Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Another Lost Earth (2024 Eclipse)

2024 Eclipse Totality (As seen from near Oden, Arkansas)

For the second time in seven years, I have come away from a celestial event that was so stupefying...that I find it again difficult to verbalize my thoughts. Back in August of 2017, I traveled with my partner to rural Kentucky in order to place myself squarely on the centerline of a total solar eclipse. Since first learning of these rare events, and then witnessing an annular eclipse during my senior year of high school, I made a promise to myself to one day witness a true total eclipse (under clear skies). On that day in 2017, we stood in a small cornfield on the outskirts of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, just 500 meters from the totality centerline and very near the longest duration point along the path. We had driven several hundred miles to hunt for high atmospheric order to give us the best odds for clear skies. Getting there also involved a missed flight connection out of Boston, and a several-hour unplanned drive from Chicago down to St. Louis. I wrote about this entire ordeal and experience here in a post titled, "A Lost Earth". I also featured this write-up as a full chapter in my recently published collection titled, "Treks to Nowhere".

I came away from this entire experience, profoundly moved. It is truly impossible to explain to someone just how overwhelming, surreal, and....well, cosmic, a total solar eclipse is. For the two minutes and forty seconds of totality, I stood, mouth agape in absolute awe. I took only one picture, and instead just wanted to "be in the experience." I wanted to absorb every millisecond, and every sensation of the moment. I knew it would all be fleeting, and possibly the only time I'd ever have this experience. During totality, I have described my feeling as though the universe at large, somehow divided by zero. A certainty so established as the sun shining, became....uncertain, and it was eerily unsettling, but yet awe inspiring. I uttered only four words during totality, and they were, "...we are so small."

When it was over, I realized immediately that I would never be the same. I was permanently affected and changed forever. For the many hours (and days) that it took us to get back home, I couldn't get the overwhelming thoughts and feelings out of my mind. Never has a natural event had such a profound impact on me...and I've experienced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms, the northern lights, comet viewings, meteor showers, Antarctic storms....none have come close. I suppose a significant meteor impact, nearby supernova, or alien visitation might have the same sort of effect.

During the 2017 Total Eclipse

Totality Photo during 2017 Eclipse

Path of the 2017 Eclipse

...Many years have past since this experience, and my thoughts and feelings of it have not diminished.

This past October (2023), an annular solar eclipse transited the US just up the road from where I live in Arizona. We drove up to Navajo Nation, parked along the side of the road and experienced the event over a several hour period. For this eclipse, it felt more like a curious oddity, or science experiment. It was apparent that the ambient light diminished, and there was an overall dulled eeriness in the air, but without a true totality, it just didn't have the same metaphysical and mystifying impact. It was incredible to see the "ring of fire" during the peak, and it brought up fond memories of my high school annular eclipse that were buried deep in my mind...but it just didn't invoke that resounding cosmic awe that the 2017 had. I was glad to have experienced it (and with clear skies), but it made me long for that fleeting feeling of true totality. I had become an addict.

Our set up near Dennehotso, Navajo Nation, AZ

Watching the 2023 Annular Eclipse

My doggo getting a view of the eclipse

Approaching Annular "Totality"

Annular Totality w/ "Ring of Fire"

Path of 2023 Annular Eclipse (centered right over Four Corners)

I had obviously known of the 2024 total eclipse from the moment I left Kentucky in 2017. My partner and I had decided within moments of starting our long drive back to St. Louis, that we needed to experience the feeling of totality again. Sure enough, the US would once again be host to a total solar eclipse in just seven short years in 2024. Of course to us at the time, seven years seemed like an eternity to have to wait in order to experience totality again, but we were at the mercy of those pesky celestial laws of motion. Curse you Kepler! 

Incidentally, one of the things that I immediately noticed about the 2024 eclipse is that the path of totality would actually be crossing directly over my childhood home town in upstate New York. Of course given the location along the Great Lakes, the odds of overcast would be exceedingly high. So, in the few days following the 2017 eclipse we collectively decided that we'd likely instead try to find our way to southern Texas where the clear sky odds would be more in our favor. We effectively "Saved the Date," and then went on with our lives. I can say that once you experience a total eclipse, waiting for the worse than waiting for Christmas as a child. It feels as though it may never come. In addition, nothing about it is certain. The entire path may be cursed with bad weather, or travel may simply become unworkable. It's entirely possible that you make complex plans, spend thousands of dollars, and then have no way to reach clear skies during the short window of time leading up to the eclipse. The nice thing about have a long transit path across the continental US, is that the odds of being able to drive to sunny skies are greatly increased. There are eclipses that cross only a sliver of land, and if that area is under overcast skies, it's just not possible to relocate. What this all means is that while we penciled in southern Texas for our likely viewing location, we knew that this plan was very likely to change. Like with 2017, we would plan fly to a large city along the totality path, and then venture out from there by car, never deviating too far from that path of totality.

2024 Eclipse Path

In the years following the 2017 event, our lives changed dramatically. In 2019, we completely picked up our lives in New England and headed to Flagstaff Arizona to start a new life chapter, and new jobs. Today, that seems like a lifetime ago. We survived the bumpiness of integrating into a new University and our new academic roles. We survived a global pandemic and all of the ridiculousness that came with that. I picked up entirely new hobbies (adventure motorcycling), and ran several dozen ultramarathons (including the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100 ....twice!). Needless to say, much has happened in the past seven years. I had just turned 40 years old for the 2017 eclipse...and now my fifties are creeping up on the horizon. 

Following the October 2023 annular eclipse, my excitement level began to increase markedly for the 2024 total eclipse. Immediately following the winter holidays, we began our making plans in earnest. We determined that flying to Dallas would be the best bet as it would give us many options for follow-up travel. We would have access to a large airport (minimizing risk of flight problems), and we could fly direct from Phoenix. We'd also have access to a large rental car fleet. In January, we booked flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars without any issue, and then simply waited. At the time of this planning, we had continued to assume our plan would be to drive south and west away from Dallas towards the more arid parts of Texas (and closer to Mexico). Little did we know that we'd ultimately be doing the exact opposite when the eclipse weekend finally approached.

April 2024

The week before the eclipse, we got our first bit of bad news. The long-range forecasts were not looking favorable at all. Not only were all models forecasting overcast skies near Dallas, but nearly all of Texas was projected to be covered. There was actually a moment where we even debated whether or not to go. Looking back now, I can't believe I even considered this. I would have never forgiven myself for not even trying.  We had had a really busy few weeks leading up to the eclipse, and were both quite burned out. It was hard to get motivated and excited. Two nights before our flights were scheduled to leave, we both agreed that we needed to try. There wasn't going to be another US total eclipse crossing the lower 48 until 21 years. Were we willing to wait that long? No...we were not. We tried to stay hopeful, but he forecasts looked miserable.

But then we got a glimmer of good news and hope. As we boarded our flights for Dallas, the forecast improved slightly. Texas still looked miserable, but if we chose to drive up towards Arkansas, the cloud forecast was showing places with only 20% coverage. This would mean driving over 250 miles on the morning of the eclipse...which to me was really only a mild inconvenience. What's a few hours in a car, after waiting 7 years?

We landed in Dallas late on Saturday night and checked into our hotel after midnight. The following morning I picked up our rental car and we spent the day relaxing under perfectly clear skies. It was mildly frustrating that we had such gorgeous skies just 24 hours before the eclipse, but we chose to trust the forecast.

We relocated to our original hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, then planned to wake up at 4:00 AM on Monday to get ahead of any potential traffic back ups. We'd drive North and East to the town of Clarksville near the OK and AR borders. Depending on the morning cloud forecast, we'd then decide if we would push on further.

After a restless night of sleep, we woke up Monday at 4:00 am ready embark. Traffic looked green across the board, but I was still anxious to get out of the urban chaos of Dallas and into more rural areas. The early morning driving was quiet and the traffic surprisingly light. There were the ominous signs along the highway warning of heavy traffic jams during the eclipse which of course didn't help with my anxiety.

As we made it further north and east, and away from Dallas, I felt much better about our situation. When we arrived in Clarksville, the skies were clear, but the forecast was still showing nearly full cloud cover by noon. So, despite the temptation to stay, we decided to push on towards the town of DeQueen, Arkansas. The forecast there was much more favorable, with only a projected 30% cloud coverage for after noon.

So...we pushed on. About 80 miles later, we rolled into the small town of De Queen, and found a local park to set up. Skies looked good, so we unloaded our car, set up our camera tri-pod, prepared a comfortable place to sit...and began the waiting game. About 30 minutes later, the clouds came, and we were entirely socked in. We tried to convince ourselves that it was just a passing band, but the longer we stayed, the more anxious we got that it wasn't going to clear. We debated for quite some time about whether or not to stay put, or risk moving on...and again, we decided to trust the nasa cloud forecast. Time was running short, but we opted to packup in a hurry, and push on further north and east where the forecast was projecting much less cloud cover. As we frantically packed up, others at the park watched us. The shook their heads as if to say, "don't do'll regret leaving. It's better to stay put...."

The overcast view from De Queen...booo!

But we didn't stay put. We chose to trust our guts and move on. All projections had central Arkansas as being more favorable. We jumped in the car, knowing we'd only have about 90 minutes until the very start of eclipse so wouldn't have much time to get settled some place new. We also knew this might mean we get stuck in traffic somewhere, so made sure to stay on the center line so that if we had to, we could simply pull the car over and watch from the highway (not ideal, but certainly and option).

A quick glance of the map had us heading towards the town of Pencil Bluff, AR. It was on the center line, and had cloud coverage forecasts of less than 20%. We'd arrive about 30 minutes before the start of the eclipse. On the ride to Pencil Bluff, we rode along winding rural rounds, getting stuck behind many cars going incredibly slow...and we started getting anxious.

We did eventually make it to the Pencil Bluff area and thought about setting up in the parking lot of the Dollar General store, but on the final mile before town we found a small grassy pullout just on the other side of the unincorporated town of Oden. It looked to be a prime viewing location. People were already setting up all along this rural road and so we weren't too worried about any property owners kicking us off their land. There were no houses on this property, and no gates, so figured it was probably fine. To our surprise, a few minutes after setting up, the property owner did actually pull up. Thankfully they told us that they were fine to set up there, and to just leave no trace. Not long after, we had another group pull in to share the space with us. So in short, we had once again found a rural grassy spot to set up for an eclipse...and this time, with proper permission. The skies were entirely clear, and we had just 30 minutes until the start of the moon transit (with about two hours until totality). A quick forecast check also still showed favorable skies. We agreed that this would be our viewing spot...regardless of what happened. There'd be no more relocating. Following the eclipse we would be presented with a nearly 7 hour drive back to Dallas as we really didn't wan't to go any further if we didn't have to.

Somehow, we managed to find the most ideal spot for favorable weather. When we pulled up the cloud coverage map just before totality, we were shocked at the perfect window of clear skies we found. Nearly everywhere else south and west of us, had thick clouds. 

Oden, by way of De Queen and Clarksville.

Our location in the narrow alleyway of clear skies
(clouds indicated in grey)

Viewing Location in Arkansas

Viewing Location - Exactly 1 mile from the totality center line (green)

Viewing Location just outside of Oden

Precise Viewing Location
Our viewing location outside Oden Arkansas

Setting up the camera

Using a colander to capture the eclipse

While we waited for totality, and watched the moon slowly march its way across the disc of the sun, we did get a few wispy clouds that came through...but nothing that had us anxious. Once we were within 15 minutes of totality, with nearly clear skies, we knew that we'd get the full show again. I did my best to snap occasional photos, but mostly I again wanted to just be in the moment and enjoy the experience.

As totality neared, the ambient light noticeably dimmed and the familiar sound of crickets and other evening insects began to become more audible. The uneasiness that I had felt in 2017 crept back in, and then all of the accompanying feelings of strangeness came rushing back. I immediately recalled the nearly three minutes of totality from 2017, and just how much it changed me...and I knew that it was once again imminent. This time however, we'd get almost 5 full minutes of totality....twice as long as we got in 2017.

In the final moments of sunshine the temperature had plummeted nearly 10 degrees. An eerie stillness came over our viewing area....and my perception of reality once again transitioned into an unsettling domain of supernatural and cosmic strangeness. My world was about to change.

....and then in a final lens-like flash, the last diamond of light vanished, and my glasses came off. We were in totality.

The first thing that struck me about this eclipse totality, was that the disc of the sun...appeared so much larger in the sky than I remembered it from 2017. In my mind, what I had recalled from 2017 was that during totality the dark sun appeared distant and somehow vague...almost as if it were a hole in the sky. The other thing I remembered was that I had very little time to enjoy the darkness...only 2 minutes and 41 seconds.

What I was staring at now, was what appeared to be a massive celestial body...a looming presence filling the sky. It seemed almost ominous and foreboding. It instilled a much greater sense of awe and disbelief than I had experienced seven years prior. I immediately realized why peoples of a thousand years ago interpreted eclipses as signs from the heavens. 

I snapped a few pictures quickly to get them on record, and even took another short video...expecting totality to once again be fleeting. When I had finished my "chores" a I simply stood in the shadow of celestial wonderment. The blacked-out sun was just so enormous and it almost felt as though it were growing. That feeling of the universe dividing by zero was markedly more powerful than I had remembered....and I caught myself having to look away a few times just to make sure that the world around me was still part of my greater reality.

After an eternity of trance-like stupor, I finally looked down at my watch....only 50 seconds had passed! How was that possible?! I started wondering if eclipses somehow alter our perception of time. I stood next to my partner for the next 3 and a half minutes, and we both just remained motionless capturing every single mental and sensory detail that would could. There were no more pictures and no more words...and we were beyond rational thought.

Seconds ticked by in slow motion. At one point we both gasped as we could see visible solar prominences and flares leaping out of the sun's surface and into its corona. These appeared as faint red loops at the edge of the eclipse that were about five times larger than Earth itself. I did not notice any such solar events during the 2017 eclipse, so this was something new for us both. I could tell there were other eclipse viewers nearby as I heard an occasional "wow!" or "woah!" coming up from the adjacent cornfield. For the most part though, it was strangely still and quiet, and we were both entirely absorbed and lost in the moment.

Time continued to trickle by. I checked my watch. and we had only just passed 2:41...the length of the 2017 eclipse. I couldn't believe we still had over two minutes left! Those final two minutes were the icing on the cake....uncharted territory, as it were. There was enough time during totality that I could truly let my mind wander, and ponder the immensity of the universe. I had entire conversations in my mind about so many many much wonder. The Earth had again, become somehow lost.

Mostly, I was just so very happy that we had made it to a place where we could once again experience the totality of a solar eclipse. I was glad we had decided to do whatever we could to make these nearly five minutes possible. It was all absolutely worth it. I would have driven across the country for this experience...of that I am now even more certain.

2024 Eclipse Totality

My only blurry photo taken during totality

When the diamond of light finally appeared on the opposite side of the sun, I put my glasses back on and let out a long sigh. It was over. The universe was again unstuck and progressing forward. For a few moments I had wondered if perhaps reality itself had broken was relieved that things were once again as they should be.

For the next 90 minutes, we continued to snap photos of the eclipse as the moon completed its march across the sun. We allowed ourselves to slowly come back down from the experience and by the time the eclipse was entirely over, we were ready to pack up and start the long journey home. We both agreed that we were once again changed forever and that this eclipse had been more dramatic than the first (despite the first being more meaningful in some regards as it was our first).

The travel home was long: A six hour car ride through thunderstorms, followed by several flights back to Phoenix, and a then a midnight drive back up to Flagstaff. On our drive back to Dallas following the eclipse, the sunset was spectacular. A pale orange sun loomed large on the horizon, draped by thin clouds. It's almost as though it was giving us a little encore of sorts. Quite a spectacular day for our wee little main sequence star. 

The setting sun on eclipse day

Another view of the setting sun

This morning, I had to teach a class and my mind was all over the place. It was hard to concentrate and I still don't feel like I'm integrated back into a "normal" mental state. It truly takes time to recover from an experience so surreal as this.

So what is next? As of now, that is unclear. We were fortunate to observe two total solar eclipses in 7 years (under clear skies), and even an annular eclipse in our backyard. There won't be another true eclipse in the US for over 20 years (unless we want to go up to Utqiagvik in northern Alaska during winter in a few years). Internationally, our prospects are much better. In 2026 there will be an eclipse that transits across Iceland with Reykjavik and the West Fjordlands being in the path of totality. The problem with Iceland of course is that it is often cloudy. There will also be an eclipse across New Zealand (during winter), and one across Africa that will transit very near the pyramids. As of now, we're considering Iceland, although we have already vacationed there (coincidentally right after the 2017 eclipse).

So what this all means is that we don't know yet. Certainly if we're still around in 2045, we'll be trekking to that eclipse here in the US, but in the meantime, we're just not sure. If I were a betting man, I would say that theres a pretty good chance we'll make some travel plans in the next decade to see another total eclipse.

Note: One piece of sad news to come from the eclipse is that my data logger that I prepared and set up to log temperature, humidity, and solar data during the eclipse failed to log any data. I'm not entirely sure why this happened, but the short of it was that it failed to launch correctly when I initiated the device. This was a huge disappointment for me as I really enjoyed plotting up the data from 2017 and was excited to compare the numbers. Not much I can do about it now....

The 2017 and 2024 eclipse paths

Photo taken following the eclipse from our viewing location

My data logger that failed to capture any usable data.

Our photo "sun-lapse" of the 2024 eclipse

Friday, March 29, 2024

Why Climate Mitigation Matters, Even if the Math Seemingly Doesn't

Making Public Comments to the Flagstaff City Council

This past week I stood up in front of the Flagstaff City Council to provide some comments on a recent proposed amendment to Flagstaff's Carbon Neutrality Plan. There is a large group of concerned citizens here in town, that have put forth a proposed change to the wording in the document which would recategorize the priorities of the plan from those of mitigation efforts (i.e. reducing our carbon emissions), to those of fire and flood management (essentially more adaptation measures). For anyone that lives in Flagstaff, this is a really important issue as many are impacted by the increase in wildfires, floods, and debris flows. Now...putting aside any of the reasons why there have been increases in these types of events, the principal argument and request of this citizens group was essentially this:

As a small city in Northern Arizona, fires and floods are the most pressing concerns and threats that directly affect us all. If moneys are to be allocated for any environmental-related efforts, they should be allocated to forest thinning as well as flood management, and fire management....and not to reducing our very minimal greenhouse gas emissions. China and India emit way more emissions than the US, and until they reduce their emissions, any small changes we make to our efforts in our town, essentially 'Don't Matter'.

On the surface, the may seem like a sound argument: Why should we put so much time, effort, and money, into something so seemingly insignificant, especially when reducing our emissions also doesn't really have any direct impact on our town? If we put those moneys instead towards fire and flood mitigation, it matters more to our residents. Sounds like a strong argument.

This group presented their argument confidently and boldly, and they had the overwhelming support of the several dozen people standing in solidarity. As an outside observer, one might be very convinced that this is undoubtedly an easy answer: Make the proposed changes, and amend the neutrality plan to prioritize the fire and flood adaptation measures.

But...I contend that this is NOT the right answer, and I will do my best to explain why I believe this, and why my public comments at city council reflected this position.

Specific to our community, I would first say that Flagstaff already has 16 separate policies, plans, and initiatives (that are all backed by funding from different agencies), that are specifically dedicated to adaptation measures...including fire, flood, and debris flows. Our forests are also nearly all part of the Coconino National Forest and are therefore heavily supported by the US Forest Service as a federal agency (and the fire crew and management therein). Flagstaff's Carbon Neutrality plan as written, is the ONLY plan that we have on our municipal books that specifically addresses greenhouse gas mitigation. But, let's put all of this aside for a moment and look at this idea and proposal from a more holistic view, because even if it were our only climate plan, I would still argue that it is essential to prioritize greenhouse gas mitigation.

I would like to first preface all of my following thoughts by saying that it is absolutely essential that in any discourse such as this, that ALL voices are heard, and that everyone can share their thoughts, comments, and concerns without fear of intimidation or ridicule. Our city council was excellent in this regard giving ALL citizens equal voices. Civility and respect are essential for any progress.

As I sat through the public comments both in support, and in opposition to the proposed amendment, it became clear very quickly that everyone agrees fires and floods are an increasingly dangerous threat to our community. Where there were disagreements, pertained to whether the Carbon Neutrality Plan should explicitly prioritize fire and flood efforts over greenhouse gas mitigation (and thereby prioritize those efforts for potential future funding through this plan). Over the several hours of comments we heard many passionate testimonies. There were citizens that spoke about their houses being threatened by fire or flood, and how they worry for their families during fire season. It was all very moving. When it was my turn to go up and share my voice, I opted to eschew my usual approach of speaking to the science, and instead I chose to speak to the philosophy and ethics...and speak to the "Why," as it were.

Throughout the evening, we heard a lot of discussion about data. More specifically, we were presented multiple data sets that ostensibly make the strong argument for adopting the amendment. For example, we heard that China and India emit much higher quantities of greenhouse gases than we do as a nation (and certainly as a city). To this point, I would simply say...Yes! Correct! China and India, two countries of over a billion people each, absolutely emit more greenhouse gases than our nation of a few hundred million, and especially our city of 70 thousand. 100%. What's more, is that no matter how much we as a city might do to mitigate our emissions, how many trees we might plant, how much atmospheric carbon we might capture directly...we as a city will NEVER offset the cumulative emissions of China or India. Yes! Also Correct. The math will never be in our favor.

So why should we spend time and money working to reduce our emissions then if it effectively "doesn't matter." And the reason is simple. is the right thing to do.

This isn't meant to sound cliché, glib, or idealistic. We should not fail to act simply because the math is not in our favor....especially when there is a clear moral obligation TO act. We are all obligated to work towards reducing our emissions and play our respective parts in working to do what we can for the future.

I went on....

I bring a re-usable grocery bag to the store every time I shop. Why do I do this? My one bag will never offset the millions of single use plastic bags that China and India use every day, but I still do it. And the answer is the same. I do it because it's the right thing to do. I do it because that single motion of me bringing that bag to the store just might one day, hopefully, lead to a movement. I urged the council that we have an obligation, and that we can also serve as a beacon and inspiration to others. IF we can show the city, the state, the country, and the world, that we can effect real and measurable change....even on small scales (and when the math isn't in our cumulative favor) just might lead to a larger movement. Other cities might see us, and try the same...and then maybe our county, and state, and so on. If no one acts simply because the math isn't favorable, no change will ever come. This is not a matter of Flagstaff "virtue signaling" either...this is a very real matter of moral ethics.

I went on....

We have countless people in the US that go hungry....but there are most certainly millions more in China. Does this mean we shouldn't do everything we can to help feed those here that need it, simply because there are more hungry people in China? Of course not. We are called to help those in need when we are morally obligated to....even if the math is not in our favor to end all of global hunger.

We should put those insignificant LED lights in our homes. We should compost our insignificant food scraps, and we should use those insignificant re-usable grocery bags. We should do these things in spite of the math. I ended with one of my favorite, and fittingly apropos Gandhi quotes (paraphrased):

"Many things we do in life will be (or seem) insignificant, but it is essential that we do them."

My three minutes were up. I thanked the council and went back to my seat.

After several hours of discussion amongst the council, weighing all considerations, they ultimately voted not to adopt the proposed amendment, thereby keeping mitigation as the highest priority in the Flagstaff Carbon Neutrality Plan.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Slowly Coming Back to Life...

Running in Virginia at the Mountain Masochist 50

For the past several years, I've established somewhat of an ad hoc routine as November approaches. As the colder weather begins to set in, and the academic semester hits its apex, other components of my life necessarily ease back. This includes the running, the riding, and most of the adventuring. In many ways the early Winter months have become my "rest" time. From mid-November through the Holidays, I use the time to allow my mind to ease itself of stress, I do what I can to truly enjoy the break, and I rest my body from what has usually been months of constant abuse and miles. In many ways, I look forward to this time, and enjoy doing a whole lot of nothing. Lately though, as I've gotten older, I find that I am not as able to enjoy this time as much as I used to, mostly because I know as I rest, and my fitness diminishes, it will ultimately be a longer road to getting it back. Come New Years, I usually have a few extra pounds I need to shed as well.

Thankfully I've been able to keep to a rather strict rebuild routine each year. I almost treat it as something of game...and track all of my health and workout data as my strength and fitness slowly return. Each year there is a moment when I flip the switch and commit myself to two very distinct goals:
  • First: I commit to starting back up with an annual run of loops in Florida on Christmas Day (while visiting family). 
  • Second: I commit to streaking for the entire month of January...meaning I commit to run every day for at least the entire month (although it usually carries well into February

Christmas Loops

One of the ways I stay on track for my second goal, is to sprinkle in several shorter "Tune-Up" races in January and early February. This way, I am somewhat forced to keep up my fitness build. If I do stick to my usual plan, I typically find myself an entirely new person by February 1st. I am generally leaner, stronger, fitter, and faster...with a well-built fitness base and more overall endurance. On Christmas Day it's a struggle to run those 6-8 miles, but by Feb 1, I am out running 20-milers every Saturday with relative ease. I simply love the process of getting fit and how just the simple act of consistency really does work. It's not about banging out occasional big days, or getting in some tempo's about just getting out every day and training the body to move regularly.For whatever reason, this year has been particularly rewarding so far, and also one where I've really tapped into the data. 

In Early November, I went out for what is often my last big effort of the year: the Mountain Masochist 50-Miler in Virginia. This event is not only a great one to ease back my running for the year, but is always a delightful time, given that I run the entire course with several of my Barkley friends. This year was no different. I ran with my friend (and Hardrock Pacer) Travis, and we had a blast trading stories along the way. We were also accompanied by another friend Mark, and of course were able to see Barkley Legends David Horton and Ed Furtaw at the finish. We had great weather, took our time, and eeked out a sub-12 hour finish by just a few minutes.

Along the Masochist Course with Travis (photo: Mark R.)

Normally, I'd start shutting things down after Masochist, but I decided to go back to the Fat-Ox 6 hour event just before Thanksgiving. I wasn't in great shape, and hadn't run a step since Masochist, but still managed to get through 32 miles in under 6 hours...placing me third in the event (I have no pictures from the event sadly).

Following Fat-Ox, the only notable effort I carried out was over Thanksgiving weekend when I did a fast-pack style hike up and down Mt. Baden-Powell outside of Wrightwood, California. It was a fun effort, but definitely a one-off and I could tell that I wasn't really building any real fitness by completing the hike. It was of course still fun regardless.

Mt. Baden Powell

...and then, I shut things down. Other than my daily dog walks, and one short local hike up a nearby hill in town, I effectively took the first three weeks of December entirely off. And it was nice. I read a lot, caught up on some research, and watched as my fitness evaporated away, and the winter weight slowly trickled on.

When Christmas morning finally came, I was again down in Florida visiting family. I brought a lot of running gear knowing I needed to commit to starting things back up again. On Christmas morning, I got up well before dawn, laced up my dusty running shoes, and began what would be the first of many days of trying to build back my fitness.

To keep myself on track I decided to register for a series of events in Arizona (in January) that would force me to train. Each of these events was "shorter" (i.e. less than an ultra), but were still long enough that I couldn't just "wing it". They'd still require some fitness if I actually wanted to run them all. The first event in this series would be just two weeks after Christmas, at the San Tan Scramble 26km (16-Miler).

What was different this year with my winter build up, was that I decided to fully embrace the data. I began regularly monitoring all of the information I could that was recorded and presented from my smart watch. This wasn't just obvious things like "steps", or "calories", but also data like "intensity minutes", "training readiness", "training status and load", "respiration", etc. I kept detailed spreadsheets of everything so I could monitor my progression using real data (and not just my "feel"). I religiously recorded every run or effort, as well as total mileages, average heart rates, training zones and intensities. I tailored my training such that I ran tempo runs when I had the highest anaerobic shortages...not just on "tempo Tuesdays". I was careful to listen to my body, but to also trust the data. If my apps were telling me to "recover", I would go easy on the next run, even if I felt great. The result of all of this is that this may have been my most productive post-holiday fitness build-up in years. I went out yesterday for a long 20-miler, and it felt effortless. My heart rate never topped 140, and I felt like I could have continued for hours. I felt so good, that I ran the last 10 miles faster than the first completely unintentionally. Despite my advancing years, it feels really good to know I can still bring myself back up to a decent fitness level and I'm excited about the races that I still have on the calendar, most notably the Black Canyon 100K in two weeks.

So...let's do a quick rehash of the past 5 weeks. Christmas week I definitely jumped in a little hot, starting out with a 50-mile week. This was probably not a great idea, but I suppose I was eager to get going. I remember that first week I was quite tired as my body started realizing things were getting real. On the Saturday of that first week, I was so sore, that I ended up doing a long bike ride instead of running. That ended up being the only day since Christmas that I didn't run (December 30th). That week did end with another annual tradition: "The New Year's Revolutions." Since 2014 I have been running a looped course of my own choosing the first weekend of the new year. It was originally a real event in Pennsylvania called CJ's Resolution Challenge, but has since become a virtual/unofficial event. This year, I ran 1 mile loops around my neighborhood for 16 miles. It was a struggle given my still lack of fitness.

Each week since, my mileage has not only increased, but my tiredness has ebbed, and my fitness has grown. In the first week of January I finished out the week with 51 miles, and my first race: The San Tan Scramble. The event went well, but racing felt like a struggle. I definitely had to push to maintain a decent race pace, and it was quite apparent I wasn't in shape yet.

The following week, I eased up a bit on pacing, but still managed to maintain my mileage at 51. For the week starting January 15th, classes were now beginning, adding another level of stress and time commitment to my days. I adjusted quickly and began doing runs out of my office on lunch break or at the end of the day. This also allowed me to finally get back to tackling my multi-year effort to run every street within the city limits of Flagstaff. So far I've run about 300 miles of streets in the city, and I am now getting close to being about 50% complete. That week I ended with 60 miles and a solid running at the Coldwater Rumble 40k. I ran every step, and finished feeling fairly strong...although still not quite fully fit.

This brings us up to this week. For the first time, all of the data I have been tracking were indicating that I have reached a plateau...meaning that given all of my efforts, I am now "fit" and can work on maintaining. Of course I can try to step it up to another level, but I'm not sure I realistically want to do that. I'm ok with my 60-mile weeks...and don't really want to push beyond that. Regardless, the data don't lie, and when I went out for my 20-miler yesterday, it didn't even feel like work. It was fun, casual, and enjoyable. By afternoon, I had no fatigue in my legs and was already "recovered" according to my digital health data. What this all means is that in two weeks, I do think I'll be in really good shape to do well at the Black Canyon 100k (assuming decent weather). While I don't know if I can get close to my 2020 time of just a smidge over 12 hours, I'm certainly going to do the best I can and see how things shake out. More than anything, I just want to be consistent, and not go out too fast. Of course before Black Cnayon, and in just one week, I do have the elephant Mountain 35k (22 miles)  first...but given its proximity to the Black Canyon (just one week prior), I will purposely be taking that run very easy...treating it more like a casual weekend long run. Still, I'm hoping I fell just as good coming away from it as I did yesterday on my 20-miler.

At any rate, I guess I'm just excited to feel back on track again...and that it didn't feel like a chore getting here; it felt good; it was fun.

As far as what I have planned after Black Canyon...well let's just say it's up in the air at the moment. I have some good ideas, have my name in a lottery or two, but so far, nothing official yet. Regardless of what I do, I will certainly not let this newfound fitness fizzle out...and will start putting some things on my calendar to keep myself accountable and on track.

A January of Running...

My progress so far on Flagstaff Streets

San Tan Scramble 26k

Coldwater Rumble 40K

Saturday, December 30, 2023

"Doubling Up" the Adventures - 2023 Year in Review

Some Urban Exploration...

2023 has been one of those years that seems to have whizzed by at such a breakneck speed, that not only were sound barriers likely broken, but it is genuinely hard to keep things straight in my head. Maybe this is simply due to my aging mind, or maybe we all collectively experienced some sort-of Thanos "blip". Regardless of circumstances surrounding the apparent supersonic passing of this past year, one thing is clear: I somehow still managed to find time to fit in some truly spectacular and memorable adventures. Any year that I can comfortably sit at my laptop around the winter holidays, in good health, and reflect back on a collection of fantastic a damn good one. As I've grown older, I've learned to appreciate my adventures more, as well as the memories that I come from them. I know there will come a time, when I can no longer take on many of the treks I do today, but until such time, I will suck that proverbial marrow out of whatever I can. As I note in my new written collection, Treks to Nowhere, "I want my resume of visited places to be full of superlatives, curiosities, and idiosyncrasies when I finally move on from this world."

And so here we are, just a few days left on the 2023 calendar, and there is again much to look back on with fondness, and a smile. Once again, I will try to keep this post relatively chronological, stepping through the year, as it were. I do think it's worth mentioning a few of "big ticket" adventures right up front here, however. These specific adventures (or their preparation) were the ones that perhaps spanned many months or set the tone or a greater theme for the year. 

Among these "big ticket" adventures, I would include my tackling of the infamous "Ultramarathon Western States / Hardrock Double," as well as my 1000-mile Arizona Grand Ride. 2023 was once again a year defined in large part by running. I knocked out several ultramarathons, and even completed my 100th ultra race. I hiked several peaks, went on countless motorcycle adventures, watched another eclipse, vacationed in Colorado, finally kayaked in Flagstaff, co-authored a handful of scientific papers, graduated my first masters student, and published my first full book (inspired by my writing on this very site)! So many great things to look back let's jump in, starting in January...

January was all about getting back into shape. In December of last year I learned that I was selected in both the Western States 100 and Hardrock 100 lotteries. This rare occurrence is known in the ultrarunning world as "The Double," and it presents a notoriously difficult challenge. I've run both of these events before, but not during the same Summer. What makes this challenge just so tough, is that these two events are both on independently difficult courses....and are only three weeks apart. It's impossible to truly recover from a 100-mile run in under three weeks, so I knew this would be an adventure that would be hard fought, and really test my limits (especially considering my age - I'm just not as young as I used to be). So, as I noted, January was all about trying to slowly ramp back up my training. I typically take off running in December and let myself rest up for several weeks. But given this "Double" development, I needed to commit to several months of consistent and focused training. The way I decided to do this was to sign up for several shorter races in January and February as a way to keep myself on track. Of course what made this particularly difficult was that for almost four straight months (Jan - Apr), Flagstaff experienced record snowfall....making outside running not only impractical, but sometimes impossible. Given this, it also meant that I had to sign up for my campus gym, and run hundred of miles on a treadmill. This is definitely not preferred, but at least I was able to get in my miles.

From Jan through the first of May, I ran seven competitive races (several of ultra length). This included The Coldwater 20 Miler, Elephant Mountain 50K, Black Canyon 100K, Mesquite Canyon 30K, Dam Good Run 40K, Zion 50K, and Cocodona 38 Miler. It was a a slow and arduous road back to peak fitness, but one I'm glad I was able to tackle. It felt good to finally be back in proper peak shape. I remember running the Cocodona 38 on May 1st, feeling as good as I have in years. I missed that feeling.

Finishing the Elephant Mountain 50K

Running Black Canyon 100K w/Friends

Along the Black Canyon Course

Barkley Marathons:
In mid-march, I was also asked by my friend John Kelly if I would be willing to crew for him at the infamous Barkley Marathons. I crewed for him back in 2019, but he ended up quitting after his 2nd loop. This time though, I could sense the fire in him and agreed to do it without hesitation--I had a strong sense that he was going to do very well. Having finished all 5 loops back in 2012 myself, I always wanted to be a crew chief for another runner that also finishes all 5 loops. I saw this as a way of closing the loop, and paying back my debt to the Barkley Gods. I wanted to have on my running resume that not only did I finish Barkley, but that "My Runner" finished Barkley. 

I won't delve too much into the details of my experience. John K. has a wonderful race report listed on his own page, and it's his story to tell. My role really only amounted to a few frantic minutes between his loops, punctuated by many hours of waiting around camp between loops. Still, I loved the experience and seeing John finish...knowing that I helped play a tiny part in his success and was able to repay my Barkley debt. It was an incredible year to be at the event. There were again three finishers (similar to 2012--the year I finished). In addition, the 3rd place finisher, Karel Sabbe, came in with about 7 minutes to spare before the cutoff. This meant he managed to unseat me as the "Slowest Barkley Finisher." It was truly an adventure like no other.

Laz getting things started...

John leaving on loop 3

Loop 3 leaders at the tower

John filling up at the tower on loop 5

John's Finish

A Grand Ride
In April, as the semester was coming to a close, I took my graduate students on a fun field trip up to Northern Arizona and the Navajo Nation to see a large solar farm. My running continued to ramp up, and the snow finally began to melt. When the weather finally got warm enough, and the roads fully clear of snow and ice, I also finally realized a dream I've had since late 2020 when I first bought my Royal Enfield Himalayan motorcycle. That dream, was to plan, and successfully carry out what is known as an Iron Butt Saddlesore Ride. This ride is a type of challenge in the motorcycling community that tests a rider by having them ride over 1000 continuous miles in under 24 total hours. This is a surprisingly difficult challenge, and one that takes a lot of persistence, patience, and frankly, stubbornness. Riding for 1000 miles is really hard, and doing it continuously, while also staying safe, is a true challenge.

Over the winter months, I carefully plotted out a route that I would follow for my ride, I ensured there were adequate fuel stops along the way, and that I would indeed hit 1000 total miles. I also ensured that I could start and stop at my house and ride a loop route. I decided to brand my ride a "Grand Ride," as I thought it made for a more fun take on the challenge. On Friday, April 14th, I took off of work, fired up my bike at 3:00 am, and left my house (in sub-freezing temperatures). Throughout the day, I worked my way around my planned route, making steady and consistent progress. By the time sunset came over 16 hours later, I was over 800 miles into my ride and turning for the final stretch back home. Ultimately I made it back safely without any issues. I managed to ride through just about every landscape and ecosystem that Arizona has to offer. It was an absolutely epic ride, and one that I will never forget. And despite the obvious backside discomfort, I'm already planning the longer Iron Butt Bun Burner 1500-mile challenge for 2024. I published an entire post about this ride as well as a video compilation and podcast episode featuring the highlights.

Mile 150 of my 1000-mile ride

Full Video Compilation

As Spring finally brought some warmer temperatures, I finally found myself enjoying the outdoors much more. I was running regularly again outside, and even kayaking on occasion on the now full Lower Lake Mary (from all of the recent snow melt).

Grad student field trip

Lake Mary Kayaking

Lake Mary Kayaking

The Double
As summer started to approach, my focus shifted entirely to that of my final "Double" preparation. This included a few final training races as well as another "up and down"  at the Grand Canyon. Somewhere in there I also squeezed in trips out to Seattle for a fantastic science meeting, as well as the ice core laboratory for some sampling. I also flew out to California with my good friend from the East Coast, in order to take part in the Western States Training Camp. This camp would give us the chance to see 70 miles of the actual Western States course before race day, and asses the snow situation. California received record snow fall and we were both worried about conditions for the race in June. Camp went well for the first two days, but on the third day, I took a horrible spill, and fell really hard on my right knee (and my hands). I was really worried that I may have done some serious damage that might have put my running of the "double" in jeopardy. After all of my focused training, my races were in serious doubt.  I spent the next two weeks nursing my sore knee and doing everything I could to allow it to heal and recover quickly. Thankfully, it healed enough to not cause any serious trouble for either summer race. I was incredibly lucky.

Just before Western States (The first of the "double" races), I ran one final 50k training race and my knee did ok. This was all I needed to assuage any doubts I was having about my knee.

Race weekend came, and it all went off quite well. I had a good run, and my plan to not push too hard went exactly as I had hoped. The snow in the first 15-20 miles was pretty rough, and slowed me down considerably, but I was able to recover enough that I still finished right at 27 hours. I wrote an entire race report following the event here:

At the Grand Canyon....again

Training Camp Pic #1

Training Camp Pic #2

Training Camp Pic #3

Getting signed in on race day

Getting wrist-band

The day before the start

The entire WS gang

Along the course

Along the course

Along the course

At the finish!

My 2nd Western States Buckle

Not long after Western States (And with only a couple of weeks to recover), I was in Colorado prepping for my second run, the Hardrock 100. As a way to get in some final training, I headed up to the Maroon Bells Wilderness for some fantastic camping and climbing. I was able to bag my 54th 14er peak (out of 58) and enjoy some wilderness time with C and the dog. We also camped for several days down near the Wilson 14er group in the Lizard Head Wilderness area. Things were looking pretty good leading up to the race, but then on race day, we were presented with ridiculously dry conditions. Over the course of the race, I developed major breathing issues due to the dry air and suffered from acute exercise-induced asthma. It didn't really cause me issues until around mile 75, but he final 25 miles of the race were an absolute struggle and I was nearly pulled by medical staff. 

One of the things that also made Hardrock so special was that it marked my 100th official ultramarathon race. I wrote an entire report detailing my entire experience at Hardrock and my quest for 100 ultramarathons here:

Camping in the San Juans

At the Maroon Bells

On the summit of Maroon Peak

Maroon Bells

Set up for HR 100 run

The Start Line chute

Leaving Cunningham (Mile 9)

The Tunnel at mile 60

Climbing Virginius Pass (Mile 70)

Coming in to Telluride (Mile 75)

Leaving Telluride

A Hard-fought finish

Relaying my story to Hardrock and Barkley Legend: Blake Wood

A New Motorcycle!
Once back from Colorado another big development occurred. I decided to sell my small and very capable trail bike (my Honda CT 125), and replace it with a more traditional dual-sport bike. I went with a Honda CRF300L....but I specifically went with the "S" model as it offers riders a slightly lower seat height. My problem with dual sport bikes has always been their tall seat heights (I'm only 5'9" with a 32" inseam). The 300LS is low enough that I am able to flat-foot comfortably, and therefore control the bike with much more ease. This meant I now had a true trail-capable bike, that I was not nervous to ride, that I could fully control. Not long after I was headed off on countless trail adventures. I will link to a few videos below of some of those adventures.

Selling the Honda Trail 125

Celebrating the new Honda CRF300LS

New Bike Day!

End of Summer and the High Flagstaff Peaks
As the summer came to a close, and I began preparing for the start of the Fall semester, I snuck in a quick trip back to the East Coast to visit some family. I also got in a another Ultra at the Stagecoach 55k run just up the road from my house in Flagstaff.

Another larger-scope project that I focused on in the Fall was my quest to tag the "significant high peaks" of the Flagstaff Area. I keep a list of 27 peaks in the area that I've been slowly pecking away at but focused on more earnestly during the Fall. I managed to get out to Merriam Crater, Red Mountain, the White Horse Hills, and the Hochdoerffer Hills. I captured video footage from all of the these adventures which are linked below.

Stagecoach 55k aid station

Red Mountain

Merriam Crater

White Horse Hills

Hochdoerffer/Hummingbird Hills

Treks to Nowhere
One of my biggest adventures of 2023, was my journey to publish my first full book, Treks to Nowhere. I've been compiling posts on this website since 2006 and have been telling myself for years that I would eventually put a more formal collection together. In October of last year, after some consistent encouragement from friends, I finally made a commitment to get it done. Part of the way I kept myself motivated was to publish regular audio narratives from the collection in the form of a podcast series. This got me excited about each upcoming chapter. Despite this heightened motivation, it was still an arduous and tedious process. I went through months and months of endless editing and proofreading. I never thought I'd spend so much time re-learning rules of semi-colons and em-dashes. In late October, I finally finished the collection and had a proof sent to me through Amazon Direct Publishing. The first time I held that book in my hands, it was a surreal feeling. I've written my share of scientific papers that have been published in journals, but writing a book just feels different--over twenty years of planning and a lifetime of adventures, all combined into a single volume in my own hands. Simply indescribable.

I put out a quick video detailing the final days leading up to the publishing below.

Treks to Nowhere gets published!

Treks to Nowhere Video Update

Some Final Adventures
In the final few months of the year, I had a smattering of final smaller adventures. These included a day-trip up to Navajo Nation to view a annular solar eclipse. While not as profound as a total eclipse, it was still incredible to witness (and only a 2 hour drive from home).

In October I went down to the Phoenix area to pace my good friend at the Javalina Hundred ultramarathon (as a way to pay her back for pacing me at Western States). We had a grand time running through the desert together.

In early November, I made my annual pilgrimage to Virginia to run the Mountain Masochist 50-miler with my Barkley Friends. This marked my 7th running of the event, and just like in 2022, I just barely squeaked out a sub-12 hour finish (11:55). It was really wonderful to again run 50 miles with my good friend Travis (who had also paced for me a few months prior at the Hardrock 100).

In November I also tried my best to reach the Geographic Center of Arizona...twice (falling short both times). Turns out, it is a really tricky spot to reach and will require some more intense preparation and planning.

Over Thanksgiving, C and I took a short trip out to Wrightwood, California to visit with family again. I always love going to this town as it was one of my favorite trail towns while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2010. We had a wonderful holiday break, and I had enough time to squeeze in another summit of Mount. Baden-Powell.

In December, I ran one last ultramarathon, the Fat Ox 6-hour event. I ran this last year, and it was during the many loops on that course that I learned of my selection in both the Western States and Hardrock Lotteries. This year, I did not get selected for either lottery...which I was honestly relieved to learn. I think I just need a year off from both events.

The Fall semester came to a close, and I watched several of my Climate Science students walk at graduation and celebrate the completion of their MS program. I also graduated my first full research geology MS student. This was definitely a significant milestone for me as it was the first time that I had advised a student one-on-one, through an entire research program, on an NSF grant that was funded from a proposal that I wrote. It was also the first time I served as a chair at a defense. It was weird being on the other side of a defense, and it brought back some interesting memories from my own graduate school experience.

Speaking of research, I also made my annual pilgrimage to San Francisco for the large American Geophysical Union conference. I met up with several collaborators and hatched some interesting plans for some upcoming projects, that should include Antarctic field work!

And so we've made it up to this week. The holidays are here, and I'm in Florida meeting with family. I always end my long winter running break with a Christmas morning loop run around my small neighborhood that my mom lives in. This makes for a nice mental kick in the pants that I need to get back into shape.

And that's it. I'm grateful to have my family and my health...and to be able to continue exploring however I can. I have several plans in the works for next year as well that I hope to tackle, but nothing set in stone just yet. Some ideas I'm tossing around though include finally tackling a 200+ trail ultramarathon, knocking out at least one more 14er, riding the entirety of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery route, and perhaps even tackling a 1500-mile Saddlesore ride. I'm also planning a trip to Texas for the total solar eclipse, as well as a trip overseas to Spain and Morocco. As always, there's a chance I may be heading further south to the icy Antarctic, but nothing is official as of yet.

Thank you everyone for following along on my silly adventures. If I've learned anything over the past few decades of adventuring, it's to simply get out and explore...even if it's just in your own neighborhood. Don't let the days slip by. As cliché as it sounds, get out and see the world. Discover goofy places, and marvel at the many wonders that exist.

I look forward to another year full of silly and memorable adventures....

Watching the eclipse with my doggo

More eclipse viewing!

Annular Totality!

My friend crushing her first trail 100-miler

One of my (failed) attempts to the geographic center of AZ

The gang at the Mountain Masochist start line

Running at my 7th Mountain Masochist 50-miler

Summit of Mt. Baden-Powell

Summit of Mt. Baden-Powell

My new 100-miler belt buckle display case!

Christmas at home

Eight new Climate science MS graduates!

My first Glaciology/Geology MS graduate

Annual Christmas Loops in florida

Some tentative plans for 2024