The South Farms

I took an inadvertent stroll down memory lane this evening… dirty, smelly, memory lane. I speak of course of the South Farms, a tract of University of Illinois property just south of campus where the college of agriculture does its research.

I did a 12 mile run after we returned from Rockford. Ever since my knee surgery 3 years ago I have only a limited tolerance for running on pavement, so I try to stick to running on grass and dirt as much as possible. Fortunately, we live only a block away from the arboretum, which has a nice 1.5 mile cross country loop. Knowing that I wanted to do a longer run I chose to expand this evening’s route to include the nearby south farms and Meadowbrook park. I was able to stay entirely on grass except when crossing 3 streets.

Incidentally, this was also the farthest run I’ve done in the last 3 years. I may yet return to my former half, full, and ultra-marathoning glory.

As for the south farms, I haven’t run there in 11 years. In the fall of 1996 I was on the UIUC (men’s) cross country team, and we practiced at the south farms at least 4 times per week. There is a 3000 meter loop around some of the corn & bean fields where we did both easy and hard training runs, both short and long distances. Most frequently we did it as part of an easy (and by “easy” I mean 6:40 miles) 4 mile wake-up run at 6:30 am on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Yes, this was in addition to the afternoon practices.

In order to get to this loop from campus we needed to pass near the pig sty and endure just about the worst smell imaginable for 100 meters or so. Fortunately, in the past few years the pigs have been moved further off campus and this particular area of the south farms is more tolerable to the senses.

I remembered stretching next to the metal fence that separates the fields from a little gravel road. I remembered a particular 14 mile Sunday run early in the fall, which at the time was the farthest I had run in my 17 years. I remember a 5k practice race runners 10-14 (I was 12) did some Saturday while runners 1-9 were away at a race. I believe this was the fastest 5k I ever ran but I don’t even remember the exact time. It was just a tad over 16 minutes.

Tonight’s 28 degree temperature and gusting wind did little to distract me from reliving some of my glory days. I doubt it will be another 11 years before I make it back to the south farms.

The Forecast

I checked the weather forecast before we left for Rockford this weekend to celebrate little Logan’s 1st birthday. All Saturday night there was a 30-60% chance of “snow showers.” I decided at the last minute to pack my cross country skis into Iris (our car).

I gambled.

I lost.

It didn’t snow more than a few flurries. There was zero accumulation. There was no chance to ski. I did take some grief for this from Melissa’s family, though it was all in good fun. I can only assume it would have snowed inches upon inches had I left the skis at home. Better to be prepared, I guess.

The Scariest as Hell

This morning while driving on North Allen Road in Peoria:

    Melissa: This is a bike route?
    Rob: I’ve ridden on this road before.
    Melissa: Was it scary as hell?
    Rob: Well, not the scariest as hell.
    Melissa: What was the scariest as hell? Tell me your scariest moment on a bike for each of 3 different categories: traffic, weather, and terrain.

That was a rather elaborate question to be made up on the spot, but here goes…

Scariest traffic related moment. This took a bit of thought and I even surprised myself with the answer. It took place neither in San Fransisco nor in Chicago, but very close to home in Champaign. Mattis Ave north of I-74 is a zoo. The roads are narrow and people drive like maniacs. One particular ride on that section of road I think holds the record for the rate at which idiot drivers passed within inches of hitting me for no apparent reason.

Scariest weather related moment. Spring weather in central Illinois is fairly ridiculous. One Wednesday evening during a ride a tornado rapidly approached my group as we were riding between Sadorus and Ivesdale. We were warned by some motorists and we hastily took shelter at the first house we saw. An older couple was nice enough to let our entire group stay in their garage until the worst part passed over, at which point it was dark and still a little nasty so we all had to call for rides home.

Scariest terrain related moment. This was the last mile to the visitor center at Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii. After having ridden almost 40 miles of steep uphill from sea level I was at 8000 ft of elevation looking up a 17% grade on a rented road bike with relatively high gearing. I really struggled that last mile, but I finally made it to the end of the paved road on the highest mountain in Hawaii. Then I turned around. It had started to rain at this point and at 9000 ft it was much colder than it was at sea level. Looking down this incredibly steep hill, scared shitless, I wondered to myself how I was ever going to make it back down. I had very little confidence in the soft brakes on the rented bike. In the end I declined to descend Mauna Kea and put the bike in the car Melissa was driving behind me.

The Comedian

My parents (in conjunction with my brother, who sells event tickets) were kind enough to give Melissa and I tickets to a Jerry Seinfeld performance for Christmas.  Being big fans of his former television program, we were relatively excited about the prospect of seeing him live.  The performance was last night and it didn’t disappoint.
Unfortunately, Seinfeld was clearly not feeling very well.  His voice was incredibly hoarse, he as coughing and blowing his nose.  At first the hoarse voice was distracting but I got used to it, and it even cleared up a little bit by the end.  He was a real trooper, though.  He performed for over an hour in front of a sold out 2000 person theater crowd in Peoria.
He was very good, perhaps too much so.  The person sitting behind us shouted “It’s true, it’s true” at least 10 times during the performance.  Seinfeld was very animated, much more so than I was expecting.  There was lots of gesturing and arm waving.  Apparently I was thinking that at 53 years of age he would be in a wheelchair or something.  I was wrong.

Tom Papa was the opener.  I had never actually heard of him before, but he was amusing.

The First Ride of 2008

I tend to struggle with down time.  I would generally always prefer to be doing something rather than nothing.  It is this tendency that often leads me to plan more activities than any mortal could hope to accomplish, mostly out of fear and loathe of wasting a few moments.

Last week Melissa and I drove to Dallas to spend the New Year holiday with my two brothers who live in that area, their families, and my folks who flew in as well.  Our tiny car was packed full of clothes, presents, and of course, my bike, the Thundercougarfalconbird.  We met my 3 week old niece and saw my 2 year old nephew for just the second time.  The festivities were joyous and a great time was had by all.

I found an hour of down time on Wednesday afternoon.  It was incredibly cold, colder than it should be in Texas (even in January).  It was getting dark, and the Dallas rush hour traffic was picking up.  I had plenty of reasons not to go, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having driven 900 miles with my bike in the back of the car and not getting in a single ride.  So I rode.

Riding in a strange place is always fun, but I was a little more apprehensive about this ride.  The arterial roads were narrow and busy.  The residential roads didn’t seem to go very far.  Fortunately, as I made my way out of my brother’s neighborhood I came across a newish housing development, which wasn’t on the map.  It had good roads and not a lot of traffic.  I was surprised that after I wound through this neighborhood for a while the road connected to the next subdivision, then the next, then the next.  Before I knew it I had gone 7-8 miles through residential neighborhoods and I was out of time.  I found a good turnaround point when I reached a lake, then retraced my path back home.  I got 15 or so miles in for the first ride of 2008. I didn’t freeze. I didn’t get run over.  Mission accomplished.

I always find signs that state the obvious to be amusing.

The route.  Google’s satellite imagery is a little out of date for this area.

 There were some small rolling hills, but the total elevation change was less than 100 ft.

The Rob Song

I was 19 years old in the summer of 1998. I spent the previous summer working as a staff member for the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a non-profit organization which provides free emergency home repair to low income families and individuals living in central Appalachia. I was beginning my second summer working for the project.

It begins with staff training. Roughly 80 college aged strangers gather to spend a couple weeks learning to run a (hopefully) successful 8 week summer program. We learned virtually all aspects of home construction and repair. We learned to operate and care for very large, very old, donated trucks and vans (the daily vehicle maintenance checklist was referred to as “garanimals“, due to the color coded dip sticks and caps painted by our mechanic). We learned how to work with high school aged volunteers (Vs) and their adult group leaders (GLs). We learned how to buy and manage massive amounts of construction supplies and food.

And we got to know each other. These 80 or so people would soon be separated into groups of 4 by the ASP summer program leaders (Admin). After training each group of 4 staffers would head out to a separate county in either Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, or Tennessee.

In those days it was customary for each person to do some sort of creative introduction to help the others summer staffers get to know them better. I was rather partial to music, so I wrote a song about myself. And the legend was born.

The verses were just descriptive statements I made up on the spot:

F        C
I'm 19 years old
    F         C
and I'm from Illinois
F       C
I go to school at the
Dm                G
University of Illinois


Clever how I rhymed Illinois with Illinois, huh. The chorus on the other hand was simple, catchy, memorable.

F          G
My name is Rob
C          Am
My name is Rob
F              G
For crying out loud
My name is Rob

When I performed my introduction song, I was very surprised that by the end, when I had already sang the chorus a few times, other people started joining in. “My name is Rob, my name is Rob, for crying out loud my name is Rob…” It’s better with music. Trust me.

At the end of the summer, when the program had ended and we all gathered together again, people were still singing The Rob Song. The next summer I went back to work for ASP, and by popular request I sang The Rob Song for my introduction. During the school year and in the years since I graduated from college and got a job I still occasionally meet with my ASP friends, and they still talk about the song. People who have worked for ASP since then, whom I’ve never met, know me from hearing other people sing The Rob Song.

For crying out loud.