Saturday, April 12, 2014

Running at places II - A tribute to 454 Life Sciences and Commodore Leete

Running is also much easier than biking when you travel, especially business travel. That's why I declined John's offer to go for a ride (!) and went exploring the memory lane on foot.

My day started from this uninteresting building in Branford. The labs behind the second floor windows, between the tree on the left and the pole were the birthplace of 454 sequencing technology, proving that not all cool biotech ideas come from the Silicon Valley. 

I drove a short distance to Stony Creek, a small village and a harbor from where you can take a cruise around Thimble Islands. Although discovered by Adrien Block, these granite rocks are also called Leetes islands and I like this name better, since Commodore Leete and I are old friends. His gravestone is just off Moose Hill road and biked and ran past his grave countless times.

Stony Creek is also where the Branford trail and it's numerous connectors hug the shoreline. I found the trail soon, which was helped by the absence of leaves on trees. A month later, this place will be an impenetrable jungle of green, with the corresponding humidity. 

This section of the trail goes through coastal marshes and had some new bridges, offering nice views of the coast, despite the almost uniform beige color of dead vegetation.

After years of riding in California, one would almost forget how a decent rock garden looks like. The trail soon turned north, entering the Hadley Creek preserve. Memories of getting lost here, fixing a flat while covered with an inch thick layer of biting mosquitos, finding my car broken into after a hike flew through my head as I struggled uphill on a very warm day. 

The woods here are criss-crossed by old stone walls and many of the trails were undoubtedly used by the Mattabasec Indians centuries ago. I was afraid of these trails ending at private property, but there were new trail marks and a detour around the formerly inaccessible land. Even the creek crossing was now enabled!

It is funny how I remembered so many exact spots on these trails, even specific rocks and ledges that schooled me as a mountain biking novice sixteen years ago. We rode these trails on hard tails with 3" of fork travel and squeeky rim brakes. 

The trail, often disappearing under layers of dry leaves from last fall, eventually loops back south and comes to the Stony creek Quarry. This is still an active quarry and it would be too wise to trespass into it on a work day, but being Saturday, I took the risk for a photo. The famous pink granite quarried here was used for the Statue of Liberty pedestal as well as many other structures in New York and around. 

After 2.5 hours of getting my toes banged against granite rocks, it was a time for New Haven (Marco's) pizza and a naturally flavored, totally bright orange artificially colored Foxon Park soda.  I guess not much has changed here since 1614, I mean, 1998.

A quick Sunday update: 

Met my friend John L. for a run through Westwoods. Westwoods is a maze of trails, some of them take you through cracks in granite walls. Running here is technical and slow, but this was actually good: we had enough lungs to chat about how an ideal biotech startup could look like, if we had a magic wand. Using your brain on a run for some actual conscious thinking while letting the unconscious pick the best path through rocks was great. 
Oh, and if you did not believe me about Leete, here is the evidence:

Friday, April 11, 2014

Running at places

The main difference between cycling and running for me is that on a bike, when the going gets tough,  I concentrate on shifting, braking, keeping somewhat good form and position, which keeps me occupied. During runs, even the short ones, depending on my momentary physical state, I often suffer. Focusing on breathing and my own body somehow makes running even more harder. The one good thing about running is that there is much more time to look around and decouple the mind from the body. Here are few snapshots of places I ran recently while suffering mightily. I know that running becomes lot easier for me when I cross the magical (for me at least) 10 mile barrier as the regular distance. For now, it is in the 5-8 mile range where the warm-up phase turns into a cool-down phase and no groove in between.

This is on the streets of Magnolia in Seattle in early March. Spring arrives early in lowlands of Pacific Northwest and lasts till June, depending on elevation.

Alpine Road, Portola Valley. Early April. California nature is just waking up fueled by the long awaited rains.

Photo taken from my office in Pleasanton, CA, just before going out on an exploratory jog which ended up being about twice the distance because of a wooden wall at the end of the outdoor rec center.

This is Monona Terrace in Madison, WI, designed by the local Frank Lloyd Wright and built sixty years after his death. 

During four days of corporate events and many restaurant meals, I managed two one-hour jogs along the lake Monona on a totally flat bike path. One day west and back, the other day east and back. Strong head wind was the only challenge on these runs, but I am glad I saw the place closer than from a car. Very few signs of spring at this part of America.
I am off to New England, where I hope to visit some friends and run on rocky, rooty and muddy trails at Westwoods, which used to be in our backyard for nine years we lived in Connecticut.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Taxed by California (trails)

Living in Washington state for all of 2013 gave me a chance to avoid paying state income tax. But my ex-home state has caught up to me: I did have a California income and state tax was taken from it. Despite the best efforts of an H&R block expert (who thought it ridiculous to pay taxes to a state on whose territory you don't live), I had to give them my unfair share. But who could be mad at California if you wake up to views like this every morning?

The heavy rains I had brough with me from the northwest apparently resulted in late season 51" of snow in the Sierras. But the tax day approaching and looming business travel prevented me from showing Pepper how the Cali Sierra cement compares to the Cascades concrete. I grabbed the 29er instead for a half day Sunday ride. I have been thinking about several rides starting in Lexington Hills, but thought I would start with the backyard hills first. Dropped down to the reservoir, followed the shore and climbed up Limekiln. Surrounded by lush and freshly green vegetation, the trail surface was slightly wet and packed, none of the loose scree that sopped the last energy out of me on the same trail few years ago. Poison oak glistened with fresh oil and stretched its trifoliate fingers into my path, asking to be touched (and pay the price). 

I got soon passed by a guy with much more grey hair than I have (if that's even possible) and the gradient of the climb reminded me that there were no switchbacks here, just straight up. I reached the top just after the older dude, had a nice chat with him and shared my plan to continue up Limekiln trail under the power lines.  Good luck he said with a smirk. By now, the sun was nuking my pale skin that hasn't seen sun since last August, I was short of breath and dripping sweat from my head band. But I persevered and got as close to Mt. Umunhum as I have ever been. I could see the windows in the concrete tower.

From here, it would be either continuing into the unknown territory for many more miles, or turn around and take an alternate (Priest) trail back. From my view point on the high ridge, I could see the whole Silicon Valley spread below, smog free. Besides my very personal reasons to be back in California, the mere existence of this place would be enough to be here. 

The return trail looked like a downhill boulevard of packed sand from this point, but turned out to be series of super steep pitches - I mean like chin on the handlebar and the rear wheel slipping  steep - alternating with similarly steep white knuckle downhill sections.

The rest of the ride was view-less but tough nevertheless. Out of water (it's not 45F and raining you idiot!) and with about 800 vertical feet of our "driveway" on the final mile, I just about collapsed on the porch when I finally got home. So here I have it: in my current de trained state, my maximum tariff to California trails is about 20 miles / 2800 vertical ft of these slopes. I am willing to pay more, but I am afraid it will require an extension beyond April 15 to file.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Down the Coast

I counted how many times we have driven between the Bay Area and Seattle. Since my first drive to Vancouver for the BCBR in 2011, the number of trips is about seven. One can either take the more or less boring I-5 route, or drive along the coast on Highway 101, even better, on Hwy 1 in Northern California. In July 2011, we drove south along the Oregon coast and saw a few beautiful places, I just remember being too tired after the week of BC racing to fully enjoy it. In December 2012, we were forced by a snow storm to take the coastal route, but were in a hurry to reach Seattle. So now, on my way home, I thought I could explore some sandy beaches for a bit of fat biking.

My first stop was Astoria, OR and then Fort Stevens SP. The beach here is vast, the coast was being whipped by strong winds and rain showers, so I lost the resolve to ride and went picnicking instead.

For the rest of the day, I drove through a violent spring rain storm, which impacted most of Northern Oregon, second guessing my decision to carry two bikes on the roof rack.
It still rained in Springfield, OR on Wednesday morning, but as soon as I started driving west towards the coast on the Umpqua Highway (Rt 38), the clouds broke and early morning sun shone onto what must be some of the most bucolic valleys in the USA. Spring in Oregon is beautiful, green meadows, deep forests, every tree that can bloom blooming, horses, sheep and no cars on the road.

My next destination was the Oregon Sand Dunes NRA just south of Reedsport. The beach looked great from the Umpqua River lighthouse.

From the fat bike saddle, it looked and felt even better. There are areas dedicated to ATV use (seen from the picture above), and then there is the beach with a band of smaller, but very diverse sand dunes just inland. There is no motorized vehicle use permitted, but I have always argued that bicycles cannot be classified as motorized, saw no signs forbidding bikes here, so I rode.

 You can either follow the water on a densely packed wet sand, or explore the adjacent maze of dunes. I was very surprised how compact the sand was, perhaps the rain had something to do with it. I could climb steep dunes, not seeing what was on the back side - either roll a smooth dip, roll a grassy drop off, or get off the bike.

I rode only for about an hour and half, but jeez, this was too much fun! Somewhat easier in terms of power required compared to riding on snow, softer landings, and the terrain variety was amazing.

Post-ride fish and chips at Unger's Bay tasted like sushi to me. So here is how I see my next Oregon biking trip: first, mountain bike the McKenzie River trail east of Sisters, something I have been planning to do for years. Then drive to Drain and do a road ride on Highway 38 to Reedsport. At Unger's Bay, unload the fatty and spend a day (or two) blasting the sand. Who's in?

On this particular trip, there were just a few more quick stops to enjoy the views along the coast during the sixteen-hour drive home. The pull of California was just too strong to make this a biking vacation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Going Home!

Today was my last day on the job I started in Seattle on October 22, 2012. Accepting a job in Seattle, working at a startup company, moving in phases, Marketa's air-commuting to school in California for a semester, living separately for seven months, having our small household split between two (expensive) places, all were the difficulties we had to put up with. It has been an experience that although brought to us by necessity, we do not regret. But we are very glad it is over. Next week, I will be driving south to Los Gatos, this will be my seventh road trip between San Francisco Bay and Seattle, unless I get stricken by a meteorite by then. I will be leaving this behind:

South Lake Union docks viewed from the roof of my company building

Space Needle and Lake Union

And going to the sunny paradise:

I will not go into details of my previous jobs and scientific career, I will just say that I look at the past seventeen months as a sabbatical stay. Encouraged in the academic world and almost unheard of in the biotech industry, sabbatical allows one to leave the stresses of high responsibility, politics, management of projects and people, move to a new environment and focus on research. Not planning it this way, it is exactly what happened to me. 

I will also be leaving behind my semi-bachelor lifestyle, which let me to get outside and explore trails on foot, snowshoes, skis, mountain and fat bikes almost every weekend. When I was asked by a colleague what I'm going to miss most about the Pacific Northwest, I replied without any hesitation: The trails and the people who build and maintain them.
However, I am a scientist, not an explorer or an adventurer, my meaning of life is to figure out how the macromolecules, that are the basis of life, work. No matter how many miles I would run, hike, ride or ski, without a possibility to do experimental science, I would be filled with an existential vacuum. So I will go back to the corporate world and try my best at inventing some more cool shit, while hoping that there will be enough spare time to run, bike and ski, for recreation and not to get too fat. My old boss said once: When you move to the Bay Area, you should never leave. I know now, David. I won't make that mistake again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sunrise Take Two

After a week of heavy rains and temperatures pushing the snow line above 7000 feet, it was clear that skiing would be miserable. Sunday was supposed to get a little better, so I planned a repeat of my January fat bike ride from the base of Crystal Mountain Road to hopefully as far as the Sunrise visitor center. It is a long drive to start with, but the last section of highway 410 before the gate is such a lush rain forest that it is worth the trip, even in a downpour, as it happened on Sunday. 
By now, I know that the is no wrong weather, just wrong clothes, so I was prepared. By the time I got ready, it almost stopped raining so I started up the road dressed lightly, with all kinds of layers stuffed inside a larger backpack, snow shoes and poles strapped to my pack as well. One lane of the road has already been cleared of snow, the other half had three feet of wet snow, the consistency of Hawaiian shave ice, pretty much all water held together with few ice crystals. So I rode the bare pavement uphill for 4.5 miles, then some icy pavement another couple of miles to the park entrance gate, and there, with the asphalt ending, I just sank the wheels up to the rotors. Exactly as I predicted, but it still bummed me. I locked Pepper at the closed entrance station and put on the snow shoes. 

There was a snow mobile track, but the surface was still soft and I was not too happy with how slow the going seemed compared to even the slowest biking there is, fat-biking. Paradise park road is pretty flat here for another few miles and despite some scenic water streams and waterfalls around me, I did not much enjoy myself. Left, right, left, right.... It rained, no visibility, long stretch of a forest road ahead. This is where I took this phone video in January, riding on frozen thin cover:

It seemed like forever to reach the split in the road, where snow mobiles can go left along the White River to the campground, the route I took on my last trip here, and skiers and hikers can continue the now steep climb on the park access road. As was the case several months ago, there was no ski track, not a footprint visible beyond the gate. As I started uphill, my snow shoes were leaving prints about 10-15 cm deep and each step was a workout. I was hot despite the chilly rain and just a wool base layer and a jersey. Seeing the sign "Paradise 10 miles" did not improve my mood, either. So far, you may think I was really miserable and what the heck was I doing there anyways, instead of being home baking a struedel? Yet, with each painful step (I had blisters on both heels at this point), I wanted to go just a little bit further, just around the next bend, just a bit higher to see if the clouds would break. Thee were a few breaks but otherwise it drizzled steadily. I gave myself till 3PM, thinking there was enough daylight now since the time change. But at 2:30, my resolve just evaporated, I started to feel dizzy, short of breath, and thirsty. I pulled out some food and hot tea from my thermos, took 10 minutes rest and felt lot better. At this point, I turned around and started the march down the hill. With less exertion and less stinging of the blisters, I fell into a rhythm and all of a sudden, felt peace. I was in the middle of this vast wilderness, not a human being in sight (I did not see a soul in the whole day), roaring rivers and streams, the big trees just standing there as they have done for decades. Rain water, the essence of all life just kept falling silently onto the already soaked thick layer of snow, feeding the streams, washing the volcanic soil downstream just to deposit it some hundreds of miles away. The nature going about its business, huge forces driven by laws of physics, oblivious to my tiny and unimportant presence here. I had lots of time to think about my past year and half in Seattle, the good, the bad and the ugly. The losses and accomplishments. And the fact that Monday would be the day when I take another step towards changing my own course. A change is in my future. For better I hope, but who knows? And the Nature certainly does not care. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Risk Management

There may be a genetic predisposition to risk taking. A recent article in The New York Times describes results of a recent study, which unlike older twin-based genetic association studies, focused on athletes in British Columbia who like to ski or snowboard like daredevils. If you carry a rare variant of the DRD4 gene (don't worry, we don't call you "mutants" these days), you are probably racing the Iditarod Invitational right now. If you are like the rest of us, running trails and skiing just for pleasure, it may be comforting to know that there are professionals who do care about our safety when we are out there having healthy fun (as opposed to unhealthy suffering of the DRD4 carriers...).

Case in point No 1: on my Saturday afternoon run at Grand Ridge, I found the trail being blocked by yellow tape. When I looked up, I saw the reason for trail closure, the broken tip of a tree hanging just above the trail. Now, the trail was not just closed, there was a re-route, perfectly cut ribbon of new singletrack around the area, with newly exposed slick roots to make it more fun!

Case No 2: Sunday morning, Steven's Pass ski area summit parking lots filled up quickly, in expectation of another deep powder day. We were bused from satellite parking lots to the resort, while it snowed heavily. It continued snowing and by early afternoon, some areas on the back side of the mountain had thigh deep powder. These February storms are trying to make up for the lack of precipitation earlier this year. Just look at the snow depth chart at Steven's Pass web site:

With this much new snow comes avalanche risk which needs to be mitigated. This also includes avalanche control around the highway to the pass. Highway 2 closed for avy control on Sunday afternoon just when hundreds of skiers could not take another run down the mountain and were ready to leave. Sitting in a car on a gridlocked highways with snow piling up at the rate of 4"/hr was not much fun. But when the road opened after 4 hours, seeing the huge pile of snow that needed to be bulldozed from the road, I was glad somebody knows how to calculate risk. It is good for us, the "wild types" (this ironically means "normal" in genetics speak), since we are not extreme thrill seekers and thus often not too good at risk assessment. The take home message: don't fight your genetics, just choose the right environment.