Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pay it forward.

A couple of years ago during the winter, I was filling my gas tank in a less than pleasant section of Washington D.C.  An African American man approached me to ask if I might have jumper cables.  "Man," he said "my battery is dead from the cold.  Everyone I ask says they don't have any cables.  I'll give you $5 if you help me start my car."  I hate to admit it, but my suspicion was aroused; the neighborhood, the man's appearance, the somewhat obvious setup.  Having grown up in a monochromatic suburban area of Pennsylvania, I felt out of my element.

But something stopped me from merely replying with "no".  It was the slight edge of desperation and loss of faith with fellow man in his voice that seemed genuine.  The biting cold only made me empathize with the man further.  While the chances of being robbed were probably equal to those of his battery being dead, I agreed.  My parents were in the truck too and had little reason to understand why I was driving into a blind alley behind a derelict garage.

In the end however, the stranger was standing next to a beat up station wagon, hood lifted, with one very dead battery.  As I connected the jumper cables and we got the car to turn over, he was generous with exclamations of gratitude.  The man who had looked so shabby and down earlier was positively beaming.  As I turned to leave, he thrust the promised $5 bill towards me.  I politely declined and said, "That's okay, you don't have to pay me.  Just help another stranger out when they need it and that's payment enough."  The man looked initially confused, but then smiled and replied, "Thanks man.  You know I think I am going to donate this to Haiti."  I am fairly sure this guy could use the money himself, but he grasped the need to help other folks who just had their island devastated by an earthquake.

Do something good for another human being without expectation for anything in return.  Ask them to do the same.  It makes the world a better place.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

SWM seeking a clue.

I always sport the latest fashion.
Traditionally, right around the holidays there is a tremendous increase in online dating which is presumably an effect of people feeling lonely around the holidays.  Since I am a man of tradition (what?) I decided to try my hand at it.  I know that you, fair reader, cannot comprehend that I am single.  It took me a while to get over this impossible fact as well and sign in to a popular dating site.

After a fair bit of trying to create a profile, I gave up and deleted it.  I know that their questions were well intended, but answering them was like putting a square peg in a round hole.  Or housing your pet elephant in a breadbox.  And if I even completed the profile, was I going to be able to find a girl I was interested in based off of her answers to these questions (oh wait, that's what a date is for, isn't it?)?  Or maybe I was just lazy.  Instead, I figured it would be easier and more fun for me to write whatever the hell I wanted here.  Maybe someday I will be ambitious enough to adapt this for elsewhere.

So without further ado, I give you the dating profile of Tom Mrotek, AKA The Wild Dork, AKA "that weird guy in the corner".  Feedback is welcomed and encouraged.  (Also, for folks who just Google searched for "Tom Mrotek" and came up with this, this isn't the Tom Mrotek from Wisconsin.  I'm sure he's quite a professional guy, could be married for all I know, and probably hates me for all the stupid garbage I write here and people think it's him.)

The ladies cannot resist me.
I am seeking a female who is old enough to rent a car and not old enough to collect Social Security.    She can live anywhere.  Well, maybe not New Jersey.  I don't care what her height, weight, build, ethnicity, hair color, eye color or anything else is so long as it doesn't keep my date from mountaineering, paddling, laughing, biking, skiing, yelling at cows, meeting strangers, ice climbing (maybe just a little?), exploring strangeness, running, face painting, or bowling.  Okay, maybe not all of those.  She doesn't have to like caving.  Caving sucks.

My sign is Sagittarius but if you ask me what that means I have no idea.  I'm pretty sure we may be compatible even if the astrological charts say it's a no-no.

I am a middle child with two brothers.  Beyond being a simple icebreaker on a first date, I'm not sure how that's helpful information.

Why is there never an option for "everyone's wrong" when they ask you your political views?  I support gay marriage.  I own guns.  Where does that put me?

I consistently pull down 5 figures.  There may or may not be a decimal point in there somewhere.  I intend to keep it that way.  To quote Eric Beck, "At either end of the social spectrum there lies a leisure class."
Yes.  I am 'that' Tom.

I probably don't want kids.  Unless we're talking about infant goats.  Then, yes, I definitely want kids.

My record for not bathing is 28 days.  I can (and will) beat that.

Dogs?  Yeah, I like dogs (to quote Snatch, which is a pretty good movie).  Cats on the other hand are a completely different animal (I also like puns).  To date, I only have one experience living with a wacky cat that likes to drink out of faucets to the point of getting sick, does somersaults, meows loudly and incessantly, and plays with noisy plastic bags at 2am.  Maybe I'll warm up to a different one.  Birds, lizards, fish and scorpions are pets that I've been fine with in the past.

I think I got too close to the edge.
I like loud action movies with explosions in them.  And comedies.  And dramas, but cool dramas, not deathbed/crying dramas.

I don't smoke, it's a disgusting habit (to quote Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which I quote a lot by the way).

I am educated but I do not have a college degree.  Having lived in a college town for 8 years, I can tell you that a college degree does not equate to being educated.

Most of my jackets and packs are red.  But I don't think red is my favorite color...

Extra classy cooler in a classy motel bathroom
I don't drink anymore.  I either didn't enjoy it or determined it was too expensive and I could afford to work less by quitting.  I forget.

I have a slender build.  This is either due to the fact that I a) was born that way, b) eat only rice and beans, or c) my fro is so large it makes me look skinny by comparison.

I speak English fluently.  I speak a little bit of Spanish or at least enough to have bribed a Mexican cop to stay out of jail.  I'd like to learn more Spanish so I can travel through Central and South America.

I exercise 12-15 times a week.  I'm pretty sure that isn't an exaggeration.

Hey sexy!
My idea of a good time is... probably every other person's idea of a nightmare.  My good time includes some amount of physical suffering, adolescent and/or adult humor, indistinguishable food that's most likely been burnt, and perhaps a chance encounter with some wildlife.  If you would rather stick to a more traditional date, I would opt for a hole in the wall diner where I will order breakfast, regardless of the time of day.

You want to know if I am really spiritual or religious?  Let's just say if this is one of your "deal breaker" requirements, you may want to look elsewhere.

I have thick glasses.  People say they make me look sexy.  Actually I say that to try and convince people.  Also, apparently everyone thinks you're a computer geek if you have thick glasses.  Which is funny because I actually work for a computer programming company, but I don't know anything about computers.

[Author's note 12/31/2011:  Somehow I forgot to include my musical tastes in this profile.  Allow me to remedy that.]

My friend, Ieva, says it best: "Tom really likes heavy metal and hair bands.  If the band's still together, Tom probably doesn't like them."
Wow.  With a profile like that, I'm sure that women would be falling over one another trying to get a date with me.  Falling over laughing.  Which is good.  I like a woman who laughs.

Monday, December 12, 2011


One experience stands above all others from my ride with Eric Durante this fall: riding through the C&O Towpath's PawPaw Tunnel at night.  I tried to capture my exact feelings at the time.  This may come off as overly melodramatic and for that I make no apologies.  Certainly it could be an unnoteworthy portion of the trail under different circumstances.
The passage of time had become irrelevant as we pedalled through the night.  The efforts of our lights only revealed several yards of the C&O Trail ahead of us before being swallowed by the omnipresent darkness.  In this way, the idea of distance was ignored as well save for the occasional passage of a mile marker.  After having already covered over 90 miles by bike that day, all I wanted was to get off of it.  Let my aching legs lie still for a moment.  End the continuous rubbing and prodding my ass was receiving.  Replenish my body with something more appetizing than another handful of scary-orange cheese crackers.

It occurred to me that with each additional pedal stroke made in the inky stillness around us, Eric and I were further breaking the law.  Technically, one is not supposed to travel after dark through this national historic park.  While neither of us get too hung up on rules or regulations, I began to think that there could be some actual reasoning behind this one.  In my beleaguered state, it was all I could do to wind my way around fallen branches lying across the trail or duck to avoid those still attached to their respective trees.  More than once my light exposed pairs of brilliant green eyes or a waggling white flag of a tail as deer bounded across the trail.  My shoulders and arms and eyes grew a little more tense with each additional hindrance.

Making our way through a left hand bend, we were struck by a rushing course of cold air akin to standing in a high mountain pass.  I knew that this was a sign that the tunnel we were expecting was immediately ahead of us despite our lights doing nothing to confirm this.  Our flagging enthusiasm was buoyed as our intended campsite lay directly out the other end of the corridor.  The railroad tunnels that we journeyed through earlier in the day contained electric lights or offered smooth, paved surfaces.  As the pitch black lurking beyond the mouth of the tunnel made the night sky look ablaze by comparison though, my spirits sank.

My bike carried me through the entrance and the path immediately narrowed to a uncomfortable width.  The brick wall of the passageway arched over my head by what seemed only inches.  The icy cold water dripping at random added to the illusion that I was in some sort of medieval crypt.  Off to my left, our lights struggled to reflect off of the murky, pea soup that filled the canal.  The only thing that separated me from a soaking was a handrail of splintering, weathered wood that inspired little confidence.  The situation may have been sufferable were it not for the roller coaster like surface that served as the path.  It was all I could do at that point to maintain any semblance of momentum while avoiding striking either the wall or handrail.

The gauntlet seemed to never end and in reality went on for the better part of a mile.  At long last, the faint echoes of fat water droplets falling from the cave’s exit and splatting on the ground below announced an eventual finish.  As I maneuvered past one more string of potholes, I was greeted by a surge of warm, sticky air that seemed out of place for an autumn night.  Regardless of its incongruity, this tropical embrace was also one of salvation.       

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Have Bike & Skis- Will Travel

I know that there are others out there like me (actually, I know that there's no one as dumb as me out there, but I needed an introduction...) who routinely ask themselves, "Self, since your only mode of transportation is a bike, what are you going to do during ski season?" and Self replies, "I'm gonna build a custom ski carrier for my bike!"
Do I even need a caption here?

My goal is to carry either my lightweight cross country skis or carry my heavier, wider alpine touring skis on my bike and be able to bike 10-20 miles roundtrip.  I came across a couple of solutions online, one being carry them on a pack A-frame style.  I have done this before and not only do I hate having a pack on while I'm riding, but the skis make it additionally annoying.  The other idea that someone posted somewhere online (I cannot find it again) was to mount them vertically alongside your rear rack with a PVC pipe holder.  This sounded great except for one thing: it would only take one low branch or one forgotten doorway to truly mess up your experience with the skis sticking up that high.  Another thought that came to me was to carry them on my BOB trailer but once I was trying to maneuver this on snowy fire roads it might be really tricky.
The only thing that I have seen commercially made that could fit the bill might be a surfboard carrier made for bikes, but it cost $100.  Since I apparently have a lot of time on my hands, building my own solution would be cheaper and more desirable.  This weekend I set about building a proof of concept.  It turned out to be fairly heavy since I used 3/4" plywood and 2"x4" scraps that I had lying around.  Nevertheless, I succeeded in making my ski carrier.  It holds the skis at approximately a 45 degree angle to keep the overall height to about 6' and would theoretically allow low branches to sweep up and over the skis rather than stopping me dead in my tracks.  Initial tests showed that while my bike had the wobbles as if I had it fully loaded, the skis were held securely and quietly.  I also used a lash strap to keep the skis in place in the holder.

After a bit more testing, I may seek to build a lighter model with PVC pipe.  After that, I will begin mass producing them in carbon fiber for the vast market that my friend, Jeff, insists exists.  I am accepting advance orders.  Just write your bike and ski specifications on the back of a blank, endorsed check and mail it to me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sure it’s cold outside, but I’m still not going to a gym.

This morning, I got up early enough to go for an hour long run before heading to work.  As I quickly gulped some oatmeal and sugary/salty tea (no, I’ve never heard of energy gels or Gatorade), the sky turned from pitch black to a dim grey revealing a layer of frost over the grass, car windshields and trees.  I slipped out the door and took off down the sidewalk, running at a casual pace that I knew I could maintain for hours if need be.  In the cold morning air, town seemed to be sleeping yet and all sounds were muffled.  Despite the fact that people were assuredly awake, I didn’t cross another runner in my path for a whole hour.  It felt simultaneously satisfying for the solitude, but a touch lonely.  Running and cross country skiing in the winter months are two of my favorite activities and I only wish I could share the experience with more people.
Many times, when I invite people to accompany me, I get rejected with a few difference excuses.  One response is “I’m not in shape.”  Well, you gotta start sometime.  Either you want to or not and anything I write probably won’t change that.  Another response I get is “It’s too cold outside.”  Well, that is something that I can fix for you.  What I want to detail here is the clothing system and accompanying techniques that I use to be comfortable whilst doing aerobic activities during the winter.  With over 6 years of experience working in a specialty outdoor store and seeing every garment made by major outdoor manufacturers, it’s not a stretch to say that Tom knows what he is talking about.  After reading this, you are just left with the reality of deciding whether or not you want to get out, because your excuses have dried up.

Okay, so there’s usually one more thing that I hear and that is “I don’t have enough money.”  Well, be that as it may, if you’re addicted to doing a bunch of different outdoor sports, you probably already own all of the stuff necessary.  More importantly however, if you’re going to be buying stuff for the first time, it’s important to purchase things that are not only good quality, but the most versatile as well.  I tend to shy away from new and improved technologies because clothing and equipment that use them are typically very specialized for their sport or season.  I choose things that are multifunctional across many seasons and many sports.  The goal should be to do more with less and not the other way around.  Keeping that in mind, if you spend your money right the first time, you should be set for many activities.  Within this post, I may specify a particular brand or style, but rather than being the final say in what you should use, it’s meant to be more of a starting point so you have an example of what I’m talking about.  (Yes, I like Patagonia, before you call me out on it. Also, anywhere I say synthetic you can substitute wool if that's your fancy.)
We have all heard of the term layering (I hope) and that’s exactly what I stick to, which should come at no surprise.  Start off with a long sleeve synthetic t-shirt as your first layer.  I like Patagonia Cap 2 the best for this. Get it in a color that you can live with so you can wear it year round as a t-shirt for any occasion. For running in temperatures down to the single digits, I don't wear a mid-layer. If I am running in colder weather or going snowshoeing/xc skiing, then I will add in something like the Patagonia R1. Better yet, get the hooded version and then you have an emergency hat that will also fit under your climbing or biking helmet year round. Lastly, top off the whole shebang with a wind and water resistant jacket. Don't wear something waterproof as you will overheat and die. If it is truly winter, the white stuff should be in solid (and not liquid form). My choice is a Patagonia Houdini Jacket which is a great crossover for hiking and climbing, but if you're also biking a lot, you should look for something without a hood.

In my travels, I have found that my legs need less attention than my torso. I am willing to bear them getting a little bit warmer and colder than I would my torso. That isn't to say your legs aren't important, but I wouldn't stay up at night worrying about them. Remember to wear synthetic boxers, briefs, thongs or whatnot as you want these layers to move moisture away and evaporate it as well. Gentlemen, please keep in mind that you have a gender specific protrusion that can get very, very cold if not attended to. I still have a pair of Patagonia Wind Briefs with a windproof crotch that unfortunately stopped being made. Terramar and Smartwool currently offer them. You will only forget this once on a windy day and will never ever leave home without them again. Since these are really season specific, you can save money and shove a glove, plastic bag, or something else down there to block the wind. Don't laugh... it sucks otherwise.  

Next I put a pair of medium weight fleece tights on. These work great for climbing, biking and breakdancing as well. I have a pair of Outdoor Research Radiant Tights but many things will do. It's nice if they have pockets and it's an added bonus if you can slip them on over a pair of biking shoes. If I am running above zero degree temperatures, that's all that's on my legs. If you are xc skiing, you may start to get a little chilly and it is best to have a wind resistant layer over this. Instead of buying a pair of softshell pants or other stuff, just put a pair of synthetic hiking pants on over the tights. No, you probably won't make the cover of GQ. Who cares?
Oh boy. People get really particular about shoes and stuff. Well, assuming that you already run and know what you like, I'm not going to convince you to change up your footwear. If it is above 20 degrees and I'm running on dry pavement or trails, I wear just a Wigwam Merino Comfort Hiker backpacking sock. "Ohmygosh, that's not a super duper techy fitted sock!" you exclaim. Get over it. They're warm and they have yet to fail me. I can wear these year round for absolutely everything. I buy them in grey. Since I am wearing a shoe like the Montrail Mountain Masochist with a roomy toe box, I can just tie my trail shoes a little bit looser and not even notice I'm wearing a thick, cushy sock.

Now keep in mind, I am still wearing my non-waterproof shoes that I have been hiking and kickboxing in the other three seasons out of the year. I don't have a pair of Gore-Tex (or any other waterproof membrane) running shoes because I want to keep things simple with one pair. So when it gets below 20 degrees or I'm running through snow, I wear a pair of SealSkinz socks which are made of waterproof neoprene. These also work pretty well in mountaineering boots and cycling shoes. The astute observer will note that these aren't breathable at all. Yeah, well, wear a pair of Gore-Tex lined shoes and tell me how breathable they feel. I wear a pair of thin wool socks against my skin for additional warmth and comfort.

If there is one thing you should bring with you regardless of season (even summer!) it is a good hat. Nothing is more guaranteed to keep you the warmest for its size and weight than a hat, except for maybe some gasoline and a road flare. My absolute favorite hat is the Mountain Hardwear Transition Dome but now they call it the Effusion Dome with different fabric. It is still windproof and quite thin, so it will fit under helmets as well. For temperatures in the twenties, I am typically wearing a fleece glove made of Powerstretch which is made by a ton of companies. Knock yourself out. Once it gets colder, I switch to a windproof style with the Outdoor Research Gripper Glove being my favorite, but many others will do. Both of these gloves will come in handy when biking, ice climbing, picking snotsicles, etc.


If you hold down a 9-5 job or have aspirations to do so as some point, you are going to be running before or after work. Which generally means you are going to be running in the dark at this time of year. The Black Diamond Icon headlamp is definitely my favorite because it is bright as day, rechargeable, and is well balanced on your head when running. For most stuff, you're probably going to want a pack for some munchies, a bottle of water (your hydration bladder is going to freeze), some Yaktrax, a map and whatever else you need. While it may not fit as well as a specialized running pack, I just use my Black Diamond Hollowpoint which is great for climbing and also serves as my briefcase.

All of the above are suggestions and you will need to tailor it to your specific needs.  Some people are "warmer" or "colder" than others, I know.  Regardless, the trick in all of this is to not be warm from the outset.  If you step outside and you are comfortable, take some layers off.  You want to be a bit uncomfortable and chilled for the first ten minutes or so (whatever you're doing in the winter) because you're going to warm up quickly.  And when you do, you start to sweat into your layers which will eventually make you very cold.  Keep adding and subtracting layers.  Tuck your gloves and hat into the waistband of your tights and tie your jacket around your waist.  Try to keep slightly cool and you should be just fine.
The aim of this post is not to prove that I know it all and have a perfect system worked out.  I only hope to lower the physical and psychological bar for folks who don't want to sit indoors during the winter.  Perhaps you too cannot deal with the thought of running on a treadmill watching the stock ticker on CNN in a sauna like room.  Whatever the motivation may be, I hope to see you out on the roads, trails, and mountains this season.  Of course it still occurs to me that people may just find me downright offensive and are trying to excuse themselves for other reasons. In which case, enjoy the gym I guess...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a clean conscience.

I could write a novel (and don't think I won't!) regarding my views on many humans' extremely consumptive lifestyles. In the same spirit, Patagonia took out a full page ad in the New York Times on Black Friday this year in order to discourage people from buying and consuming more than is necessary.

The message is so clear and compelling and one that I really believe in.  I was actually going to expand upon my own feelings on the subject in this blog.  But this morning I came across a post from Brendan Leonard at that does just that, albeit with much better writing and images than I could produce.  So rather than look like I am copying off of him, I'd rather just try to hang onto his coattails (I sincerely doubt Brendan wears any coat with "tails") for a short while and encourage you to go to  instead. I hope that you take something away from it.

And instead of buying me that dolphin shaped kazoo for Christmas, keep your wallet closed, avoid using the gas you would spend driving to the mall and donate all of your resulting savings to your local foodbank, an environmental organization,  or another equally deserving cause.

Peace & love to all,