2015 Cherohala Challenge

On 20 June 2015 I completed my 9th Cherohala Challenge.  It’s become a tradition–my annual cycling Super Bowl, if you will.

The biggest issue going into this year’s edition was the weather.  When I checked the forecast at 4:something a.m., I saw that it called for  a 60% chance of rain, with a thunderstorm watch.  I’m no fan of cycling in the rain under the best of circumstances, and I certainly didn’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains.  But as I embarked for Tellico Plains in the pre-dawn darkness, there was no way of knowing how the day would unfold.  I could luck out and stay mostly dry, or it could turn into a miserable wet day.

Event registration at sunrise

Registration check-in went smoothly.  The only issue was that we had to park in a field that’s farther away than the previous field.  This year there were nearly 400 riders, the most in over five years.  Due to the added walking time, I got rolling about five minutes after the mass start, when most of the century riders departed.

Two miles into the ride, looking back at the plains


At some point during the Challenge I inevitably ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”  Usually the question pops up 70-80 miles into the ride, while toiling up the mountainside.  But on this day it came much earlier, when it started raining 30 minutes into the ride.  Not a good omen.  It wasn’t a hard rain, but enough of one for me to question my sanity and contemplate how miserable conditions would have to get for me to turn back.

Fortunately, it only rained for a few miles, rendering my doomsday scenario moot . . . for the time being.

I stopped at the first rest stop for water and the porta-pottie, then continued.  The next several miles went without incident.

Vonore, TN

Along TN 72

At this point my camera went kaput, and I couldn’t take pictures for the rest of the day.  You can see pictures from the last 70 miles in my 2014 report.  The scenery this year was mostly the same, only much cloudier and wetter.

I encountered another short rain shower on the Chilhowee Lake section of the route.  One positive aspect about the conditions was that there wasn’t much wind in the morning, which can be taxing along the water.

After that it was on through the famed Tail of the Dragon, with its 311 curves in 11 miles.  Professional photographers stationed along the road captured some action pictures.

Traffic wasn’t too bad on the Dragon.  The dampness kept some people away.  A majority of the motorcycle traffic was of the Harley touring variety.  Most of them were courteous enough.  I didn’t get buzzed by many crotch rockets.

I stopped for lunch at the second rest stop, at the North Carolina border.  It had been 5+ hours since breakfast, and I was hungry.  So I ate a lot.  In addition to the usual assortment of junk/high-energy food, they had hot French toast.  I enjoyed the meal.

Thereafter I braked down the steep descent past Cheoah dam and then made the gradual climb through the Cheoah River gorge.  There’s little traffic on this road, and its remote setting–nestled along the river between ridges–lends itself to deep contemplation on life.  Or at least it does for me.

At the third rest stop I took stock of my physical condition in anticipation of the 12-mile mountain climb ahead.  I felt as good as could be expected, I just didn’t know what lay ahead on the Cherohala Skyway.  The sky was teasing us with a few breaks in the clouds.  So I applied sun screen, just in case.  But I knew that a thunderstorm could fire up at any point with little warning.

Onward through the woods bordering Lake Santeethlah on Joyce Kilmer Road.  Not only is this road secluded (just a handful of buildings and some camping spots) but it’s also rough.  Not a particularly enjoyable part of the ride, frankly.

But the scene quickly changes once you skirt the west end of the lake and turn onto Santeetlah Road.  You round a bend and suddenly it’s up, up, up the mountain on the unshaded roadway.

I climb relatively fast for my level of cycling.  Not that I climb fast, but compared to similar riders, it’s faster than my flat or downhill riding.  In short, most of the passing I do is going uphill.  Then the passees often catch back up either when I stop or on a downhill section.

Because of this I pass some riders 2-4 times.  One rider joked, “There goes 310 [my jersey number] again!” as I lumbered by.

A conundrum I encounter at rest stops: the toughest stretches are the ones immediately after I take a break.  My leg muscles tighten up when I stop, rather than rejuvenate.  It takes several minutes of pedaling to loosen them up again.  It makes me wonder if stopping is worth it.  But I have to stop, either for water/food, or to give my sit muscles/contact points a break.

It’s a problem.

Riding the Cherohala Skyway

It takes a couple hours to ascend the Skyway climbing at 6-8 m.p.h.  And during that time the weather can change, sometimes dramatically.  I almost made it to the top dry.  But with two miles to go it started sprinkling, then raining (the third time of the day).  Not a downpour, but enough rain that it got sloppy and difficult to see when I accelerated to 15 m.p.h. on the flatter stretch near the top.

The rain tapered off as I recharged at the peak rest stop.  But the wind picked up and visibility declined as a cloud enveloped the mountaintop.  By the time I started rolling downhill it was down to ~100 feet.  The first couple miles I was riding the brakes much more than normal because you couldn’t see around the corners.  Thankfully, things cleared up quickly once I got out of the cloud, because that segment was slow and nerve wracking.

The atmosphere got brighter and warmer (by about 20 degrees) as I wound down through the range into Tennessee and finally back to Tellico Plains.  My bicycle computer blanked out shortly before I finished, so I don’t know exactly what my riding time was for the 113-mile course. I finished at 4:40 p.m.

For the first time (that I’ve done it) participants got medals.

Everyone (who finishes) is a winner

Sadly, no podium girls awarded me the medal.  Just a middle-aged bald guy standing at the finish line.

All in all, it was another enjoyable cycling experience.  I would have preferred a warm, sunny day, but the rain showers were tolerable.  The event support and rest stops were good, as usual.  Given my health challenge the last two years (psoriatic arthritis), I’m thankful I can still tackle this demanding course.

I look forward to doing it again in 2016.

Virtual Therapist

This NPR story alerted to the newest kind of psychological therapist being built by the the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), in conjunction with the Pentagon.  I say built because “Ellie,” the experimental therapist, is not a person, but rather a computer.  In this instance “she” is being used to interview veterans and screen them for signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ellie works by asking the research subject questions and recording/analyzing his or her responses, as shown in this demonstration video:

Ellie focuses not on what the interviewee says, but on his or her non-verbal cues,  using an interactive technology called multisense:

Multisense automatically tracks and analyzes in real-time facial expressions, body posture, acoustic features, linguistic patterns and higher-level behavior descriptors (e.g. attention, fidgeting). From these signals and behaviors, indicators of psychological distress are inferred to inform directly the healthcare provider or the virtual human.

Studies have shown that Ellie interprets some of these expressions quite well.  Reportedly she asses the genuineness of a smile, for example, as well as a human psychologist.

This is a nifty technological achievement, certainly.  But what’s just as interesting to me as the computer capability is people’s willingness to interact with the computer.  Many people not only carry on the somewhat awkward conversation with the machine, but they actually share more than they would with a human counterpart:

“People opened up more to the virtual human than to a real person. They said they felt less judged by the virtual human,” [ICT psychologist Gale] Lucas said, even though they knew that their answers would be recorded and viewed later by workers in a lab.

“It’s about what’s happening in the moment — having a safe place to talk,” she added.

Why are interviewees more open when talking to a computer?  An article in Computers in Human Behavior elaborates:

participants who believed they were interacting with a computer reported lower fear of self-disclosure, lower impression management, displayed their sadness more intensely, and were rated by observers as more willing to disclose. These results suggest that automated VHs [virtual humans] can help overcome a significant barrier to obtaining truthful patient information.

Lower “impression management”?  That is the “goal-directed conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people . . . they do so by regulating and controlling information in social interaction.”  In other words, interviewees are less concerned about being judged by the machine, and express themselves in a less inhibited manner.

Computers can also facilitate communication by being better listeners.  They can be programmed not to interrupt the speaker.  And they avoid distracting body language–e.g., looking around, checking the phone, and yawning.  Today it’s challenging finding a human who gives such undivided attention.

At any rate, given continuous technological advancements, we’re sure to chat with more virtual humans in the future.

Seeing Blue

NASA released this rover photo of a “blue” sunset on Mars:

A striking scene.  But why is the sunset “blue,” instead of red or orange?

Dust in the Martian atmosphere has fine particles that permit blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than longer-wavelength colors. That causes the blue colors in the mixed light coming from the sun to stay closer to sun’s part of the sky, compared to the wider scattering of yellow and red colors. The effect is most pronounced near sunset, when light from the sun passes through a longer path in the atmosphere than it does at mid-day.

In other words, the sky isn’t actually blue–debris in the atmosphere distort how we see the sun’s light.

This phenomenon doesn’t just occur on Mars . . . or with sunlight.  It also happens in our minds.  Our pendent beliefs and biases–like the dust in the Martian atmosphere–alter the way we perceive the world around us.

Often these filters are the useful product of experience, helping us navigate more efficiently through life’s unending grind.  But sometimes the particles affecting our perception are psychological constructs which cloud, rather than enhance, our vision.

This happens to me when I’m feeling depressed.  My mind puts a negative tint on the world around me. And not just on the bad things happening, but on ordinary, everyday incidents.  I synthesize chance events into a grand plot the universe is waging against me.

In my more even-tempered moments, when I’m not sad, I recognize how this distortion further brings me down. But by then it’s too late to help me through a darker stretch.

So next time I’m feeling melancholy, I’ll try think of the martian sunset.  It will remind me that things aren’t always as blue as they appear.  My mental martian dust alters how I see them.

Unique Names

Michael Stevens, whose videos I generally enjoy, posits an interesting question:

In typical Vsauce fashion, he delves into other issues, but the video prompted me to ponder the uniqueness of my name, Brian Arner.

For years I assumed that I was the world’s only Brian Arner.  Outside of my immediate family, I was only aware of a small clan of Arners, living near Chattanooga, and none of them were named Brian.

Then, when I was in my 20s, I heard from a former teacher that he had helped move a relative onto campus–named Brian Arner!  This was disconcerting.  An email had stripped me of my singularity.  I shared the world with a namesake.  The once orderly cosmos now churned with confusion  What was he like?  Was he stealing my identity?  Would I soon be saddled with someone else’s debt?

That was not the end of it.  Later, when I put a website up, I was surprised–and amused–to have a few emailers contact me, asking if they could purchase my music.  Turns out there’s yet another Brian Arner, a distantly-related Christian vocal artist.  He’s older than me.  So I was not the first, or last, Brian Arner.

In the early 2000s, when I became interested in genealogy, I discovered the Arner family is much larger than I imagined, especially in Pennsylvania, where the family first settled.  According to this site, there were 1,293 Arners counted in the 2000 U.S. Census, making it the 19,376th most common surname.

Based on a statistical calculation of name frequency, the website HowManyOfMe.com estimates there may be six Brian Arners in America.

Logo There are
people with the name Brian Arner in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

So while unique names still exist, mine is not one of them.  But I’ve learned that’s OK.  I’ve had a few minor identity hiccups online,  but no harm no foul.  People don’t treat me as a cheap clone.  The debt collectors haven’t beaten down my door looking for someone else.  The sun still rises and sets every day.

Because ultimately I am not Brian Arner, the two words people use to describe me.  As Shakespeare famously mused:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

We get our uniqueness, our real identity, from who we are as people, not from our names.


From the quote-of-the-day files:

I think you’re still salvageable.

–My witch doctor (rheumatologist), yesterday, commenting on my medical condition.  He said this in a clinical, matter-of-fact, non-humorous manner.

It’s nice to know that a medical professional has not yet relegated me to the scrapheap of humanity.

Incidentally, avoid the need to see a rheumatologist, if at all possible.  It’s a pseudoscience.  Despite medical advancements on other fronts, little is known about the causes, behavior, and treatments for autoimmune joint inflammation.

Letters From The Past

I came across this story: “Woman Posting Pennsylvania Couple’s 109 Love Letters From More Than 100 Years Ago

In short, a woman bought 109 letters (dated 1905 – 1910) from a street vendor and decided to start posting them on a blog,  109LOVELETTERS.

I’m curious what people wrote about 100 years ago, so I glanced at a few of them.  There’s nothing particularly remarkable in what I read–a young woman writing about daily things in her life: work, church, mutual acquaintances.  It’s pretty ordinary stuff, unlikely to land in the Smithsonian.

I had an unusual feeling when I was reading them, though.  I felt a bit voyeurish peering at the personal correspondence of the long-departed.  Often, when people discover human remains, they go to extra lengths to see that they are disturbed as little as possible.  Aren’t private letters just as personal as someone’s bones?

In one note, Daisy, the letters’ author, writes:

I am writing under difficulties. My Aunt, two cousins and a friend are in the same room talking and having a good time. And every once in a while I can’t resist and must talk too.

In my mind’s eye I imagine Daisy sitting at a table trying to focus on her letter to John.  I wonder if she had any idea that someday a guy in Tennessee, perched in front of a computer screen, would read what she was writing.

Probably not.