Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rain

It's another dark and rainy day at the Wayward Home.  And I mean pouring-straight-down, all-day-soaker, enough-is-enough-already rainy.  It's the last gasp of tropical storm Lee blowing itself out and dumping half the Gulf of Mexico into my swimming pool.  There's flooding all over the area and travel is getting a bit tricky even for vehicles.  The first day of school in my district is closing early due to high water and closed roads.  There's no bicycle weather in sight.  It's a great day for ducks and bloggers.

Looking out the back door at my overflowing pool I've reached a conclusion.  Since I'm old and have certain prerogatives befitting a man of my advanced age, I've chosen to stay mostly dry, ignore my good intentions and decline the semi-planned, celebrate-my-birthday-late-Century bike ride that I had in the works for today.  As is common in my line of work, I missed the actual day of my birth and noted it's passing from the right-hand seat of a locomotive.  I did fully intend to make up for it by putting another hundred miles on the Trek as soon as I got home however.  Then along came the rain and washed the spider out...
I had it in my head this morning to go anyway despite the downpour but there's not much incentive to drown myself pedaling through a monsoon just to prove I can.  Younger hammerheads who haven't been beaten half to death riding a Harley in the rain are welcome to earn their stripes today but I think I'll take a pass.  There's dedicated and then there's lunacy.

And man is it raining hard.  This next catastrophe courtesy of the weather will undoubtedly lead to track closures due to washouts and downed trees for days if not weeks.  The lines have only been reopened for about a week now after Hurricane Irene took out sizable chunks of roadbed and dropped about a thousand trees across the ROW.  I guess I shouldn't have asked after the earthquake and hurricane what was next. 

It was pouring the whole way home on my last trip back from Harrisburg so the ground is already saturated and rain rates of inches-per-hour is certain to bring down the hillsides and take out the culverts yet again.  I hate working when this kind of crap is going on.

Long stretches of my route are 'dark territory' meaning trains run on paper 'Warrants' that grant authority to occupy the track instead of signals on the wayside.  The 'dark' part is means more than just that there's no signal lights along the way.  It also means there's no way the dispatcher or a train can tell anything about what's out there until somebody gets eyes on it and reports in.  This has led to some pretty awful events in the past and the potential is still there.  Moving water is a powerful thing and since most my run follows river grades for miles, I get a little bit uneasy when conditions get like they are today.  Mudslides studded with stumps and rocks are a real possibility and fallen trees are almost a certainty.  Darkness and fog only make it worse as you can't see far enough ahead to even slow down before you hit something large and leafy or drop into a hole full of fast-flowing water.

My first brush with a washout taught me quite a bit about what heavy rain can do.  A homeward trip in flash-flood weather brought us down to Restricted Speed along the river that the track parallelled.  Restricted Speed means that you have to run slow enough to be able to stop in half the distance you can clearly see.  When it's pitch dark and raining in sheets, that's not very far or very fast.  Good thing.

I tiptoed along for many miles until at one point something out in the headlights didn't quite seem right.  It almost looked like the track was moving.  Track is not normally supposed to move.  I stopped and the conductor and I walked ahead to take a peek at what I was pretty sure was an optical illusion brought on by staring intently into the dark too long.  Again, good thing.

What we found was water rushing down a steep bank like Niagara, then using the rails as a guide to change direction and shoot along about a hundred yards straight at us before diving under the ties and taking the roadbed with it.  While we stood there, the hole got visibly bigger and the washout moved appreciably closer to the front of the engine.  This is certainly not a good thing.

I happened to have two brand-spanking new Canadian National engines on the train that night and it was shaping up like they might find them and us in a Pennsylvania river along with half the cars by morning.  I was pretty sure the CN would be most unhappy if I destroyed a pair of engines that still smelled of fresh paint by sinking them in a flood.  A quick try on the radio found that the relay towers were down which left us unable to contact anyone with our predicament.  I started thinking about how much I hate swimming in cold water.

We were out of options so the conductor suited up and started hoofing it for the rear end of the train to protect road crossings behind us so hopefully, I could shove the thing back.  He didn't get far before he found more knee-deep, fast-moving water swirling toward the river blocking the way.  He resorted to hanging onto the cars and trying to work his way along without getting washed downstream.  It was slow going and we really didn't have all that much time.  I left the headlights on and watched the hole in front of me eat it's way under the rails, steadily getting larger and closer.  I could hear rocks rolling down the newly formed rapids in front of the engine and the rain just kept on coming.  Finally, as the ballast stones started dropping away about twenty feet in front of the snowplow, I called my half-drowned CO and told him to get up on a car and stay there while I backed up and away from the abyss.  A few more minutes and those shiny units would be in the drink and that new-car smell in the cab would be only a memory.  I could only hope the track was still intact behind us or we'd be pushing cars into the river.  The rails in front of me were visibly drooping lower as the support under them disappeared so the choices were pretty limited.  There's times when you just have to do what you can and hope for the best.  I pushed the train slowly back about 50 yards or so until it looked like the ground was solid again and the water wasn't over the top of the railheads.  Safe for now.

For some reason, the radio towers came back to life and we were eventually able to reach the dispatcher just about the time the conductor got to the last car.  We got permission to back up a mile or so to clear the road crossings of a town and that was all she wrote for that trip except for a van ride home.  A MOW foreman came out to assess the damage sometime after we got safely parked.  He set his pickup on in front of us and hi-railed to the washout for a peek.  He must have made some quick phone calls because while we waited for our taxi, a string of dump trucks loaded with big chunks of rip-rap stone and gravel started to arrive and soon a mountain of fill was growing beside the track.  The dispatcher came up on the radio and asked the foreman how long he thought it would be until he could run trains again.  You could almost hear the track man shake his head when he answered, "I've been dumping rocks into the hole since I got here and we still can't find the bottom.  It's gonna be a while."  And so it was.

I found out I should have a bit of respect for high water that night.  We kind of get used to thinking of trains as the biggest and baddest things going but something as simple as a couple days of no-kidding  rain can bring the tough guys to their knees.  Lesson learned.

I already know I'll have burning eyeballs from staring into the rain when I go back out again.  Maybe next week I can do that Century unless...I won't even ask this time what could be next.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Tour of 2011

Holy Lost Month Batman!

August came and went in a rush of busy days and full-bore craziness.  The lead-up to the Tour de Cure, the Office Car Special, an earthquake, a hurricane...where to begin?
I lost track of the Wayward Home somewhere around mid-month as the Tour closed in, sometime after my vacation in July.  I guess that's as good a place as any to start picking up the pieces.

I was off for a little over two weeks and blissfully unaware of RR doings as is my wont when I don't have to worry about going to work.  I try to forget everything track-related for as long as possible to the point of having to be re-trained when I go back.  It's good for the soul.

But this time around I had to keep my mind just a little bit on the a non-engineering sort of way. A pretty good chunk of my vacation was spent working on our corporate Tour de Cure bicycle team for this year so I had a different sort of training on my mind.  Since I somehow fell into the Captain spot (my wife caught it last year because neither of us knew any better) I was doing a constant running dance trying to make it all happen and make it successful.  The closer it got, the busier I was.

Backtracking a little more, sometime last year I agreed to help lay out new routes for the Tour since we had a change of venue for a starting line.  This led to much Google Mapping and driving around the countryside checking and re-checking mileages, conditions, hills, hazards, etc.  It also entailed doing a bunch of arrow-painting all over about 5 counties during the week before the ride.  It used up a lot of my available time off and even more of my wife's patience.

So as the event got near, it was crunch time.  We'd done a ton of fundraising, a bunch of riding, a few events, volumes of emails and hundreds of phone calls to get the team to Tour day.  I spent Friday packing up all our assorted stuff and putting the final tweaks on my faithful Trek but found I couldn't fall asleep despite the ridiculously early hour I had to be back up.  I finally dozed for about 3 hours before the alarm went off for showtime.  I slithered out of bed, took one last look for what I might have missed and hit the road long before the sun came up.

It still wasn't even hinting of daybreak when I got to the site but there was a bunch of other early-birds already putting up tents, traffic cones, tables and all the other paraphernalia that such an event requires.  I blundered around in the dark for a while but eventually found the spot for our team tent and started unloading.  By now I realized that as expected, I'd forgotten stuff and called my still-snoozing wife with panic-stricken requests to bring said stuff with her.  The response was predictably unenthusiastic but as always, she found what I had missed and tossed it in the van.

As it got a little brighter in the east, the team started showing up and more hands made things come together a bit faster.  The tent and tables were suddenly up, the banners hung and it looked almost like we were ready...

Our dedication family was there soon after and the pace picked up.  Before I knew what hit me, it was 7am and time to go. I was still meeting people as the pack rolled out and hit the road on the northbound leg of the Century.  How did this happen so fast?  I'm not ready yet...I've still got stuff to do...I don't even know some of my team...never mind for now...just pedal.

Our resident hammer-heads took off like a shot not to be seen again until much later while my old riding partner, the Good Dr. Annabel and I took up positions with some of the not-so-fast-and-furious.  The tradition we started on our first Tour is that no one on our team gets left behind to ride alone.  That's something I'm pretty proud of and work hard at maintaining.  I can't see asking someone to ride with us and then blasting off to leave them in the dust so Doc and I formed a cheering section and spun in the little rings.  It's worth it to see people conquer that 10 mile climb out of the valley when they doubted they'd ever make it.  It's quite an accomplishment for a new teammate to look back and see that long hill behind instead of in front the first time!

From there on out for fifty miles, we just rolled along taking in the scenery with Angie, one of our original team members from last year who was attempting her first Century.

I haven't met too many people more determined than Ang.  She walked a few hills, dug in and climbed the rest, gritted her teeth and fought the bonk like a champ for 50 honest-to-God miles before the shakes finally got too bad in Geneva and she had to get off the bike.  She never surrendered though, just took a rain check on the 100 and vowed triple digits next time.  A lot of people got around the lake faster but not too many can claim they tried harder.

The Doctor and the Captain were now the dead-last pair on the Century.  This had certain advantages in that we had our own personal SAG truck and no waiting in lines at the rest stops.  We tried to send the sweeper truck ahead in case someone else needed them as Doc and I are pretty good at taking care of our ownselves on the road but they wouldn't leave and so we became a two-bike parade for the second 50 miles.  The turn south for home brought a headwind so we pace-lined a while until we hit the hills again and progress slowed considerably.  The big guy was in a fix.

Doc and I have ridden together for years and so we know a thing or two about doing distance.  We both did our first Century on the 2010 Tour and have thrashed mountain bikes and roadies to exhaustion more often than I can remember.  Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to ride much lately and the lack of miles was taking a toll.  You have to understand that Doc is quite frankly a huge man who's hands could probably cover my whole head with his fingers locked.  He also has legs that routinely snap spokes off the hubs and that have been known to twist high-end frames to destruction.  The catch is, being that strong burns a lot of calories and sometimes he can't replace them fast enough to stay ahead of the bonk.  The shortage of pre-Century saddle time also had him somewhat at a disadvantage for the fight and so our average speed continued to drop. 

I was almost starting to think he'd give up for the first time in our long acquaintance but then he glared at me on a steep uphill, told me to shut the **** up and stopped talking.  I knew he was now angry and so all doubt of his eventual success evaporated.  We were long overdue off the loop and the Tour was officially closed but I wouldn't have wanted to be the one to tell Doc we couldn't finish.  It wouldn't matter if it took till midnight, he was mad and come hell or high water, we were making it back.  We put in at the last rest stop and Ang got back on her bike to finish the homestretch 20 miles while I poured ice water over Doc to recharge him for the final leg.

It was kind of a blur from there on until my cell rang at about 10 miles out.  Chris wanted to know where we were and if we were going to make it.  Since Doc was now a speck in the distance ahead, I allowed as how we'd definitely be along fairly soon.  He said his computer topped out at near 50 mph on the last downhill and so with that screaming descent, the tail-enders staggered into town.  We turned a corner about 4 miles from the finish and to our delight, there sat a big contingent of Team NS waiting for us and cheering.  Doc was near collapse and didn't dare even stop lest he not get started again so the pack fell in behind and we made for the finish line.  True to another team tradition, we held up traffic at the last stop light to make way for everybody to get through together.  I don't think any vehicle drivers were anxious to debate the short pause with the glaring monster named Doc who was stopped in the middle of the lane with his hand up.  Without a hitch, everyone made the turn and so, whooping and laughing like maniacs, Team NS rode for home.

Doc and Ang led us across the line...true to form, dead last but still a team.  A bunch of red, white, blue and yellow jerseys wheeling in long after the crowd was gone.  The only ones still around were the clean-up crews breaking down tents.  We didn't care.  We brought in our last riders and no one was left to finish alone.  That my friends, makes me proud to be on this team above all else.

I guess that's the reason I decided I'd take it on again for next year.  We done good guys!

After loading up the remaining stuff under the tent at Camp NS and discovering that I'd lost my truck keys, a large train of vehicles formed up in a caravan for the Wayward Home.  Chris's Mom had the grill going and burgers on when I finally made it in the driveway (Whew...Thanks Ann!).  I suddenly realized that I hadn't eaten anything but dry peanut butter sandwich quarters and Clif bars since about 4 am.  A mattress was calling like the Sirens but I tied myself to the mast (well, the picnic table anyway) and held off until the few remaining die-hards surrendered to exhaustion and headed for home. I'm not sure I was exactly coherent during any of this but everybody else looked a little glassy-eyed and wind-burned too so I don't think it mattered much.  Doc survived it all and in Doc fashion, recovered enough to swing in and yuk it up with us for a while...almost like his legs weren't really on fire and he wasn't looking at driving to Virginia in a few hours.  I lasted long enough to make a pass through the shower before succumbing to an earth-shaking collapse into the sheets that brought down the curtain on the 2011 Tour de Cure for well and all.  I found my keys a day later.

We wound up at the end of the day with people from 5 states, we raised a lot of money for the  American Diabetes Association, made a pack of new friends, rode a bunch of miles and learned a lot of things about being a team.  It was stressful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes wonderful, always interesting and a ton of fun to the very end.  It was an amazing experience to lead this bunch and so I can't sign off this post without...

Many, many thanks to all of the incredible Team our long-haul travellers, our monster fundraisers, our distance record-setters, everyone who pitched in when I asked and others who helped even when I didn't, to all of you who did so much just because...

But especially my thanks go to Chris for putting up with it all...

To the Cardone family for our inspiration...

And of course, my behind-the-scenes, couldn't-do-it-without-ya people...

Karin Stamy from the home office in head cheerleader and sounding board for my craziest ideas...always able to answer,  "What do I do now?"

Jess Bottoms, our Energizer Bunny Tour Manager...if ever there was a right girl for the job...

The guys from Kingsbury's Cyclery...Paul, you ain't seen nothing yet...

Tanner's Bar and Grill...Good thing Woodie's around 'cause John never answers his phone...

Big Footes Sporting Goods...Now those are some kinda GREAT shirts...

Thank you all!

Now let's talk about getting you guys signed up for next year...!!