A Tale of Two Cities

This post has been running around my brain for a few weeks. It is a tale of two cities. No, not Paris and London, the two cities that Charles Dickens wrote about in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. This is the tale of Tallahassee, Florida and Boulder, Colorado. I have been to both. It would be hard to find two cities where the fitness levels of its residents diverge so much.

Okay, in some ways Tallahassee and Boulder are similar. Tallahassee is the larger of the two cities and the state capital. Boulder has around 90,000 residents. Tallahassee has around 160,000 residents, but as city sizes go, they are not that dissimilar. Both are college towns. Tallahassee has two colleges of note: Florida State and Florida A&M. Boulder has the University of Colorado at Boulder. Both are in the United States, but otherwise that’s about all the similarities worth noting.

I became acquainted with Tallahassee in 2007 when life finally took me there for a few days. I even blogged about it. There are possibly other cities in or around the Gulf Coast where the residents are more obese, but it is hard to imagine such a place. Tallahassee must be something of a Mecca for endocrinologists and Glucophage manufacturers. Its population appears to consist mostly of adult diabetics in the more advanced stage of the disease. Not that its many obese residents actually appear to be treating their diabetes. First, most of them appear too poor to afford treatment outside of an emergency room. Second, where would they find the health food? The eating choices in Tallahassee seem to be largely limited to the greasiest of the greasy joints. Burger King is the most predominant grease joint in Tallahassee, but in reality, it is just one of many. Within a quarter mile in Tallahassee you can find the following greasy spoons: Dominoes, which is next to the Taco Bell, which is across the street from Moe’s Southwest Grill, which is next door to Firehouse Subs, which is adjacent to Momo’s Pizza and Shane’s Rib Rack. Across the street is a Papa John’s Pizza. A little further down the street you will find Qdobo Mexican Grill and, of course, a Burger King. If you need groceries, there is exactly one Winn Dixie on the southern and predominantly African American side of town. Winn Dixie, Circle K and Albertsons have close to a lock on the grocery business in Tallahassee. Good luck finding a Whole Foods. There are none.

If it were not for the college students, the situation would appear far worse than it is. Those out of towners help, but cannot begin to hide the extent of Tallahassee’s obesity problem. Why is obesity so bad in Tallahassee? It likely has a lot to do with the relatively low average income of citizens in the city. Thanks in part to massive farm subsidies, we have made grain and sugar artificially cheap, which means that it costs little to eat the wrong food and proportionally a lot more to eat healthy, if you can find healthy food at all. Healthy food is not easy to acquire because I paid careful attention while I was there and found nothing resembling a health food store. The culture of the city though seems to be saying, “It’s okay to be morbidly obese and to eat junk. You’re just like everyone else.” If I were a health insurance provider, I would redline the whole city.

Boulder, Colorado on the other hand is its polar opposite. If there is a healthier (and more environmentally correct) city in the country, I would like to know about it. I doubt it exists. Having spent many pleasant days in Boulder in the company of my brother and sister in law, I find much to like about Boulder. Obesity is not unknown in Boulder but it is hard to find. That is because the city’s culture seems hardwired toward healthy eating and exercise.

Fast food can be found in Boulder, but it can be challenging. There is one Wendy’s downtown close to Pearl Street. Otherwise, you have to travel to the edge of town. There are three McDonalds in the city, and a few more along its edges. If you want a supermarket, you had better prefer organic supermarkets because they are far more plentiful. There are six Whole Foods markets in Boulder alone.

Don’t move to Boulder and expect to be a couch potato. It is not allowed. I think they must have citizen organizations that hunt for couch potatoes and make them work out. Boulder takes exercise seriously; it is practically a commandment. It is not just that you live right next to the Rocky Mountains and there are abundant hiking trails within easy walking distance. In Boulder, it seems like there must be an ordinance requiring its citizens to get regular aerobic exercise. Its citizens take their obligation seriously. When I have been in Boulder during a snowstorm, my brother pointed out that plowing the roads was scattershot. However, the bike trails, which are numerous, were plowed. The residents of Boulder have their priorities and snow removal on roads is second to removing snow from its biking trails. They do not seem to mind biking in freezing weather or even in the snow. Instead, they put studs on their bike tires and peddle to their destination. Or they may snow ski. Or run. They do not seem worried about twisting an ankle by running through the snow, even on the mountain trails where a slip could be fatal. Whole families can be seen walking around neighborhoods at night just for the exercise.

My latest trip to Boulder in March suggested to me that a certain percent of Boulder residents are, well, insane. I should mention that this does not apply to my wonderful brother, his wonderful wife and her adorable daughter. They work in exercise, daily if possible and particularly on the weekends. Fifty or sixty mile weekend bike excursions are par for their course. It could be that, or snow shoeing, or hiking, or long walks or most likely of all, some combination of all of these. Frankly, I admire their healthy attitude and wish some of it would rub off on other members of my immediate family here in traffic clogged Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of Boulderites who exercise the way addicts mainline crack. I saw some of them on the last Sunday in March when my brother drove me up to Fort Collins. I thought it was strange when in thirty-degree weather we kept passing packs of bicyclists traveling on the shoulders of major thoroughfares, at times even crowding out the vehicular traffic. We passed dozen of packs on the way to Fort Collins; some of these packs consisted of a hundred or more bicyclists. My brother told me that many were biking to Fort Collins and back, which is a nice little jaunt of a hundred miles or so.

He also told me of a neighbor who after returning from one of these marathon hundred mile plus rides quickly rushed off to the swimming pool. Why? Because he was competing in a triathlon so now he had to swim a few miles too. This probably meant he also had to run a dozen miles or so too.

Doubtless, he was but one of many Boulder residents also planning to compete in a triathlon, so I expect the swimming lanes at the local pools were congested. Good luck to them but isn’t doing this level of exercise consistently maybe just a wee bit insane? It is to me. Granted there is nothing wrong with it, if your body can handle it, and it is certainly magnitudes healthier than eating grease at the plentiful fast food joints in Tallahassee. My last trip to Boulder though convinced me that it is possible to overdo exercise. Some small but sizeable number of Boulderites have gone off the deep end.

I am considering Boulder as a place to retire. I suspect it would not take too many weeks of living in Boulder before hundred mile bike jaunts would become second nature to me too. I would hardly be unique, just one of the crowd. I do know one thing: despite some folks in Boulder who may be exercise obsessed, it is a great place to live, if you can afford its real estate prices. I would definitely rather retire to Boulder than to Tallahassee, although on my pension I could live like a king in Tallahassee. In Tallahassee, I am convinced I could gain weight just by breathing its air.

Many cultures along the W&OD Trail

I achieved one of my personal goals yesterday. I live about three miles from the midpoint of the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) trail here in Northern Virginia. This is a combination of a paved biking, walking and equestrian trail that stretches from Shirlington Road on the edge of Alexandria to Purcellville, in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. It so happens that I can get on the trail close to its midpoint. Until yesterday, I had not made it to either end.

Yesterday though I threw caution to the wind. I was worried that after our recent excessive rainfall, that part of the trail would be washed out. Still, the comfortable humidity and temperatures reaching about ninety it was too lovely a day with not to push myself. However, it was the first day of July, so I made sure I covered every inch of my exposed skin with SPF-30 sunscreen.

“Pushing myself” turned out to be forty-three miles, which is about six more miles than I had ever traveled on one trip. The elapsed time from my driveway and back was close to four hours. The first half of the ride seemed almost effortless. Winds were generally from the west and moderate. As you might expect, with some exceptions as you travel east on the trail toward the Potomac River you generally lose elevation. I realized five minutes into my ride that I had forgotten my water bottle. This did not turn out to be a problem. If you know where to look there are many water fountains and even a couple public restrooms along the trail.

As I hit the end of the trail at Shirlington Road yesterday, I was struck by how ethnically diverse the neighborhoods along the W&OD trail are. The further west you go the more redneck it becomes. Head east on the trail though and the more multiethnic it becomes. It is remarkable that one bike trail can take you through so many different kinds of neighborhoods. To ride it from one end to the other is to see a representative slice of America.

I entered the trail where it intersects with the Fairfax County Parkway near Reston, then headed east. On the west side of Reston, you are in Yuppieville. The Reston Town Center and its ever-expanding numbers of overpriced mid-rise and high-rise condominiums surrounding downtown Reston are easy to see from the trail. Somehow, a working class does manage to eke out a living in the area. I often see Hispanics on their bikes on this part of the trail, likely going to and from restaurant jobs in and around Reston. The nearby Town of Herndon has grown increasingly Hispanic over the last few decades, so I assume most Hispanics I see on the trail live in Herndon. There are Hispanic neighborhoods in Reston, however. An apartment complex called Cedar Ridge on the North Side of Reston has morphed into a largely Hispanic neighborhood. There is also what amounts to public housing in apartments in the Dogwood section of Reston. I am amazed that rising property values have not forced these people to live elsewhere. From the trail, you can hear Fairfax Connector buses idling at a Reston hub, which is at the south side of the Reston Town Center. Since those who can afford it drive where they need to go, the active bus system in Reston is proof that many residents still depend on public transportation.

Between Reston and Vienna, the trail takes you through neighborhoods, which if they are not the upper crust, at least come close to it. There are many lovely houses in Reston near the Sunrise Valley School that rest beneath old growth trees, many of which back up the bucolic Difficult Run. As the trail passes Hunter Mill Road, when you can glimpse houses at all, you sense prosperity and inherited wealth. The houses are large and many of them could qualify as estates. This is where many of Fairfax County’s gentrified class lives.

When you slip over the boarder to the Town of Vienna, instead of a gentrified class, you feel the presence of a gentrified community. Most of the houses are the smaller, brownstone rambler types of home. They were built during a time when Vienna was the farthest outskirts of the Washington region, land was cheap and the middle class had modest expectations. These modest brownstones now attract a more moneyed crowd. With few exceptions, they have elected not to tear down the brownstones and put up McMansions, perhaps because the town would not allow it. Yet these modest brownstone houses though are simply out of the price range of even many upper income Washingtonians. People who live there either bought their house decades ago, or have some combination of inherited wealth and great paying jobs in order to afford their inflated prices. The houses are modest in appearance and due to their age appear to be high maintenance houses. Since these are not covenant-controlled communities, you have to hope your neighborhood values include mowing lawns regularly. For the most part, it is a heavily white neighborhood, with a spattering of Orientals. You can get a sense of Vienna’s values by stopping at the Whole Foods Market next to the trail as you cross Maple Avenue.

So it continues until you are past the limits of the town. You cross Cedar Lane and Gallows Road and the neighborhoods feel much the same. The W&OD trail has its own bridge over the Capital Beltway. To cross I-66 you must first hoof it up a steep spot in the trail near Idylwood Park, and then follow the sidewalk on Virginia Avenue. Another bridge takes you over Leesburg Pike, and then you quickly descend into the City of Falls Church. The City is an odd mixture of rich and working class. Tree lined streets contain forties style houses which the moneyed class inhabits. The many Brownstone apartments in Falls Church presumably service the working class. The moneyed class must be okay with paying taxes, for the trail winds through many parks along I-66 that are well maintained. Here the runners nearly outnumber the bicyclists on the trail. Falls Church also maintains a number of walking and biking trails. You need to watch your signs carefully to stay on the W&OD trail, for it make some unexpected detours on residential streets and surprising turns. As the trail nears Seven Corners, you realize that you are close to a predominantly Korean area of town. That quickly falls behind you though if you press on. The trail follows a path next to Four Mile Run. Glencarlyn Park through which the trail winds seems just an extension of the park-like environment that is much of the trail.

Suddenly you hit serious civilization. To get to the end of the trail, Columbia Pike must be crossed. Be prepared to wait for a signal because it is clear that drivers, not bikers, will get top priority. Dollar stores, Mom and Pop establishments and gas stations are easy to find on Columbia Pike, along with many Hispanic owned establishments. You cross George Mason Drive, then Walter Reed Drive and arrive at a gritty area of Arlington full of industrial businesses. There is a trash hauling company and the predominant language is Spanish. You pass the headquarters of WETA, and it is not in a nice neighborhood. On this Saturday morning, I found many Hispanics from El Salvador. A greasy looking truck selling discount enchiladas sat parked next to Four Mile Run Road. A number of Hispanics whom I assumed to be day laborers sat on the lawn next to the truck chatting. Just up the road was another truck selling fruit out its back.

Finally, the trail ended ingloriously at Shirlington Road, just a hop, skip and a jump from I-395. Thankfully, at trail’s end there is a water fountain. The water felt refreshing since the day was now hot.

The trip home was just as interesting but anticlimactic. On the low ascent back to Reston, I naturally had to apply much more leg power. It was not until I stopped at Vienna for more water that I realized I was wearing out quickly. I took the rest of the ride at a more sedate pace. Even so, I had to stop for five minutes to catch my breath in Reston, before tackling the final five miles to my driveway. The last hill on the Fairfax County Parkway as it approaches West Ox Road felt excruciating. I was riding erratically. I arrive home covered in sweat and bugs. I hustled to the shower but soon found I was having a hard time standing. I ended up on the bed flat on my back just staring at the ceiling for half an hour. Perhaps a forty nine year old man should not push himself like this. In retrospect, it was a bit crazy. Yet I certainly enjoyed this biking adventure, and felt more than a little exhilarated for meeting this personal goal.

My next goal is to make it to the west end of the trail in Purcellville. That will be an even more challenging ride. However, since I have made it to Leesburg, it is probably not beyond me. I should probably attempt it on a cooler day than yesterday, perhaps when the fall leaves are at their peak. I will need more water and more breaks to accomplish that one, but I will do it in time.

Are people more courteous in blue states?

Over the last year and a half or so, I have taken up biking as a hobby again. Thanks to Bush’s Global Warming TM though we often get days during the winter that feel more like spring. Today was such a day: blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and low humidity. And since I had the day off, it was a good day for my first bike ride of the year.

I kept my bike ride modest: to Vienna, Virginia and back along my favorite bike trail: the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. The ride was about twenty miles altogether and took about two hours. It felt good to reconnect with my bike again. I mentally berated myself for not doing more of it lately. Our winter has been relatively mild so far and a bike ride is such an improvement over doing a workout at the local Gold’s Gym. In many ways when the weather cooperates, winter is the ideal time to bike. In the summer, I can return from a bike ride covered in sweat and with gnats and assorted tiny bugs all over my exposed arms, legs and face. Bugs are not a problem during the winter. The result is that when the weather is tepid in the winter like today, it is the optimal time for a bike ride.

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It is an increasingly cosmopolitan county just outside the Washington beltway. It is also turning from a county that tended to vote Republican to a reliably Democratic county. In general the further you live from the Beltway, the more Republican that Fairfax County becomes.

Consequently, by heading east on the W&OD trail toward Vienna, Virginia you move toward “blue” (solidly Democratic) territory. Head west on the W&OD trail and you move into “red” Loudoun County, (which is now showing signs of turning purple).

I have noticed real behavioral differences from the motorists I encounter depending on the direction I bike on the trail. The trail winds through a lot of suburbia in both directions. Therefore, bicyclists on the trail encounter many at grade crossings. (Fortunately, there are often bridges that take the trail over the largest roads.) Consequently, my fellow bicyclists and I have many opportunities to interact with motorists. The behavior I have experience has become so predictable that it is now beyond dispute in my mind: the further east I go into “blue” areas on the trail, the more courteous the drivers I encounter become.

On the other hand, head west on the trail and drivers can become ruthless. If there is a traffic light, you can usually cross safely but somewhat warily. If you have to cross a road by first yielding to the traffic, be prepared to pedal across the road quickly. The drivers are likely to try to accelerate if they see you trying to cross. I have also had drivers curse at me, even though my behavior was entirely lawful. The vast majority of them seem to drive their cars as if bicyclists do not exist. When they see us, they seem almost startled. “My goodness,” is what I imagine they are thinking, “It’s a bicyclist!” You would think we are Martians or something.

The W&OD trail crosses Hunter Mill Road between Reston and Vienna. While there are signs on the road asking motorists to yield to bicyclists, what really surprises me is that drivers routinely follow the law. Moreover, they do so quite happily. I nod or wave to them and they smile, nod or wave back. It is a nice feeling. The same thing often happens where the trail crosses Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills Road in Reston. Once inside the Town of Vienna it gets even more courteous. It only gets a bit chancy crossing the major thoroughfare of Maple Avenue. Fortunately, there is a crosswalk there. Crossing Park Street or Cedar Lane in Vienna is not a problem. It is highly unusual for drivers not to stop for a bicyclist. Drivers in Vienna, as well as Falls Church, are very courteous and respectful of bicyclists.

Bike in “red” Loudoun County though and things can get dicey. Right now crossing Church Street is especially chancy, since the road is under reconstruction and you have to bike down to a traffic light. Further, out in Loudoun County, such as where the trail crosses Ashburn Road or Belmont Ridge Road it becomes just plain dangerous to be a bicyclist. This is SUV and pick up truck land and you are in something resembling country. The cars are going fifty miles an hour or more on a two-lane road. They really do not want to decelerate for some annoying bicyclist, particularly when they are coming swiftly over the top of a hill. I have learned the hard way to give drivers a lot of leeway out on the trail’s western side.

If you make it on the bike trail to Leesburg a bicyclist must be very careful. When you get your walk light, you had better hoof it quickly. The drivers are unlikely to be looking for you. From the looks of things, Leesburg does not get many pedestrians or bicyclists. I suspect the automotive culture is much more engrained in that city.

I have observed this phenomenon so many times now. I am starting to wonder if people are just naturally more courteous in blue parts of my state than in red parts. When I am in red territory, as a bicyclist I often feel that drivers do simply not see me. When they see me and especially if they have to modify their behavior by tapping their brake or something, watch out. That is when you are likely to get frowns, curses or their middle finger. Apparently, I am interfering with their high-speed automotive experience.

We all know that bicycles (with some exceptions) have equal rights to roads. The sad reality though is that bicyclists are wise to avoid riding on thoroughfares. It is just plain dangerous to do so. The shoulders are full of gravel, garbage and the occasional pothole, if we are lucky enough to have a shoulder at all. (They tend to appear and disappear depending on whether a housing development is nearby.) We bicyclists must exercise extreme caution when crossing any thoroughfare that is not in a residential neighborhood. It is nice to know though that my odds of survival seem to be much higher as I bike into “blue” territory. If safety were my primary concern, I would be better off limiting my biking to blue territory all the time.

No Escape from Exercise

There is a disquieting and endemic aspect to the American character. It is our inherent belief (right even) that tells us we can have it both ways. We believe that the normal laws of the universe do not apply to us. The piper does not have to be paid. At worst, we can defer the piper indefinitely. If we need more evidence of this, we simply have to look at the so-called fiscal conservatives in our Republican controlled Congress. The solution to all our problems seems to have it both ways: charge up the national credit card and let our grandchildren worry about it. No more of this guns or butter crap. It’s guns and butter all the time! Woo hoo!

Sadly, we Americans seem to be as addicted to the promise of getting something from nothing as a junkie is to his next fix. We believe in the laughably ridiculous. After all, are we not God’s chosen nation? Therefore, we line up like lemmings to buy lottery tickets. In addition, when we read that we can lose two to three pounds per week by eating pork rinds (just skip the carbohydrates) how can we resist? Eat filet mignon for dinner every night and we will still grow skinnier.

We learn today that this latest diet craze went bust. Atkins Nutritionals, a company formed by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, entered bankruptcy court on Sunday. Whether the company, which promotes the Atkins diet, will emerge from Chapter 11 remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: the American people have tried Atkins and we do not like it anymore. It was okay for a while. Steak for dinner every night sounded great. However, it was not the same without that baked potato slathered in sour cream. Yes, million have lost weight on the Atkins Diet. Nevertheless, most of them eventually put the weight back, often adding more. It seems we do not have the willpower to say no to carbohydrates forever. Eventually the body says enough and we are buying boxes of Krispy Kremes. Reputedly, even the good Dr. Atkins succumbed. The rumor is that Dr. Atkins died obese.

It is true that buried in the Atkins diet book was that little and rarely read caveat to the diet: eat normal portions and (like any diet book I have ever read) exercise regularly. In other words, eat less and exercise more. Our American brains though translate this into “Don’t exercise at all and eat the same, or more, of something you don’t normally eat.”

I have only tried a couple diets. The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet did not do a darn thing for me. A variant of it, the South Beach Diet took off five pounds quickly. However, I found after a couple months on it I could not keep to it. So eventually, I went back to the most difficult but most reliable method of weight control ever invented: eat less and exercise more.

Exercise more. Exercise a lot more. The truth about weight loss is that it is not so much about food as it is about exercise. It should be obvious: if you eat like a pig on any diet, you are not going to lose weight. Nevertheless, there is rarely a downside to exercising. As long as you are sensible about it and work your way up gradually longer toward exercises, you are likely to reap the rewards, including weight loss.

The Washington Post recently reported some tips from dieters who managed to lose lots of weight and keep it off:

Nutrition fads come and go. Successful losers report reaching a healthier weight the old-fashioned way: They count calories, reduce calorie-dense food and move a lot more.

Nearly half of those in the national registry reported losing weight entirely on their own. The rest got assistance from commercial weight-loss programs, a physician or a nutritionist. “Over the years, I tried a lot of different things — Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers a couple of times, different combinations of diets in magazines,” said Melissa Glassman, a lawyer who practices in Tysons Corner. “I could always lose 10 to 20 pounds, but would always gain back more than that.”

It was only by changing her habits that Glassman shed 125 pounds — half her body weight — in the past couple of years. “It’s the little things that you incorporate into your daily life that help keep you on track,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be entirely about deprivation or exercising two hours a day.”

The Post reports what you probably know in your heart too but also have a hard time admitting. Dieters who manage to keep the weight off have learned there are no quick fixes. To succeed you have to develop a viable long-term strategy that works for you and stick with it. Another successful step according to these dieters: be active. That means you will not succeed in long-term weight loss by spending your leisure hours watching television. The Post reports that those who were successful with long-term weight loss had a number of other successful strategies. They include tracking your weight, enlisting support, and setting small goals.

I do not know of anyone who has succeeded in long-term weight loss that has done so by being a couch potato. You have to exercise. In addition, you have to exercise regularly (i.e. most days). It needs to be real exercise. Much of it needs to be aerobic in nature. It can be as simple as walking. Walking is a terrific form of exercise with virtually no downsides. It does not matter too much what form of aerobic exercise you choose, so pick one (or a few) that you really enjoy.

Until recently, my favorite form of exercising was biking. It eventually messed up my feet, but that was only because I did not think about the consequences before I started. I went overboard, biking 30 miles or more in tennis shoes. Now I have proper biking shoes and my feet are finally feeling better. I am hitting the biking trail again. Since I am fortunate to live three miles from my place of employment, biking to work is an easy way for me to get exercise. Nevertheless, by itself biking is not enough. Six miles of biking a day is just 30-40 minutes of exercise. The human body really needs more exercise than that. My sedentary job means that I need to do more. Therefore, I supplement it with 2-4 escapes to the Gold’s Gym a week. In addition, I look for other ways to incorporate exercise in my life. I climb four flights of stairs to get to my office instead of taking the elevator. If there is a hiking trail off the biking trail, I will stop and go for a hike too.

As I mentioned recently, we have bodies that are meant to move. Use every excuse to move your body. If you do not have any then invent them. Make the time. Yes, I know your life is busy. You may have rug rats at home, and junior has to go to soccer practice. Do it at 4:30 a.m. if you have to. Do it after the kids go down. Help them with their homework while you work out on an elliptical machine. Do not make excuses, just do it.

Here is what I think: the goal of weight loss is not to look better. The goal of weight loss is to be healthy. Therefore, you probably need to eat better. Equally important you need to exercise more. You can stay in denial if you wish. You can hope for that new miracle drug. However, even if you never lose a pound you will feel so much better simply by getting regular exercise. You can start by literally walking the walk.

My May Day Biking Journey

Biking is a large part of my leisure life and my primary form of exercise. Today I will share with you my May Day 2005 bike ride. This ride lasted about three hours, at least half an hour of which were consumed taking these pictures. My total ride was about 30 miles. As
usual the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail was my gateway to adventure. Yesterday I chose to bike west.

After two days of inclement weather it was a pleasure to have a Sunday that was mostly sunny. The temperature hovered in the low 60s. The wind was brisk out of the northwest. I began my bike ride as I always do from my house.

All the images are thumbnails. Click on them for the full size image.

PDRM0037.jpg (210559 bytes) I had to bike three miles north up the Fairfax County Parkway before I was able to pick up an on ramp to the W&OD Trail on the west side of Reston.
PDRM0038.jpg (142750 bytes) Like many places on the W&OD trail, there are elevated bridges over the major highways. This is good because we high speed bicyclists don’t like coming to unnecessary stops. Here is the W&OD trail bridge crossing the Fairfax County Parkway (Rt. 7100), where I got on the trail. I headed west toward Leesburg.
PDRM0039.jpg (190036 bytes) This bridge over the Fairfax County Parkway is high quality. Because this part of the parkway is new, this may be the newest bridge on the trail. Here bicyclists hang to the left, and horses/joggers hang to the right. For much of the trail an equestrian path follows on one side. Unfortunately you don’t see many horses on the trail. The view here is looking west.
PDRM0040.jpg (129715 bytes) A couple miles west the trail crosses Elden Street in Herndon. This is part of “Old Town” Herndon. Concerts are held here in the summer, but the businesses here get a fair amount of bike traffic. There is a convenient Dairy Queen for fat friendly bicyclists a hundred feet off the trail.
PDRM0041.jpg (114211 bytes) Here is what is left of the old Herndon train depot. The view is looking east.
PDRM0042.jpg (181724 bytes) As I prepared to get on my bike I snapped this picture of the trail looking West from Old Town Herndon.
PDRM0043.jpg (109896 bytes) An old caboose is kept for visitors to inspect (from the outside only) at the Herndon station.
PDRM0044.jpg (120674 bytes) A few miles to the west of Herndon, the trail crosses Sterling Boulevard. At this point you have crossed from Fairfax County into Loudoun County. Before you reach Sterling Boulevard you pass over the western part of the Herndon Parkway and the Herndon Centennial Golf and Country Club. Here is a more typical “at grade” crossing on the trail. A median makes it not too difficult to cross. There is no walk light for bike riders.
PDRM0045.jpg (99405 bytes) A mile or so further you pass Church Street in Sterling. Here is a view looking east.
PDRM0046.jpg (189186 bytes) Another large trail bridge crosses over Sully Road (Route 28). This is the best picture I could capture since the mesh in the wire fence leaves small gaps. This is looking South on Sully Road.
PDRM0047.jpg (105737 bytes) Crossing over Sully Road, the trail west looks like you may be going toward the frontier. Alas, the frontier is more than half
PDRM0048.jpg (119910 bytes) A mile or two west of Sully Road is Smith’s Switch Station. You almost feel like you are in the country at this point. The portable toilets lend to the feeling that you are approaching the end of civilization. You can get water here and stretch your legs, but don’t look for snack machines. This view is looking west.
PDRM0049.jpg (108968 bytes) Another view from Smith’s Switch Station, looking west. I continue heading west.
PDRM0050.jpg (91248 bytes) After three or four miles of hard biking, and after passing under the Loudoun County Parkway, you end up at Ashburn Road. Here you will find a restaurant and an antiques store. Be careful crossing the street. Loudoun County commuters are not always accommodating to bicyclists.
PDRM0051.jpg (156059 bytes) Here was my destination for the day: Goose Creek. This bridge is the W&OD trail bridge, built on the foundation that used to
support heavy trains. You can park your bike and wander down and do some hiking or dirt bike riding if you choose. But warning: you can’t get here by car!
PDRM0055.jpg (160613 bytes) Sycolin Creek joins the much larger Goose Creek just north of the trail bridge. It was very bucolic on the spring day.
PDRM0054.jpg (342956 bytes) Here is where Sycolin Creek joins Goose Creek. Goose Creek is quite wide, more than a hundred feet. It counts as a river in my book.
PDRM0056.jpg (241195 bytes) Some wildlife in bloom along the banks of the creek
PDRM0060.jpg (110218 bytes) Undeveloped land (but doubtless not for long) right next to Goose Creek.
PDRM0061.jpg (244180 bytes) A better view of Goose Creek from the W&OD Trail bridge, looking South.
PDRM0062.jpg (112351 bytes) Goose Creek, looking north from the W&OD Trail bridge.
PDRM0063.jpg (181118 bytes) Just to the east of Goose Creek is the Luckstone Quarry. This is a wonderful destination. You can park your bike, enjoy a picnic or just enjoy the view. On weekends you are unlikely to hear the roar of the giant trucks pulling stone out of the quarry. No water fountain here, but portable toilets are across the trail.
PDRM0064.jpg (138485 bytes) A view of the Luckstone Quarry.
PDRM0065.jpg (81171 bytes) Another view of the quarry, looking southeast.
PDRM0067.jpg (148074 bytes) Heading home I had to pass Ashburn Road again. There is food to be found here for the hungry bicyclist.

The Agony of the Feet

I have foot problems. I wish it were something minor like a bunion. In some ways I wish it were something major because then at least I would know what was going on. But instead I just have some weird foot stuff going on that seems to never get better nor worse. As I work with my podiatrist it looks like there is no silver bullet. I need to resign myself to months or even years of treatment and discomfort. Ouch!

It’s a mild pain that is usually there. The original symptoms were a numb feeling in the smaller toes of my right foot that sometime felt like it was burning or my skin was scraped raw. Since it went on for a few weeks I finally saw the foot doctor. His hypothesis was that a nerve juncture between two of my toes was inflamed. He prescribed some Superfeet and built up a little spot that should have given the spot in question some relief. And for a couple days it sort of did. And then it didn’t and nothing had changed.

One day I was feeling reasonably okay so I decided to go for a little bike ride. Actually it was 37 miles. But I had done long bike rides before and it had been no big deal on the feet. This ride though was different. Although I don’t recall much pain at the time, for the next several days both of my feet hurt and felt inflamed. I wished I could go back to the numbing feeling again. I was alarmed that I was now getting the feeling in the other foot. The podiatrist suggested it might be all the force I was applying to my feet when I was biking. Terrific. One of the reasons I took up biking in the first place was because the stress from running was causing weird ankle and knee pains. Even getting on the elliptical machine in our basement hurt. What was I supposed to do for an aerobic exercise?

I’d suggest a wheelchair for myself but that wouldn’t solve the problem either. Because resting my feet on practically anything hurts. Even flexing my feet in certain directions and positions, even a little, hurts. I’ve tried mainlining ibuprofen and that didn’t even dull the pain. Certainly there must be some inflammation down there but this didn’t seem to be helping at all.

Certain shoes for some reason hurt more than others. I thought maybe my shoes were too narrow or too short. I do after all sport a pair of Size 13s. But no dice. All my shoes have plenty of wiggle room. Loosening the strings didn’t help. I recently bought a pair of sandals that feel modestly comfortable most of the time. Just looking at them there is no particular reason that I can tell why they would feel better than my other pairs of shoes. So I drag the sandals around with me. I wear my regular shoes to work then slip on my sandals once at work. I look pretty dorky wearing dress socks with my sandals. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have to wear a suit and tie too.

I wonder if it has something to do the chairs I sit in. I’ve got three chairs in my office and I switch between them a lot because I am rarely comfortable for long in any of them. One accommodates my height well but offers poor back support. Another doesn’t allow me to rock backward, which is important if you are tall like me (6′ 2″) and have long legs. In fact with my long legs pretty much all the chairs out there are inadequate. I need more thigh support but the chairs usually leave a couple inches of my thighs unsupported. The computer equipment I use is not always comfortable to use either. When I started my job and designed my office I did have the office ergonomics expert adjust things to my liking. The problems with my chairs took a few weeks to manifest.

I wonder if it is arthritis that is at the root of my pain but I don’t think that’s it. I’ve had occasional twinges of arthritis in my fingers and it felt different than this. I feel like I need hobbit feet. Perhaps I need more calluses or something on my pads. I think: if my feet had support and the ground was made of rubber maybe it wouldn’t hurt.

A few years back I had a case of Plantar Fasciitis. This is a pain at the bottom of the foot that typically hurts first thing in the morning, or when you try to get out of bed and stand on your feet. There is no telling what caused that problem, although I suspect the extra weight I had at the time played a part. That problem, which took about six months to go away, may have been a consequence of just being 40-something. After all my wife had a similar problem. This pain feels a bit similar but is primarily along the side of my right foot. Applying even mild pressure to the right side of my foot makes it hurt. Standing up and putting weight on the right side of my foot makes it hurt too. Okay so logically shift the weight to the other side of the foot and the problem is solved, right? But that feels unnatural and it makes the bones near the problem spot hurt. So I’m guessing my foot doctor got the diagnosis wrong. It feels like a ligament or two have been stretched too far and are inflamed.

I hope this too will pass but as this has been going on for a couple months now I wonder if this will be some sort of long-term condition that I will just have to live with. It’s not an acute pain but it is annoying and it sometimes throbs. But I remain disturbed that there is no painkiller I can take to make it go away.

So I will continue to live with it and continue to consult with my podiatrist and hope he can find the root cause. But I suspect that this is one of many similar problems inherent in my aging body that I will have to reckon with in the years ahead. Mother Nature is giving me yet another signal that I am not immortal. I need to get with her religion.

Meanwhile, ouch!

Biking the W&OD Trail

East or West? On the Washington & Old Dominion Trail those are your choices. It is a 45-mile bike trail that stretches from Shirlington (in Alexandria, Virginia) to Purcellville, Virginia. There is no going north or south on the W&OD. Sitting on top of what used to be the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad the trail has become something of a bicycling Mecca for Washington area bicyclists.

Arguably there are prettier biking trails in our area. The C&O Towpath, which follows next to the C&O canal and the Potomac River is clearly more bucolic and four times as long. But it is not kind on the buttocks and was not designed with the bicyclist in mind. Except for places near Washington you don’t want to ride the C&O very far unless your bike has wide tires and excellent shock absorbers. Like riding a horse you can exit that trail more than a little saddle sore.

But not the W&OD Trail. It’s a ribbon of smooth asphalt. There are a couple spots where you might want shock absorbers. For example between Sterling and Leesburg there are two wooden bridges. Except at low speeds riding over their wooden planks can be teeth rattling. Happily though neither bridge is very long and you are soon back on pavement and cruising at high speed again.

Speed is the trail’s primary attraction for us cyclists. While not quite a biker’s superhighway, it comes close. No paralleling noisy major roads on the W&OD. Bikers get to cruise over many major road intersections. The trail’s bridges spoil us because eventually we also cross the old fashioned way: at intersections. Some intersections like the one at Sterling Boulevard are no fun at all to cross. Fortunately most of the crossings have a walk light. But just as most distance drivers prefer the interstate to regional highways, so we high-speed bicyclists want to travel nonstop too. Crossings like the one at Elden Street in Herndon, where there is no walk light, can be impossible at certain times of the day. It is often best to jog a block and cross at a traffic light.

But then there are occasional glorious miles of bucolic wonder. I haven’t made it to either extreme of the trail yet, but I am struck by about three miles of the trail between Hunters Wood Road near Reston and Maple Street in Vienna. It is three miles of no intersections. Houses, when they are seen at all, are way back in the woods. The trail straddles and crosses over Difficult Run several times. Woods border the northern side of this part of the trail. Northern Virginia is such a chronically overdeveloped place that it is simply a delight to find a few miles where you can feel the presence of nature instead of humanity.

But the trail’s success can bring a lot of humanity. If it is a weekend and the weather is gorgeous then you will likely find the trail busy. At those times it is harder to enjoy. On some weekends I have come close to experiencing traffic jams on the trail. This is because walkers and equestrians are also allowed to use the trail. And casual users of the trail often don’t read or take to heart the trail rules. Most learn pretty quickly to stay to the right and get off the trail if they need to stop. I consider myself a fairly high-speed bicyclist. But I can’t begin to compete with some of the bicyclists on the trail. They zoom past me when I am in 18th gear and really cranking on the pedals. Many of them won’t cut the casual user of the trail any slack. Some won’t warn you that they are coming. By the time they could get the words out of their mouth they would be past you anyhow.

My goal continues to be to make it to both ends of the trail. I have to bike three miles up the Fairfax County Parkway to get on the trail. I usually get on where it intersects the Parkway. From there the choice, of course, is east or west. I usually go the opposite direction that I traveled the last time. As soon as the trail allows I am in high gear and pressing the metal. Even on cool days it’s not hard to work up a sweat. I made it as far west as Leesburg on January 1st. Last autumn I made it to East Falls Church.

Mother Nature has slowed me down. Winter is not kind to us bicyclists. I went through the rest of January without favorable conditions for bike riding. A lot of snow needed to melt first. The elliptical machine in our basement was not much of a substitute for a bike ride.

We frequent trail riders probably share favorite spots on the trail. My favorite spot so far traveling east is the stretch that I already mentioned between Reston and Vienna. Heading west a stop at Goose Creek between Sterling and Leesburg is most welcome. Goose Creek is much more like a river than a creek. From the trail bridge its swirling waters are impressive and somewhat hypnotic to watch, particularly after a rainstorm or snowmelt. There is hiking adjacent to the bridge, if so inclined. But a few hundred feet away from the creek itself is perhaps one of the most unusual things you will ever see on a bike trail: the Luckstone Quarry. Most people in Loudoun County I suspect have no idea the quarry is even there. But for regular trail riders the quarry is a special treat. There is a lovely outlook along the trail looking south into the quarry. You can park your bike, sit on a park bench and enjoy the view. This is one view that is perhaps better experienced on the weekend. During the week it is a working quarry, and the noise of the trucks continually going up and down into the quarry can spoil much of its pleasure.

There are a couple downsides to the trail. While there are restrooms along the trail they are pretty much the chemical toilet type, so it helps to take care of Mother Nature before leaving home. And even the toilets are many miles apart. Still at least there are toilets if nature calls. There are also occasional watering holes. The Vienna and Smith Switch Stations have water fountains. There are places on the trail for those who want to dine. Naturally the closer you get to DC the more options there are. In Vienna, Herndon and Leesburg it easy to find food near the trail. Herndon perhaps does it the best, and seems to actually cater to its bike traffic. Passing through downtown Herndon the upscale Dairy Queen is hard to miss.

To anyone who appreciates the outdoors the other downside to the trail is the encroaching development. In the year I have been riding the trail, I am more than a little appalled by how fast the wild places of the trail are disappearing. They disappeared years ago in Fairfax County and now it’s Loudoun County’s turn. I remember in the 1980s I used to see lots of bumper stickers that said “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” What they meant was don’t take nice and undeveloped Loudoun County and turn it into another densely packed bedroom community like Fairfax County. But it’s clearly too late. Bulldozers are active along both sides of the trail. Housing developments in particular are springing up quickly. There are a couple miles between Sterling and Leesburg that sit between genuinely undeveloped land. But it’s clear that they won’t be there much longer. Sterling and Leesburg are joining in the middle, and regular bicyclists on the trail are watching it happen.

Yet I am very grateful for the trail and for the foresight of the last generation that found the time, energy and money to create this 45-mile long park. Open fully since 1982 I find it still to be a delightful ride. Riding the trail gets a tad boring at times, but it is almost always fun to ride on it. On the trail and largely away from the traffic I can escape into my own world. For a little while I don’t feel the press of humanity and its cares so much. Instead I often feel at one with the universe. Its sounds are the low hum of my bike’s tires on the pavement and the gentle roar of wind passing through my helmet.

Continue reading “Biking the W&OD Trail”

The Joy of Biking

It’s been fun rediscovering the bicycle. I’ve had my bike sitting in my garage for years. I rarely rode it. Why? Because I realized a couple months after I bought it that it was the wrong bike for me. It never was comfortable. The seat was too small. The frame too low. The brakes worked unevenly and always squealed. And it was cheap. I should have known better than to buy a cheap bike. But ten years ago I was more strapped for cash than I am now. In addition it was a racing bike. I didn’t really need a racing bike. There’s no place to truly race a bike around here. I needed a more practical bike. But it was too late to return it and after a while I felt foolish for having bought it. And there it still sits in my garage waiting for a garage sale or a charitable donation.

My wife on the other hand has a great bike that she bought some years back. It shifts smoothly. It has eighteen gears, brakes cleanly and stops on a dime. But for some reason she hardly ever uses it. So I figured she’d not object if I borrowed her bike instead of using my clunker. At midlife I don’t care if I am seen driving a sissy bike. This is a bike that is engineered very well. Riding it feels almost symbiotic. It feels like an extension of my body. I feel one with the bike.

And her bike has worked fine these last six weeks or so getting me to and from work. As I mentioned it’s an invigorating way to start the workday. But I’m finding I want to do more with her bike than feel good about not spewing fumes into the atmosphere. I’m finding I like to bike just for the heck of it. Biking is becoming more than good exercise, it’s becoming a hell of a lot of fun.

So I’ve started to go places with my wife’s bike. It started with trips up to Reston, five or so miles away. And I’ve taken the bike south too. It is really the only way to get to Battlefield Park since as I ruminated a couple weeks ago it’s probably the only park in Fairfax County with no place to park a car.

This Sunday was an unbelievably gorgeous day: blue skies, ultra low humidity and sixty miles of visibility. It was a day meant for a challenging bike ride. I didn’t know where I was going to go. I ended up on the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. This is a lovely bike path that extends from 45 miles from Shirlington near D.C. to Purcellville, which is at the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. It is a well-maintained bike trail with places to eat, occasional restrooms you can use and even a water fountain or two. In short it’s a highly desirable bike trail. I was familiar with parts of the trail when I lived in Reston. I had gone running on the trail many times. But most of the trail I never explored.

Feeling adventurous I connected with the trail near old town Herndon and then followed it Northwest. I realized what a pleasure it is to ride on a well-maintained bike trail. After weeks of bumpy asphalt trails, sidewalks and hearing to the sound of motorized monsters so close to me I finally had the chance to feel some communion with nature on my bike ride. It wasn’t perfect of course. This part of the W&OD trail winds its way through suburbia. But there are often woods on either side of the trail. There aren’t too many hills to speak of. So it is a place where if you feel in good enough shape you can crank you bike into high gear and stay there.

And so I did. On such a lovely day there was plenty of fellow travelers on the trail but little in the way of inconsiderate pedestrians. The day was infectious. I found myself pushing myself hard, wanting never to slow down and trying to stay always in my highest gear. And it was delightful. The scenery whizzed by. There were of course more than a few intersections where I had to stop and cross carefully. But there were also more overpasses than I expected taking me right over some major highways. I wasn’t sure how far I could keep going. My only constraint was I didn’t bring much in the way of water and I wasn’t sure where the water stations were located. But I kept going and surprised myself my passing through Sterling. In fact I made it all the way to the overpass over Route 28. It was a lovely place to turn around because of its gorgeous view. From the bridge I had a commanding view north and west. The Shenandoah Mountains seemed temptingly close. I realized in a future bike ride this would be a great place to start. So I need to put a bike rack on the back of my car and see if I can make it to Leesburg or points beyond. I think I will make it in a matter of time.

While I have done a lot of running in the last twenty years I have rarely gotten the runners high I had heard about. I don’t achieve it because I usually don’t last that long. But I found out on Sunday that I could reach a biker’s high. The feeling was intoxicating. But after about an hour of biking really hard my whole body felt tingly. My heart was racing fast but not dangerously. I could feel the oxygen in every part of my body. Even my fingers felt alive with pleasure.

I guess every man needs a hobby. It would be nice if I could share this hobby with someone. It doesn’t look like my wife will take up biking again, at least not anytime soon. I doubt she could keep up with me anyhow. I was cruising.

It’s odd. I go much faster in a car. But in a car I never really experience the ride. When the conditions are right on a bike you become one with the world around you. While you can move through it quickly you are still very much a part of it. In a car you are inside a thing. You witness the world passively. Not so on a bike. The wind rustles through your hair, surges into your nostrils and makes the hair on your arms dance. Your body becomes very much like a machine except this machine is you, and you are intimately hardwired into the experience.

This weekend if I am blessed with another nice day I will take the same trail toward Vienna, Virginia and check out that portion of the trail. Perhaps as my stamina increases I will continue to venture further. I figure I biked at least seventeen miles on Sunday. That seemed like quite a lot but now I’m starting to realize that maybe it’s just a start. I can go further and last longer.

If only there were more bike trails like the W&OD trail. Instead what passes for the bicycle experience most of the time are sidewalks and the sides of public roads, which are often full of gravel and potholes. Bumps and curbs are everywhere and continually annoy you and slow you down.

If nothing else biking is making me annoyed by our car culture. In theory bikes and cars have equal access to the public roads. But riding a bike on a well-trafficked road is to flirt with injury or death. Already in my six weeks of biking it is clear that the auto is king. It seems to most drivers we bike riders are effectively invisible. They seem annoyed when I decide to bike across the crosswalk instead of let them make that right turn on red. At worst they are openly hostile or downright determined to run us off the road. But I feel sorry for them now. If they don’t bike they don’t know what a special experience they are missing. If they did I think there would be a lot less cars on the road and a lot more bike trails.

Continue reading “The Joy of Biking”

Bicycle Commuter

It’s 7 AM. Do you know where your car is? Increasingly my car remains parked inertly in my driveway. Instead of driving to work I am finding I’d rather bicycle instead.

I realize I am fortunate to have this option. I haven’t really ever had it as a realistic option before. Yes, there were times when I biked to work all the time. But it wasn’t because I had much of an option. My one car family growing up meant my Mom usually couldn’t drive me. Actually since I was one of eight siblings it never occurred to me to ask. So biking was the only way to get to work short of walking for an hour or more in each direction. This was the case in my first job (1973) when at age 16 I worked at a Winn Dixie store in Daytona Beach. It was three or so miles in each direction to the store on the peninsula from our house on the mainland. In 1978 I had moved to Maryland and lived a couple miles from where I worked. Bicycling again was the only realistic option, unless my hours worked out so that I could catch the bus instead. My car at the time was too expensive to fix up. I had no credit cards and only a couple hundred bucks in the bank.

But now I can choose between biking and driving to work. And unless the weather doesn’t suit I choose to bike. It’s about three miles in each direction and largely a straight shot on a bike path next to the Fairfax County Parkway. And ironically I can get there in about the same time it would take me to drive it. That’s because when I drive I have to deal with rush hour traffic. I often have to wait with my engine running for three minutes just to get on the parkway. Then it can be stop and go for the rest of my commute. No executive parking spot for this GS-14. I’m back at the end of the parking lot, which means several minutes of walking just to get to my building.

All these issues are rendered moot by the bike. At most it adds a couple minutes to my commute. On a bad traffic day I can beat the traffic. No parking for me at the far end of the lot anymore. Rather I zip my bike up the main ramp of my building dodging the jersey barriers. I lock my bike in the bike rack right next to the main entrance. I arrive with my heart racing but feeling so very alive. My only concern is that I’m not so sweaty that I offend my coworkers.

As best I can tell there is no downside to bicycling. On most days the six miles of bicycling suffices for daily exercise. I don’t have to add a workout or a run when I get home. This gives me more time to do what I want. Rising gas prices no longer frighten me. I don’t worry about contributing needlessly to global warming or the ozone problem. The only way that would happen is if I ate too many beans with meals.

And it’s not a bad commute either. I would prefer my commute to be a bit more bucolic. Instead I hear the roar of my fellow commuters thirty feet next to me. But when peddling at 20-30 miles an hour the wind drowns out much of the noise. And in the morning the ride is usually cool and a bit bracing.

The ride home can be a bit more problematic in the summer time. Thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence in the late afternoons this time of year. I am sure a thunderstorm one of these days will drench me. But I also have the Internet now. I can see if rain is approaching by going to Weather Underground and checking their radar map. If I am proactive enough I can leave work early and dodge the rain. Once home I can telecommute until my workday is over. Or I can wait until the storm passes. These storms don’t usually last long.

There is never a traffic jam on the bike paths. I may pass one or two fellow bicyclists in each direction but as far as I am concerned I am on my own private expressway. The only thing that really slows me down is crossing the Fairfax County Parkway. Alas, there is no bridge to carry me over the traffic so I must wait at the light just like a car. But sometimes I get lucky and have little or no wait and cut a couple minutes off my commute.

I’m wondering how long I can keep it up. I won’t do it if it is raining. There will be code red or code orange days when it would be healthier to take the car, even at the expense of adding to the ozone problem. Once the morning lows hit forty or lower I may weenie out. But for now my goal is to keep riding. I could always stand to be a bit trimmer. Perhaps bicycling will be the way I finally lose those last necessary pounds. I’ll find out in time.

I find it healthy, fun, invigorating and a great way to arrive at the office full of energy and ready to be productive. I wish more of us had this option. Starbucks would sell a lot less coffee because we bicycle commuters don’t arrive at work half asleep.