Monday, January 17, 2011

Birth - Too Many Birds Over the Dropzone

It’s been about 3 years since the last time I jumped from a perfectly good airplane. I sometimes look to the clouds on nice days and entertain memories of an amazing and adventure filled time of my life. Skydiving was once a huge part of my lifestyle. I have spent more days than I could estimate sitting at airports from dawn to dusk waiting for my next chance to jump. The full story is more than I could ever write in one blog entry. I’m thinking that perhaps a 3 part story would be the best way to tell it: Birth, Life and Death. This entry would be the birth of my 12 year adventure into the adrenaline fueled and little understood culture of skydiving.

I was working at the indoor climbing gym in Nixa, Ozark Mountain Cliffhangers. It was one of my first jobs after returning to Springfield, Missouri from the Marines in 1996. I think I spent far more time climbing than actually working. A man named Roger Moore, not the James Bond actor, came through the door with his sons and wanted to arrange some climbing time. Instead of just paying though, Roger wanted to barter. His business was Freefall Express Skydiving. How about trading 2 first jump courses for some climbing time he asked?

The climbing gym, which attracted a certain kind of adventure seeking person similar to skydivers, thought that it was a fine idea. To my dismay however, I would not be one of the gym employees who got to jump. My first wife Jackie, being the manager of the gym, would go with the owner and take the first jump course. Yes I said my first wife, the one I married in the drive-thru wedding window in Las Vegas. I was, of course, a little saddened that I couldn't go. I couldn't afford to pay for it either but I was able to go and watch as they took the course.

The class was a 6 hour long ordeal where they learned everything they needed to know in order to survive their first time leaving an airplane in mid-flight. The bulk of the class is devoted to learning how to cut away a bad parachute and deploy a reserve if the first one doesn't work. They also spent a lot of time learning how to land properly. I was transfixed by the experience and knew that I had to do this but today wasn't my day. I took in everything I could and knew I would come back.

After they had finished their class, they geared up, climbed on the plane and took off. To this day, I can remember how jealous I was watching them go. We watched intently from the ground as the small 4 seat plane slowly flew the jumpers to 4,000 feet. As it made its way over the airfield, we could just barely see that the door was open. The first jumper climbed out of the door and released himself to oblivion. His parachute opened perfectly and he began his descent. The airplane circled around to release the second jumper. This time as they flew over the top of the airport nobody got out. The plane circled again for another pass and still nothing. After 3 passes with no jumper, the plane began to descend.

My ex had chosen not to jump. When they opened the door and she looked out to the ground nearly a mile below, the fear had been too much of a hurdle. The instructor made light of the situation by telling us there had been too many birds over the dropzone. Earlier in the day, she had asked if anyone ever hit birds while jumping. We left the airport and had a long uncomfortable and quiet drive home. The marriage fell apart shortly thereafter. I've often claimed that her decision not to jump was the reason for the end of our marriage but I suppose it was probably a little more complicated than that. Returning to the airport to make my own jump was near the top of my list of things to do as a newly single person. I saved the necessary money and within a couple months I was sitting in the class I had so desperately wanted to participate in the first time.

I made the jump and it was everything I hoped it would be. Introspection, adrenaline, freedom, post experience high and new life perspective that lasted for days to follow. I was in my element. There was also a strong sense of community among the jumpers and I was attracted to the bond they seemed to share. I loved the experience so much that I needed to jump more. Although jumping isn't as expensive as some think it might be, it was way out of my budget at that time. I did everything I could, including donate plasma, to make it through 15 of the 25 jumps needed to get a license.

It was then that Roger offered me a deal that would change my life for a long time to come. If I could get proficient enough at packing parachutes, he would pay me cash or give me credit towards jumps. Student jumps were $45 and he would pay me $5 for each rig I packed. I practiced over a winter by watching an old video called “Pack like a Pro” while unpacking and repacking an old parachute Roger let me use. Packing is an often sweaty job where you crawl around on the floor and spend large amounts of the day on your knees. I loved it. I learned to pack fast, sometimes less than 5 minutes, and had a good reputation as a reliable packer. Over the next couple of years I packed myself, $5 at a time, into over 300 jumps.

I was having a blast working off jumps on the packing mat but ultimately I wanted to move into a position of actually getting paid to jump. My chance was about to come.

Week of January 10 - Bike 80, Run 23

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clack, Clack, Clack, Clack, Clack!

Yesterday we finally got a measurable amount of snow. I really look forward to the more extreme weather these days as it provides a new element to keep workouts interesting and sometimes exciting. Riding home last night the snow was just beginning to fall in earnest. Each year I forget, but then am rudely reminded by the first snow, just how much blowing snow stings when it’s pelting your eyes. I need a new pair of clear lens glasses. By the time I had put the bike away and changed into running clothes, there was about an inch on the ground and the temperature was starting to fall fast. Running at night when the snow is falling is one of my favorite times. The world is more quiet and peaceful, or so it seems at least.

This morning I believe the weather person was saying 11 degrees with a -6 wind chill as I was walking out the door to ride into work. There looked to be about 2 to 3 inches of snow and the road was fully covered. The cars on the road, after stopping at the stop sign in front of our house, were all revving their engines and spinning their tires trying to get up the little hill there. The bike handled the conditions well though as I pulled out onto the road. It doesn’t hurt that I have the snow bike outfitted with a DIY studded tire, fenders and upright riding position. Occasionally I could feel the front wheel begin to slip out but then the studs would catch and stop the slide. It’s a little disconcerting to lose traction under the front wheel when riding faster but all you have to do is keep a loose grip on the bars and keep the wheel pointed forward. I had some trouble when riding through some of the chunks and piles thrown by snow plows but for the most part, if I stayed in the right tire track cars left behind, I could maintain the speed of traffic.

With today’s winter clothing using high tech fabrics and designs, any temperature is manageable. There is the slogan, “there is no bad weather, only bad gear.” It’s actually very similar to dressing for skiing. It might be even easier to stay warm since you are staying aerobically active the entire ride. I did have a slight issue with my fingers getting cold from the gusting sub zero northwest wind. One thing I have learned about riding in low temperatures is that if your hands get cold, you should change hand positions often. It allows for better circulation and exposes different parts of your hands to the wind. Moving my hands around helped a lot but my hands stayed cool until I got to work.

At some point when plowing through one of the snow plow deposits my front fender caught one of the tire studs and bent the fender inward to rub against the tire. I would just take the fenders off but there is a lot more road spray and gunk in the winter than you would imagine. The bend wasn’t causing the tire to be unable to roll but it did create this horrible sound as the metal studs in the tire were hitting the thin plastic fender. Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack! For a little while, I tried to get all zen with the sound and just embrace it. After about 2 minutes however, it seemingly got much louder and even more annoying. When I reached a safe spot to get out of traffic, I had to stop and fix it. Luckily, whether in my backpack or seat bag, I have all the tools I would need to almost completely disassemble the bike if necessary. Within a few minutes I had the fender re-aligned and wheel spinning quietly again.

Looking out the window now, the sun is shining and it appears the roads are clearing up. The ride home may not be quite as fun.

Week of January 3 - 80 Bike, 24 Run

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


There is a sign over my bike rack that says “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.” It’s a quote from Lance Armstrong. When running a few miles, I can make it without quitting and never give it a second thought. Putting all my male bravado aside though, I’m not so naive as to think there is never a good time to give in. At what point is it alright to quit? Must everything we begin be persevered through until death or we are a failure? How about something you have been involved in for many years? Is there value in forcing yourself to continue a pursuit when you really can’t find joy in doing it anymore?

I wish I were talking about one of my crazy hobbies or endeavors. Unfortunately, I’m talking about Jakob and gymnastics. He has stated and firmly believed for the past several years, and I have believed as well, that he was going to win the Olympics. He has attacked the sport with an uncommon persistence and tenacity. His work ethic in the gym is strong and easy to see as he is never resting, despite me telling him he needs it. When the other boys relax and joke around he is doing another set. He has occasionally had days or short periods of time where his motivation has waned but for the most part, he would bounce back immediately and more ferocious. I have always told him that staying the course when you don’t feel like it is the difference between those who make it and those who fall by the way.

Over the last several months however, he has been seriously questioning whether or not to stay in the sport. He has always hated the meets and the judging. This is completely understandable. I don’t know anybody who really enjoys being openly critiqued and judged. For a child with some social anxiety, it is a highly stressful event competing in front of peers, bleachers full of parents and a formal judge watching and grading your every move. In the past, he has always been able to get past these feelings for meets because he enjoyed being on the team. He loves his teammates and his coach. He loves pushing himself harder in the gym. Lately however, even going to the gym for practice is becoming a difficult task that he sometimes agonizes over.

As parents we are torn by the advice we choose to give to him. We have never told him he must continue, except that he must finish any season he begins. We do strongly feel he must be involved in some sort of regular physical exercise but have always made it clear that he is the one to choose the activity. On the one hand it would seem like a terrible waste of talent to see him give it up, but again, which talent he chooses to develop is not our decision to make. Do we persuade him to continue pushing because he could be great? Is that a good enough reason to push him at the risk of him eventually resenting us and the sport that has taught him so much? I don’t think it is worth the risk or in his best interest.

Where would I be if I hadn’t moved through so many activities in life? I personally have traded full fledged involvement from one activity to another several times. From roller skating and skateboarding I went to rock climbing. From climbing I went to skydiving. From skydiving I went to running and cycling. Those are just some the ones I have spent significant time practicing. There have been lots of other short, month or two long passions, like Yo Yo, knife throwing, martial arts and even break dancing. I was a 14 when the movie "Breakin" came out. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. If I hadn’t changed my direction in life numerous times I don’t think I would be the same person I am now at all. I might not have met all of the new friends each new activity has brought with it. I also know first hand how even something you love to do, something that you could never dream growing tired of, can become a daily grind that you begin to resent and dread.

Jakob has some big decisions to make. As with everyone, he often changes his mind. This week he is in love with the gym again, but last week he was completely burned out. It has been such a large part of his life, I think it scares him a little to imagine being without it. I have no doubt that he will stay active and be a shining star in any activity he pursues. We try hard to gently coax and instruct but ultimately we must let go and allow him to decide his own path.

Week of December 20 – Bike 48, Run 23
Week of December 27 – Bike 48, Run 20