Kid cycling 101

Bike clubs such as Triangle-based TORC encourage kids to ride with free mountain bike races.

A key victim of these fearful times: Fewer kids riding bikes. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, there was a dramatic decline in the number of kids riding bikes from 1998 to 2007: the number of 12-17 year-olds riding dropped 16.9 percent and the number of 7-11 year-olds dropped an incredible 29.9 percent. Two primary factors are driving those numbers: One, kids who are allowed to stay in their rooms plugged into an electronic device and two, parents fearful of letting their kids out of their sight. Both reasons are contributing to a growing number of our children growing too much.

My premise is that if kids are ... encouraged to ride, they will love it. And that encouragement must come from one source: their parents, who must overcome their fear factor. Alllll that said, here’s an introduction to the Thursday evening Family Fun Ride Clinics being offered at Performance Bicycle stores nationwide. The clinics begin at 6 p.m., last about an hour and go over things such as safety, bike maintenance, good places to ride in your area, help — of course — on finding the right gear. (Unfortunately, as Clay at the local Performance here in Cary tells us, there is no actual ride. A liability thing, we presume.)

Even if you don’t own bikes, stop by, ask questions. A little knowledge could set you and your family off on a summer of healthy two-wheel togetherness. If you live in the Triangle, you’ll find Performance stores in Cary and Chapel Hill. For other locations, click here

Recommended reading: Billing the right person for health care costs

Looking for a sponsor for, say, your mountain bike team? Go to your boss and tell her it will lower the company's health care costs.

Jeff P. passes along an emerging trend piece from The New York Times: “Getting Healthy, With a Little Help From The Boss.”

As the headline may suggest, employers are getting more aggressive about encouraging workers to live healthier. Lots of reasons this makes sense — healthier employees miss less work, for one. But the main reason is to control rising health insurance costs. Quoting the article: “According to a January survey by the benefits consulting firm Hewitt Associates, nearly two-thirds of large employers planned to transfer more costs to employees. At the same time, one-third planned to put greater emphasis on wellness plans — programs that encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles.”

There’s some concern that some employers are using questionnaires about employees’ health habits to gain information that could be used against them on the job. (The questionnaires go directly to a third party, which can initiate an intervention on the unknowing employer’s behalf.) Mostly, the article addresses the growing number of wellness programs being launched by employers.

A good solution, the latter. Ultimately, though, the only thing that will force people to amend their unhealthy ways is direct accountability. In the case of lifestyle and health issues, that would involve people having to pay for illnesses and diseases directly attributable to their behavior. In some instances, because of genetics, that could be a challenge. But if you’re 75 pounds overweight and develop type 2 diabetes, there’s a pretty fair chance that that your lifestyle choices are to blame. And if that is the case, shouldn’t you be the one to pay for your behavior?


An hour a day, an epic a month

Chris Underhill with Friends of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail went with me on the first half of last week's epic.

I’m going to add to Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge’s premise in “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond” that an hour of good exercise a day is key to living a long, healthy life. Just as vital: Getting in one epic workout a month.


It’s a term mountain bikers know well: A ride that goes on forever, that you don’t want to end, and that you don’t realize how taxing it is until you’re at trail’s end and hoisting — or trying to hoist — your bike onto your car roof rack. But epic is a term that can apply to just about any pursuit, from walking and hiking to paddling to road biking to skateboarding to ... whatever elevates your heart rate for an extended period. Exercise for an extended period and your elevated metabolism will help you burn calories not just during exercise, but well beyond.

I first tapped into this epic phenomenon during the inaugural Cycle North Carolina. For two weeks, a couple hundred of us rode 55 to 70 miles a day. I wasn’t surprised that I could eat everything in sight during the ride; I was surprised, though, that my appetite continued without repercussions on the scale for another couple of weeks. It was like a car’s engine stuck on high idle at a stoplight, continuing to burn fuel without going anywhere. Into the third week, though, my “idle” dropped back to normal and the extra fuel I was still taking on began accumulating as fat. That’s why I try to do an epic a month.

Last year, for instance, I did a 56-mile mountain bike ride (on fire road) in May, a 37-mile, two-day backpack trip in June, a 23-mile mountain bike race (singletrack) in August, and a six-hour endurance mountain bike race in early October. I kept my metabolism revved for most of the summer, averaged a good hour a day of exercise between epics, didn’t pay much attention to my diet and stayed at 165 pounds (I’m 5’ 9”) into Thanksgiving. I’ve been exercising steadily since, but between winter’s lethargic pull, the demands of the job I used to have and, most importantly I believe, the absence of epics, my weight has crept up to 173. And so, I’m reviving my epic-a-month plan. Last week: I hiked 43 miles in two days on the Falls Lake section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail http://www.ncmst.org/hikingtrips.html , nearly 14 hours of hiking total.

One caveat to the epic: While your body may continue to demand and burn fuel at accelerated levels for several days, it may take a while to return to form. This morning, Alan, also coming off an epic in last week’s Assault on Mt. Mitchell, and I did what usually is a spirited and peppy hour-and-a-half to two-hour mountain bike ride at Umstead. It was neither — but it was still good.

Getting back on the horse always is. Even if you have a hard time getting the horse to move.


Five steps toward being Younger Next Year

So the answer to living long and enjoying it to the end is a modest investment of one hour of rigorous exercise a day, according to Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge in their book, “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond.” Do that, they say, and you can feel like you’re 50 into your 80s. But as Jeff P. commented after Wednesday’s post on the book, “The challenge is making it happen, everyday.”

Jeff is gainfully employed, self-employed, and has kids, which makes that one-hour investment a day a challenge. “I am currently at about an hour per session about 3 times a week — if I am lucky.” Another reason for those of us currently between work gigs to count ourselves lucky: It’s the perfect time to begin the routine of incorporating an hour of exercise into our daily routine. Still, as author Chris Crowley, who is retired, acknowledges, that can be tough. He offers a few suggestions to make the lifestyle transition easier.

1. Join a gym. “A lot of you are going to fight me on this, but you have to join a gym,” writes Crowley. Count me among the fighters. I used to belong to the Y and loved it. Then I got claustrophobic. Working out inside — be it swimming, the elliptical trainer or weights — didn’t work anymore. And with a full compliment of Gore-Tex raingear, I don’t let a little — or even a lot — of rain stop me. But Crowley’s logic on this is sound: “You need a place to go, like a job.” And being around other people working out is the added incentive many of us need. Plus, you’ll have access to classes and a big room full of people eager to offer advice. Now, my laid off brethren (and sisteren) are no doubt protesting that they just got laid off, they can’t afford to join a gym. It’s not as pricey to join a gym as you may think. Gyms recognize that the economy has put a crimp in our pocketbooks and have made it easier for us to get in the door. Some have waived joining fees. More significantly, many have dropped their long-term contracts and now allow people to join on a month-to-month basis.

2. Take a class. Two reasons, writes Crowley. “First, you’re more likely to go, because there’s a set time for class and that creates a certain discipline. Second, you’re far less likely to dog it once you get there.” Another reason or two. If you try something on your own and don’t care for it the first time, you’re more likely to give up on it. Commit to a class, though, and you’ll at least go a second time — and maybe discover that you like it. There’s also the built-in support network. Others will be suffering, too. You’ll have company. And, you’ll become proficient at whatever it is you’re taking. Gyms offer classes, but for good variety and a less aggressive environment check your parks and rec for classes it may offer.

3. Pick a workout time. Most of us are creatures of habit. If we drill into ourselves that we walk for an hour every day at 9 a.m. or do yoga at noon or take a bike ride at 3 p.m., after a while we’ll fall, lemminglike, into step. If you’re unemployed, you have the luxury of picking a time that works best for you. Some of us are morning people and thought of running 3 miles at 6 a.m. is just what we need to get us out of bed. To others the thought of an elevated heart rate before noon is anathema.

4. Tap into a passion. Obviously, it’s so much easier to do something you love for an hour a day than something you’re indifferent toward, or worse.

5. Begin with a “jump-start vacation.” This is my favorite idea, and before the unemployed among us say, “But I’m on permanent vacation,” hear Crowley out. The idea here is to take a dedicated week, go somewhere and focus on being active. Crowley suggests a bike tour. A good idea for two reasons. One, if the tour isn’t for another month or more, you have great incentive to train. And even if it’s tomorrow, you’re probably good. Quick anecdote: Ten years ago I did the inaugural Cycle North Carolina, a two-week, 920-mile crossing of North Carolina. I was very curious about how others had prepared for the event and would ask the question at rest stops, at dinner, in camp at the end of the day. The answers varied wildly, but my favorite was Lee’s. “I ride my bike to work every day,” he said. That’s good I thought, probably 20, 30 miles a day. “I live less than a mile from work,” he added. Lee was often the last rider in every day, but he completed the ride. And there are all sorts of cheap “vacation” options out there. I’m a big fan of the camping vacation: Pitch your tent for a week in a national park, a state forest, wherever, and spend your days hiking, fishing, tubing, kayaking, rafting, climbing, mountain biking — whatever. It’s amazing how a week of living like this can imprint on your lifestyle. And if you have basic camping equipment (or can bum some from a sympathetic, employed friend), it’s a vacation you could probably pull off for $300 or less, food, gas and camping fees included.

Got your own strategy for getting started? Share.


Just another day on the world’s highest peak

Chip Popociciu climbing the Lhotse Face.

I was feeling pretty good about hiking 21 miles on the Falls Lake Trail yesterday. Then I went and listened to Chip Popociciu talk.

Chip, for those of you who didn’t tune in Monday or Tuesday, reached the summit of 29,029-foot Mt. Everest at 4:40 in the morning almost a year ago to the day, on May 22, 2008. Last night, he shared his adventure with 40 or so vertically vicarious explorers at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh. He was talking about climbing the highest peak in the world, something only about 2,000 others have done since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first in 1953. Had you only been able to make out his intonation and not his words, you might have thought Chip was talking about a leisurely hike on Falls Lake Trail.

For instance, when he talked about the Ice Fall that greets climbers first thing out of Base Camp, he showed a slide of a horrific glacier peppered with icy spires. “Now, at first it doesn’t look so bad ... .” He conceded on the next slide that you did need to pay attention on the Ice Fall, the next slide being of his metal crampons atop a skinny metal ladder spanning a deep crevasse. (My head got spinnie just looking at the slide; I closed my eyes for a several moments.) After a while, though, he said crossing the Ice Falls was like “Disneyland for Adults,” a lot of fun. (Among the insidery revelations he shared: Climbing the Ice Fall is done in part to acclimatize to the thin air. He and climbing partner Vance Cook climbed the Ice Fall 12 times.)

Moving on up to camps 2, 3 and 4 presented some challenges, but it wasn’t bad, he said. Summit day went almost too well: He and Vance left a little after 8 p.m. May 21 (they had planned to leave at 9, but didn’t want to get caught in the traffic jam forming out of Camp 4; about 70 climbers reached the summit on the 22nd, about 30 didn’t). They reached the top before sunrise, at 4:40 a.m. (or maybe 4:45), hung out for half an hour, went all the way down to Camp 2. He almost forgot to mention that he developed the dread Khumbu cough that forced him to curl in the fetal position when he felt the cough coming on. He also cracked a couple ribs along the way.

His story was remarkable. Even more so was that it was devoid of ego. It was all about the adventure. And one other thing.

Chip took along, virtually, the students and teachers at Martin Middle School. He provided them, via sat phone, with a front row seat to an Everest summit, they provided him with moral support. According to one teacher from Martin, the kids got something more. Added to their year-end superlatives last year: Most likely to climb Mt. Everest. And the teacher related that, more than once she heard a reluctant student say, “Well, if Chip can climb Mt. Everest, I guess I can do my homework.”


The sweaty fountain of youth

The first time I was ... without work was in the spring of 1989. I was working for a chain of business newspapers, the chain changed ownership, the new owners misinterpreted a column I wrote, I was on hiatus. I did one smart thing during the ensuing three months of R&R: I kept my Y membership. And I did one stupid thing: I failed to replace my oversized road bike.

The Y membership helped me cling to sanity. I swam every other day and got up to 3,000 yards a workout. If nothing else, the time away from my idle answering machine was invaluable. My heart rate spiked not in the pool, but upon driving home in anticipation of seeing the flashing red light — suggesting that a potential employer had called — on my machine.

It was on those off days that I could have used the bike. I realized it at the time but was too cheap to spring the $500 for a decent road bike. I realized it even more after reading the first few pages of “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge. The premise of their book: Nothing short of an hour of rigorous exercise a day will do if you want to enjoy life into your 80s and beyond, not simply endure it. By skipping every other day, by scrimping on the bike, I was working myself toward an early grave. (OK, a bit of an exaggeration.)

The duo’s premise is this: We don’t age, we decay. “ ... in our forties and fifties,” writes Lodge, the book’s medical voice, “our bodies switch into a ‘default to decay’ mode, and the free ride of youth is over. ... What we can do, with surprising ease, is override those default signals, swim against the tide and change decay back into growth.” The key to making this happen: exercise, at least an hour a day, vigorously. And this isn’t some newfangled theory, says Lodge. It’s based on billions of years of evolving from primordial slime.

The book’s title should serve as warning to health seekers hooked on the new-you-in-four-weeks “health” philosophy touted by grocery checkout tabloids and TV infomercials. You won’t notice that you’re reversing the aging process immediately, say the two. In a year, though, you will. Keep it up, promise the authors, and you’ll be able to live a vigorous life “deep into your 80s,” possibly longer.

(I heard about the book last week from Joe Lugiano. Joe runs ultra-distance (100 miles) races; Chronologically, he’s 66 years old. Physically and mentally, he’s in his mid-40s. The book rang true with him and after 75 pages it rings true with me. I’m 53 and can outperform — in several respects — the high school athlete me.)

The book is told from two perspectives. One is Lodge’s, who provides the medical backing for why exercising at least an hour a day works. The other perspective comes from Chris Crowley, who backed into a rigorous life of exercise when he suddenly realized he was getting old. Crowley tends to be gabby and repetitive, but his perspective is invaluable because he’s living proof, for those who need it, that sweat is critical to a long, active life. (Among other things, he’s an avid skier in his 70s and does a daily spin class.) Lodge gives the science without getting too scientific. Early on, he makes a critical observation about why this common sense notion comes to most as a revelation. The observation was based on his medical practice and his bafflement over why many of his older patients were in declining health:

“I had done what doctors do well in this country, which is to treat people when they come in with a disease. My patients had had good medical care but not, I began to think, great health care. ... Modern medicine does not concern itself with lifestyle problems. Doctors don’t treat them, medical schools don’t teach them and insurers don’t pay to solve them.”

What Lodge came to realize was that so many of the illnesses associated with “aging” were easily preventable. There was a fountain of youth, he found, a fountain flowing with sweat.

Tomorrow: Priming the fountain.


Chip Popociciu on top of the world.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m., Raleigh mountaineer Chip Popoviciu will discuss his successful summit of Mt. Everest at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. Yesterday, we began a two-part interview with Chip with five questions about his background and preparation for Everest. Today, The Climb.

1. The disastrous 1996 climbing season, chronicled in Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," showed not only the dangers of climbing the world's highest peak, but also hinted at how just about anyone with enough money could get to the top (in some cases, practically by being dragged via short-roping). Based on your experience, do you think that's changed? Is the mountain being taken as seriously as it should be?

One of the reasons I like spending a lot of time in the mountains is the fact that altitude is a good sifter of human characters. The harder it gets the more amazing the rewards; However, more people forfeit the opportunity and prefer the easy way out so they don’t get too far up. Everest, however, has such a draw that ... the commercialization effect makes the sifter less effective. We did see people on various places on the mountain who should have not been there, who already reached the limits of their conditioning. However, they were driven by all those powers which made them successful in one aspect of their life or another.

We had a bomber plan and stuck to it during the expedition but on summit night we had to take off earlier because a lot of people took off earlier than usual just to get a head start. You do not want to get stuck behind people on the fixed rope, so we raced up the triangular face passing people who were already exhausted even though they were on a 3-4 litters of oxygen (we climbed on 2, worried that we would get stuck along the way in the traffic jam) and had a long way up. You could see that the brain was driving even though the wheels were about to come off.

Let me just set the record straight though. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, up there you have to carry your oxygen and nobody is short roping you up (at least not that I have heard, in spite of the 1996 account, which was rather unique). There are plenty of people who will help you down if you are in trouble (even though one should not rely on that, we saw some teams leave partners in a bag, on the face, to wait for them to return from the summit bid). There were rich people on the mountain who afforded to pay for two western guides and a few Sherpa. I must admit, it is hard not to get envious when you see them without a pack and being greeted by Sherpa with hot tea and cookies even though they were 20 minutes away from the camp. BUT … these people had to climb during the summit night like everyone else so it is not fair to take that away from them. One annoying thing, though: guides of high-end expeditions blocking the line so their clients complete sections without the annoyance of us passing them.

Regarding Jon’s account and the fallout. It is said that mountaineering is still a sport simply because people forget so quickly the hard times. Well, same goes for Everest. It served us a lesson and particularly to the folks who climb too close to the edge of their limit and have no resources to deal with changing variables. But give it time, we will all forget the lessons and the Mountain will twist again in its slumber claiming a few overeager lives in the process.

2. What was the hardest part of the climb for you?

Before my final rotation I cracked one or two ribs. Don’t know how, it might have been the Khumbu cough or I rolled over a water bottle in my tent. It bothered me a bit but not a big deal. Heading up the Ice Falls you exert yourself a bit which, combined with coughing, led me to reach Camp 1 bent in half in pain with every cough. I rested a bit in Camp 1 and headed for Camp 2 but every time I had to cough I had to lie down on the snow in a particular position just to reduce but not eliminate the pain. When I got to C2 I was in bad shape, physically but mainly mentally. I was wondering how will I handle the Lhotse Face. Lhotse in those conditions. So I nursed my ribs every way I could imagine (and I must say, the plastic bag with ice applied to the skin was not fun because the cold ice melt would inevitably find its way all over my body). I taped myself up and from there on, including the summit bid, I climbed on 4 Ibuprofen every 3 hours.

It might sound New Age-ish but when I got back to the EBC from that rotation, the worries I still had for my ribs denying me a summit push were blown away by the “Happy Birthday” messages I got from the students at Martin Middle schools. Those kids and teachers were true partners in this experience.
3. What was the hardest part of the climb that the rest of us never hear about?

When you climb is fun, you have a goal, you execute on the plan, you adapt it to conditions, you have fun. The hard part is when you are tormented by the uncertainty of the things outside of your control: Will the weather hold? Will there be a window? Will we be allowed to climb (in 2008)? Climbing Everest is a mental game just as much as it is a physical one.

4. How did you feel when you reached the top? And what was it like up there (I've never read a good description of the top: Is it a spiky peak? Or is it more of a small platform?)

I can send you some pictures or share a video if you are interested. It is a slanted surface of the size of 2, 3 cars, with a pile of offerings right on the top (one person in 2008 left up there an object that belonged to pope John Paul). Vance and I were the second team to reach the summit that day, behind a Korean team. It was rather quiet, no high-fives or raging shouts. At least for me, I can say it was not because of fatigue or the oxygen mask, we got there in great shape and I stayed up there without oxygen the whole 30 minutes. It must be the views, which were spectacular. The moon was setting over a sea of clouds far below our feet. Then the sun came out turning cornice after cornice into a bright silver lining of the summit ridge. As light hoped over the South Col all the great peaks poking through the sea of clouds exploded with light. Ama Dablam in particular seemed eager to stay true to its reputation as of one of the most beautiful peaks in the World.

If I were to try to define the feeling, something I never was keen on doing, I would say it was one of awe at the beautiful and humbling views. We all fly at that height often but … it is not quite the same.

5. What's next?

Well, according to my wife just small climbs and according to my mom, retirement from mountaineering. I want to do a bit more rock and ice climbing, I didn’t do much of it in a while (they are a bit more manageable time wise but still exciting). Vance and I are planning a Rainier trip this summer (Kautz glacier). Beyond that, I have only loose ideas. Vance and I are researching some peaks for first ascents in the Himalayas. Both of us would also love to try another 8000+ meters peak but we did not decide on which one yet or when.

Ohhh, and I would like to go back to school.

Chip shares more on his climb at LearnNC.org.


The view from Mt. Everest

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming ... . As I've mentioned, I used to write about fitness and the outdoors for The News & Observer. I will soon again be writing about fitness and the outdoors, in a new venue. Until that venue is established — hopefully by month's end — this venue must do double duty. That said, today, MSCL switches to F&O mode ...

Last year, mountaineer Ciprian “Chip” Popoviciu of Raleigh took Martin Middle School to the top of the world. Wedensday, you can hear him talk about the experience at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh's Cameron Village. (His presentation begins at 7 p.m.; Opening for Chip will be Sheri and Randy Propster, of Backpacker magazine’s 2009 Get Out More Tour.

Last year, at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, Chip fulfilled a lifelong goal by summiting Mt. Everest, at 29,029 feet (and growing) the world’s highest and most celebrated peak. Chip, who by day is a technical leader at Cisco Systems in RTP, didn’t make the trip alone. In addition to climbing partner, Vance Cook, he virtually took along the kids and teachers at Raleigh’s Martin Middle School, making the climb not only a learning experience for him, but for hundreds more. He’ll discuss the climb at length Wednesday. He gives us a tease of what to expect, answering five questions today and five tomorrow.

1. Give us some quick insight on you as an explorer: When did your lust for getting out begin and how much do you typically get out now?

I owe my passion for exploration and the outdoors to my dad. Ever since I was a kid I went up and down the forests, hills and mountains of Transylvania [the region in Romania, not the county in North Carolina] to pick up wild mushrooms or just hike with my dad. He always had a few challenges along the way: “What kind of tree is that?”, “Why did the snow melt under that bush and not the other?”, “How much is sin2(x)+cos2(x)? (the last one came up way before I got to trigonometry in school). I did spelunking in the Apuseni, I climbed the Carpathians and found forests and mountains to be my source of inspiration, peace and enlightenment. If I had a dilemma, be it teenager worries or a difficult advanced math problem it seemed I always found the solution during or after a short trek.

I owe my interest in the larger World to my grandfather who was a history professor and who, when I was a kid, used to put me to sleep with these amazing stories of faraway lands and amazing civilizations. As soon as I had the freedom to travel I took every opportunity to discover the world. It is amazing how inexpensive it is to do this if you focus on the “what” and not the “how.”

Typically I make at least one international trip a year (I always take a few days off at the end of a business trip in an interesting place). I try to do a few good climbs and a few camping trips a year. My job keeps me pretty busy so the easiest thing for me is to head out in Umstead for a good loop (I love that park).

2. When did you get the idea to climb Everest and when did you summit?

Well, at one point or another, if you climb mountains this idea comes along. I must say, growing up back in Transylvania I never dreamt of being able to get close to it and took comfort in the fact that the Carpathians are part of the same family as the Alps and the Himalayas. Me and my climbing partner spoke about it as a potential plan but only in 2007 he gave me the nudge with: “My wife lets me go in 2008, can you convince Nicole?” (As you can see, there are other, less known challenges to mountain climbing than risks and hardships.) I am fortunate to have a very supportive wife who said yes to this expedition even though she did not quite believe we were going until I booked my flight.

Vance and I summited at 4:40 a.m. on May 22, 2008. We did a bit too good of a job and got there before the sunrise, not a great idea if you want to immortalize your summit with pictures so we “had” to wait until the sun came up.

3. Describe the program with Martin Middle School and how it came about.

Well, were it not for the students and teachers of Martin, this would have been for me another treasured but very personal experience and for the rest of the World just another of many Everest summits. The folks at Martin made this something much more than either of the two.

It started with a geeky idea to marry my work with my hobby and use communications technologies to share the experience. As it is always the case, a team of good people can always make an idea a lot better than it originally is. Kirsten Weeks who is responsible for PR of Cisco’s RTP site suggested we share this with a school and she contacted Gigi Karmanos-Edwards at MCNC for suggestions. Gigi in turn put us in touch with Martin middle school where, particularly due to the enthusiasm of Lisa Thompson, the support of principal Wade Martin and a truly amazing group of teachers we put this whole thing together in a very short time. I did very little actually. I shared the plans, worked on the communications solution, set up a sensor network at the school and fielded student questions. The teachers and the students are the real contributors here and as time passes I realize that this level of enthusiasm and passion is not the norm but … it should be and could be. These folks introduced the Everest theme into the curriculum, projects and activities.

I wanted to make this as realistic as possible for the students so we exchanged text, pictures, movies, sensors data, voice and video calls. Students blogged on their experience for WRAL and along the way amazed me with the creativity they applied to the project. In the process I discovered a new cause and passion, that of empowering and enabling our talented (and unfortunately by far not sufficiently rewarded) teachers to break the classroom walls and take their students into the larger World for good and true exploration.

4. How did you prepare for the climb, living in the Triangle, and how did you swing time off from work?

I observed a very strict training regimen. I would do 1 hour of aerobic exercise and 30+ minutess of weights in the morning and I would climb for 1-1:30 hours with 45 pounds on my back + 1 hour of weights in the evening. Wednesdays I would do just the morning session and during the weekends I would do long hikes or runs.

5. How hard was it to pull off the climb? Assuming you went with a guide, how did you pick the guide?

The Everest climb is not very technical but it is grinding. It took us a month and a half to acclimate for the 5 days we needed to get to the top and back. You really need to keep it together, execute on the things you control and be fortunate with the things you don’t control. As you approach the summit bid things get stressful as you do not know if the window will materialize. In 2008 things were stressful for longer than that because we were not allowed to complete our acclimatization rotation to Camp 3 until the Chinese made it to the summit with the Olympic torch and we were not allowed to communicate from the mountain during that time either. Precious days were passing by in a very painful way. But in the end all worked out. The Mountain was free to be climbed again on my birthday … quite a present.

Vance and I went unguided but we did pay logistics to International Mountain Guides so we were officially on their permit. We chose them because they offered this option and we knew some people who worked for them in the past.

Tomorrow: The climb, and beyond.


Working at getting younger

I was hiking mid-day Monday at Umstead. It was cool, rainy — not many people out. I looked up the trail and saw headed my way a familiar figure, familiar because of his trademark desert camo pants and because of the saw and loppers in tow.

“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this,” Joe said. The last time I’d run into Joe Lugiano was in the fall, on this same trail, wearing the same pants, carrying the same trail maintenance tools. Joe directs the volunteer group at Umstead, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see him, either working solo as he was Tuesday or with one or two of his fellow volunteers.

We briefly caught up, then Joe mentioned a book he was reading, “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry S. Lodge. It’s a book, Joe told me, about how ignoring chronological aging and plowing through with a rigorous exercise routine can make you feel like you’re 50 well into your 80s. It’s a book Joe could have written.

Joe is 66 chronologically, in his mid-40s physically and mentally. When he was in his chronological 40s, he ran for IBM’s corporate track team and could run a mile in four and a half minutes. He now runs ultra distance races of 100 miles or more. Like me, his motivation to move came in part from lousy genes and a history of male family members with heart problems. The book grabbed his attention because it offered confirmation of what he already knew: Regular rigorous exercise and good diet can make you feel years younger than the calendar — and society — would suggest.

“ ... the biggest challenge for most people — is exercise,” says co-author Lodge, an M.D. “It is the secret to great health. You should exercise hard almost every day of your life — say six days a week. And do strength training. Lift weights, two of those six days. Exercise is the great key to aging.”

The general wisdom over the past couple of decades has been that you need 30 minutes of exercise a day. That’s a minimum for decent health. “Younger Next Year” says you need to step that commitment up if you want to live a truly vigorous, joyful life deep into your 80s (or 90s). It also proclaims that a gradual decline is not inevitable. That you can live a full life until the end.

I’ll share more from “Younger” over the next few days.


Playtime's last call

I was finishing up some work in the study — it’s actually a home office, but “study” sounds more homey, more ... Cleaveresque — when I became aware of the fading light. I glanced out the window: a rosy tint was kicking in, mixing it up with a yellowish glow that signaled the end of the day was imminent. I recognized the aura from childhood: It was last call for play.

“Basketball!” I yelled, and shortly the middle schoolers and I were in the cul-de-sac working out what energy we had left. We started with pedestrian jump shots, threw in some layups, then devolved into trick shots. “Midcourt baseball shot!” yelled one of the middle schoolers — and the ball sailed over the goal into a neighbor’s yard. “On my back,” he proclaimed, much like a pool shark calling a shot. It took a while, but he made it. Behind-the-back shots, behind-the-goal shots, fade-away-jumpers-landing-on-our-behinds shots. I was the first to run out of steam, surreptitiously collapsing on the lawn. “Dad! Get back out here.”

There’s a long-running debate over how smart it is to exercise before bed. For years, the health community believed that any activity before bed would make falling asleep difficult. Especially, they thought, of activities demanding that your brain get involved — paying close attention to a mountain bike trail, say, or concentrating on hitting a pitch in baseball. Today, the school of thought is shifting. It’s now thought that being active before bed may lessen the anxiety that keeps some people from getting to sleep. Exercise before bet, work out your demons, sleep in peace.

Now, among a lot of you — those of you who exercise before bed — there’s lots of eye-rolling going on. Of course you sleep better after a good workout. (My favorite observation on the topic is this comment posted to the story linked above: “I am flabbergasted every time I see an article about this. I mean, it's being discussed by many of the same people who complain about men falling asleep right after sex — rather strenuous exercise, don't you think?”)

Draining what remaining energy we have is the reason our parents used to shoo us out of the house and into the street after supper. And the reason I yelled “Basketball!” the other night.


No brag, just fact

Thursday night I was at a gathering thrown in honor of our environmental reporter, who also left the paper, and myself. I found myself talking to my buddy Branson. “So how’s retirement?” he wanted to know.

I corrected him on the “retirement” technicality, since most folks don’t retire on a nest egg that wouldn’t cover the down payment on a used car. I had to be more careful about how I answered, and here’s why. He preceded his inquiry with the story of a coworker who “retired” in January. She’d simply had enough of the grind, didn’t have anything else lined up, but suspected there was something better out there. So she took the leap. Once a week, she and Branson talk. When he asks how she’s doing, she tells him about not having to get up at the crack of dawn, about working in the garden, about keeping busy but pn her own terms, about living. “I know what you’re doing,” he tells her. “You’re trying to make me feel bad because I’m still here.” He says this, I think, half jokingly. Still, there’s that suggestion of rubbing it in.

When people ask if I’m doing OK (like I lost a kidney, not a job) I have to carefully craft a response that says “I’m doing great” without the implied “Sucker!” I’m not bragging; I just want people to know that it’s good on the outside. Yes, a steady paycheck is good. But sanity is oh-so-much better. It’s not that I’ve shirked all responsibility; I’m still a husband, still a dad. There’s still trash to be taken out and a lawn to be mowed. The former demand the ultimate in responsibility; They also offer the ultimate reward. A pretty darn good tradeoff. Conversely, the reward at The N&O had diminished significantly over the past couple of years, astoundingly so over the newspaper industry’s last few fire-sale months. I’d always envisioned myself as a newspaper man, nothing else. But when the time came, I was ready, I knew. It was time to move on and I was OK with that.

In fact, over the past three weeks I’ve discovered it was more than OK, it was critical. I don’t know where my next paycheck will come from or when I’ll see it, and yes, that obviously will be a concern in the not-too-distant future. For now, I’m savoring the fact I can now march a little more to my own drummer. As Walter Brennan’s Will Sonnett used to say, “No brag, just fact.”

The leap (since I took a voluntary buyout I feel justified in saying I leapt, rather than got laid off) has been well worth it. The free fall is exhilarating.


Bridging the gaps

I told Marcy I would put a computer on her new bike. I assumed she wanted one because I can’t live without a computer on my bike — any of my bikes (all three are equipped).

“Computer” has always seemed a bit much when describing this slightly-larger-than-postage-stamp-size gizmo that mounts on your handlebar. When I first started riding years ago, they were called odometers, which, frankly, is still their main function. Today, with advances in microprocessing, they’ve been able to add a variety of functions, from heart rate monitors to global positioning systems. But it’s still the basic odometer that I’m obsessed with because it gives me a way to quantify my rides: How far did I ride? How long did it take me? How fast did I go? Numbers that can verify my workouts (not that I need more verification than a pair of dead legs after a three-hour ride).

That’s become especially important in these days of self-employment, that quantifying thing. “Defending Your Life,” as Albert Brooks deftly portrayed it on film.

Tuesday, I wore a telltale furrowed brow and an air of preoccupation. “What is it?” my perceptive wife asked. I didn’t realize it was anything at the time, but as I thought about this vague unease that Marcy had picked up on I realized that I felt like I hadn’t been doing enough. Marcy broke out laughing.

“You ran six miles this morning, then you had a very productive meeting with people interested in sponsoring your Web site. That would be more than enough in a day for most people,” she said. Then she put the situation in perspective, a situation and perspective she understood well having been in it herself. “For years you’ve been a hamster turning this treadmill, a treadmill that never stops. You’ve had no time to slow down.” She was referring to my past life, 17 years of it, as a reporter for The News & Observer. A life I always enjoyed, but a life that had become increasingly demanding as the economy and the realities of new media were fomenting fear and creating chaos in the newspaper industry. How demanding — and demoralizing — I didn’t realize until I left three weeks ago. Until I had a full day of running, of building a business, of going on a family bike ride to a neighborhood park for a picnic dinner — and was spooked by the sanity gaps in between. Gaps of free time that didn’t exist before. Gaps that allowed me to recharge. Gaps I’m relearning how to recognize and appreciate.

That said, I’m still putting a computer on Marcy’s bike. Nothing wrong with a little quantification amid the gaps.


Coffee shop office

I like to go to the coffee shop to work. There’s two or three I frequent, my demands are simple and two: good coffee and free wifi. It’s a nice office-away-from-the-home-office because it gets you out around people, typically without the worry of being driven to distraction by them. (Unless, of course, you eavesdrop into a particularly riveting discussion of why we’re all doomed by the swine flu.)

And it’s a surprisingly cheap indulgence — provided I go alone. That’s because I drink coffee. I go to Caribou, for instance, and for $2 (tip included) I can work and caffeinate for as long as I want (free refills, go figure). But if, say, my daughter tags along after I pick her up from school, my daughter with an affinity for things cold, frothy and chocolate, suddenly we’re moving from change scrounged from my pockets to debit card territory. Suddenly, we’re approaching double digits. A daily habit that runs $10 over the course of a workweek suddenly balloons to a $70 habit (Did I mention the obligatory snack to accompany the cool, frothy, chocolately beverage?) Radically changes the financial attraction of the coffee shop office. Too many of those visits and I’ll be permanently relegated to my distant second favorite office-away-from-home-office.

The public library. More distracting people and the coffee isn't as good.


A moving Mother's Day

Is Mother’s Day about being a mom? Or being a kid?

Here’s how the mom in our household spent the day — entirely at her request.
  • Playing basketball with us kids in our cul de sac court. We’ve had the hoop for at least six months; it was the first time she’d played. (Mean jumper from the top of the key, Marcelle.)
  • Working with us kids in the yard. She pruned and raked while we mowed and swept.
  • Playing on the spinny playground equipment at a park near the house with us. We both get woogy in the head anymore even looking at a swing, let alone the modern day versions of merry-go-rounds. She not only swung, she hung — upside down (followed by a long, internal-gyroscope-resetting rest) from crossbars.
  • Going for a bike ride with us kids. This part isn’t unusual; We try to incorporate rides into our weekend routine. What was unusual, inspiring, was that Marcy was motivated to buy a new roadbike — with clipless pedals! Inspiring because clipless pedals — which essentially glue you to the bike — almost guarantee that on your first ride (and your second and third), you will forget that you are glued to the bike and upon coming to a stop you will fall over easy as Arte Johnson falling off a tricycle. Which she did, skinning her knee, scraping her elbow and ripping her (bike) seat. And complaining nary a bit.
It was a day spent moving, playing with us kids, a day she’ll likely feel for the next several. No breakfast in bed for this mom (in fact, the breakfast the kids traditionally prepare for her was taken on the back deck this year).

Part of being a great mom, she showed us, is not forgetting how to be a kid.


The real cost of cheap fun

Yesterday, I should have mentioned that another advantage of backpacking in my current economic situation is that it’s cheap fun. That said, I would have followed up with the real cost of cheap fun.

Cheap fun: On paper, this trip should have cost about $50. I already have the camping gear; my only expenses would be gas, about $25 (I drive a Civic that gets up to 40 mpg highway if I baby it) and food, about $25 (living on a diet of flat bread, peanut butter and dried bananas, and springing for prepackaged meals of freeze-dried grilled chicken breasts and mashed potatoes for dinner.

A three-day vacation for $50? Talk about cheap fun. Of course, that was on paper ... .

Real cost of cheap fun: I said I already have the camping gear. True, but any avid backpacker who does indeed have all the gear always needs more. I didn’t think I needed new rain paints; the 12-year-old pair I bought when I was 30 pounds heavier still worked OK. But REI was having its annual May sale (“Our Biggest Sale of the Year!”) and Marmot’s spiffy PreCip Full-Zip Rain Pants were marked down from $90 to just $64.99. Alan has a pair of full-zips (there’s a zipper down the length of each leg making for quick ingress and egress, crucial for when a downpour suddenly hits) and they had my size ... . It also turned out that I needed the $29.95 Black Diamond Orbit Lantern for when my tent becomes my office after a day on the trail. So, yes, I did have all the requisite gear, except for about $95 worth. (I should mention that while these may seem like extravagances for the recently self-employed, they proved to be godsends. It rained much of the time I was in Wilson Creek, the rain pants kept me dry. And because it rained the entire time I had more tent time than usual, time in a cheery, brightly lit tent suitable for taking notes and reading.

Tuesday, I hiked as much as I could in the morning, but heavy rains left many of the creek crossings impassable, and in the Wilson Creek area you don’t go too many places without crossing a creek. (Small watershed; the creeks go up fast in a heavy rain.) My stove hadn’t worked that morning, leaving me coffeeless and crabby. Eager to solve that problem, I hiked out to the car — about a mile and a half — and drove 30 miles or so to Blowing Rock and Footsloggers, a regional outfitter whom, I was pretty sure, could help me solve my stove problem. At least that was the plan.

A mile up the road, the engine light went on. Crap. The last time I was in the mountains and the engine light went on I ended up buying a new car (too long, painful and pricey a story to recount). Guessing I was low on oil, I added a quart ($3.95) and got a red-eye ($3.50 — no, it’s not related but the caffeine-addled among you are no doubt wondering how that crisis resolved). That wasn’t it. After consulting the owner’s manual — I’m a guy; Why would I do that first? — I discovered that the engine light could indicate anything from a gas cap not screwed on tightly enough to catastrophic engine failure. I opted for the former, made sure the cap was tight and drove on. By the time I got to Footsloggers, after diddling around with the car, the store was closed. I stopped and got something hot for dinner ($15) before returning to the wilds. The cascading effect of not being able to use my stove to cook dinner the next two nights meant I had to spend an extra $20 on food.

So, the real cost of my $50 cheap escape? Let’s get out the calculator here ... $137.45. Still cheap, I suppose. And certainly worth it.

But you really notice those extra pennies — 8,745, to be exact — when you aren’t sure where your next pennies are coming from.


Escaping, but reachable

Here’s a great way to take care of yourself — physically and emotionally — during times of underemployment: go backpacking. Which is what I did for the past three days, in a rugged area at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment known as Wilson Creek.

Fellow members of the between-employment ranks may be thinking, “Are you nuts? Isolate yourself from a potential employment contact by sequestering yourself in the woods?” That probably would be nuts, but that’s not what I did. I’m in conversation with three separate parties about various opportunities (my vagueness has a certain underworld undercurrent, I know; in fact, I’m being vague because I don’t want to jinx myself). Before leaving town, I let all three know that I would be gone three or four days and likely out of touch. I would check in upon my return (which I did).

Nor was I completely out of touch, even in a rugged place such as Wilson Creek. Wilson Creek is a 13,000-acre portion of the Pisgah National Forest that was once, somehow, timbered. “Somehow” because the steep canyon walls densely carpeted with ferns, rhododendron, mountain laurel, tulip poplars, hemlocks and just about everything else that can grow in the Southern Appalachians would seem to make the region impenetrable; the area ranges from 5,920-foot Calloway Peak atop Grandfather Mountain to 1,020 feet where Wilson Creek and Johns River converge. The Ritter Lumber Co. somehow found a way and the area was actively logged into the 20th century. Today, many of the old road and rail beds used by loggers have been given over to hiking trail. Deep in these snarled canyons you are indeed isolated, a satellite telephone, maybe, but forget any providers boast of coverage anywhere. Climb the likes of Timber Ridge, however, and from such high points as Bee Mountain, reception is little problem. You can return calls as easily as you could from your living room. (Though good luck explaining the birdsong in the background.)

Physically, the trip was essential because it tamed my urge to explore — at least for a week. After hiking 35 miles in three days, some of it with a 37.4-pound pack, most of it in rain, I’m content to put up with the demands of figuring out how to make money. Again, for at least a week. Emotionally, it was a chance to drain whatever lingering issues I may have had from the layoff. It’s easy and understandable to replay the past, to wonder if things might have played out differently had you been more ... acquiescing to management. Tuesday, hiking up the north slope of Timber Ridge through a fern glade peppered with tulip poplar and hemlock, I realized I was thought free. No regrets, no worries. That wouldn’t have happened had I been sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring.

Now, blissfully, on to the business of figuring out how to make some money.


Checking out

Our severance checks paychecks were available at 2 p.m. today. Holy cow, what a crowd in human resources! We had to squeeze into the foyer of HR, wait for our names to be called, then sign for our checks. I got three: one for severance, one for my last paycheck, one for unused vacation. An hour later I got a call from HR — they had yet another check for me. Ding! Ding! Ding!

I made a beeline for the bank. Now, to see if the checks clear ... .