Who Says You Can’t Go Home … To the House at Pooh Corner?

A fantastic new movie opened this past weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: Disney’s Christopher Robin. Take a look at the trailer:

The film is essentially a spin-off from the classic stories by A.A. Milne. As you probably know, these stories were inspired by the imaginative games that his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, played with his stuffed animals. These stories were among my favorites as a kid, and I always sensed a special bond with the main character because we shared the same first name. It was lots of fun to read all twenty of the stories again about a year and a half ago, with my own son (then aged seven), and watch him enjoy them as thoroughly as I had. I’d add that the more recently you’ve read the classic stories, the more you’ll appreciate some of the references in the movie.

The “Christopher Robin” in the stories was of course a fictionalized version of the real-life boy. The film takes the fictional Christoper Robin (note that “Robin” is his surname, not a middle name) and shows what happened to him after the conclusion of the final classic story, when Christopher Robin must leave his animal friends behind in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Warning: minor set-up plot spoilers, mostly fleshing out the trailer, ahead.]

Twenty years or so pass fairly quickly; we see him attend boarding school, fall in love, start a family, serve in World War II, and come home safely from that war to his wife and young daughter.

The heart of the story takes place in the late 1940s, with the daughter not much older than Christopher himself was when he left for boarding school. He’s now a workaholic who’s managed to claw his way up to middle management at a luggage company in London. He rarely makes it home for dinner with his family. The Hundred Acre Wood is long forgotten.

The key conflict arises when Christopher’s upper class twit of a boss informs him, on a Friday afternoon, that he must come in to work all weekend. The problem is, Christopher and his wife had longstanding plans to take their daughter on holiday in the country that weekend. He must choose … and he senses he doesn’t have any real option other than to stay.

Christopher’s wife seems unsurprised by his decision. She and the daughter (who had been very much looking forward to spending the weekend with her father, and is of course devastated by this turn of events) go to the cabin in the countryside by themselves.

As we watch Christopher trudge through a Saturday full of paperwork, we want to reach through the screen, shake him by the shoulders, and shout: “Look at yourself! What’s happened to you?”

We, of course, can’t physically reach Christopher. But a Bear of Very Little Brain might just be able to do it. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, a crisis has arisen — and Winnie the Pooh (fantastically animated and voiced, by the way) thinks Christopher Robin is the only one who can solve it. He goes looking for his long lost friend, and through a miracle of fantasy stumbles upon a one-way portal to London.

The movie trailer implies that at this point, Christopher sort of drops everything and runs off to the Hundred Acre Wood to save the day. Without giving any spoilers … his transformation is more gradual. I thought the pacing of his change was realistic – and perfect. Along the way, we realize that the Silly Old Bear’s real mission isn’t to save his friends back in the Wood. It’s to save Christopher Robin – in more ways than one.

Kids will enjoy this movie a lot. My eight-and-a-half-year-old son certainly did, and so did the other kids at the theater. The CGI animals are a delight (I particularly enjoyed Eeyore).  It’s a fun story, and the collision of the animals with the outside world is especially so. Don’t be concerned by the PG rating; apart from the brief wartime scenes and explosions, which might frighten the youngest kids, there really isn’t anything inappropriate for older children. The rating seems due more to the nature of the story; some kids may need some “guidance” in understanding why Christopher Robin spends so much time at work and so little time with his family, or what the conflicts between his boss and the employees are all about.

And that gets us to something larger: as much as kids will enjoy this movie, it really isn’t a “kid movie.” The true target audience is middle-aged folks. Especially parents, and especially men. The struggle to balance professional responsibilities with family responsibilities is a tough one, especially for those of us who are self-employed and find it nearly impossible to completely disconnect.

And, yes, sometimes work does have to “win,” particularly if we have a known busy season. Hay really does have to be made while the sun shines. The harvest does have to be brought in when it can be brought in. And it’s not just farming. My father ran a retail clothing store when I was a kid; between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we rarely saw him. That was tough on all of us, but we always knew things would slow down and we’d get Dad back. My own family has come to understand the same thing about public opinion research consulting; September and October can be a blur, but things quiet down after the first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday in November.

The problem is when work becomes something we habitually choose to immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of family, and to the point where we can’t say “no.” Work often provides tangible rewards and (especially) recognition more immediately than spending time with family does. That can become alluring. It can also ruin what’s most truly rewarding about life. Sometimes, what we really need is some time away in the Hundred Acre Wood.

I was surprised at the depth of emotions this movie stirred in me, and how thoroughly it stirred them. From conversations I’ve had with others, I know I’m far from alone. Don’t be afraid to take a handkerchief, and don’t be afraid to use it. I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally spent — but in a deeply satisfying way.  The story had taken me to a place which, like Christopher Robin, I had forgotten even existed: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest (and in my heart) where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I hope the story takes you there as well.


One Week. Two Babies

I don’t simply dislike celebrity culture. I actively avoid it. Award shows, Oscar nominations, celebrity deaths, celebrity scandals … I can’t change the channel or click off the page fast enough. I even try to pick the lane at the grocery store with the fewest tabloids displayed.

That said, I confess there is one young celebrity to whom I pay attention, whenever he happens to be in the news. I became interested in him purely by an accident of timing, and in a sense against my will. But because of how that initial interest came about, I’ve subsequently found him difficult to ignore.

His name? George Alexander Louis, AKA “Prince George of Cambridge.” With the start of school this past week, he’s been back in the news — and back on my mind.

But why? Why would The Yeoman Farmer be the slightest bit interested in a toddler on the other side of the world? A toddler whom his family will never meet?

As I said, it was an accident of timing.

Our youngest daughter, “Little Miss Sweetness,” was born in mid-July of 2013. She arrived nearly six weeks early, and was immediately transferred to the NICU for observation. That afternoon, a test revealed she had several holes in her heart; these would require open heart surgery in a few months to patch. The hospital ran this test because they strongly suspected our daughter had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), a diagnosis which was later confirmed with further testing, and heart defects are common in newborns with DS.

As none of these issues had been detected prenatally, or even previously suspected, to say we were in shock would be an understatement.

While we were still processing these twin bombshells, the next day we learned she had an even more immediate problem: duodenal atresia, or a blockage of the connection between her stomach and intestines. As with heart defects, it’s also common in newborns with DS. She was immediately scheduled for gastrointestinal surgery the next morning.

The procedure went perfectly, but required a nearly month-long stay in the NICU for recovery. This was obviously an extremely stressful period for our whole family, with many emotional ups and downs. Longtime readers may remember the article I wrote about the experience (Stage Six: Joy), and the follow-up article (Breaking the Circle of Sadness) I wrote a year later.

That month also included even more long hours of doing nothing but waiting, and watching television. One of the biggest stories of that slow news month came when Little Miss Sweetness was just a week or so old: the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, third in line to the British throne. With nothing else in the news, coverage of the event seemed unending — particularly after the royal family returned home and this official photo was released:


Meanwhile, back in Michigan, even being able to hold our newborn required a major assist from NICU staff (on account of all the lines she was hooked up to). On virtually the same day the above photo was taken, this was us:

BabyAtHospital July 2013.jpg

As I held my daughter in that windowless cell of a hospital room, I couldn’t help sensing the enormity of the gulf between our situation and that of the royal family half a world away. It wasn’t a feeling of sorrow at what we were going through. It was more an overwhelming sense of distance between the Perfect Royal Baby, object of the world’s interest and acclaim … and our Little Miss Sweetness, greatest shining treasure of our family, but an absolute zero in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. (Or even less than zero … as you might imagine, the recent reports about Iceland boasting of eliminating babies like our daughter hit particularly close to home.)

It would’ve been easy to have sunk into self-pity, or even jealousy. Instead, as I contemplated the gulf between “the world’s” values and the little person who was of so much value to our family, it only made me all the more fiercely devoted to that little person. I wanted to pour out all the more of myself for her, and give her all the more of my time and attention. I didn’t think it was possible to love her any more intensely than I already did. But that’s precisely where the celebrity news out of London ended up leading me.

And that’s why I still pay attention to news about this one particular London celebrity, and why I’ll probably always have a soft spot for Prince George. Every story about him takes me back to those weeks which were so critical for the life of our own family. Every story about him reminds me of that long-ago coverage, which led me to an even greater devotion to Little Miss Sweetness. And all those reminders help make me all the more devoted to her even now.


Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The longer we live on the farm, the more we learn the truth of certain expressions and cliches. In this case: you really do have to make hay while the sun shines. If the stuff gets rained on after it’s been mowed and allowed to dry in the field, you’re at serious risk of losing the whole cutting. You may be able to flip it over and let it dry again, but if you rake it too many times it may begin to crumble. And if the rainy weather continues for too long, the whole thing could rot in the field.

It’s really remarkable just how many people have been bringing in hay around here the last couple of weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect for it, and we’ve seen one field after another get cut, raked, baled, and hauled. On our long bicycle rides on quiet country roads, my daughter and I have had front row seats to the action. And I must say: there are few aromas as wonderful as that of freshly-cut alfalfa, drying in a field.

Our hay field is only about four and a half acres. When we have a year of good harvests, it supplies enough for our sheep and goats to make it through the winter. When the harvests haven’t been so great, we’ve had to buy some additional hay from others. And sometimes, we’ve bought some additional hay just for our own peace of mind; you really can’t have too much of it, and the worst time to fall short is in the dead of winter.

The best time to make a purchase is immediately after harvest, when loaded hay wagons are coming out of the fields. The farmer can then deliver it straight to your own barn, without having to unload it into his own barn (and then load it back up again at some later date). And the best way to learn of farmers who have some extra hay they’d like to sell straight off the wagon? Word of mouth. Put the word out that you’re looking for a hundred bales, and you’ll learn of someone who’d be happy to supply it.

Fortunately, it looks like we won’t be having to make any purchases this year. Our field was overdue for fertilizer, which we finally got applied this spring. Our local grain elevator / feed store contracts with a laboratory to test soil, so we submitted a sample from our hay field (drawn from many small test holes dug all over it). The report came back with recommendations, which we were of course able to buy from the same local grain elevator. We had a local farmer apply those tons of fertilizer using a spreader pulled behind his tractor.

That same farmer is the person we’ve hired to do our hay since we moved here. For an operation as small as ours, it hasn’t made sense to buy our own tractor and haying equipment — not to mention the time and practice it would take to learn how to use that equipment properly. It’s a classic example of the value of the division of labor. It makes much more sense for us to hire someone who’s already invested in that equipment, and who has years of experience providing this service for other small farmers in the area.

Back to the fertilizer: it really did its job. We got an explosion of growth, and the grass was thick on the ground after our guy cut it late last week. He returned to rake and flip it, and with the hot weather it didn’t take long to dry.

But what about the final piece of the puzzle? We still needed to get the hay baled and brought into the barn. Neither he nor we like to do work of any kind on Sundays, but this time it didn’t look like we had much of a choice. He had another field that absolutely had to be baled on Monday. I had a commitment for work, with a hard deadline, on Tuesday (today). That left Wednesday — but the forecast was calling for rain before then.

Sunday it would have to be. He came by very early in the morning, before church, to rake the hay one more time. Then, in mid-afternoon, he returned with everything needed to bale it. He and an assistant drove the tractor and piled bales on the hay wagon, then towed it into the upstairs portion of our barn. While the three oldest Yeoman Farm Children and I stacked all those bales, he and his assistant returned to the field to begin loading another wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hay harvest

Bringing in hay is among the toughest jobs on a farm. The bales are heavy and scratchy, usually have to be hefted high into place for storage (note the stack in the photo above reaches higher than the basketball hoop), and almost by definition this all has to be done while it’s really hot outside. When we finally got the last of the 330 bales put up, just ahead of the sun sinking into the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and satisfaction. It’s one of the most thorough and gratifying feelings of exhaustion a person can experience. And, of course, there’s nothing quite as nice as going out the next morning and looking out on a perfectly clean field, illuminated by the rising sun, and remembering that it’s all finished. At least until the next cutting, later this summer.

Clean field

As much as I dislike having to do this kind of hard work on Sundays, I suppose the experience did bring one benefit: it helped me appreciate the degree to which Sunday has become a true “day of rest” for us to enjoy with family. The first several years we were married, we didn’t really treat Sunday much differently than Saturday (other than going to church). Then, after a time of reading and discernment, we realized that we needed to make a radical change. Due much to the initiative of Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, we “took back” Sunday for the family. Unless there were some truly urgent necessity, there would be no shopping. No professional work for my clients. No garden work. No butchering animals. No other hard work around the farm. It has been incredibly liberating, and brought tremendous good for our family. Having to disrupt that routine this weekend, to bring the hay in while the sun was shining, reminded me what a treasure the rest of our Sundays are.

One More Pearl Harbor Story

With today being the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, you’re no doubt reaching overload on stories commemorating the event. I’m hoping you can indulge me for a few minutes while I share just one more: our family’s.

My grandfather, Philip Gerhing, was a career Navy man. He enlisted in 1931, shortly after graduating from high school, remained on active duty until 1952, and then worked for the Navy as a civilian until his eventual retirement in the early 1970s. Growing up, my grandparents’ house was a trove of artwork and knickknacks that he’d brought home from all over the world (especially the far East).

In December of 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor and serving as a “pharmacist’s mate.” My understanding is that he worked in the base hospital, assisting those who ran the pharmacy. He and my grandmother had three kids at the time: my mother (a few months shy of her fourth birthday), and her two brothers (aged five and two-and-a-half). My grandmother and the kids were living on the base with him, having come out to Hawaii on a civilian passenger ship to join him in early July.

Shortly before 8 am, seventy-five years ago, my grandfather had just finished an overnight shift at the base hospital. He was waiting for a shuttle to take him home, when he heard the drone of a large number of low-flying aircraft. He looked up, and said his first thought was: “Somebody sure did a sloppy job of painting those planes!” Of course, a moment later, when the bombs began dropping, he realized that the “sloppy paint” patterns were Japanese rising sun emblems.


Given that he was on his way home, and home wasn’t far, he continued on. He stayed at the house for just long enough to make sure his family was alright — and then went straight back to work. He seldom talked about what he did the rest of that day, but it generally involved assisting the medical staff in treating the wounded. My mother recalls him talking about being inside, and looking up, and noticing that large chunks of the building were missing.

Meanwhile, back home, my grandmother had three small kids to protect — plus some neighbor kids, who happened to be over. She pushed a large sofa in front of the window, and tried to keep the children entertained in the midst of the attack. Bombs were falling all over the neighborhood, as the family housing units were literally right on the base. Had so many of the bombs not been duds, the civilian death toll would have been much higher. One bomb in particular landed on the house next door to my grandparents’ house; had it gone off, there was apparently enough ordinance to level the block.

One thing that both of my grandparents told me: the Japanese planes were coming in so low, they could see the faces of the pilots. By far the most disconcerting part is that many of the pilots were looking down at them and smiling as they dropped their deadly payloads.

My mother, being just three years old at the time, has only hazy memories from that day — and my grandparents didn’t talk a lot about it. But for me, while growing up, having had family at Pearl Harbor personalized the event in a way that a history book could never do. And what’s really cool is that when the attack was over, my grandparents gathered up a collection of small artifacts (mostly shrapnel and parachute fragments). My mother had a small box with these historical souvenirs, and as a kid I remember being in awe every time she would bring it out. I became a junior Pearl Harbor buff, and read everything I could about the event.

There’s another chapter to the Pearl Harbor story, which is seldom discussed: what happened to the servicemen’s families afterwards. With a war now underway, and with the assumption that Hawaii itself would be a battleground, the Navy wanted to minimize the number of civilians in the area. In the weeks after the “day which will live in infamy,” the women and children  were loaded on passenger ships and evacuated to the mainland. The journey took upwards of a week, and for my grandmother it was a nightmare. Their ship was packed with women and small children, beyond its typical carrying capacity. The kids had very little to do, and the mothers were afraid to let them simply run around; it would be too easy to get lost or fall overboard. My grandmother ended up tethering her three kids together, so she could keep better track of them.

I never got all the details from her, but by all accounts it was an absolute nightmare of a trip. What made it even worse was the sense that they were sitting ducks, alone on this boat out in the middle of the ocean, days from anywhere. There were no naval escort ships. There were no patrol aircraft. The passenger ship of course had no anti-aircraft guns or other defenses. Everyone was fully expecting Japanese forces to materialize on the horizon, and send them to the bottom of the ocean.

This article has a nice summary of the civilian evacuation. What’s interesting is that the ship mentioned in the article, the S.S. Lurline, was the one my grandmother and her kids sailed on to get to Hawaii six months earlier. (I know they weren’t on it with the subject of this article, going back to the mainland, because they had no destroyer escort like is mentioned in the article.)

As a palate cleanser, I’ll leave you with this wonderful human interest story, about the oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor who was on active duty that day. He’s 104, and a couple of years ago resolved to keep himself in good enough shape to not only live to see the 75th anniversary, but to be strong enough to make the trip to Hawaii for today’s ceremonies:

He’s two years younger than my grandfather. Grandpa kept himself in incredible shape, and didn’t pass away until a few months short of his 95th birthday, but to my knowledge never went back to Hawaii for any of the commemorations. However, I’m sure my grandfather will be there in spirit with everyone today.

Full Cycle

My new novel has just been published!

Full Cycle tells the story of eleven-year-old Alex Peterson, whose physical disability makes him the least-athletic boy in his school. When he first hears about the 200-mile Seattle to Portland (STP) bicycle ride, he’s immediately intrigued and inspired — and begins dreaming of how he might somehow be able to take part. He soon discovers that the key lies in getting his father, Rob, to return to the sport and train with him as a partner. Over the course of the next year, the two of them end up on an adventure (both on and off the bike) to places that neither could have gotten to on his own.

Full Cycle Front Cover

Is this a story about cycling? Of course. But, more than that, it’s a story about growing up. About growing together as father and son. About overcoming what we think are disabilities. About supporting and encouraging our kids when they strive to push beyond their limits. It’s a story about pursuing a crazy dream — and how much more meaningful that pursuit can be when it’s shared with someone else. Above all, this is a story about family. It’s a story for everyone, no matter how many or how few miles you rode your bike last year.

Every novelist draws on his or her own experiences when writing. I’ve been an avid cyclist since my youth, and loved the freedom it gave to go as far as my own efforts would take me. However, when kids started coming along, I found it increasingly difficult to put in the training miles necessary for the ultramarathon events I’d been doing. Late in the year our second child was born, I chose to hang the bike up. Only when the kids grew older, and became interested in riding, did I reconsider. We ended up buying a tandem, which proved to be the perfect way to ride together.

Homeschooled Farm Girl got bitten by the long distance cycling bug as badly as I did as a young adolescent, and her enthusiasm got me back in the sport full force. By the time she turned ten or eleven, she was already wanting to travel with me to Seattle to ride STP. She got her wish when, the year she turned twelve, our whole family went to the Pacific Northwest for a summer vacation. She did 130 of the 202 miles with me on our tandem — and would have done the whole thing, if her brothers hadn’t wanted their own turns. In many ways, her dedication inspired me to tell the story of Alex and Rob.

Above all, I’m indebted to my kids (and HFG in particular) for helping me discover that sports don’t have to be a wedge that divides parents from kids. Sports don’t have to be something that parents pursue on their own. Sports don’t have to consume the family’s time and attention, as parents shuttle kids all over creation to practices and games. Sports, done right, can bring parents and kids together.

And in that vein, I wrote Full Cycle to be enjoyed by parents and kids alike. It’s completely G-rated. It includes no profanity, no sensuality, and no violence. I wanted to be able to share it with my own kids. It is not a “young adult” (YA) novel, however; it has an adult-level vocabulary and length, and does not follow YA conventions. It’s an adult-level book. But, that said, adolescents and pre-teens who enjoy reading beyond the typical “YA” genre will enjoy it a lot. It’s a fast-paced story, and a quick read.

Full Cycle is available in print at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format at Amazon.

StoKid Riding High

With Spring weather here at last, Homeschooled Farm Girl (age almost 17) and I have been logging big miles on our bikes. We’re preparing for the Calvin’s Challenge 12-Hour race, approximately one month from now, and hoping to beat the 188.5 miles we managed to do last year.

The younger kids want to get in on the fun, but of course can’t keep up. The 13 year old is probably going to inherit HFG’s old Trek road bike; he’s taken it out a few times, and really likes it, even though he’s not in good enough shape to keep up with HFG (who got a new road bike over the winter). Little Brother (age 6) keeps begging to ride with us as well. What’s a dad to do?

The sixteen year old and I got out for 38+ miles early this afternoon. We thoroughly enjoyed the sunny, 50 degree March weather, especially given that most of our route was on quiet rural roads. Would a few more degrees have been nicer? Sure. But we had plenty enough clothing to be comfortable. I took my vintage Basso Gap road bike, as a fun change of pace, and was barely able to keep up HFG.

We got home, and then it was the boys’ turn to join us for an additional six miles. Big Brother is still getting the hang of his sister’s old road bike, so that’s plenty of miles for him for now. And as far as Little Brother goes … I don’t want to take him on too long of a ride too soon, and have him get discouraged. So, six miles is plenty for him as well.

How does a cyclist dad take a six-year-old on a six mile ride? In a such a way that the six-year-old can be a full participant, and not just a passenger?

Behold, our Co-Motion tandem bike:


I’ve zoomed in on the drivetrain, so you can get a better idea as to how it works. Each rider has a set of cranks. Mine (the “captain”), up front, are connected to the “stoker” cranks in the rear via a long chain on the left side of the bike. There is a regular set of chainrings and sprokets on the right side, just like any other bike would have.

If Big Brother were riding stoker, that would be the end of the story. However, Little Brother’s legs are way too short to reach the pedals at the bottom. That’s where the child conversion kit comes in. Notice that I’ve bolted an additional set of cranks to the tandem frame, just under the stoker’s seat. These are connected by the vertical chain to a second chainring on the lower left cranks.

Child Kit 2016

This whole kit can be attached, or removed, in about five minutes. The upper cranks are held in place by four hex bolts. All I have to do is remove them, remove the cranks, and the vertical chain simply slips off. Add a set of pedals to the main cranks at the bottom, adjust the seat height, and we’re in business for a new stoker. (The second chainring just stays in place; it isn’t interfering with anything, so it doesn’t need to be removed.)

Did Little Brother enjoy his first ride today? Oh, yeah! He had an absolute blast, cranking his pedals, as we flew along country roads. Yes, the captain supplies a huge proportion of the power. But that’s okay. StoKid is giving it everything he can. Best of all, he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up with Dad. And he’s close enough to carry on a conversation.

Our speed was naturally slower than what HFG and I rode earlier in the afternoon. And that’s fine. I still got a plenty-good workout, pedaling this beast. I sure enjoyed the change of pace. And the enthusiastic waves we got from other little kids as we cruised past them. And, above all, the smiles my StoKid gave.

Here’s hoping we have many more in the months to come.

Seattle to Portland 2015

I try to get out to Seattle at least once a year, to catch up with family and old friends. Whenever possible, I time the trip to coincide with my favorite ultramarathon cycling event: the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). It’s an unbelievably well-organized ride, with an extremely scenic (but relatively flat) course, which draws 10,000 participants every year. Most take two days to cover the 206 miles, but some of us crazies prefer to go the whole distance in a single day.

Why? I’ve done the two-day ride. Once. And, quite honestly, I think it’s easier to just keep going and pull all the way through to Portland before stopping. It’s a lot easier than riding a hundred miles, sleeping in a tent or on the floor of a church basement (if you’re not lucky enough to book a motel room, many of which sell out the summer before the event as soon as the dates are announced), and then getting up the next morning and climbing back on the bike and riding another hundred miles. I’ve done lots of hundred miles rides in my lifetime. I can’t remember a single time I woke up the next morning, even after sleeping in my own bed, and thought, “Hey! You know what would be a great idea? Going out for another century ride!” Some people mitigate this on STP by going past the midpoint on the first day, even as far as 140 or 150 miles, before stopping for the night. Still…I’d rather just be done with it and enjoy waking up in Portland. But to each his own.

Every year, after getting home, I put together a ride report / write-up of the trip. I’ve tried to include a number of details that would be especially relevant for other “out of towners” who may be considering going out to the Pacific Northwest for this terrific event.

This STP was more of a challenge than last year’s. Still a good, strong ride. Still one that I’m proud of and satisfied with. But various issues conspired to make it take about an hour longer than last year’s “perfect,” best-of-my-life, sub-12 hour STP. (For the record, this was my 16th STP, and 15th one day ride).

My flight got in to Sea-Tac at 10:30am on Thursday the 9th. The Pacific NW has had a terrible drought this year, and it was visible from the air. I always book a window seat on the left side of the plane, so I can admire the Cascades coming in. It hadn’t rained for weeks, making the air so hazy that I could hardly even see the mountains. Never seen the Seattle area looking so brown and dead. No green lawns anywhere.

I caught a bus to Bellevue, which took about 40 minutes. My cousin met me at the stop; I’d shipped the bike to her house, and she’d been holding it for me. We chatted for an hour or so, and enjoyed some lunch, while I assembled the bike on her back porch.

I took the Falcon, which is my “rain bike.” I have another bike (a custom Curtlo) which is much better, and which I’ve taken the last two years, but decided on the Falcon this time for several reasons:

  • It is all steel, and the least likely to get damaged in shipment (no carbon fork).
  • If it were to get damaged or lost, it wouldn’t be as bad as losing my best bike.
  • It’s worth less, so the package costs less to insure.
  • My daughter and I were doing a big race in Illinois just one week after STP, and I definitely wanted my best bike for that. If I’d taken the Curtlo to Seattle and the return shipment were delayed, or if the bike were damaged coming home, that wouldn’t have been possible. Also, if I’d taken the Curtlo, I’d have been scrambling to reassemble it the same day we were to leave for Illinois ─ with no time to test or tweak it.More intangibly, the Falcon is a cool retro bike that would be the only one of its kind on STP. Black, lugged Reynolds 531 frameset, with all silver Campagnolo components from the 8-speed era, including a fluted aero seatpost. Looks straight out of the early 90s.

    And…this bike is completely “carbon free.” There isn’t a single carbon fiber component anywhere on the bike. Don’t get me wrong: I love the carbon fork, crankset, seat post, and other components on some of my other bikes. It’s just that there was something kind of fun about shedding all of it for this big event. Not to mention the personal challenge of seeing how well I could do on a sub-optimal machine. Riding along next to so many bikes that seemed to be dripping carbon fiber, I actually felt a little like a rebel.

    The one “modern / performance” concession was my Rolf Prima Elan clincher wheelset, with 8 cogs from a 10s Veloce cassette respaced to match the Campy 8s drivetrain. Gearing was 53 x 39 up front, with 12-21 in the back. In past years, 39×21 was barely adequate for the STP course. This year was no exception. I never had to walk the bike, but there were some climbs where I was standing and stomping on the pedals, and a 23T cog would’ve been much appreciated ─ and I would’ve used it if I’d had it. Still, I must admit that riding such a tight gear cluster was fun, and did add to the challenge of taking the Falcon. 

    Right before shipping the bike, I installed two brand new Continental Grand Prix 4000S II 700×23 tires. Wanted to do everything I could to avoid flats.

    The shipping cost to Seattle from Michigan was about $70 each way. That $140 total is less than the $150 cost of taking it ONE way on Delta (and most other airlines). Using a cardboard box from the bike shop, cut down slightly, kept it just under the “oversize” limit. It protected the old steel bike just fine (i.e. no hard case necessary).

    All my clothes fit in a backpack, so I was able to ride the bike from my cousin’s house to where I was staying in the University District. However, the pack was heavy and a pain to ride with. Worse, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the I-90 bike trail that goes across Lake Washington. Rode up and down the east side of the lake in the hot afternoon sun, heavy pack on my back, trying to follow GPS instructions on my phone. Wasted lots of time, and was exhausted by the time I got to my hotel at 4pm or so.

    What I may do next time, and what I would recommend to those who don’t have family in the Seattle area, is to ship the bike to a shop in the University District and have it assembled / tuned up. That service typically costs around $100, and the bike would be waiting. Just make sure you find a shop that will agree to hold the shipping carton for you, and that will be open on Sunday so you can get the box back after the ride. (Or make sure you have some other place to store it.)

    This year, I tried a different lodging alternative: The College Inn, on the corner of 40th and University. It’s essentially a glorified Hostel. The room was the smallest I’ve ever seen, with just enough room for a bed, tiny table, and sink. Barely had space to park my bike. The restroom was down the hall. However, the price was only $75 per night. My total stay cost less than a single night at the Travelodge, where I’ve often stayed in the past (and the Travelodge is no great luxury resort, either). It was even less than the cost to stay in a UW dorm room, which Cascade arranges for STP participants. The College Inn had a nice breakfast spread in their spacious 4th floor lounge area. Also, Friday night, almost everyone there was doing STP, so there was a great sense of camaraderie.

    I logged roughly 2,650 total training miles this year leading up to STP, slightly less than last year. Longest rides were the National 24 Hour Challenge, a month earlier (323 miles), and Calvin’s Challenge (188.5 miles) in May, but otherwise didn’t break the century mark on any given training ride. On Friday, I took two nice and easy rides: six or so miles down to REI and back (to pick up my rider packet), and then a longer ride up the Burke Gilman trail to Bothell and back. Altogether, I logged around 40 miles and averaged just 14 MPH. I wasn’t really feeling that great; the weather was pretty warm, I was still tired from the previous day’s exertions, and didn’t have a lot of energy. I think I was also dehydrated. Still enjoyed pedaling around my home town, and resolved to simply go slow and soak in the sights. No rush. No appointments.  I got a pizza for dinner back in the U-District, and got to bed early.

    On a typical STP or other ultramarathon event, almost all of my fuel is liquid – a mix of Hammer HEED and Hammer vegan protein powder. I make a big batch, using 1 scoop protein (large scoops) for every four small scoops of HEED. Then, I use one and a half small scoops of blended powder per bottle. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t bring enough with me this time ─ only five servings. This caused me to ration it at the beginning, which impacted my performance.

    I started the ride with one bottle of fuel mix, and one bottle of plain water (to ration the fuel mix). I figured that would be enough fluid to make it all the way to my first main rest stop. I also carried a flask of Hammer Gel, which was plenty for the whole ride.

    I did bring plenty of Hammer supplements, and was quite regular in taking them. They made a big difference. I carried a tube of Endurolytes capsules, and had at least one or two per hour. I also carried ten tiny plastic bags, with a “serving” of supplements in each: one Race Caps Supreme, one Endurolytes, one Endurance Amino, and two Anti-Fatigue Caps. Having these pre-packaged saved a lot of time and hassle. I took one serving approximately every hour. Never developed cramps, or suffered any symptoms of electrolyte depletion.

    I used a Jandd seat pack, which is fairly large and designed for tubulars, but not too large. That gave room for two spare tubes, three tire levers, and a multi-tool ─ with plenty of space left for all the supplements and drink powder. I always carried a few servings of supplements in my pockets, but left as much as possible in the pack. I hate carrying weight on my back.


    The College Inn opened up their free breakfast at 3am on Saturday, so all of us STPers could get something to eat. I got up at 3:25am, and enjoyed a nice conversation with a couple from Portland, who were riding for the first time (two-day ride), while I drank my coffee-with-Hammer-Gel-mixed-in. Also ate a few fig bars, and took all the pre-ride supplements that Hammer recommends for an hour before a big event.

    Since I’d put everything in order the night before, there was very little else to worry about in the morning. Was able to leave about ten minutes after 4am, and it was an easy half-mile ride from The College Inn to the start line, even with the large pack balanced on my back.

    Used the toilet, put my backpack on the truck for Portland, and was in line to depart ten minutes before the official start.

    The weather was comfortable at the start ─ around 60 degrees ─ and overcast. Because rain showers were forecast for later that morning, I took a rain jacket bundled up in a pocket. I can best describe the weather as one of those “blah” Pacific NW days where it can’t really figure out what it wants to do. Cloudy a lot of the time. Some rain. Then some sun. Never quite as warm as you’d like it to be (low-to-mid sixties all morning, and never got much above 70 even by late afternoon). Never quite sure if those clouds are going to get thick enough to drop rain on you. And so on. And so on. I used a flashing red taillight all day long, just to increase my visibility.

    I crossed under the start line timer at 4:46, in the very first group released from the start. I wore Hammer shorts, low-cut socks, and short-fingered gloves. Wore my 1995 California Triple Crown jersey, which I figured would be a nice 20thanniversary thing. Shouldn’t wear this one again, though: its pockets are on the small side, and limited what I could carry. Was tough even making the rain jacket fit. Still, was fun greeting the handful of other people wearing Triple Crown jerseys who I saw along the way.

    The opening miles were less crowded than usual, and I saw very few people without bib numbers (i.e. unregistered riders). The first 24 miles went by just as fast as any other year: I arrived at the REI food stop in Kent after an hour and 15 minutes, but didn’t stop this time ─ and I don’t think I’ll ever stop there in the future. I did have to make a brief stop in Puyallup, about 41 miles in, but just to use the toilet.

    The Hill, 43 miles in, was again no problem. Everyone makes a big deal about it, because it’s a 7% grade that goes on for a mile. Sure, that’s no day at the beach…but I think the difficulty is a bit over-rated. I was able to climb it using a 39×21 (though I did have to stand on the pedals at times), and passed a lot of people going up. I actually look forward to The Hill as a nice way to break up the course. 

    I rode with some good, fast groups of people both before and after The Hill. Made very good time (19.5 MPH) on this whole section from Kent to the 57-mile rest stop, and often felt like I was flying.

    This year, the course bypassed Spanaway and went through the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). Very cool addition to the event, and very interesting getting to see what a military base looks like “behind the scenes.” The roads were flat and virtually empty of traffic, and only registered riders with bib numbers were allowed through the gate. The rest stop was at a large park in the middle of the base, and they’d put out lots of vintage aircraft and other military hardware for us to look at. I used the toilet, got a sandwich and some cookies, and filled one of my bottles with drink mix. Topped the other off with water, to have just in case I ran out of drink mix before the next big stop.

    Connected with another good group after the rest stop, and rode with them through the remainder of the military base. I had to drop off the back eventually, though, because they were just too fast for me and I was burning out. I connected with another group soon enough, and continued at a good 19+ MPH pace. The nice thing about doing a double century with 2,000+ other people is that you’re virtually never alone on the course. There’s always lots of people to ride with, draft off of, and keep you company.

    When I got to Yelm, I decided to stay on SR-507 rather than going onto the bike trail like most people do. I’ve found the trail to be just too slow, what with having to ease up and check crossings all the time. Also, the trail is a bit narrow, and all the other bike traffic makes me nervous. Like last year, I wanted to put my head down on the aero bars and hammer. Unlike last year, though, this time lots of other people were with me on the highway. Good to see that so many others were making the same calculus about the trail. We made good time all the way to where we rejoined the trail going into Tenino.
    About 5-10 miles outside Centralia, around 10am, as forecast, it finally started to rain. Just a few sprinkles initially. Didn’t want to interrupt my momentum, and I wasn’t sure the rain was going to continue, so at first didn’t pull over to put on my rain jacket. Then it started falling harder and harder, and water was accumulating on the roadway. I found a safe place to pull off the road, put on my jacket, and got going again. It continued raining all the way into the Centralia rest stop, but then let up. The rain turned out to be more of an annoyance than anything else ─ but there was no way to know that ahead of time. I was glad to have had the rain jacket, even though I could’ve easily managed without it. (And many other people did manage just fine without rain gear.)
    My drivetrain had been shifting poorly all morning, and I’d just sort of “put up with it”. By the time I got to Centralia, I decided I’d had enough. Took it to the Performance Bike Shop booth, where they had several mechanics on duty. A nice young guy got working on my bike right away, and it didn’t take him long to get the derailleur adjusted perfectly. He also noticed that my chain was about a link too long, and asked if I’d like it cut down. Absolutely, I said. As he worked, I joked about those rate schedules that some repair shops post, with the highest prices if “you already fixed it yourself.” Well, I continued, self-deprecating … I’d swapped out that chain myself about a month ago ─ and clearly hadn’t done it correctly. He laughed and replied that “It’s people like you that keep us in business.” All very good-natured and fun back-and-forth as he worked. The service was free, but I made sure to leave a generous tip in his jar. The bike ran absolutely perfectly all the rest of the way to Portland, and my only regret was not getting the drivetrain checked out by a mechanic earlier.

    I called the family, and gave them a quick update as to how things were going. Then quickly did everything else I needed to do. Stashed the rain jacket back in my pocket. Filled one bottle with drink mix, and the other bottle with the Nuun electrolyte drink they had available. Since the weather wasn’t terribly hot, so I figured those two bottles would get me through to Lexington. I’d start with the Hammer mix, and switch to the Nuun stuff when I ran out. The Nuun stuff turned out to be pretty good. I still prefer my Hammer fuel mix, but the Nuun drink was definitely better than water.

    I’d been averaging over 19 MPH all day, but slowed down significantly after Centralia. Only averaged 17.9 MPH for this section, significantly less than last year’s 19.2. Part of it was the groups I rode with weren’t as fast, but more than that … I just didn’t have as much energy. The weather was comfortable, but a bit cooler than I would’ve liked. Getting wet from the rain wasn’t fun, either. Also, we had some headwinds. Not huge gusts, but strong enough so I was feeling it.
    Stopped at the Winlock mini-stop (mile 123) for one of their awesome hamburgers. Was really starting to crave protein at that point, and the burger hit the spot nicely. Also felt good to be off the bike for a few minutes, and enjoy the sunshine that was peeking out. It was right around Winlock that I decided not to care about my ride time or results today, and to just enjoy the event. Live in the present moment. There was no rush to finish and catch a bus back to Seattle. I wasn’t meeting anyone in Portland. I decided to just relax, have a burger, and get back on the bike whenever I felt ready.
    I reached the Lexington rest stop (mile 147) sometime after 1pm, feeling on the tired side. Part of the reason: my bike. I like the Falcon, but it doesn’t have the same perfect fit as my Curtlo. This was by far the longest I’ve ever ridden the Falcon in a single day, and all those little mis-fits were starting to add up. And even though I’d mounted aero bars and adjusted them as best I could, they didn’t feel quite right. As a result, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in that efficient position as in previous years. Also, this is the longest I’ve ridden on a bike with a steel fork in many years. I’d forgotten just how nicely a carbon fork dampens the road vibration. Over the course of so many miles, that extra vibration was adding up. I could feel it in my hands, especially, but also in my shoulders.
    At the Lexington rest stop, I went overboard porking out on the delicious wrap sandwiches they had. They were so good, and hit the spot so perfectly, I just wanted to keep eating them! I think I had a total of three or four. Lost count. Also had a couple of macadamia nut cookies, which likewise tasted so good I felt like I could eat a dozen of them. Pulled out of the Lexington stop a little before 2pm, with my stomach hurting a bit from having eaten so much.
    Going through Longview and Kelso, approaching the Oregon border, temps were in the low-to-mid sixties, and there was a definite headwind. And then it started raining again. Part of the sky was clear, so I wasn’t sure how long the rain would last. I decided to pull over and put my jacket on again, before it got too wet. Of course, right then, it almost immediately stopped raining. I left the jacket on anyway.
    The climb up and over the Lewis and Clark bridge went smoothly; I didn’t get stuck behind anyone this time, at least not for long. As always, it was was a blast being so high up above the Columbia River and getting to see the view. Very fast descent down the other side.
    The stretch to St Helens wasn’t bad, but wasn’t especially fun either. The winds died down, so that was good. But the jacket was starting to get uncomfortable, especially with all the climbing on Highway 30, so I pulled over near Gobble to remove it. My hands and shoulders were also getting increasingly sore, from the road vibration. My average speed for this section was only 17.2 MPH. That’s the slowest of the day, and much slower than the 19.7 MPH I managed through here last year.
    I was ready for a good stop at St. Helens High School (mile 177). I filled both bottles with ice water and the last two servings of Hammer drink mix. Had some watermelon, which tasted great, but bypassed the wrap sandwiches. They were the same type as in Lexington, and looked delicious, but my stomach was still a little upset from how much I’d stuffed myself with earlier.
    Pulled out of the St. Helens stop just before 4pm. Back on Highway 30, I was getting tired but did manage to settle into a good pace. Met up with a nice group going the same pace, which made the miles seem to roll by faster. One of the guys in the group was riding a custom wood-frame bike. Very cool, and a great conversation-starter. Lots of people were asking him about it.
    I left St. Helens with two full bottles of fuel mix for the final 30 mile stretch, but only drank one of them. The second was completely full at the finish. Just another sign of how much cooler it was this year than last year. At least I didn’t have to make any water stops at all in this section (unlike both of the past two years)!
    The climb up to the St. John’s Bridge was a killer, but I managed to do it in the 39×21 gear (this is where a 23T really would’ve been nice). From there, it was the usual nine or ten miles of riding through city streets to the finish.
    My overall time through this section, from St Helens to the finish, was about a minute and a half faster than last year. It was as tedious as ever, especially the stretch through city streets, with all the stopping at red lights, but this time I felt less stressed ─ perhaps because I wasn’t rushing to beat an ambitious time goal, and was instead focused on enjoying cruising to the finish.
    A few miles from the end, a panhandler was sitting in the concrete median at an intersection. Instead of giving him money, I emptied my jersey pockets of surplus granola and Cliff bars. He seemed grateful. I hoped a lot of other cyclists would think to do the same.
    Rolled across the finish with a HUGE smile on my face at 5:43 pm, or 15.90 MPH on total elapsed time. No matter how many times I do the STP, or how tired I am, the sense of pure joy at the end is the same.
    I was the 56th fastest of the 252 finishers who used timing chips (the fastest rider with a timing chip was 10:26), giving me an official elapsed time of 12:57:08. In terms of time on the bike, it was 11:12:50. That means I was off the bike, or at stop lights, for about an hour and three quarters.
    At the finish


    At the finish line, I dropped my bike for a free cleaning at the WD-40 booth; they did a really nice job getting all the road grime off. Picked up my bag, then ate a Hammer recovery bar and took all the post-workout supplements Hammer recommends. I got some Mexican food and a Coke using the $10 food voucher that was included in the price of the ride; it wasn’t as much food as I would’ve liked, but enough to quell my appetite for a bit. Finally, stopped by the Cascade booth and got my free t-shirt, which was also included in the price of the ride this year.
    Rode a few blocks to the Motel 6, and checked in. The clerk said I was one of the first STPers to get there, which made me feel better about my ride time. Took a good long shower, changed clothes, and realized I was still very hungry. Walked a couple of blocks to Burgerville, and got a bacon cheeseburger with fries. Tasted great, and I drank a ton of water with it. Didn’t realize just how thirsty I was. Walked back to the motel, and went to bed early.
    Woke up at 6:30am or so, feeling tired but not especially sore. Went to the 7am Mass at Holy Rosary church, a beautiful place just a few blocks from my motel. That finished up around 7:45am. Got a few sausage burritos and an order of hashbrowns at McDonald’s, and a big cup of coffee at Starbucks across the street. Then went back to the motel, got my bike, and rode across the bridge to downtown Portland so I could pick up a rental car at Hertz. Drove back to the motel, got my stuff, and was on the road soon after.
    A little north of Tacoma, I took state roads to work my way north and east to Carnation. Went to Remlinger Farms, parked, and took a nice 15 mile recovery ride around that area. Rode my bike across the Tolt River, then south through Snoqualmie Valley farmland. The sun had come out in full glory, and I savored every moment pedaling along my favorite roads.
    I drove from there to my cousin’s house in Bellevue, where several family members had gathered for a cookout. It was absolutely wonderful spending a Sunday afternoon with them and getting caught up. We grilled some chicken and lamb chops that I’d brought out from the farm, and we enjoyed a goat cheddar that Mrs Yeoman Farmer had made from our own milk and had aged in our basement for a full year. 
    After dinner, I packed up the bike in the same cardboard box I’d shipped it out in, and dropped it at FedEx on Bellevue Way. Drove across I-90 to Seattle, and then drove around downtown seeing the sights. Took Highway 99 down to Sea-Tac, arriving plenty early for my red-eye flight home. Getting through the airport and security went much faster this year than last, so I had a lot of time to kill at the gate. Boarded as soon as my section was called, settled into my window seat, and was asleep as the wheels went up.

    Overall, a fantastic trip! Can hardly wait to go back again next year!