Old Dog, New Tricks – I

Two years ago, we started seeing running “power meters” appear for sale. Several modalities were tried. One used force sensors in an insole to be placed in a shoe. Another used accelerometers in a chest strap. Finally, a little footpod attached to shoelaces was introduced. This seems to be the method gaining traction, via a kickstarter called “Stryd”. Books and articles are appearing purporting to explain how to use this new toy. I’m reminded of the books I saw back in 1984/5, when the Macintosh computer first appeared. They seemed to know what they were talking about, but it all seems so primitive now.

I think the use of power to aid run training and racing is still in its infancy. I remember twenty-five years ago or so, when “shaped” skis first came out. They were touted as the next big thing, and everybody jumped on board to ski on them, and teach others how to use the new dynamics they provided. That was all well and good, and it did make it easier for people learning the sport. But it wasn’t until professional slalom racers started using them that we knew they really were an improvement on the old geometries. So maybe when we see world-class marathoners using a Stryd during a race, then we’ll know it has some real value, and might be time to buy one.

Nonetheless, I recently jumped on board with Stryd when Endurance Nation announced a discount for us. I’d been a sceptic since it was first introduced two years ago. I didn’t see how it might improve the quality of my training or my race day performance. I haven’t been using the little thing very long, but I have been thinking about the value of the data it makes available.

I’m an adult onset runner, didn’t run a step until I was 49.75 y/o. But over the past two decades, I think I’ve developed a very finely honed internal sense of how my heart rate and pace correlate to my perceived rate of exertion, both during training at various speeds and during races, primarily triathlons, of varying lengths. But that took maybe 5-8 years to learn. It’s possible, I think, that a power measurement could help shorten that learning curve for someone who is new to structured run training. And, it might also be helpful for “young” (which I define as anyone under the age of 27) runners who are dealing with a still changing physiology, a heightened sense of competition, and relative lack of discipline. Meaning it could keep them from blowing themselves up in any given workout, or in a race.

Now, for those of us with a long athletic history (I was a swimmer as a youth, age group 11-17, then college), it might be a different story. Two or three things jump to mind:

  • Looking at my files which include power, I see the obvious fact that HR is a lagging indicator. When I start up a hill, my power changes instantly, the HR takes 10-30 seconds to catch up.
  • When I do long runs, unless I keep upping my RPE, my pace will slowly deteriorate after about 90 minutes, even if my HR is holding steady.
  • Likewise in a race, a steady HR and RPE usually are associated with a deteriorating pace.

I suspect that the value of having run “power” available will lie in its use as a whip, to keep me more honest about the need to increase effort as a long training run or race progresses. Also, it should help me guard against poor performance (going too hard or too easy) up hills. I don’t think its going to improve my ability to precisely target pace/effort during  short (defined as 10 minutes or less) intervals during training.

Once some really dedicated people play with the numbers enough, there may be an improvement in defining an run stress score (rTSS) for use in things like a Performance Management Chart. During our coach’s podcast from Kona with the Stryd team, they speculated on possibly having a TSS target for an Ironman run, a number “not to exceed” to ensure cutting the fine line between blowing up and leaving something on the table. That seems some ways away, as it requires not only a reproducible and acceptable measure of rTSS, but also some way to factor in the effect of the bike: what was your bike TSS, steadiness, time, etc.

My Garmin (Fenix) screen #1 has Time/Power/HR/Cadence. I also have a lap screen which shows lap pace, current HR, current power, and current cadence. I set an interval beep to go off every mile, and, unless I over-ride it with a button push, I have it auto-lap every mile. Unless I’m doing track intervals, I really don’t care about knowing my current pace. I’m more concerned with keeping my HR, cadence, and RPE where I want them. Now, I might start adding power to that, but the data is still too new for me to add it to my mental mix yet. There is a Connect IQ app which would make more than 4 data fields per screen available, but I’m afraid I couldn’t see the numbers!

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Running in Oaxaca – II

A few days after our walk up into the Cerro del Fontin, Cheryl surprised me by getting up when I did, a little after six. Sunrise was 7:20, and I had been heading out for my morning runs along the highway at 6:55, just after first light.

“I think I’ll go up with you and look at the sunrise,” she explained.

“OK, I’ll walk up with you, but you’ll need to get back on your own, you know. I’m going to keep running down the hill to the end of the sidewalk.”

We left La Betulia, and headed right, the only out of the cul-de-sac our B&B was in. Uphill about half a block was a road which made a sharp 90 degree turn, allowing us to keep climbing straight to the next street. There, we paused as I pointed out a few landmarks she would need to know when to turn back into La Betulia.

“See on the street sign pole there, it says ‘Es Mas Facil’? And over there, the community development office? This is the only turn you’ll have to make, to the right, first block after the busy street you’ll have to cross just uphill. I pointed out all these key landmarks to her, and waited to see if she understood. She seemed satisfied, so off we went, still trudging up the concrete hill towards the parking garage. There, we snaked under a corner, and emerged onto the ramp leading from the highway. Turning left, we hit the sidewalk, and continued up towards the stairs leading to the pedestrian overpass. I reminded her we had come that way on our walk a few days ago.

“OK, I’m going to start running now. The mirador is about a quarter mile ahead, just at the top of the hill. You can see the whole city, the sunrise, everything from there. Then just turn around and come back this way when you’r e done. When you get to the ramp, just follow it down to the street” – there was really only one way to go – “ and then head back across the busy road, turn right at the next street. Remember, Es Mas Facil?”

“Don’t worry about me, just go ahead and run, OK?”

“OK, I’ll maybe see you on my way back, or run into you as you’re heading downhill, huh?”

Off I went, plodding up to the mirador, then down about a half a mile to where the slope got really steep. I wanted to turn around and be sure to catch up with her, just in case she started to get lost.

But when I got to the Mirador, she wasn’t there. The sun still hadn’t risen over the eastern mountains, but the day was starting cloudy, without much color, and no promise of a real sunrise in the works. I figured she’d probably just looked around, realised there was no photo available, and got back home. It had been probably ten minutes, no more, since I had left her. I thought I would run into her soon as I headed back.

I trotted back down the way I came, growing increasingly concerned when I didn’t see her ahead of me. By the time I hit La Betulia, I was convinced something was seriously wrong. Like she had been kidnapped. I’d read about kidnappings of opportunity, where tourists, or even rich-seeming locals, are highjacked and driven to an ATM for quick cash, or held until their relatives can come up with some dough.

Nervously, I unlocked La Betulia’s front door, and turned right to say, “Hola” to the short, friendly cook staff, busily preparing that morning’s meal.?

“Me esposa es aqui” I tried. Heads nodding no.

In our room, I called her name. Nothing. I searched in her purse, and her phone. I was a bit relieved, because if she were kidnapped, my phone would have been useless, it not being turned on for foreign travel.

But hers was, and so I raced back out the door, this time running up the hill, all the way to the Mirador, playing out scenarios in my head. Should I call the Policia? Would Daniel, our “concierge”, know what to do? How would anyone find her in this maze of a city? Would she realise I had her phone, and get them to call me? How much money would they want? What would I tell our children? How had I let this happen; why hadn’t I just stayed with her at the mirador?

She wasn’t there again, nor anywhere along the route, even on the other side of the garage, where we had walked several days before. I ran back down to La Betulia, convinced I would need to go into emergency mode very soon.

Again, the service staff denied seeing her. But when I got back into our room, there she was – asking what had happened to her phone?

“I took it.”

“Why would you take my phone!!!?” she demanded.

“I thought you were kidnapped. When I didn’t see you at the viewpoint, and you were anywhere along the route back, and not here even, I took the phone and went back up to the mirador…I wanted to make sure the kidnappers could get ahold of me, you know my phone doesn’t work, so I took yours,” I breathlessly spit out.

She laughed, and returned the hug I’d started in relief. “I got lost. I guess I didn’t see where to turn. I got lost, and when I hit the T intersection, I knew I’d gone too far.”

“But how did I miss you?”

“I just turned around at the viewpoint, came down here, got lost, then found my way back about five minutes ago.”

“Well, I guess I know now how much I worry about you – how much I care for you. I don’t want to lose you, you know.”

“I know.”

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Running in Oaxaca

“You really ought to come with me to my photography course in Oaxaca,” Cheryl announced.

“Uh, I’ll think about it…” My usual delay tactic. New ideas take some time to seep into my head, especially when I’ve got some momentum on another track. Like wanting to do another Ironman in October or November.

But I checked the participants in those late season races, and found that I might have some real competition. I knew I needed a rest, more spiritual than physical, more emotional than mental, from trying once again to be Number One at an all day endurance event. I next looked at half-Ironman races – “70.3” – and discovered that the conflicting one in Arizona was already filled.

“We can take a Spanish immersion language course – stay with a host family, and really learn Spanish. Annie and I did it 15 yers ago . She really enjoyed it, and I think you would, too.” Cheryl kept pushing. Clearly I was not going to find an easy weasel out of this. I was looking at going back to Cuba, without her, next March, and then on to Spain in April. It might actually be useful to have some practical Spanish available in my brain.

After what seemed like months of tortured delays, I finally admited I would have to go to Oaxaca. No races pulled me away. Keeping on the good side of my wife outweighed any fear I might have of foreign travel. And the weather down there promised to be, well, perfect.

Oaxaca sits in the midst of the Isthmus of Mexico, a narrowing between the Caribbean and the Pacific, where the country bends eastward after falling to the south below the Rio Grande. Set about 18 degrees above the equator, farther south than Hawaii or Cuba, Oaxaca enjoys a sumer monsoon much like the Four Corners states in the US. Winds from the east bring warm moist air which meets the mountains rising upwards of 3,000 meters (13,000 feet), causing frequent afternoon summer thundershowers to fall into the fertile valleys below, at about 5,000 feet. The storms peter out around mid-October, just about the time we would arrive. This is not the the Sonoran or the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico. The hills are verdant, with evergreens growing up their slopes; crops grow lustfully in the volcanic soil. Temperatures above 82 and below 50 are unusual at any time of year. The more I learned, the more my resignation at going became anticipation.

Cheryl’s primary motivation was Dia de Los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead festival which achieves full flower in Oaxaca’s Zapotec and other indigenous communities. She had signed up for a week-long photography course centered on capturing the festivities in the village cemetaries. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a fifth wheel to that, so I begged off, and we compromised on a ten day day visit for me: three days of sightseeing, then then five days in Spanish school, plus a day of travel on either end.

One wrinkle cropped up, though. I had, for reasons still obscure to me, begun a program of daily running, hoping to make 100 days straight. This started September 2nd, and our trip was planned for October 19-28, just when I would be revving into the meat of the streak. I poured over the internet, scouting the area via Google Maps satellite view, reading reports from traveling and ex-pat runners, and wondering just how I might get from our lodgings to some place runnable.

Oaxaca, like most cities in Mexico, combines a Spanish colonial core, replete with cathedral, temple, and hacienda style closed-courtyard dwellings in the center of town, surrounded by an aggregation of metastatic growth along the valley and crawling up the hills. Streets are narrow, sidewalks sometimes blocked, houses mostly one or two story cinderblock or concrete shell – many with rebar sticking up, like multiple tiny chimneys. There really isn’t any place to run in the urbanized zone. Cars, pedestrians, buildings, and markets take up all the available space.

But I noticed just to the west and north of the Zona Turistica a park-like area, called Cerro del Fontin. A four-lane road traversed the southern edge. An observatory, planetarium, and auditorium occupied the southern section, and trails led into the brush north of there. This looked promising.

Our first morning in town, therefore, I went out at sunrise from our B&B (more of a boutique hotel) to see if I might continue my streak somewhere close. I walked uphill several blocks and found a three story parking structure, for the Auditorio Guelaguetza, just on the edge of the highway. Just as Google Street View had shown, a narrow sidewalk hugged the road, protected from the rush hour traffic by bright yellow railing. On the top of the garage, a small set of exercise machines was in use by several early morning devotees. Dog walkers, strollers, and even a few runners braved the fumes, noise, and headlights on the sidewalk. I dutifully ran from one end of this little path to the other, and garnered about 3 miles with an out and back which included a serious hill of 8-10 % for nearly a mile, smack in the middle. But the views of the city and the sunrise were uplifting.

Later that morning, Cheryl and I came back up, crossing over the highway on one of three pedestrian bridges which had clearly made life safer for the local citizens. We walked up to the planetarium, down and around the auditorio. She was entranced by the view, and vowed to come up at sunrise “in a day or two” to try her hand at early morning  photography.

(to be continued)

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The Sufferfest

Our Endurance Nation coach posted a link to The Sufferfest, a new cycling app which uses the full spectrum of a rider’s power profile to design personalized workouts. He asked for thoughts, and I provided mine:

In recent years, we haven’t talked much if at all about attics and ceilings and roofs. To refresh for new members…think of your bike fitness as a single story house with a peaked roof. Your one hour functional power (FTP) is the ceiling of that first floor. As you grow in your cycling strength – as your FTP increases – you are raising that first floor ceiling. Eventually, you find that you have used up most of the available vertical space in the attic, and you need a higher roof to accommodate your improving FTP. How do you raise that roof/make a bigger attic? By working on energy systems which enable more work at higher wattages, things like 5 minute and 1 minute power. To add the 5 second power to the analogy, well, maybe that’s the steeple?

Anyway, looking back at my triathlon career I had built a multi-year “base” of long distance cycling (multi-day tours, including one summer crossing the USA), and bike commuting to work 20 miles daily. Then, I got involved in triathlons, including off-road Xterra, and increased my mountain biking, which involved a bursts of sheer anaerobic terror trying to get up gnarly short steep climbs. I had my best Ironman cycling when I was mixing a lot of mountain biking into my training.

Point being, I think that building strength for explosive climbing or sprinting – which is what the 5 second and 1 minute (and all the spots in between) stuff is all about – will have a benefit even for 112 mile time trialists. We need look no further than the Tour de France, Giro, and Vuelta for confirmation. The winner of those events will almost always be the cyclist who can not only keep up with the strongest climbers, and even win summit finishes, but also translate that high end power into prolonged steady state effort.

After a seven year absence, I’ve gotten back into mountain biking this Fall, in Colorado and Washington. After discounting strength loss due to aging, I’ve found I still have some explosive pop in the legs after a year of mostly long (2+ hours) steady rides @ 0.72-0.82 IF. But I also sense that continuing to add that sort of work will pay dividends on the half and full Ironman race courses. It’s not about becoming able to simply go up hills harder. I believe in the rigid rule that “For every minute you go anaerobic on the bike (i.e., exceed about 0.9/0.95IF), you lose three minutes on the run”. The ability to succeed at shorter, harder efforts is still adding to sustained efforts.

My conclusion: Our energy systems are not compartmentalized; every one of those zones from 5 seconds to 5 hours uses ALL of our neuromuscular energy systems, just to varying degrees at each gradation. Ignoring any of them will result in less overall speed at any step along that progression. The trick is to find a way to incorporate them into a training plan. Frequency, amount, timing, all relative to the ultimate race goal, are the variables which need to be fine-tuned.

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Bay of Crabs – II

I pulled out of Giron with Yoany, Tony and John. The narrow two lane road out of town hugged the coastline for 25 km the entire way to Playa Larga at the head of the bay. To our right, a scrub forest. To our left, occasional glimpses of the sea, calm under a placid blue sky. Heat was already filling the air with oppressive moisture lifted from the Bay, but traveling at 35 kph gave us a cooling breeze. Our little paceline hummed along nicely for 15 minutes or so.

Then, Yoany started to jerk and weave over the road. I noticed menacing shapes skitter across road, just outside my direct line of sight.

Every year, in early Spring just after the first rains, millions of land crabs mate in the forest surrounding the Bay of Pigs. A few weeks later, they begin a miles-long journey to lay their eggs at the edge of the sea. Then, they return home to burrows in the swampy forest. These guys are red, orange or tan, very tropical looking. About the size of my palm, they feature 8 legs, two additional appendages ending in symmetrical claws, and protruding eyes atop a scowling dark face.

At first, we tried to avoid them. I guess we felt sorry for the fate of those who, while trying to escape our approach, managed to “ping” themselves into our spokes, getting sliced in the process. Eventually, we realised that resistance was futile, and just powered through the hordes. Crab juice sprayed up from our rear wheels, and it was not unlike riding in a storm. Following close, one behind risked getting slightly soaked.

After a few miles of this, we stopped, re-grouped, and shared intelligence.

“I hear they have to get to the sea to lay their eggs.”

“I wonder if it’s just the females we’re hitting, or if the males come too?”

“You know, I found it’s best if you don’t try to avoid them. Hope they keep moving; if there’s one right in front of you, he’ll scoot right away before you get there.”

“Look at my tires – at my seat tube – it’s covered with crab guts!”

“Yeah, and your back has a crab stripe up the middle!”

“Have you noticed they try to scare us?”

“Right. Some of them stop in front of us, and spread their arms wide. I guess they think we’d be frightened of those claws.”

“It seems so pathetic. They do that in front of cars and busses, too. Hah! They don’t have a chance.”

“I saw one of them eating the meat out of the claw of a dead one. Just like we’d do.”

In Playa Larga, we turned right, to the north. When we arrived at the designated meeting point of Guama, I announced I was turning around, heading back to meet up with Cheryl riding with the slower group. She rolled up, followed by Alejandro.

“OK, we stop in Guama, to see the crocodilos there, OK?” Apparently, the Natural Park of the Zapata Peninsula through which we had been riding is home to the largest collection of crocodiles in Cuba. Multiple species of the caiman variety are kept here, 100,000 animals in all, separated by size in their various pools. This was to be the day’s Mandatory Cultural Tour.

I had ridden an extra 22 km, and was having none of it. I stayed in the shade, watched the bikes, and contemplated my can of Ciego Montero cola along with three other curmudgeons and their Bucanero beers, while Cheryl took the Disney-like tour of the farm.

She returned with tails of dancing with crocodiles, including a cute little baby whom she tried on for a hat.

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Bay of Crabs – Part I

After our tour of Cienfuegos, we hopped on our bikes just outside of town,  and began a three hour, 85 kilometer cruise heading towards Playa Giron. Most of the ride was across a desolate swampy plain, along a nearly deserted road barely the width of two trucks. Cotton-ball cumulus clouds surrounded us, but the sun shone relentlessly, with temperatures into the low 30s (nearly 90F). By this time, despite daily applications of sunscreen, my forearms were getting a deep, crinkly brown, tender to the touch. Among the many items I did not bring, I own a pair of thin white nylon arm “coolers”, which could have served as superb sun shields. In desperation, I turned to the pair of compression calf sleeves I’d worn on the flights over. Inside out, they looked a bit like a fluffy tuxedo shirt under my cycling kit.

I spent much of the day riding with the “boys” (a group of 60-something ex-bike racers and endurance athletes), but the bleakness of the road and balmy air conspired to drop me off the back after after 15-30 minutes. I’d catch up every time we re-started, but much of the time, it was just me, the donkey carts, a few pedestrians, an old Lada or two, and the occasional truck bus crammed with passengers.

We rode through San Blas, headed towards Playa Giron. The final 15 miles were due south towards the Sea. About 30 minutes out of Giron, we began to see sandstone-red blotches atop the tarmac, about 4 or 5 inches across, looking a lot like discarded bubble gum was which had been spit out and run over by endless vehicles.

We pulled into a small outdoor café and gathered under the palapa, sharing generic colas and Bucaneros (Cuba is one of the few places on earth you won’t find Coke for sale).

“What were those red blobs we’ve been riding over?” someone asked.

“They look like chewing gum somebody spit out, but they’re too big,“ I ventured.

“No, I think those are crabs,” someone else offered.

“Crabs?”

“Yeah, I read they grow all over the beach around the bays in southern Cuba. They have to go inland to lay their eggs or something, or maybe that’s where they make their babies, I forget. Anyway, there are so few cars and trucks, they haven’t had enough selection pressure to keep them out of harm’s way, and they keep getting smashed.”

“Huh. Crabs. I thought this was the Bay of ‘Pigs’.”

The Bay of Pigs. To those of us of a certain age, this was a legendary fiasco. After Castro took control of the country in January, 1959, he was at first embraced by some in our country as a democratic savior for the Cuban people, overthrowing the repressive dictator Batista. Over the next year or so, as more middle and upper class Cubans fled their country for Miami, it became apparent that he had meant what he said about changing the power structure on the island. More and more firms were nationalized, houses of the rich were seized, large landholdings were absorbed into government control. The ex-patriates descending on Florida included some who wanted to “take back” their country. They looked to Castro himself for their inspiration. Fidel and a small band of rebels had fled the country after an ignominious defeat in 1953, ending up in Veracruz, Mexico. They purchased a small boat, the “Granma”, overloaded it with fighters and supplies, and barely escaped into the mountains when they landed on the island’s southern shores several years later.

When President Eisenhower recognized the change in Castro’s political tone, he authorized the CIA to join forces with Florida-based anti-Castro groups, and a fighting force was assembled, trained, and eventually sent to Cuba by President Kennedy in April of 1961. They landed in the Bahia de Cochinos, and the rest, as they say is history.

At the southern end of the Bay, near our seaside hotel in Giron, the Cuban government has proudly established a museum dedicated to telling their side of the story. Several tanks and a propeller plane flank the entrance. Alejandro assembled our little peloton, and urged us to visit the place. I shuddered at the thought, and stayed outside.

Castro’s revolution was founded in part on a belief that the United States wanted to subjugate the Cuban people, and supported the Batista regime as it battled against the rebels. It was Castro’s belief that the US government needed a pliable island government to enable American corporations to control the Cuban economy for their own benefit, through agriculture and tourism. The small number of well-connected rich did very well, at the expense of most of the populace, with the bulk of profits ending up offshore to the north.

Thus, the US was depicted as a foreign enemy of the Cuban people. The foiled invasion in the Bay of Pigs, coming early in the Castro regime, served to cement that view with actual proof of the US intentions towards the new Cuban government. Ever since, it has held a solemn place in the hearts of true believers there, much as, say, the War of 1812, where our national anthem was penned, has in ours.

Eventually, I rode back to the hotel parking lot, and helped Juan and a few other resistors line up the bikes for the group‘s eventual return. We planned to head north along the Bay that morning, to meet up in Playa Larga, and a promised alligator farm.

(To Be Cont’d)

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Cienfuegos

Tacoma, Washington; Etzatlan, Mexico; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Kingston, Ontario; Bahia Blanca, Argentina; Saint-Nazaire, France; Contagem, Brazil. What could they possibly have in common? All are “Sister Cities” of Cienfuegos, Cuba. Which means our visit there was high on the must-see list, seeing as how we’ve spent half our lives just across the Narrows from Tacoma, and have attended the local conclave honoring that relationship several times. We’d heard a lot about the local baseball team, as one of our friends has played with the Tacoma side in the annual exhibition matches. So when our tour bus rolled by the local baseball stadium – every town of any size in Cuba has a local baseball stadium – I rushed to the window, just in time to capture the proud mascot – a trumpeting elephant?

After our beach stay the previous night, we drove up and through Trinidad, to a load-out on the outskirts of town. After an hour cruising along the Caribbean shore in sultry morning breezes (all at our back, of course) we turned inland over some low hills, heading for Our Mandatory Cultural Stop, the Jardin Botanica at Pepito Tey.

The hills and rising heat had taken some of the friskiness out of our crew, who were ready not for a tour of local flora, but a few rounds of Bucaneros. Our bikes ended up strewn haphazardly across the entrance to a little open air café attached to the Jardin, where a lone guitarist tried to raise our spirits.

From there, of course, we slithered back down hill towards the Sea, across some lonely flats, heading for the hotel at Rancho Playa Luna, which turned out to be another Soviet block two story monstrosity.

I had pacelined in with two others and Yoany, and we enjoyed a languid wait for the bus, our day clothes, and remaining ride companions.

Next morning we headed back into Cienfuegos, where Alejandro tried manfully to direct our attention to the sumptuous Spanish Colonial architecture everywhere on display. We dutifully took a few pictures, but at the final stop, he found himself all alone when no one followed him into some forgettable edifice hard by the bay.

Juan turned the bus around, and we ended the Tour at Plaza Jose Marti (like baseball stadia, there’s one in every town.) Jose, the “George Washington of Cuba”, stares into the middle distance from his pedestal.

On our short walking tour out from the Plaza, Aly again attempted to relate the history of the town and its importance in Cuban history, but all I had eyes for were these three cars: a Purple Jaguar, and black ’59 Plymouth with archetypal fins, and (in my mind), the piece de resistance, a 1955 red and white Chevrolet.

        

Back in the early ‘70s, when cars from the ‘50s were still quite common in the US, I moved from the Northeast to Southern California. There, a subset of the local Hispanic culture venerated this particular model, modifying it to iconic status. With lights in the wheel wheels, little fuzzy balls dangling from the inside of the windshield, hydraulically controlled rear shocks with raised and lowered the rear end (giving the “low-rider” effect), the “Pipty-Pibe Chebby” was every young Chicano’s dream car.

Above the carefully maintained and gloriously painted vehicles surrounding the Plaza, Che rose beatifically above it all.

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Life’s A Beach

Cuba is an island. A very big island, sure, but it’s completely surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, on the northwest, the Caribbean, on the south, and the Atlantic, to the northeast. That means literally thousands of miles of beaches, all of them basking in tropical sunshine, flanked by palm trees. It should be a tourist’s paradise, right? Especially with 320,000,000 of the richest people on the planet just a short plane hop away.

Since the Communist revolution, though, the major source of tourism was, first, the Soviet Union, and now, Canadians. Both are famed for their frozen tundra and prolonged winters. So they flocked to the sunshine. In the 70s, the Soviets built a whole chain of massive hotels, in the major towns and along the nearby beaches. Unlike American tourist resorts, these are fortress-like, housing the sun-seekers in concrete blocks with cafeteria eateries and shoddy workmanship. Every bathroom, it seemed, was set at a slight tilt to the main floor, resulting in doors which never closed properly. Many toilets lacked seats (though they do flush). But given the proclivities of both the Cuban and Russian peoples, bars are plentiful – 2 or 3 in every lobby.

We left Las Tunas early, expecting a long bus ride across the Llanara de Camaguey – the vast central plain of the island. Mid-morning, we stopped in the town of Camaguey for an obligatory cultural tour, consisting primarily of a Mr. Toad’s wild ride in a careening collection of bici-taxis.

Eventually, we came to Sancti Spiritus, did a quick load out, and headed toward Trinidad, and its adjacent beach resort, Playa Ancon. It was on this leg that I first began to appreciate the wonder that is Cuban cycling, at least on our trip.  Because of the trades, the wind was usually at our back. And because we spent a lot of time heading for the beach each night, we ended up going downhill a lot.

Once at the beach, Cheryl and I realised we’d made a grave strategic error in planning the trip. We’d thought it was all about bicycling and getting to know Cuba. But we’d forgotten that part about it being an island. So while we had swim suits, of sorts, we’d neglected to bring swim goggles. Paddling around the salty waters was a little bit tougher without eye protection. But beach life beckoned, and we gave it a go. True to form, the water felt just like Hawaii. While returning from the beach, we chatted up another English-speaker. She was from Toronto, and raved about the package deals available. For under $600 Canadian (about $500 US), she’d gotten airfare, and a week’s stay at the Hotel Ancon. Given the deserted roads for cycling, the warm weather for running, and the endless ocean for swimming, it sounded like an ideal locale for someone to train in their final weeks before the Hawaii Ironman, all for the price of two nights’ in a condo on the Big Island.

That night, we had another obligatory cultural experience. Juan drove us all back into Trinidad, 15 kilometers inland, where we searched for the mythic Casa de Musica, which apparently exists in every Cuban town. All the seats were filled, so we headed a few doors down, to another Casa de Musica. About $5 to get in and less than that for a drink. A local band exuberantly filled the outdoor space with trumpet, bass, organ and drums. A few of the younger tourists (or were they locals?) got up to dance, and we felt a little closer to life in the Socialist Paradise.

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Las Tunas Junior Cycling Team

We left Bayamo, The City Of Horse Carriages, mid-morning after driving from the carriage factory to the outskirts of town. Juan pulled into the “terminal” – a dusty wedge in a Y intersection – of Las Mangas. We milled around, checking bikes, sharing rumors. Today, in anticipation of our rendezvous with the local junior cycling team, we were all in our matching Cuba bike shirts.

Alejandro announced, “OK, today we ride with the cycling team, from Las Tunas. We meet them at Vado del Yeso.”

“Vado del Yeso…Vado del Yeso…” I mumbled over and over to myself. Cuba is bereft of signage, even the largest cities identified with a modest 2 foot long blue city limits sign on the way in. When leaving, there was always its sibling, the town name with a red slash through it, saying, “It’s all over now, Folks.”  They were easy to miss.

Vado del Yeso was about 30 kilometers away – a little over an hour at our pace. We were aided by the constant tailwind we enjoyed traveling east to west, and the ever-so-slight downhill the whole way. Our pace line made quick work across the crusty pavement, beneath the floating puffy clouds lining the horizon, enhancing the cotton-soft feel of the tropical low land air.

In Vado, we pulled off to the left, and waited for our slower companions, our bus, and the local team. Naturally, this required at least 4 Bucaneros shared by three of our riders. I was the designated driver, so I refrained. As more cyclists filled the lot, it became apparent that the team was … all girls. All teenagers. Young and vibrant, glowing in their varied kit, mostly donated from the States. Our beer-drinking pace line snuck back to the toilet. By the time we returned, the bulk of the group had already headed down the road. Not wanting to be dead last, I jumped on my bike, and turned on my camera.

The road turned from a gentle downhill to a false flat, every so slightly rising 100 meters over the final 32 kilometers. I saw a lean rider streak by me on the left – clearly not one of ours, she wore a dark shirt, and seemed on a mission to catch the front of the group. To my side, I noticed another young cyclist creeping up. She started asking me questions, in Spanish. I tried my best to explain how little I understood, but she persisted, She also stuck with me for the next few kilometers, until it finally dawned on me that she had been assigned to me. Each of us, apparently had our own minder, who was going to ride, however slow or fast with us the whole way into town.

I sped up; she sped up. I tried to catch the folks in front of me; she half-wheeled me into the pavement. It was frankly a bit embarrassing to be trying my hardest, and have this little spit of a kid keeping pace, waiting for me to actually get going.

I looked around frantically for a way out of this. I like riding in silence; I’m not one of those chatting roadies, who can’t shut up while pedaling. I tried explaining (in the meagre Spanish at my disposal) that my wife was behind me, and I would wait for her. I told my minder to go on ahead. She seemed to understand, and reluctantly rode off.

In less than two minutes, Cheryl rolled up, her bright orange vest hiding the “Cuba” emblazoned on her white cycling jersey, her cute little cycling skirt fluttering about her thighs.

“Thank God you’re here!”

“What?”

“Well, didn’t one of the girls ride with you?” I asked.

“No, I was the last one to leave I guess. I looked up, and everyone was gone!”

“I think each of the girls is riding with one of us. I tried talking with mine, but couldn’t get a mutual understanding. Maybe she’d rather ride with you. You can at least understand a little Spanish. You’ll like it – she just wants to go your speed, take you into town.”

We negotiated briefly, made the exchange, and off I went. Within minutes, I caught up to a clutch of our slower cyclists, each riding with his or her own minder. Flowing along two-by-two, they filled the entire lane of the narrow Cuban highway. No matter, as usual, they had no competition for the space, and the few trucks out driving moved all the way over into the opposite lane, confident no cars were coming for miles anyway.

The group looked a little stressed – it was over 30 C, and they seemed starting to melt. I zipped up to the head, and offered what little help I could with my puny draft. At 12 mph, up a hill, with a tail wind, I think it was more psychological than anything else. But we all got to the top together, and cruised in the last few miles to town.

At the hotel, Alejandro encouraged us to collect all the donations we had brought for the team. We piled in an eclectic collection of bike parts and uniforms: cranks, stems, chain rings, cassettes, lubes, bibs, shirts, socks, tires, tubes, spokes and assorted tools. We jammed it all into the largest duffel bag we had, and headed out to the bus.

Juan expertly moved left and right along the impossibly narrow lanes depositing us at a gated driveway in the middle of a warren of two story concrete homes. Music blared from the back yard, wafting along with smoke from a giant barbeque pit. We trundled out of the bus and through a rusted iron gate. To our left, on a small concrete patch covered by a corrugated metal roof, a wrinkled grey-haired woman, crooked with age, slowly rocked in a wicker chair. To our right, a narrow path guided us around back. There, an entire pig was slowly turning on a spit, constantly basted by an attentive chef, who had also been the girls’ coach.

They had transformed themselves from determined young athletes – they boasted the Cuban junior women’s champ among them – into shy and giggly teen-aged girls. Scrubbed and brushed and slithered into short shirts and scanty tops, they could have been out for a night on the town. Instead, they had to party with a bunch of geriatric sun-burnt cycling bums from the USA.

We opened up the duffel, and proudly displayed our motley collection of hand-me-downs. Given the onerous import restrictions in the Cuban economy, this was better than Christmas for the cycling team. They modestly acknowledged our gifts, and started discreetly fighting over who would wear what jerseys; size appeared to matter less than audacious color schemes.

We toasted each other with fruit juice (for the girls), ron and Bucaneros (for the old goats), and vowed eternal friendship. Large slabs of pork were handed all around, along with piles of bread and salad. I don’t know if they ate this way every day, but it’s certainly possible, given how hard and long they seemed to cycle – their ticket to another world, maybe, which drove them so hard.

Our party barely fit shoulder to shoulder in the tiny patio back behind the squat socialist-issue concrete house. The food was swept away, more drinks appeared, and a boom box cranked up with driving island beats. The girls swayed, some of our crowd actually danced, and somehow the group no longer seemed incongruous. Just a bunch of peole who liked to bike, have a good time, and party on a tropical isle. The Cubans didn’t seem to mind either us or the cramped quarters. Their eyes lit up the night, and their laughter echoed towards us as we filed back onto the bus, promising to guide us out of town the next morning.

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Where Will Our (Kids’) Food Come From?

On Sunday, August 20th, the nets surrounding a fish farm in Washington State’s San Juan islands imploded, releasing over 150,000 domesticated Atlantic salmon. Fisherman of all persuasions, at the urging of state regulators and local native tribes, have been scooping up the escapees for two weeks now, with some of the non-native fish being found as far south as Olympia, below the Tacoma Narrows.

Cooke Aquaculture, owners of the farm, stated, ““exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” caused the damage. Cooke said the salmon escaped after a “structural failure” of a net pen.” Yeah, that’s right, blame it on the eclipse, which occurred 24 hours after the accident.

Fish farming is just one way we’re trying to increase our food supply, as Earth’s human population rises toward 10,000,000,000 by mid-century. With countries such as China getting richer, more animal protein comes into our diet. Wild fish stocks are one source, but we’re already testing the capacity of our oceans to replenish what we catch. Feeding animals is a very inefficient way to turn sunlight into protein for human consumption. But getting people to eat soy burgers and fried grasshoppers, after they’ve tried beef and salmon, has not worked on a large scale.

So where will the food for our food come from? Farmed salmon eat a lot of other fish, just as their wild cousins do. Anchovies are ground into paste, then pellets, and fed to the trapped fish, swirling in their floating cages.

At least one large company, Cargill, is trying to cash in on what seems inevitable. It recently purchased a Silicon Valley firm, Calysta, which is developing an alternative. Using methanotrophic bacteria, they are turning natural gas into fish food, via the bacterial metabolism which converts methane into protein. It’s only a matter of time before they have scaled up the process, with Cargill behind it. This, after all, is the world’s biggest food-trading firm, and America’s largest private company, now 152 years old.

But wait, isn’t natural gas a non-renewable resource? How can this be the ultimate solution to running out of food for our food? So I thought, Hmm, where else does methane come from? Nearly 15% of the carbon released into the atmosphere from human activities comes from our herds of domestic beasts. With many cows now being fed the unused portion of other cattle which is left over in the abattoirs, they are already eating animal protein as a significant part of their diet, along with hay and grass.

I can see it now – row after row of beef cattle inside a giant air-conditioned metal “barn”. Coming in – hay slurries and bacterial byproduct protein. Coming out – methane, which is then re-fed to the little germs. Cows eating their own farts!

But Wait! There’s More! in my vision. Cows have four stomachs, right? They have special bacteria inside which help them break down the cellulose they eat from hay into useful protein and then expel methane waste. Why not just eliminate the middle man? Harvest those methane-generating bacteria. Feed them the hay, skim off the useful protein, suck up the methane, and send it down the line to those methanotrophs. Who make more protein. Which all can then be fed to the farmed salmon, After we figure out a way to keep them locked up where we want them, of course.

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