Monday, April 30, 2012

Marquee Olympic Race Report

This event was my twenty-seventh time venturing into the murky waters of Tempe Town Lake. It would have been twenty-eight, but last year’s Marquee swim was cancelled, due to heavy rain that might have increased the bacteria count. I have a love-hate relationship with this race site. After racing triathlons at this place so many times, I am kind of bored with it. But the site is flat and fast and it’s an easy drive to get to.

The walled in lake makes me anxious. It has no friendly gradual drop-offs that would help me feel safe. I have had many a panic attack in this water. The walls imprison me, their weight closing in in a menacing manner. It’s hard to sight the buoys that guide the swimmers through the bridges in the swim in the glare of the sun. The algae content of the water varies, but it always ends up in my nose and sometimes on my face.
I always have the illusion that THIS time the swim will go well. Most of the time it’s tolerable, but not enjoyable. Sometimes it’s an ordeal that takes every ounce of determination I have not to quit. I think that I will go hard and fast, but I get tired, I have to rest and it is more survival than racing. It doesn’t help that I am a slower swimmer than the rest of the world. This can be an advantage and disadvantage. I don’t get hit because I am not near anyone, but I don’t have anyone to draft off of to help me go faster.
I got down to the race site early, so I had time to wait around. I set up my transition gear and talked to people. By doing these races for a number of years, I know a fair number of people that are involved with them. I warmed up, but had to wait thirty minutes from transition closing to start, so it was kind of useless. The water temperature had gone down to sixty four degrees from when I had swam in it a few days prior. I jumped in and it was cold.

In the fifteen kilometer swim I had trouble sighting on the way out. I couldn’t see the buoys very well and at one point I was sighting off the wrong buoy and went off course. The buoys don’t seem like they were in a straight line, but Tempe Town Lake isn’t either. It’s tricky swimming under the bridges because I can’t see where to swim. Coming back, I got into a flow and swam faster. I saw a first time racer swimming back stroke in front of me. A newbie having a hard time, who was going faster than me was not an ego boost. The way back seemed long somehow, but it was easier to sight the buoys.

I fell on the stairs getting out . It was hard to walk on rubbery legs after being horizontal for forty-five minutes.

In transition, I fumbled with my arm warmers and my socks because I still felt cold. I tore a hole in one sock. I had dead grass from the lawn all over everything.

Out on the twenty-five mile bike course, the way north seemed strangely fast because of a possible tail wind that pushed me along. My heart rate was in zone three in the low 140's, which wasn’t high for me, but it seemed like the right pace because it was painful. The route goes out the Beeline Highway to Gilbert Road, which was right by a garbage dump, then comes back. The wind was blowing the right direction and I couldn’t smell the dump. Coming back, it seemed like more effort than usual, so maybe it was a tail wind that was now a head wind. I tried to keep eating and drinking even though I didn’t want to, on the theory that maybe the run wouldn’t suck so bad if I did because I would have more energy. I didn’t stop at the aid stations, but I saw someone I knew at one of them, which gave me a mental boost.

The second transition time was also long, mostly because I had to pee, forcing me to squeeze through the fence to get to a porta-potty. This is always an issue with longer races. The porta potties are never in a convenient spot and my pre-race planning always includes how to get to them without affecting my bike and run splits with the extra time. Sometimes this involves crawling under fences.

I had a goal on the 10k run to try to break a ten minute per mile pace. I could do this easily in a stand alone run, but swimming and biking tires my legs. Goals are a mental exercise that can help me test my limits; a game to see if the mind or the body will win. At this point in the race, my legs ached badly and I wondered if it was possible to force myself to do this pace each mile for 6.2 miles. I faltered on some of them; others went better. Struggling this way broke up the monotony of the route. My Garmin GPS helped because I could see when I was slowing down. I got hot and had to pour water on myself. I started out with my heart rate in the 150's and built it up to the 160's. I increased my pace the last two miles with the last mile being the fastest. Unfortunately, I missed the finishing chute the first time and had to go back. I hoped no one noticed. All the blood was in my legs, not my brain and it was hard to think.

The total time was three hours, thirty-one minutes, which wasn’t stellar compared to the rest of racers, but it was my second fastest olympic triathlon run. I like seeing how hard I can push myself in a race, but I always make the mistake of comparing my slower time to others, which makes me feel inadequate. My mind tells me that I suck even if I did the best I could. It likes to do this and I don’t know why. The inner doubts are hard to vanquish and seem to defy any positive mental self talk. I ignore them and move on.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

2012 Messier Marathon

Once a year is the Messier marathon. In the spring for a short time period, all the constellations in the northern latitudes can be seen in one night. Charles Messier cataloged 110 objects because he was looking for comets and wanted to distinguish these objects from what he was looking for. The goal is to find all the objects with a telescope in one night. Some are low in the horizon before sunset or dawn and are hard to see. I have attempted this feat for a number of years, but the best number I have seen is 109. Once I got a computer guidance system on my telescope, it was a lot easier, but I still had to work most of the night to try to see everything. Most people would think that this is an insane thing to do. It’s tiring and uncomfortable     standing around in the cold.                         

Obsessions usually start small. They sneak into your life, and before you know it, you are sucked into doing absurd things. The seeds of my astronomy interest possibly started when I first saw Saturn as a child, through my father’s handmade telescope. I could see the rings around the planet. It was fascinating, a whole visual phenomena that I didn’t know existed.

As an adult, my interest was revived when my then husband got an eight inch Dobsonian telescope. A Dobsonian is a mirrored tube that sits on a swiveling base. It’s simple to assemble and carry around. My husband lost interest in using it, so I took it over. I got a bright star atlas and started looking for things to observe. I learned the constellations and the position of the stars to find objects. Even in my light-polluted back yard, I could see galaxies, star clusters and globulars, which are fuzzy balls of stars. These objects were incredible to look at with the variety of formations, nebulosity and the fuzziness of millions of stars. But after a while, I wanted to see fainter stuff that required the contrast of a dark sky.

This required stepping out of my comfort zone and driving long distances to remote places. I joined an astronomy club, so I wasn’t alone once I got to the site. Phoenix is so light-polluted that a drive of at least fifty miles is required to escape it. I didn’t like driving that far by myself. My husband had no interest in accompanying me, so I was on my own.

The sites always had at least two miles of dirt road to drive on, at the end of fifteen miles of cotton fields after a left turn to nowhere. The roads seemed to meander in pointless directions. At first I would attempt to drive home the same night. This involved leaving the area with no lights on, since white light will invoke extreme wrath and loud cussing from fellow astronomers. Red light is okay, since it won’t spoil a person’s night vision. I gave up trying to drive a car in the dark on a dirt road with no lights because it was difficult to stay on the road if I could even see where to drive. I could possibly go off into a ditch or get lost. I took to sleeping in the car and leaving in the daylight.

Each site we observed at had its peculiarities. One near Buckeye Hills had black helicopters with no lights that flew by occasionally. My guess it was due to the proximity of the Goldwater Air Force Range that the military was checking us out. Other times hunters would send out flares and try to shoot things in the dark. The border patrol checked us out . No one would bother us, but some sites became unsafe to be at due to criminal activity.

One site on Salome Highway near the Harquahala Mountains was memorable because it had a roost of Barn Owls nearby , and I could hear the haunting screeches in the night. It was thrilling to be in that other worldly darkness. One of the members, however, got attacked by a swarm of bees, so we didn’t go there much after that.

The site of the Messier Marathon is an abandoned small airfield near Horvatter Road two miles south of I-10. It is named “Salome Emergency Airfield” on the maps. It looks like it was rarely used, if ever, and it was established in the 1930's. The dirt runways are still there, but are a little overgrown with Creosote. A pilot would have to be pretty desperate to land in this forgotten place. Maybe in the 1930's less concrete existed for landings. Still in the middle of nowhere, it must have been more so back then.

These desert places were always very dusty. It was usually BLM land or a ranch, where cows roamed freely, leaving their cow pies and chewing down the vegetation that kept the dirt down. Any moving car would kick up clouds of dust into the atmosphere that could be seen for miles. My car would be covered with dirt by the time I left.

I usually made up a list of objects to look at. Without a computer guidance system or setting circles on the scope, I had to rely on figuring out where the object was by the position of the stars in the constellation. This was hit or miss and if it was a really faint object, it was mostly miss. Throw in clouds or atmospheric disturbance, it was even more difficult. Actually finding the faint galaxy, star cluster or globular felt like an accomplishment even though it the object might not be all that exciting to look at. Some were amazing, though, making the hunt worthwhile. Some would have a haze of nebulosity surrounding a sparkling star formation. Bright galaxies could have lanes of dark matter running though them. Double star formations could be red and blue. Some nebulas would be ring shaped and green in color. Comets, satellites, meteors with fireball trails were also a bonus.

Sometimes the weather did not cooperate. This is always an iffy factor in astronomy. Loading up a car with all the junk you need is time consuming. Sleeping in a car or tent isn’t all that comfortable. It’s a crap shoot trying to figure out if it will cloud up or be clear. Usually, if I think the weather is going to be crappy, I stay home. The exception is the Messier marathon. People almost always show up, which is not the case with other star gazing dates. If no observing can be done, people stand around and talk. It doesn’t stay cloudy all night most of the time in Arizona. A hundred mile drive is required, so it is hard just to turn around and go home.

This year the weather clouded up and the sky had clear spots at sunset, but the horizon was murky with haze. I couldn’t see the first objects. I had to look at the same areas several times, hoping that the clouds would clear. Sometimes it did clear out and I could see what I was looking for. I have seen the Messier objects many times, but I was reminded how pretty some of them are. I continued this process until I ran out of constellations. I got into the car to sleep for a while. I had on long underwear, jeans, a long sleeved shirt, a ski bib, a coat and another long wool coat. All this, plus sleeping bags kept me warm. It was an effort to get out of the car to look at the sky again.

Being out in the desert at night is strange. I am out of place. The rest of the world is snug in their beds. Or they are traveling on the highway to the north. I could see the headlights that seemed to go slowly only because of the distance. It’s not completely dark. On a good night, I could have seen the Milky Way with dark lanes through it with my naked eye. The stars would sparkle brilliantly. This night a haze dulled everything.

I looked at objects for another hour until I couldn’t see anything and gave up. The warm car beckoned. A mere sixty seven objects was all I saw that night. The next bout of Messier insanity will have wait until next year.