be waiting trailside to cheer me on (or to haul me back home if my ambition exceeded my ability). They weren’t though. She had stayed at Hampton Park after I had left to give the dogs a walk around the same circle I had ridden, and since my ride was continuous, without serious traffic or even stoplights I needed to obey (at that hour), I was actually making about the same progress to my neighborhood as she was. She calculated that when I had passed through our neighborhood, she was probably just arriving home. As it was, I was still feeling fine at that point and just rolled on through.

When I ride the trail, I tend to go west (the direction I was coming from on this ride) because if I go east any worthwhile distance, I face the two biggest hills on the trail. One is three-quarters of a mile long, and while not steep, it is more or less unrelenting. It takes constant peddling to keep moving forward. (There are some brief stretches along it that are flat, but you don’t want to be deceived into surrendering your momentum there.) So not long after I left my neighborhood, I passed under the interstate highway (for the first time) and then faced the bottom of that three-quarter mile hill. But I knew it was coming. I’d run up it many times, and I have ridden up it, so it was merely a matter of resolve. And I reached the top, making the turn that would quickly undo all of that elevation gain. But first I had to bump over a quarter mile of oddly rough trail. I think the drainage from the trailside apartment development there makes keeping the trail flat (-ish) a challenge. I’m no engineer, nor am I a city planner, but I can’t figure out why parts like this are left in such poor shape while other stretches seem to get repaved every couple of years.

But I bumped through it and soon came to a downhill piece with two blind curves thrown in. Once again, my early hour on the trail meant that I didn’t encounter anyone as I zipped down the hill. But after this point came the first of two bridges that really need some redesigning. They are over Indian Creek, and they’re road bridges with sidewalks on each side, but whoever designed them had never ridden on a bicycle. The sidewalks are probably standard width, but on one side is a high steel fence (to keep you from pitching into the creek below) and on the other side is a shin-high concrete barrier (apparently to keep wayward cars from pitching into you). The trouble is that if you’re on a bike, you have little margin for error. You have to stay focused on keeping in the middle of this sidewalk until you’re across. And compound this with the chance (likelihood) that you will face another cyclist coming at you from the other direction. I think, mathematically, there is enuf space for two cyclists, but one time as I was trying to leave enuf room for an oncoming wheeler, I managed to scrape a body part on the concrete barrier (at shin height). Anymore, I check to see if anyone is coming my way before I start across these bridges, and if there is, I stop and let them pass. Fortunately for my plan to be continuous, I didn’t have to stop either time.

Again I passed a chance to get a drink (in the park where I’ve recounted here a number of spooky experiences I’ve had) and kept peddling. But soon my continuous ride met its first stop.

The second of the two in-need-of-redesigning bridges was ahead of me, and before I could ride across it at peril to my shins, I first had to ride under it. That part was easy, but I knew that the turn to get up to street level was going to be a challenge. First, it’s blind. Second, you’re coming out of darkness into sunlight. Third, the trail under the bridge always has mud or dried mud on it, so it’s iffy about building momentum there. On this day, I went under the bridge and managed not to hit two people who were blithely walking down the center of the path. (They had sufficient line of sight to know I was coming!) Then, as I came out on the other side, with insufficient momentum, two more people were coming down the hill, not staying to the right as they should. I had to brake to avoid them, and then I came upon a woman who was running on the trail, just coming down the hill I had to climb. I tried. I cranked. But I just couldn’t get up this hill. It’s not all that long, maybe thirty feet from bottom to top, but it is steep. And without enuf momentum, it beat me.

Well, it happened. But I walked my bike up the remainder of the hill and then started peddling again, crossing the shin-endangering bridge I had just passed under, and beginning to think about the other very challenging hill on the trail that was about a mile ahead of me.

The next mile or so is a nice stretch of trail. It’s mostly flat, with rises that are easy to manage, and it’s well maintained. One particularly bumpy section was recently repaved. But after this point, it forks. A rider can go one way and, after a bit of riding on a neighborhood street, can get on a spur of the trail to rejoin the main trail ahead. The benefit of this route is that you can wholly avoid the monster hill the the other direction at the fork takes you.

My ambition was to face the trail as it came, and that meant facing that hill. But despite having a long, flat approach were I could build some serious momentum, I still couldn’t crank to the top of that hill. I could blame the condition of the pavement there, but that hardly made a difference to my climb. I was already stopping before I came to that point. I have never gotten up this hill under pedal power. (Hills are so much easier to manage running.) So I was not too disappointed when I had my second break of the morning. I walked to the top of the hill, mounted my bike again, and began sailing down the other side of the hill, leaning into the two blind curves along here and not running over anyone.

By this time I had ridden about 16 miles. I had passed milepost 4 as I was zooming down that hill. There were a few more bridges to get onto, but the hard hills were now behind me, and while I still didn’t recognize any fatigue in my muscles, I did begin to think it would be just delightful to stop riding for a while and sit on a bench.

Part of this was due to a wardrobe malfunction. Because of a torn piece of fabric, and the mechanics of a leg in continuous, repetitive movement, I was experiencing an intensely focused chafing in a place where a guy doesn’t want to experience chafing. (Subsequent investigation found that blood was drawn.) At first I didn’t realize what was happening and decided to ignore it. (This actually can work when running. A sore knee at the beginning of a run can become merely a question later: was it my right or left knee that hurt?) Because I didn’t want to stop, I poked around a little as discreetly as I could and soon discovered what was wrong. (It’s unclear to me whether a more thorough gear check earlier that morning would have identified the potential problem.) There was little I could do other than stand on my pedals and try to tug the offending garment down a little. This worked for a time, but I had to repeat it, and the damage was already done.

Not long after this, I came to and passed through a park where yet another water fountain was ignored and I had to pass under a road then circle up and make a hairpin turn to cross the bridge. I’m not the only one challenged by this poor design. The grass beside the paved trail here is being worn down by riders taking the turn more widely than what the pavement offers. That also makes the ascent less steep. And though there is most of an acre of open meadow here beside the trail, no one has redesigned the path to veer into it even a little bit to fix this. Which is all to say that I didn’t make this hill either. It’s not an especially steep or long hill, but you come at it after passing under a bridge and making a blind turn. I cranked up as far as I could and resigned myself to this third break in my continuity. Once I was to the top I started peddling again and threw my mind farther down the trail, trying to see if there were any other disappointments waiting.

But this narrative has gone on too long. I’ll finish my thrilling account tomorrow.

*I have never, ever seen a rat on the trail, though I have seen snakes and chipmunks and bunnies and squirrels and birds of prey as well as many varieties of humans. The reference is more economic than critter based, and even at that, the “rats” reference is extreme.

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