freedom from fashion

Warm jacket, dry shoes, protective hat, long pants. The magic of outdoor adventure is that comfort is paramount. It’s a chance to ignore the voice that wonders “how do I look?” It’s a life free from mirrors. The trail is a place where the constraints of fashion can be ignored in favour of unbridled comfort. And when physical appearance is a distant second after comfort, the freedom of playing outside takes over.

Not winning any fashion awards today

After our third full day on the bikes, we arrived at a substantial town and indulged in a hotel stay. For the trip, the plan was to alternate two or three nights in the tent and one night in a hotel. The contrast between town and trail was always startling – coffee in bed, clean socks, no insects – and I appreciated the cozy clean feeling of bathing in hot water rather than chilly river water. What was unexpected though, was the incongruence of wondering how I looked as soon as we got to hotels. Glancing at my reflection in hotel room mirrors brought into glaring focus how scruffy and unkept I was. Personal grooming and fashionable clothing barely got a passing thought on the trail but as soon as I looked in the mirror, I felt the the paralyzing vanity that so often gets in the way of fun.

somewhere in the middle of the Highlands550 Trail

The more adventures I go on and the longer they last, the more I realize that fun trumps fashion. I loathe the discomfort of fashion but am not immune to indulging in looking good. But on my bike and on the trail, I can ignore the pressure to wonder about my appearance. On the trail, the only thing that matters is comfort.

Comfort = Happiness

Someone once asked me when I feel the most attractive. Unequivocally, my answer was “when I’m wearing comfortable shoes.” And the idea of comfort extends to all clothing. Trendy clothing is often uncomfortable. Tight, itchy, restrictive. It looks good in the store but isn’t wearable for outdoor adventures. Sheer fabric that insects can bite through, voluminous sleeves that get in the way of chopping kindling, tight pants that restrict crouching in front of the fire…all of these draw my attention to what I’m wearing rather than what I’m doing.

Being on the bike trail is a chance to be liberated from the distraction of fashion. The hotel nights were a wonderful chance to scrub off the grime from the trail, but the trail was a glorious opportunity to scrub off the grime of fashion’s itchy fabrics and irritating distraction of wearing rather than doing 

free to be scruffy





The privilege of clean water and the power to contribute

Throughout the trip, I marvelled at the availability of clean water in Scotland. Most of the rivers and creeks are potable at the source! Our plan was to drink from the fast-flowing rivers and carry water when we weren’t sure how far to the next source. To that end, some days my bike was laden down with litres of water and I would ponder carrying one’s own potable water. Many people in the world struggle to access clean water. But my privilege in the world means that I have to carry water only when I’m out on recreation. Never do I have to carry water for my family. They have taps!  The upside of this privilege is that we have time to ponder and implement solutions to global water shortages.

Scotland appeared to be having a dry summer. On the trail, some water sources were dry. Lack of rainfall meant unused drainage ditches had weeds in them, rivers and lakes were low and hydro dams and reservoirs seemed dry.

Weeds in the drainage ditch
Dry reservoir
Pedalling across a dam. The Orrin Dam is 300m long!

The UK had an extremely hot and dry summer. The BBC mentioned “significant” water scarcity in Scotland; that 2018 was the hottest summer since 1984, and that fishermen and farmers reported low water.

Low lake makes for new pedalling route
Low rivers means easier crossings
Pedalling through a long-dry creek bed

But even though the water was low, we never had a problem finding sources. The biggest inconvenience was having to carry many litres at a time. The chore of carrying water was frustrating because it made the bikes heavy. The heavier the bikes, the harder it was to hop over the ditches which sectioned the trail. The ditches ranged in size from a few inches to gaping wheel-crushing chasms.

The more water we had to carry, the harder it was to hop over the ditches. 

But that statement is emblematic of my privilege in the world.  Our biggest concern was overloading the bikes with water so we wouldn’t bend the wheels crossing the drainage ditches.

Water scarcity is a complex social, political and environmental problem. It affects community health and gender privilege. Thinking about water, I remembered learning about women in Kenya who walk many kilometres every day to procure clean drinking water. The task sometimes prevents them from working, attending school, and maybe exposes them to violence or health risks.  The daily chore of fetching water is foreign to my lifestyle where tap water is free. Carrying water on my bike doesn’t even begin to compare to the Kenyan woman who carries water every day to take care of  her family. This disparity of privilege gave me pause and I wondered what I can do to contribute  to clean drinking water in the world.

Loch Ericht
Assessing the water quality. Looks good!

I suggest research in filtration technique, education on management of human waste and regional planning to accommodate growing populations. Clean water can be taken for granted in countries like Canada and Scotland. We have the privilege to do so! And the time we save in not having to worry about our own water gives us the power to contribute to water access for other citizens of the world. Biking across Scotland gave me time to think about my wealth in the world and what that means to me. My contribution doesn’t have to be to build a well or design a new latrine system for a remote community. But I do have the luxury of time and can contribute to the intellectual infrastructure of global problem-solving. There are organizations who manage the finances and implementation of these initiatives. All I have to do is contribute intellectual and financial capital to worthwhile organizations. My time is free because I take the luxury of fresh water for granted. My responsibility is to use that time for worthwhile contributions.


Sitting in a dry creek, pondering intellectual solutions

The more you know, the less you need

Emerging from our hobbit house and blinking into the Scottish sunlight, the first task was to pack all the groceries and supplies onto our bikes. Scotland Highlands wasn’t our first bikepacking trip. We’d attempted the Colorado Trail two years earlier and a critical lesson learned was lighter is better. The more you know, the less you need. Following the lessons from the Colorado Trail, where we’d overpacked and ended up mailing a lot of stuff home from post offices along the way, for the Scottish Highlands, we’d pared our kit way down.

Ultralight tent, tiny sleeping bags, minimal clothes, and most importantly, extremely lean kitchen (MSR pocketrocket stove, one spork to share, one pot to eat and cook out of) were all we had.

Hobbit House, Tyndrum
Squeezing minimal gear onto a mountain bike. There is an inverse ratio of gear to fun.

Bikes loaded and food stored, we were on our way north from Tyndrum. Country roads soon gave way to singletrack and we were rewarded with our first view of the expansive, green, and rugged Scottish terrain that we’d be riding through for the next two weeks.

Along the way, we’d stop at a lot of stores and post offices to resupply. First stop: Glenlyon Post Office. A tea room, post office and convenience store all in one! After the overpacking disaster in Colorado where we had to mail stuff home from every post office we saw, it was a novel treat to just sit in front of a Scottish post office with a ginger beer and an ice cream.

Glenlyon Post Office
Our first Scottish post office. Where you can get things rather than just send extraneous items away!

After the post office lunch and more country roads, we turned west into the Rannoch Hills and started looking for a campsite. Camp setup is a speedy affair when there are so few supplies. On the dinner menu: pasta and bechamel sauce with garlic, onions and salami.

Dinner supplies
Dinner is pretty straight-forward when there’s only one pot to make it in!

I pulled all the stuff out of the seatbag, started to attach the fuel canister to the tiny stove and soon discovered they were incompatible. In spite of my fiddling and forcing with the nozzle, it appeared that somebody had brought the wrong fuel. Of the two possible culprits, I’ll never name names, but hint: her name rhymes with great. For a moment it looked like dinner was going to be crunchy uncooked noodles and raw onion.

Fortunately, in a demonstration of the “more you know, the less you need,” the member of the team who had not carried any fuel started gathering sticks and clearing away burnable brush to make a fire pit. In spite of the fire melting the pretty yellow handle on the then-pristine pot, dinner was the satisfying mix of cooked noodles and onions fried in butter that we’d been looking forward to ever since the post office lunch hours earlier.

saving dinner with a fire
useless fuel canister and stove in front of a roaring fire
immediately prior to melting the yellow handle

In spite of the setback, dinner was hot and nourishing, the fire kept us warm and the adage was proven once again: the more you know, the less you need.

First Trail Dinner
Smiling and relaxed next to the unplanned fire

By plane and by train. Across the Ocean and Under the River

Along the way, people asked us why we had chosen Scotland for a summer holiday. I can’t recall the initial reasons, but journeying by bike across the country brought new reasons into focus – specifically the awesome beauty of the country, the accommodating people, and the infrastructure designed to accommodate bikes. At times, the difficulty of the terrain blurred my ability to appreciate its beauty. The sheer volume of miles to be covered stretched each day into the next and prompted bouts of amnesia – is today the sixth day or the eighth day….?

The trip was truly a bike trip. Nothing more. We saw the Scottish Highlands from between bars. Some days we pedalled for twelve hours. Rarely did we pedal for fewer than eight hours and even a major mechanical breakdown about three quarters of the way through the trip didn’t even allow a full days rest from the relentless pedalling.

We started at the airport. Assembled our bikes beside the baggage carousel, threw the cardboard boxes in the rubbish bin and set out to navigate the streets of Glasgow. Narrow! Challenges always show up in unexpected ways. Google Maps had directed us to follow a particular route to get from the airport to the central train station. The River Clyde flows through the centre of Glasgow and of the three options for getting to the other side of the river- ferry, tunnel or bridge, Google directed us to the ferry.

Discovering the ferry was high and dry was our first challenge. It didn’t appear to be running today or any day. Low water? Insufficient passengers? Whatever the reason, we were not going to be getting across the river by boat.


Consulting the map, the next option was the Clyde Tunnel. I had some trepidation because I pictured the George Massey Tunnel in Vancouver where cycling is prohibitively dangerous and a free shuttle is offered five times a day. Handy, but still a  a nuisance when plans require fording the Fraser River and it can only be done at certain times.

The Glasgowians, in their wisdom, have circumnavigating this problem by creating a tunnel for cyclists and pedestrians. Even more clever, the cycling part is one way only. You press a button to request access and when it’s safe (ie no cyclists are bearing down from the opposite direction), you will be granted access through an automatic gate.


Next up – a train north from Queen Street to the first of many villages. Once again I had great trepidation that it wouldn’t work, that there wouldn’t be space for the bikes, that we’d miss the train. But the efficiency of the Glasgow transportation system impressed me. There were bike hooks on the train, the staff showed us how to load the bikes (easier to push the bikes onto the train backwards) and we had our choice of seats.

We arrived in Glasgow at 6am local time and by 3pm, after navigating the city by bike, finding our train and journeying north from the city, we were checked into a Hobbit House in the tiny village of Tyndrum.


Twelve hours of sleep now and the real adventure starts tomorrow.


Skiing, Triathlon and Sports Travel

Training Break

In a thirteen week academic semester, there’s a reading break somewhere in the middle. Is it a break to read or a break from reading? Is the intention to catch up on missed assignments or a chance to forget academia and go wild on spring break?

Is a two-week bike trip in the middle of a rigorous triathlon training plan a break from training or a break to train?


The trip was high-volume biking. Nine or ten hours of biking every day. But it was relaxing. The climbing was never particularly strenuous and rarely did I push my heart rate about its lactate threshold. Carrying enough food and choosing the safest rivers to drink from were the only obligations. The long days consisted of pedalling, cooing at the  lambs that gazed curiously at the bike, and gobbling candy and cashews. So was 14 days of high-volume, low-intensity cardio useful?

Ben Nevis
High-volume, low-intensity hike-a-bike

Volume is weekly accumulated training hours. Intensity is time at or above lactate threshold. There is an ideal balance between volume and intensity, and the balance has to do with where in the training program each occurs. In this blog post, Joe Friel refers to two studies that indicate that high volume training does little to improve speed. He refers to a group of swimmers and a group of runners, both of whom increase their weekly training hours over four weeks. Over the course of another four weeks, they decrease the volume, but increase the intensity (i.e. fast intervals). The high-intensity month produced measured improvements whereas the high volume weeks did not.

Friel explains that high-volume training builds ­capillaries and encourages cell mitochondria to expand and multiply. Additionally, the long training hours promote enzymes to convert fat to energy. The result: endurance. But not speed. These benefits – increased capillary density for the delivery of oxygen and fuel to the muscles, increased mitochondrial density for the production of energy from fat, and enhanced activity of aerobic, fat-metabolizing enzymes are very useful for injury prevention, athletic efficiency and longevity in the sport. But the only way to get faster is to go faster. Doing endless hours of low intensity training will not make me faster, but it will allow me to sustain long training hours and long races.

View from another Ben
Pausing to take in the view after a vigorous yet relaxing climb

So now that I’m home and trying to get back into structured training, I’m pondering whether the break was helpful. I didn’t get measurably faster nor did my lactate threshold increase (I test it every four weeks using this test), but nor did my speed or lactate threshold decrease. Everything stayed pretty much the same. So maybe that’s the point. Take a break from training, but choose an activity that won’t erode the training benefits that I’ve worked so diligently to gain. Just like I used reading break as a chance to read a few non-academic books – an activity that neither helped nor hindered my grades – a training break is a time to keep the previous efforts in check but not lose any of the speed and skills I’ve laboured for.

fresh water
fresh clean water and single track

First Aid Kit: essential gear or unneccesary comfort?

Three days until departure on the next segment of our bikepacking saga.

I’m pondering what, if anything, to pack in a first aid kit. Adventure travel necessitates first aid supplies. But bikepacking necessitates a ruthlessly lightweight kit. Every item must be pedalled up 52,000 feet of rugged ascending Scottish terrain. 

My packing for the Colorado Trail two years ago was excessive but I learned a valuable lesson in minimalism as I cursed my overly loaded bike. The rule is that comfort and pack weight are inversely related to each other.

Nothing but a positive attitude can help us now

The lighter your pack, the greater your tolerance for discomfort must be. Two years ago on the Colorado Trail, I stopped at a lot of post offices to mail superfluous items home, including a first aid kit. The load on the bike had to be pared down so much that the first aid supplies had to go. Foolish? Perhaps. But when every item must serve at least two purposes (see: multitool, socks worn as mitts), there’s no room for just-in-case items like gauze and ibuprofen.

Socks as mitts. Every item must be dual function.

Did my tolerance for discomfort increase with every post office visit? I don’t think so. Ultimately, the 530-mile trip across the Rocky Mountains did involve some medical situations, none of which were solvable with a first aid kit. As I ponder the packing scheme for the longer 550-mile trip around the Scottish Highlands, I’m comforted by remembering that none of our medical ailments could be helped with a first aid kit. In Colorado, the three of us were collectively struck down by giardia, fleas and a dislocated shoulder. All inconvenient and bordering on disastrous, but none requiring the contents of the first aid kit I’d mailed home. Bandages and Ibuprofen. Good for peace of mind and comfort, but not useful enough to be included on a lean bikepacking setup.

Somewhere high in Colorado. The exhausted fleabag resting his weary bones

The truth is there may have been medical items which would have made the trip less uncomfortable, but there’s no way to know exactly what to pack in a first aid kit. The list of possible afflictions is endless. We suffered setbacks on the Colorado Trail, but were no worse for wear in the absence of the first aid supplies. The contents of the kit might alleviate some pain but discomfort is expected and so prevalent on a bikepacking journey, that it’s hard to picture what difference a few strips of gauze and an anti-pain medication will make. The point? The lighter the bike, the easier it is to pedal. The inverse: the easier the bike is to pedal, the fewer supplies and creature comforts are on it. Thus, as I assemble the gear for this summer’s adventure, the first aid kit and any expectation of comfort are both absent. 

Essential kit. Guitar over first aid supplies

At the end of the Colorado Trail, the only thing that could save us was a rental car and a quick exit out of there. Sick and uncomfortable from giardia, broken and bruised from a dislocated shoulder, scratchy and whiny from fleas, we loaded the rental car with our bikes and the scraps of clothing that had survived the militant bag inspections and hightailed it for home. Would a first aid kit have prolonged the fun and prevented the hasty retreat? I don’t think so.

grinning (grimacing) but safely packed away into a car and bound for home

Two years have gone by since we retreated from the Colorado Trail with our tails (literal and metaphorical) between our legs. We’re a bit wiser this time and more mentally prepared for the discomfort of bikepacking. Scotland Highlands 550. The uncomfortable adventure starts in three days.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 9.20.40 AM
Scottish Highlands. We haven’t been there yet but here’s a photo from the internet. The discomfort awaits.



The Travelling Yogi

I’ve seen the inside of a lot of airports lately. Oslo, Copenhagan, Vancouver, Geneva, Bristol, Heathrow, Toronto. In each, I’ve unrolled my yoga mat and done some sun salutations and stretches.

I always manage to find a place to practice yoga on airport layovers, but for some reason I feel a bit sheepish doing it. With my yoga mat strapped to my carry-on, I sneak around the terminal hunting for secluded areas and quiet corners. In Copenhagen I found an unused children’s play area. In Oslo I practiced in a vacant hallway between two boarding gates. In Toronto, I stretched out in an abandoned part of the terminal that was under construction. In Heathrow I rolled out my mat behind some unused coin-operated massage chairs.

I usually feel self-conscious when I start, but after half an hour of yoga, I feel calm and happy. Also, the addition of inversions such as shoulderstand, headstand or just propping my legs against the wall reduces the inevitable swelling in my feet that occurs on long flights. The benefits of the practice outweigh the concern that I sometimes have about what other travellers think of me, but I do wish that practicing yoga in the airport could be a more socially-acceptable and popular activity.

After my most recent journey from Oslo to Geneva, with a four-hour layover in Copenhagen, I googled “airport yoga” and discovered there are several American airports who provide rooms dedicated to practicing yoga! San Francisco International, Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare all have rooms where travelers can take a yoga break. I’m inspired by those airports to continue my habit of unrolling my yoga mat in every airport I find myself in, and hopefully more airports embrace the burgeoning popularity of yoga. After all, there are multi-faith prayer rooms in airports around the world, and exercise in the form of yoga is certainly as important as daily prayer. Yoga deserves the same respect and quiet locale that religious practitioners are already afforded in airports.


Nine time zones, four skis and a yoga mat

Traveling through nine time zones to arrive in Chamonix, France provided the opportunity and challenge to accept new circumstances as they are.

Our adventure began by dropping our slightly overweight bags off at check-in and waving goodbye to our most prized possessions as our ski gear was whisked down the conveyer belt and presumably into the belly of the same plane we were about to board. There are many opportunities for stress during a fifteen hour journey, and I excel at seizing every one of them. Despite the fact that I practice yoga every day and teach up to ten classes a week, often reminding myself and my students to “accept the circumstances we are presently in,” and “mindfully be completely present,” I am a traveling stress case. My imagination is replete with every possible worst-case scenario. My time spent awake is wide eyed and worried and my time spent asleep is eyes darting behind eyelids, dreaming of disaster.Try as I might, I am challenged by the concept of accepting things as they are.

To be honest, I often would rather stay home. Yet, there we were, 100 lbs of clothes and ski gear each, leaving the comfort and familiarity of home for the complete unknown of the Alps. All things considered, the voyage went smoothly: we had three seats between the two of us, the seat recline button and personal entertainment system functioned properly, the book I had selected was engaging and entertaining, unlimited red wine was provided onboard and our host in Chamonix met us on time. In my mind, however, the day was filled with disaster: we had to pay $100 for an overweight bag, a swiss army knife was confiscated at security in Vancouver, we had to sprint through the Heathrow airport (with 50lb backpacks) to catch our flight to Geneva and we were relieved of our duty-free wine at security in Heathrow.

Fortunately, faithfully strapped to the outside of my backpack, was my yoga mat. I managed to find 20 minutes to unroll my mat and practice a few sun salutations and warriors (prior to the sprint through the airport, upon realizing that we were at the wrong terminal) and the relative seclusion of my mat provided an opportunity to reflect on how good it is to be on the move to a new country and a new mountain range. Acceptance of the challenges and triumphs begins, for me, with acceptance of myself and acceptance of the circumstances which I cannot change. Often, by stepping into the sanctuary of my yoga mat, I can find that acceptance.

The point, however, is regardless of what disasters did or didn’t befall us, there was little that could be done about any of it. By agreeing to travel around the world, we were compelled to accept our circumstances. Accepting my present circumstances, regardless of how I got there or what I plan to do next is my challenge to myself on this adventure. Wishing that I had brought thicker socks or an extra camera lens or obsessing about whether I should have brought one pair of ski boots or two is unproductive.

All I can do right now is accept what I have and don’t have and get on with it.