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A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
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The Spirit of Adventure: An Interview with Charlie Farrow
Approximately 15 years ago, give take a few years, I began riding and racing mountain bikes in and around Duluth, Minnesota. It didn't take long before my joy and interest in the sport became a passion. Cycling slid into a slot in my life that used to be occupied by baseball, softball, and running. I noticed these sports falling by the wayside as I found that being on two wheels was often at the forefront of my mind.
As my interest in the sport of cycling morphed into regimented training and competition that I bumped into a charismatic local named Charlie Farrow. I'd heard of him, but didn't know him. He was always the guy at the races that had a crowd of people around him, seemingly hanging on his every word. There was something about him that people liked, I needed to know more. It wasn't long after my curiosity had piqued that I was racing my bike in some unknown event somewhere in southern Minnesota that I discovered the real Charlie Farrow. I had performed terribly in this particular race. In fact, I was so far back that I was no longer in touch with the main field. I struggled on and on until I finally crossed the finish line alone. I was completely dejected and feeling like a failure. As I collected myself near the finish line I noticed one more rider coming in. "Wow" I thought, "this guy is super happy and he's really close to the back end of this race". It was Charlie! He recognized me from Duluth and we began to talk about the hardships we faced in this little two hour event. I took note of his upbeat humorous attitude regarding our performance. I also noted how he wasn't beating himself up like I was. We parted ways, heading towards our respective cars when I heard him mutter to himself, "I think I was last". I recall smiling to myself, even laughing out loud. I knew I liked him, but more importantly I knew I had a lot to learn from him.
Since those early days Charlie and I have come to be best friends and I don't use those words lightly. We've logged more miles on bikes than I could ever pretend to count. We've driven long hours to races while solving the worlds problems with answers that were obvious to us. We've discussed more books than anyone should and analyzed the state of the universe over and over. I've been at the front of ultra endurance events with him, accomplishing more than either one of us ever thought possible, most likely because we were together. I've also been at the other end of many events wondering how we'd made it as far as we had, only to find that it was most likely because we were together. I don't know how many times I'd question my own readiness for events such as the Trans Iowa only to hear my friend tell me, "I think you're gonna win this thing". He's picked me up out of the dirt and I've promised him I'd get him to the finish line. This is the kind of bond that develops when two guys go to places physically and mentally together that many will never even conceive of.
Charlie is my inspiration. To me, his soul was made for adventure, he understands it, he craves it, he lives it. Adventure is a concept that he has taught me and I've been chasing it's elusive shadow ever since.
I've decided to interview my friend in an effort to give you a glimpse into a world very few know about.
This is Charlie's story:
Adventure seems to have always been in your blood. Can you tell me a little about what you did early on to satisfy your desire to seek out your own extremes?
As a youngster, I was very fortunate to have great parents that always were very supportive in going along with any and all of my crazy ideas that I decided to bring to fruition. We were allowed, even encouraged, to frequently camp out in our wooded back forty, no matter the weather conditions. Yet, several early experiences come to mind that I feel acted as catalysts for what has turned out to be a life long love of adventure. A course in high school in which we planned and executed a week long trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, a National Outdoor Leadership School course involving a seventeen day winter camping trip into the heart of Yellowstone during my sophomore year in college, and a summer of jumping on and riding the rails, and then vagabonding out West with a former professor of mine after graduating from college…All these experiences, early on, combined to cement my passion for rouging it and experiencing the world at a real basic level. Post-college, I was lucky to attend the University of Colorado for graduate school and so it was in Boulder, Colorado where I fell in love with all forms of climbing. When I first started climbing (back in the mid 1980s), it was generally assumed that if one was really serious about the sport, one would eventually progress to the point of being an alpinist. To be clear, in our little world in Boulder, the title of “alpinist” was a special, exalted, title that was only bestowed upon a man or a woman that could essentially practice, with great skill and efficiency, all of the various types of climbing on a remote and cold mountain with complete self-sufficiency. I still believe that the guys that are climbing the hardest alpine routes in the world are some of the most committed and resourceful athletes in the world. Of course, I never was anywhere close to being a skilled alpinist, but I came to love the alpine realm and the challenges it afforded. Climbing was my passion for something like twenty years, but it is a sport that requires one to live in the mountains (and/or to be willing to travel extensively) so once we moved to Duluth, I began to look for an activity that would be similar in commitment and preparation but would not require big mountains. Endurance cycling fit that bill very nicely. Now I include the guys that can full-on race such impressive unsupported events as the Great Divide, Iditarod Invitational, and the like, to be some of the most committed and resourceful athletes in the world. Thinking about this question reminds me of a classic Hemingway quote: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think what he was getting at was that a true sport requires a very intense level of personal commitment.
I’ve heard it said many times that you always seem so happy while competing, seemingly immune to the "dark times" that many ultra endurance athletes talk about. Are you afflicted by these so called "dark times"? If so, how do you get through these periods?
This question reminds of a great exchange that occurs between the two principal characters in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
"You know the days when you get the mean reds? Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues? Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”
I am happy most of time and I am especially so during endurance cycling events because the whole endeavor is based on a very positive and essential, fundamental, aspect of the human condition; namely our innate desire for getting from Point A to Point B. I love the simplistic nature of it all. Of course, I am still mostly content doing big loops, but it requires more effort on my part to remain positive during events like 24 hour mountain bike races that are commenced on short courses. Long races that require one to do many loops are mentally draining because I begin to feel like a caged gerbil may feel as it continues to run but never gets anywhere new. In any case, it has been my experience that the guys that do these things are really basically happy people. At least the ones that stay with it for more than a few years. I believe that happiness is quite contagious and its fun to be around happy people. Happy people are also usually confident people as well. In any event, to be honest it goes against my nature to get “the blues ” during a long distance event, most of the time I am able to finish long events with my positive attitude intact. Yet there have been a few races that have really smashed my psyche. The most recent one was last April when I made an attempt to ride a single-speed in the 320+ mile Trans-Iowa. Clearly the last fifty miles of that race forced a wave of “mean reds” into my consciousness. I was keeping a pace that was just barely, minutely, fast enough to make the cut-off for an official finish. I was estimating that if I could just maintain the pace I was on that I could finish the race with about five to ten minutes to spare. It would have been easy to just quit (ego and genteel nature intact) had it not been that I was so close to making it with less than fifty miles to go. Yet, as the last hours burned away, it became maddeningly apparent that it was going to be so, so close. Although I can tell that I nearing the end of my endurance, my positive nature kept expecting a break. A break or at least a respite in the form of a shifting wind or an easing of the constant rolling hills…but nothing but stronger headwinds and more dramatic rollers appeared. I became uncharacteristically despondent and as the desperation grew within me I began to panic and I was overcome with an intensity of sadness and regret that clearly came from some very dark recesses in my mind that had absolutely nothing to do with finishing the Trans-Iowa. It was as if the lonely situation coupled with the exhaustion brought upon by the thirty plus hours of self-propelled movement, had acted as a kind of key to opening a hidden door that led to some troubling inner turmoil. I made a turn onto a kind of blind corner and then looked down the road and spied another huge hill followed by yet another one. I pulled off the road and just collapsed onto the grass and laid there encased in self-loathing and despair (Thanks a lot Guitar Ted). I was less than six miles from the finish and yet the time left was something like fifteen minutes. I finally calmed down enough to call Jeremy Kershaw and he came and picked me up. I was too embarrassed to go to the finish line because I knew that the guys there would be super nice and supportive and yet I was too broken to face them…I was worried that I’d break down in front of them. So how does one get through something like that? My advice is to sign up for the same race and go out there and try again…but this time use gears. Riding the Trans-Iowa on a single speed is only for really strong riders, riding it on a fixie is only for those from another realm…
All athletes make mistakes form time to time. Can you recall any colossal mistakes that you’ve made?
Back nine or seven or even five years ago, when the Arrowhead 135 (AH) did not attract the number of quality of riders that it now does, I use to have a chance of finishing up near the top. When an average guy feels like he has a legitimate chance at being towards the top in such a race, he or she may make impetuous gear decisions based on saving weight in favor of staying warm and thus safe. In fact, a rational case can be made that going light in the AH is prudent because it allows one to finish up faster and thus forgoing the need to be exposed to the cold weather for longer periods. But mine was not a rational decision, mine was a stupid decision. Several years back, I think it was the 2009 race, I felt like I had a chance to do well, so I elected to go super light. A strategy that included leaving my warm neoprene overboots at home. At the start, the temperature was around twenty below and while it warmed up during the day my feet never really followed suit. I arrived at halfway checkpoint with the top chase group so rather than taking the time the warm up my feet, I followed the guys out the door after a quick reload on fluids. As is my usual routine in this race, I started to fall apart about five hours out from the finish, got unceremoniously dropped by the chase group, found myself alone with my thoughts, and then suddenly realized that my toes were completely numb. Thankfully I was coherent enough to realize the implications and thus made every effort to warm up my toes by swinging my legs vigorously and walking a lot to try to get the circulation going again. I am convinced that had I not done the extra work to warm up my feet, I would have suffered extensive frostbite, but even so, for some odd reason I was not able to get my right big toe warmed up enough to spare it from a pretty significant frostbite injury. I was lucky that Duluth has one of the best burn units in the Midwest and so with their expert treatments my injury eventually fully healed. That was a really stupid thing to do…and I was lucky that I did not lose my big toe because of it…
Words like "epic" and "adventure" are tossed around pretty frequently these days. It seems that a bike ride to pick up some milk can even be lumped into the "epic" category. What are some official or nonofficial events you’ve been involved with that you’d call “epic?”
Yes, I totally agree that the terms “epic” and “adventure” get overused nowadays. I have done a handful of epic or adventurous climbing trips in my day, the most out-there being a successful ascent of the East Ridge of Mount Logan way back in 1997 with just two other climbers. As far as cycling goes I’d say a very early solo-effort that I made to ride around Lake Superior when I was twenty-two and a complete neophyte, qualifies as a true epic. It took me something like thirty-five days, but it was a real adventure given the equipment I used and my lack of experience. Recently, I would have to say that my ride around Lake Nipigon, located about fifty miles north of Lake Superior, a couple summers ago, could be termed a real adventure. I think I am the first guy to ever bike around that huge lake and the remoteness of the landscape and the complicated route-finding made it feel like a real old-school adventure. Out of the five day effort, I went three full days without seeing another human being. When is the last time you went half a day when you did not see another human being? In terms of official races, in my small world, the most epic or adventurous race that I have done is the Trans-Iowa, with the three hundred+ mile Iditarod Invitational a close second. I believe this to be so because of the fact that these truly unsupported races are often commenced during very difficult weather conditions. I think the Trans-Iowa, while being much shorter in time spent battling the route, is perhaps the most “epic” because adding to the potential for tough weather conditions, the time cutoffs are unforgiving, and the route finding requires intense focus and vigilance. The Trans-Iowa truly is a classic adventure race. I wish there were more events like the Trans-Iowa and the Alaskan race. Most of these so called “adventure races” are really nothing more than serious endurance contests. Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of the athleticism and mental toughness inherent within these guys that can go for incredibly long periods of time in constant and fast movement. Take a twenty-four hour mountain bike race for example, the guys that win those things are incredible athletes in possession of equally incredible mental toughness, but there really is no adventure involved. The top guys have full-on entourages that take care of their every need, the rider’s only job is to ride as fast as he/she can for everything else is done for him or her by their crew members. Adventure racings needs to be differentiated from endurance racing. A true adventure requires complete self-sufficiency, serious commitment, and a high degree of personal resourcefulness, along side or combined with a test of endurance.
Part II Coming Soon...