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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Good, Bad & Ugly* of long-distance scooter riding

[* not necessarily in that order]

A few people have asked me to give a detailed post-ride summary.  some I assume are motorcyclists and want to learn from my experience.  And others are probably just curious.  So here goes:

Before I start, thank you again to everyone for your good wishes and support before, during and after the ride. There were times when I wasn't sure I was up to finishing 1000 miles in 24 hours (more about that in a bit) and it was almost certainly your enthusiasm and encouragement that got me over the hump.

Needless to say, if you haven't donated yet, please do so as soon as possible so we can compute the final total.

First the Bad and Ugly

It doesn't matter how old you are or how fit you think you are, riding a scooter for 24 hours (or anything close to that long) is physically demanding. The word 'grueling' comes to mind now that I'm on the other side of it.

I did some back and neck exercises for a couple of months before the ride, and I'm glad I did.  I can only imagine the kind of agony I'd be in if I hadn't strengthened those two areas. As it is, both are less happy than usual.

After my back and neck, the place that is least comfortable right now is not my butt (as you would expect), but rather my forehead. Strange,  right?

I'll explain.

A good chunk of my ride took me through two of the more inhospitable sections of desert in the world (the Negev and Arava). Twice!

(really curious folks can see the track map here.

When you are wearing an armored jacket, gloves and a full face helmet in 45C (113F) heat, you are gonna sweat. A lot. Even at night it only got down to 38C or so near the Dead Sea... so the pads and lining inside my helmet stayed soaked with sweat for pretty much the whole ride.

If I had it to do over again, I would have brought a spare set of helmet pads and swapped them out periodically to dry (after rinsing them in fresh water, of course). Right now, my forehead looks sunburned and has that stiff, wrinkly feel of a callous from being essentially soaked in brine and chaffed against the liner for 24 hours. Peeling?  Oh my yes.  Yuck!

Next, since we've talked about something that looks like sunburn, perhaps a word about the real thing is in order.

When wearing full gear, you'd think that you don't have to worry about the sun. You'd be wrong. In the desert you find out the hard way what little bits of skin peek out from your protective gear. I now have little sunburned spots on my wrists matching my glove strap cut-outs, on the back of my neck where my helmet and jacket collar didn't quite meet, and the tip of my nose. Sunscreen. 'Nuff said.

I am usually a pretty organized person when it comes to packing. I travel frequently for business and can usually throw together a suitcase for a two week trip in less than 15 minutes. Take it from me... packing for a ride like this requires weeks of careful thought... and a well managed check-list. Even the issue of what goes where becomes critical.

Some things you'll be accessing constantly during the trip (water, snacks, trip log, receipt envelope, map, etc.) while other, equally important things you may never touch (first aid kit, spare clothes, etc.). It isn't enough to have the right things with you. You have to make sure the stuff on the first list are right at your finger tips... and that you aren't constantly stumbling over the stuff on the second list.

An added note about packing. Don't plan on strapping anything to your pillion seat with a bungee net. The aggravation of having to take it off and put it back on each and every time you refuel will drive you bonkers. Luckily I discovered this useful fact on a test run a few weeks ago.

Now that we've talked about the potential physical pitfalls of a long, timed ride, let's talk about the mental ones.

There's a scene in the movie 'Castaway' in which Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) gives the following speech:

"Time rules over us without mercy. Not caring if we're healthy or ill. Hungry or drunk. Russian, American, beings from Mars. It's like a fire, it could either destroy us or it could keep us warm... we live or we die by the clock. We never turn our back on it and we never ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time."

For nearly the entire ride I had those words running through my head. The passing time was a huge mental challenge for me. I found myself mentally calculating splits and remaining time almost constantly. Because there were big sections of my ride where I couldn't maintain high speeds due to traffic, curves or darkness, I wasn't prepared for how stressful the time factor would turn out to be. I'm pretty sure if I hadn't built in a small fail-safe into the ride, I would have been stressed to the point of giving up.

The fail-safe I built in was two sets of witnessed starting and ending points. I knew that the first part of the trip would take me through Jerusalem at rush hour, so on the chance that it took more than 30 minutes, I had a friend waiting at a second starting point 30 minutes past Jerusalem. As it turned out, it took me almost an hour to get through the Jerusalem traffic.

I wouldn't know until the end of the ride if the lost time would turn out to be significant, but knowing that I had a second official starting time to fall back on gave me a little mental breathing room. As it turned out, it was close, but I did my first finish with enough miles... but kept riding to the second finish very near the 24 hour deadline just in case the IBA folks needed a little more mileage to certify the ride (remember... it goes by their map calculations... not your odometer).

The last thing of a negative nature I want to add (for now) is about knowing your limits.

If you don't tell anyone you are going to attempt a long ride, you will have no explaining to do if you decide to push it off (or shelve the idea altogether). But if you tell too many people, you risk feeling pressured to complete the ride when your common sense is trying to tell you you're too fatigued to continue.

I made a promise to myself when I started publicizing the ride that no bragging rights were worth dying for. I also told everyone of my friends that there was a real possibility that I wouldn't be able to finish.

And to be honest, there was a point just before dawn as I rode up the switchbacks leading from the Sea of Galilee towards Kiryat Shemona that I was sure I was done. I was physically exhausted and could feel my body's reflexes getting sluggish. I pulled over at the top of the hill and had a quick snack and a drink. As the sun started rising over the lake I felt like my batteries were being recharged. I'm not sure if it was the nourishment or the sunlight, but from that point it was a new day.

However, for the rest of the trip I was constantly reassessing myself.

There was another point at a rest stop about 2/3rd of the way through the ride where I thought again I might be done. I sat there for over an hour eating a second breakfast and enjoying the air-conditioning in the restaurant. By the time I was feeling human again I was almost sure I'd waited too long and wouldn't have time to cover enough ground before the 24 hours was up. But since I was feeling better I decided to just keep riding until I felt I couldn't do it anymore.

It came down to the wire, but again, the double starting points gave me the peace of mind to give it a go.

The point is that there is no shame in calling it quits before you've reached your destination or your goal. In short, you and everyone rooting for you have to know that despite Master Yoda's sage advice, there is try, not just do or do not.

Okay, now the Good

I don't need to tell most of you about the joy of being alone with your thoughts on two wheels. If you have been on a motorcycle or scooter even once, you know what I'm talking about. Toss in beautiful scenery and a special occasion (say, a 50th birthday), and you have a real treat.

But unless you are the monastic type, don't try to do the whole ride alone without a support network. At a minimum, make sure a loved one and/or close friend are aware of what you are doing, and are willing to follow your progress, either physically (in a tail vehicle) or virtually (with a spot tracker or Google Latitude enabled phone).

A close friend declared himself 'Mission Control' and stayed up for almost the whole ride following my progress on his computer. He's a programmer and keeps odd hours anyway, so he was well suited to the task. It was comforting when he called me to make sure I was okay as I rode near the Dead Sea. Apparently the SPOT tracker can't 'see' the satellite from below -300 ft, and I was at -1388 ft! (the lowest spot on earth not in an ocean)... so when he saw my trail grow cold, he immediately called to find out why. Several of you also called to let me know you were following my track... so I really felt like I had angels on my shoulders.

Throughout the ride my phone would ring inside my helmet (yay bluetooth!) and I'd find myself talking to well wishers. Some were friends IRL, and others were friends I've only 'met' on the interwebs. Both kinds of friends buoyed my spirits and allowed me the gift of enjoying my solitude, while being able to share what I was experiencing in real time.

Next, it doesn't matter if you are in a hot climate or a cold one. Airflow over your body robs you of moisture. You need to stay hydrated. With time slipping past you, it would be tempting to put off stopping to drink until you feel good and thirsty. Fortunately you don't have to stop. I used a Camelbak system and only refilled it during rest stops. Being able to drink at regular intervals while riding was both physically and mentally refreshing.

A word of advice though; practice using it before your trip. It took a few minutes to get the hang of pushing up my face shield and getting the drinking tube to my mouth.

I think the highlight of my ride was a point in the middle of the night about an hour and a half north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat. I was in the middle of the Arava and there wasn't even a hint of light in any direction. I pulled over, turned off the scooter and lay down on my back on the shoulder of the road. The sky overhead was more bright with stars and planets than any planetarium I'd ever experienced. I felt like I was alone in the universe... a speck of dust on a speck of dust. Humbling, to say the least. And a blessing I will take with me to my dying day.

About an hour before the end of the ride a car came shooting out of a side street and gave no clue if it was going to stop or continue right into my path. A week ago I would have grabbed both brakes in panic and hoped for the best. But after 22+ hours of riding, the scooter was no longer an extension of my body... it was an extension of my mind. I didn't realize what I was doing until I'd done it... and then, only after trying to reconstruct the event.

As best as I can tell, I was in such a zen place that instead of panicking, my mind decided to gently touch both brakes to buy an extra split second of decision time. If the driver had continued, I would have swerved behind him. But since he skidded to a stop, I was able to slightly change my trajectory and swing around in front of him. It all happened so fast and was handled so calmly, that my heartrate didn't even register a little blip of excitement. I'm sure in a week or two I'll be back to my old habits. But I have to say that if nothing else came of this ride, it was neat 'feeling the force' so strongly.

A word about my scooter. In the back of my mind I was stressed that the success of my ride depended on the inner workings of a machine over which I had very little control. Oh sure I'd done a big service a week before the ride and had tools to fix basic problems (flat tire, loose screws, etc.). But if the scooter wasn't up to the strain of 24 hours at wide open throttle in desert heat... well, there was nothing I could do about it.

In the end I needn't have been worried. The modern Vespa engine - actually the whole Vespa scooter - is a wonder of reliability. It hummed along as nicely through the last hour as it did the first. The only real mechanical scare I had was when I accidentally hit the kill switch with my sleeve while stretching my arms and back at a stop light. It took me only a few seconds to realize what had happened... but for those seconds all I could think was 'oh crap, there went the fuel pump!'.

This past Friday morning after dropping my daughter off at school, my younger son (he's 7), and I kept our semi-regular Friday morning date for coffee at a little cafe in Jerusalem. I usually get a cappuccino, and he invariably orders a 'Vienna Coffee', which is layers, in ascending order, of melted chocolate, espresso, milk, whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon powder on top.

Over our drinks he looked at me with a serious expression on his face and said, "Abba, I missed you while you were gone". I told him I missed him too, but instead of reassuring him it seemed to confuse him. "If you missed me", he began, "why did you want to go away? I know that sometimes you have to go away for your job, but this time nobody made you leave... right?"

Wow, I wasn't ready for that!

I was tempted to offer him the wisdom of two of the Internet's early journalers (what would later be called 'bloggers'), Chuck Atkins and Steve Amaya, who when asked about their epic journey together to hang up a pay phone in the middle of the Mojave Desert had said, "at the core of a man lies a thorn of rebellion and we needed a good scoff, a dare, a sneer that says ‘Back off, world. Today there will be no mowing.’"

But in the end I decided that it would be a couple of decades before he'd appreciate that advice. Instead I told him that sometimes the best way to appreciate all the good things we have is to, once in awhile, put them aside for a moment. I told him I loved him as much as it was possible to love someone before I left on my trip... but when I came back I somehow loved him even more.

He was silent for a couple of moments and then said, "Yeah, it was really nice when you came home". But after a pause, he added, "But don't go away too much, ok?".

I gave him my word, and we finished our coffees in silence.

Some day he'll understand.

Posted by David Bogner on June 26, 2011 | Permalink

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Wow, Wow, Wow. Kol hakavod.
And I love the story with Yonah :)

Posted by: SaraK | Jun 26, 2011 4:19:15 PM

Well done, David. Very well done, indeed. I hope you get to your fundraising target because your efforts certainly deserve it. Now, what will you do for your 60th?

Posted by: Ellis | Jun 26, 2011 6:44:23 PM

Ditto to SaraK. :-)

Posted by: Alisha | Jun 26, 2011 7:05:16 PM

Yes, he will understand. And he'll be so very lucky to be able read about all his father's journeys and what they meant to him right here on these pages.

Congratulations, David and happy birthday.

Posted by: Baila | Jun 26, 2011 7:15:24 PM

Well done for keeping going - truly a mental and physical challenge. Thanks for the stories. I also wondered what happened with spot near the Dead Sea! Take care of that forehead, it sounds VERY uncomfortable.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jun 26, 2011 10:09:25 PM

Kol hakavod! I'm so impressed with all the preparations you made and the mental and physical stamina involved. Congratulations on making your dream come true!

Posted by: Sarah B. | Jun 26, 2011 10:20:33 PM

@Yonah. That was the story.

Posted by: antares | Jun 27, 2011 1:19:45 AM

Well,it wasn`t Everest,but still quite an acomplishment.Now that you`ve made your mark, maybe others will try something similar and in doing so get contributions for more worthy causes.

Posted by: ED | Jun 27, 2011 2:18:02 AM

I enjoyed reading about your conversation with Yonah. Did you take photos?

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jun 27, 2011 2:54:35 PM

My two favorite moments in this post are totally antipodal: the desert planetarium moment and the coffee with Yonah. That's the whole world, isn't it?

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jun 27, 2011 3:44:38 PM

SaraK... Me too. :-)

Ellis... Thanks. We're getting closer.

Alisha ... you've both met the kid. He's a keeper. :-)

Baila... Thanks. thinking back on some of the posts, I'm hoping he'll still talk to me. :-)

Kiwi Noa... Getting better all the time.

Sarah B. ... Not to sound melodramatic, but when embarking on things that might get one killed, it pays to do a little planning.

antares. I'll let him know.

ED... I hope you meant other, not more. :-)


Ilana-Davita ... It would have spoiled the moment and probably would have made him feel self-conscious, don't you think? :-)


rutimizrachi ... Mine too... but I had to do all that other stuff to make those two moments possible.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 27, 2011 4:14:27 PM

Yes Trepp,my error.

Posted by: ED | Jun 27, 2011 4:44:32 PM

Congratulations, on the trip and the post. Glad it was safe for you.

Posted by: Dick Stanley | Jun 27, 2011 9:09:46 PM

Sounds like it was a great experience.

Posted by: Jack@TheJackB | Jun 27, 2011 10:15:36 PM

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