A Frick’n Adventure Race

Yesterday (June 16, 2007), Lenny Lucas and I competed in A Frick’n Adventure Race put on by Grass Roots Racing. We ended up placing second in the all-male category, and fourth overall. Event description. Results.

The event consisted of a kayak prologue in two-person kayaks, where we paddled from the start at Duck Pond parking area under the northwest end of the Highlevel Bridge, upstream on the Monongahela River until we went under the second railroad bridge we encountered. We then turned and came back. Paddling and rowing (crew style) are two different animals, and Lenny and I had quite a bit of difficulty maintaining a straight course. The consequence was that we were seeded very close to dead last when the time came to start the remainder of the adventure.

The remainder of the event was formatted as run-bike-run, where each run was 3 miles in length. The first went counter-clockwise, and the second went clockwise, on the same lasso-shaped trail. The lasso started in the parking area and then went up Nine Mile Run Creek, literally, right up the creek, and then gained a lot of elevation before looping through rolling hills. Since it is a loop, towards the end a lot of elevation was lost, and then it was back down the creek to the transition area in the parking lot.

At every transition, there was an obstacle to negotiate. This took the form of a large duct-like structure that we had to wiggle through, or a sort of balance beam exercise constructed of 2x4s. There were interesting twists such as being handcuffed, and first-on-must-be-last-off. In fact we had to remove the front wheels from our mountain bikes and push them through the duct ahead of ourselves!

The mountain biking stage began by riding along the creek, but eventually we had to go in the creek. In fact, we rode our bikes through the large pipe that carries the creek beneath Forward Ave. Very cool! The only upset was that the water made an unexpected transition to being deeper than we are tall, causing Lenny to spend a brief moment beneath the surface. He came out unscathed, though his cell phone would not.

All orienteering for the event was done during the mountain biking stage. There were small nylon baskets hung throughout the park, which each included a hole-punch that punched a unique pattern. To prevent the second of consecutive teams from simply following the first, the set of checkpoints was divided into two groups: red and blue. Thus, the marshal handing out maps and checkpoint lists alternated between red and blue lists. Once a team completed the first set of checkpoints, they returned to the marshal to get the other sheet.

There were two kinds of checkpoints: ones explicitly shown on the park map, and ones not shown. For the ones not shown, we were to locate them by following a bearing and a distance provided at the previous checkpoint. The first such checkpoint we encountered was R-5 (we received the red set of checkpoints first). At R-4, we read off a bearing and a distance, referenced our trusty compass, and tried to find R-5. After 15 minutes of searching, and aware that the penalty for a missed checkpoint is 10 minutes, we gave up and moved on to R-6. It turned out that it was hanging directly above our heads at one point, and we simply failed to look up. Oh well! It didn’t affect our finishing position. The other interesting obstacle was B-13, which was hung high in a tree out in the open. I let Lenny climb onto my shoulders to reach it! We actually dropped the checkpoint sheet after he was up, but he simply hung from the tree limb while I picked it up to save time.

As I mentioned above, we received red first. After completing the red course (with the exception of R-5), we asked the marshal how we were doing. He said we were the first team back, but there were more blue checkpoints than red checkpoints, so at worst we were ahead of 50% of the field. We worked our way through all of the blue checkpoints (I believe there were 15, the red course only had about 9; I don’t remember specifically because the first and last were the marshal’s station). I crashed once when my shoe unexpectedly unclipped from my pedal during a log crossing; got a nice bruise! When we reached the marshal with our blue sheet completed (and thus all orienteering completed), he said that there were only a few teams in front of us, and that one was barely in front of us. Indeed we caught and passed them within the next 5 minutes.

The final run stage was mostly an act of survival. At this point we were all very tired, but Lenny and I pushed on and never saw another team until we crossed the finish line. It turns out that we were about 11 minutes behind first place, and about 20 minutes in front of third place, not including our 10 minute penalty for missing checkpoint R-5. Had we found R-5 without incident, we may well have won the thing! Not bad considering we were nearly in last place after the kayaking prologue!

Photographers from Chuck Photography were on-hand during the event, and the prize Lenny and I selected was to receive a free photo. The proofs aren’t online as of the time of this writing, so I’m still unable to comment on any of the pictures. I suspect they will feature Lenny with a big smile and me with a pained zombie look, as Lenny is a very strong runner!

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Learn another language!

I’m one of those ignorant Americans who only speaks English (if you don’t count C, Java, x86 assembly, …). The purpose of this post is to remind myself of the existence of free courses by the Foreign Services Institute. Supposedly, they are quite good.

2007 Pittsburgh International Auto Show

Last night I went to the Pittsburgh International Auto Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. I’ve been to the Washington Auto Show before so that was my main point of comparison. I was a little disappointed that more manufacturers’ sponsored vehicles weren’t there. For example, the year I went to the Washington Auto Show, Subaru has one of its actual rally cars on display.

All car manufacturers are prejudiced against tall people. There seems to be no correlation between the size of the vehicle and the amount of room inside. For example, the driver’s seat in the Mini Cooper was surprisingly nice, but the back seat in an H2 was tight.

The best thing I found at the auto show was that an auxiliary audio input is becoming standard equipment on a lot of cars. This seemingly trivial feature makes life a lot easier since, e.g., my cell phone, iPod, and laptop all have audio out.

I found a serious lack of availability in manual transmissions. Is America really so lazy that they’re willing to spend $100,000 on a sports car with an automatic? It’s just depressing.

I was also disturbed by the abundance of electronic door latches. Am I really supposed to drive around in a vehicle that locks me out if the battery dies? There was a corvette with this feature! I can at least understand the argument in mini-vans where the doors themselves may also be motorized to aid in accessibility (little kids and the elderly).

Not that I’m stuck on door latches, but most of them were pieces of crap. I’ll be very surprised if any of them last more than 10 years.

Finally, open the hood on just about any new vehicle and you’re greeted by a big piece of plastic. WHY? Does it help keep some mystical crud off the engine? People who open hoods want to see an engine!

Other observations are that many companies seemed unwilling to put in the effort to power the electronics in their vehicles while they were sitting on display. I.e., the batteries were disconnected. Clearly the vehicles with electronic door latches needed to be powered, but it wasn’t much fun to sit in the other cars when nothing works. Some manufacturers had little power supplies / battery chargers connected up.

I was impressed with the Toyota Tundra. The interior seems to be well thought-out and it was pretty spacious for my tall self.

Conclusion: not exciting at all.

Philadelphia LiveStrong Challenge 2006 in honor of Jon Milikowsky

This past Sunday I rode 100 miles in the Philadelphia LiveStrong Challenge to honor the memory of my good friend Jon Milikowsky and raise money for cancer research. Our team Jon’s Crew raised, at the time of this writing, $34,612. This put us in, if memory serves me correctly, 6th place overall for team fundraising.

I took a lot of pictures during the event, which you can see here.

“Jon’s Crew” went out to dinner at the Macaroni Grill the night before the ride, which also happened to be my 26th birthday (hence the candle in my cake and the waiter singing).

The ride itself was quite amazing. Almost everybody’s bike had either an “In memory of” or “Survivor” placard calling out their intimate relationship with cancer. We all rode with “JON” in big block letters on an “In memory of” placard.

The toughness award definitely goes to Jen Milikowsky, Jon’s younger sister, as she sustained a pretty nasty crash on some railroad tracks just after the 60th mile. With her shin bleeding through several bandages, she never once thought about giving up, a perfect testament to the determination that helped make her brother such a dear friend to us all.

At the end of the day, the finish line was quite amazing. Event organizers threw yellow rose petals in the air as we all rode under the scaffolding where the ride started so many hours earlier that same day.

Even after participating in this event, I don’t think I can properly express the meaning our efforts have for the Milikowsky family. All of us who rode have resolved to do this ride every year, and we are also looking into doing some of the rides in other cities.

What’s the occasion?

I posted some things today that aren’t just dry technical hoops through which I’ve recently jumped; what gives? Well, it’s May! This has always been my favorite time of year, because it’s getting nice outside, the school year is ending (not so true for me anymore…), and I usually see a big surge in the amount of available free time I have. In the past, this has resulted in some excellent trips such as biking from Pittsburgh to Philly, road-tripping to Moab for some biking, or road-tripping to an internship on the west coast (which involved many stops for some biking). I just returned from rowing in this year’s Dad Vail Regatta, although I don’t count that as a full-on vacation, since it only lasts 2 days. Sadly, I am not a national champion.

As far as trips go, I will be going to Oakland, CA for the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. While I don’t have a paper there this year (I did have two last year…), some other folks have extended one of my papers from last year and I look forward to seeing their presentation of that work.

Shortly thereafter I will be going to Boston, MA for the USENIX Annual Technical Conference, where I will be presenting a new paper.

After that, it’s wedding season, as all my friends are getting married.

Walking to the Sky and the Gates Center

Walking to the Sky has been erected on CMU’s campus! Here is a link to the artist’s website, and here is a link to a CMU Press Release. This project is not very popular among the CMU students because most people seem to think it’s ugly (I think it’s wierd enough that its being ugly is acceptable). I first learned about the plan to put it up on campus from misc.market, a bboard at CMU which is designed for selling things (and does this well) but exists in an ever-changing state of unmoderated bliss (I base my statement that most CMU students think the sculpture is ugly on the assumption that people who flame each other on misc.market compose a representative subset of the CMU student population). My main concern, inspired by a misinformed misc.market poster, was that the sculpture was going to ruin the ability to, e.g., throw a frisbee on The Cut. The sculpture is in one corner of The Cut, however, so I don’t think it hurts anything. It’s so bizarre that I actually think its presence will be fun. Everybody who comes to campus will say, “what the hell is that?” and I’ll have a story to tell them.

The Gates Center has also started to become reality. After many weeks of putting up fences and evicting people, some stuff actually got demolished today. Stuff in this instance is the garages between Newell-Simon and Hamburg Halls. I would say the old student center’s days are numbered, also.