Friday, March 30, 2007


You are never too old. You never grow up.


In 1975, at age 53, Palos Verdes explosives manufacturer Bill Bell heard the 14 words that changed his life: "I want you to jog 40 minutes a day for three days a week."

A stress test had detected an irregular heartbeat, and the doctor felt that sustained aerobic activity such as running — not Bell's old love, golf — would fix the problem. So the man who hadn't worked out for 35 years ran. "And it felt so good that I came back and asked him if I could run every day," he says.

With the doc's nod, Bell immersed himself in the running boom sweeping America. He ran with his dog. He ran with new running friends he met on the roads and trails. He ran the Palos Verdes Marathon. He began logging 11 to 12 miles before work every day and began building an athletic r–sum– of 158 marathons and ultra runs, including 14 marathons in one year. Running was his health insurance, his soothing refuge from the stressful entrepreneurial business wars, and his teenage payback. "In my mind," he said, "I was earning the letterman's sweater I never got in high school." (His dad's death forced him, starting at 15, to work a double paper route rather than play sports.)

Before long, the father of three and grandfather of eight would set his sights on the most exalted "letterman's sweater" in the endurance sports world: A Hawaii Ironman finisher's T-shirt.

Today, he has 17 of them — 32 counting non-Hawaii Ironmans.

Bell first saw one on the streets of Honolulu during a layover to Taiwan in 1981. "The guy wearing it, hearing my questions, seeing my excitement, just looked at me and said, 'Go get some goggles and a bike.' "

It wasn't that simple. He hadn't bicycled since his paper route days. On his first day of swimming class at El Camino College, the 59-year-old could barely complete six laps. After he flew to Kona and lined up at the Hawaii Ironman start line in February 1982, he struggled during the 2.4-mile swim and suffered a broken chain and flat tire in the middle of the 112-mile bike leg. Ultimately, he missed the 12 1/2-hour bike cutoff and was not allowed to run the marathon.

"But I don't accept the word 'can't,' " Bell says. "I trained even harder." In the next Hawaii Ironman, he took third place in his age group. He went on to win his age group four times.

Except for a thyroid condition in 1989 and 1990 that left him too fatigued to race, and one race in which he finished just after the 17-hour time limit, Bell officially completed the Hawaii Ironman every year through 2001. That year at age 79, he became the oldest person to finish the race — until 2005, when Robert McKeague, 80, of Villa Park, Ill., took that honor.

For many in the triathlon world and millions on TV, Bell's signature moment came in 1995 at age 72. Utterly fatigued by a day of biking against some of Kona's worst-ever mumuku headwinds, he entered the 50-yard finisher's shoot on Ali'i Drive with the time limit ticking away and saw his wife, Margie, waving from behind a police barrier. Seconds before midnight, weak as a lamb, he fell over when she draped a lei over his head. Helped up, he fell again. And again.

"My legs would not cooperate," he said. He crawled and, summoning his last erg of energy, thrust an outstretched hand onto the finish line and lay there unmoving — 2 minutes and 35 seconds over the 17-hour cut-off. The next year, Bell finished on time. Then, to thunderous applause, he recrossed the line and crawled back over.

Through 2002, when he finished in 16:57:00 at the Oceanside Ironman, Bell successfully completed dozens of Ironman races. But after that, shortness of breath — later identified as exercise-induced asthma — began to prevent him from finishing on time. "The swim was leaving me so wasted that I'd have nothing left on the bike and run," he said. So in 2003, at 80, he retired from Ironman competitions — but not from triathlon.

Bell is still is a fixture at a dozen or more Olympic distance and sprint races a year. At the Tinsel Triathlon in December, he received a plaque for being the oldest finisher. The last of the "IronGents," a group of age 60-plus athletes who bonded in the early days of Ironman and once rode a 3,000-mile bike relay in the Race Across America, Bell refuses to fade away, training 12 to 20 hours per week all year from his Indian Wells home.

"My advice to anyone is simple," Bell says. "Keep moving. I call it the 'lawnmower theory.' If you leave a lawnmower out on the grass and it rains, you better get out and push that thing before it gets rusty. I'm creaky and rusty every day when I get up in the morning, but after I get moving, I feel pretty damn good."


Russell Allen has been slowing down for 75 years. But since the Topanga Canyon resident started off life as one of the fastest people in the world and regularly kept his engine tuned, he's still moving with a pretty good head of steam.

Now 94, Allen rode in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a 19-year-old, and was a top professional rider until World War II. He regularly did 50- and 60-mile group rides into his early 80s, rode the 2005 L.A. Marathon bike ride on a tandem at an average speed of 22 mph, and is a regular at spinning classes at the Spectrum Club in Santa Monica.

How does he account for his remarkably healthy longevity? "Even when I stopped riding for years, I never stopped working out," Allen says.

The middle child of three raised in Huntington Park by a single mother (his father died of alcoholism), Allen got his first racing bike at 13 and was soon riding with the prestigious Krebbs Cycle Club of Long Beach. A prodigious sprinter, "Legs," as he was nicknamed, won a spot on the U.S. Olympic cycling team and raced the four-man pursuit event on a wooden track built inside the Rose Bowl.

A wild decade of professional riding around the world followed. After a season at the Wintergarden track in Hollywood, he headed for the big time: six-day races (two-man tag-team riding nonstop) in New York's Madison Square Garden and the outdoor track in Nutley, N.J., during the summer, then to South America in the winter. He eventually earned $150 a race and $600 to $700 a week, a fortune during the Depression. "It was lot of money considering that you could take a girl to dinner and the movies for a buck," Allen says.

When World War II choked off the flow of top European riders to the U.S., pro cycling shut down, and Allen returned to L.A. He married a neighborhood girl he wooed on a tandem bike, spent the war years as a military athletic trainer and survival instructor to the troops, and started raising three kids. For the next 30 years, he worked mainly as a Cadillac sales manager, played golf at Los Coyotes Country Club near his Buena Park home, and never rode at all — although he used an exercise bike and lifted weights two or three days a week at a health club.

At his wife's urging, he saddled up again after retiring at 62. "Rose still worked, and I had the time," Allen says. "I joined a club and ramped up the miles. In my 80s, we'd ride down the San Gabriel River to Seal Beach and down to Laguna and back." He qualified for the Masters nationals year after year until a decade ago, when he gave up competition for good.

Now a widower after 59 years of marriage, Allen lives with his eldest daughter and keeps body and mind sharp by feeding his lifelong passions for gambling and exercise. He plays Texas Hold 'Em three or four days a week at the card clubs in Gardena and stops at the gym on the drive home for an hourlong workout. He still cranks it up to 20 mph on the beach bike path several times a month and maintains a home gym with dumbbells and an exercise bike.

Beyond exercise, Allen credits a good diet, a single evening cocktail and a youthful attitude for his super-fit longevity. "I've never really been sick — just a two-day cold every few years — and a lot of that is because I've eaten well all my life," he says. "My mom used to make salads for the market, and she threw away the frying pan; we always baked or broiled, and had tons of vegetables, pickles, you name it. I kept those habits. Oh, I ate fast food. But as a rule, I took care of myself."

Although Allen's card-playing has constantly exposed the nonsmoker to secondhand smoke, he doesn't seem to have suffered any ill effects — and he figures the gambling has been a big plus in the longevity equation.

"It's important to stay in circulation, to get away from the TV, and, as you get older, to pal around with younger people," he says. "My wife and I always became friends with our children's friends — and stayed close with our kids."

Over the last decade, Allen has lived with all three of his kids — at their invitation — and visits them often. He goes bungee jumping once a year with his youngest daughter, who lives in New Zealand, and spent three weeks in January traveling around the Middle East with one of her friends from college. "The smartest health decision you can make is to educate your kids," he says, noting proudly that all three graduated from UCLA. "They'll return the favor down the road."


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Scorpion Trail Ride

With the skies heavy and threatening, I took a compass and went exploring in the forest. (Yes, I'm crazy like that.)

Back at this trail. There is a fork further down I wish to check out.

Asian fig tree.

The fig "fruit" is actually a tiny bouquet of flowers turned inside-out, such that the reproductive structures are enclosed in a fruit-like protective case. The male and female flowers are arranged inside this structure to allow pollination by fig wasps, which enter through a tiny hole.

Each fig species relies on a totally different fig wasp to perform this function. In return for the fig wasp's services, the fig tree produces galls in which the fig wasp can lay its eggs and its young can grow in safety. Once the fig "fruits" have been pollinated and have matured it is feasting time for the birds, bats, squirrels and monkeys of the forest who unwittingly distribute the fertile seeds to other areas.

Upon reaching the trail fork, it started raining. This used to be a really wide dirt trail a decade ago. Now it is fun little singletrack with dips thrown in. There seems to be another way to get here: keep your eyes peeled just before the lowest part of Chestnut Trail.

After a log-hop (you can see the gouges made by the chainring of previous riders), the trail meanders back into the forest.

For an unofficial trail, its quality is rather good; mud holes are few and far in-between.

I guess people used to live here.

An abandoned truck finds second life as a flower pot of sorts.

The rain patters down as I examine the swollen leaf stalks of a Mahang or Ant Plant (Macaranga triloba). An excellent example of ant-plant mutualism, this plant provides a home for ants in its hollow, swollen leaf stalks; in return, the ants protect the plant from herbivores and leaf-eating insects. Heil M, Fiala B, Maschwitz U, and Linsenmair KE discovered that over periods of time, trees deprived of ants suffer quite dramatically in comparison to those with an intact defensive colony. Ant-free Macaranga triloba plants lost an average of nearly 50 % of their total leaf area.

The protection afforded by the canopy is great. Though it is raining, hardly a drop touched me. For some reason though, the monkeys and squirrels are frisky this afternoon — overhead, branches regularly crack, and leaves sometimes fall down in swathes.

After a short downhill down a tight singletrack, I emerge from the trail behind this sign. Upon turning around to read what it said, my blood ran a little cold: those were not frisky monkeys and squirrels causing branches to snap and leaves to fall overhead — those were 7.62 mm GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) rounds raining down from a nearby firing range. No wonder the "thunder" sounded a little off. Oops... I guess I used up one of my nine lives back there :-P

Counting my lucky stars, I got out of the area ASAP. 'Decided to visit the only notable colony of Nepenthes mirabilis by the Bukit Timah mountain biking trail. Here, a flower stalk begins to bloom. Many bikers and hikers pass by this remarkable plant and are none the wiser to its presence.

Unlike the Nepenthes ampullaria colony by Upper Peirce Reservoir, which adapted the habits of a detritivore, the Nepenthes mirabilis remains carnivorous. This species is found all over south-east Asia, right down to Australia.

Heading back to Echo Valley, or Dairy Farm Quarry. The next best thing to diving into piles of leaves is flying over a leaf-covered trail :-)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Riding in the backyard

A short ride down memory lane this late afternoon. This is a place I frequented in my youth. Officially, this place is off-limits. Unofficially... :-P

Few people knew of this place back then. Two decades later, with the kampong folk evicted by the government and the abandoned trail overgrown, reclaimed by the forest, even fewer know of it now.

The trail proper no longer exists, but with a little dead reckoning and stubbornness (l used to know this place well enough to get out in the dark without a flashlight), I found my way again.

A very dead monitor lizard on the road leading to the trail. It probably got run over by a heavy construction truck. In my army days, I have seen 3-tonner troop transports run over these critters and they continue quite unscathed.

The "trail" is quite recognizable.

Plenty of these vines on the ground. These needle-like thorns punch through lycra shorts — and skin — with surprising ease.

Rattan, a climbing palm, also abound. Jeet Sukumaran has a thing or two to say about rattan :-D

The spines are rather stiff and sharp; experience taught me that even the act of casually brushing past them results in deep scratches. Besides fending off herbivores, the spikes also act as grapnels, helping the plant climb host trees. It is for a good reason that some species, with fine, recurve-hooked tendrils, are aptly called nanti sikit or Wait-a-While. In Australia, they are also referred to as Lawyer Vines :-D

Other things in the undergrowth: a curious shrub with its fruits along the main stalk and above the leaves.

A trio of butterflies feeding off a vine's nectar. There were at least 8 on it but 5 flew away when I approached. Reminiscent of vintage lacework, the lower (whitish) parts of their wings are simply gorgeous.

Another shot of these butterflies. Macro shots like these ruthlessly expose the limitations of the Canon A510, but I am unwilling to lug along an expensive, fragile, bulky, and heavy SLR on my rides. (The Canon S3 IS, which also utilizes AA batteries, and boasts an image stabilized lens, seems a possible upgrade path in the future.)

Hmm... this fence wasn't here before. I didn't feel comfortable climbing over rusty barbed wire in spandex shorts, so I circumvented it.

What I discovered off-trail in the undergrowth: a colony of Nepenthes ampullaria. The pitchers, formed from highly-modified leaves, hang from vines in clusters. Nepenthes ampullaria are unique from other pitcher plants as it changed its dietary lifestyle from a carnivore to a detritivore. Consequently, the structure and location of the pitchers are adapted towards the capture of leaf litter, rather than insects.

Close up. While the lid usually hangs above other pitchers, those of Nepenthes ampullaria hang away from the mouth of the pitcher, so as not to obstruct the capture of leaf detritus. These pitchers are about the size of a tea cup.

On the other side of the fence now.

In those days, they didn't have warnings, much less a fence. This used to be a sedimentation pond. Untreated water would be discharged into this pond. Sediments in the water would settle, and the water then cascades down to the reservoir. Over the past 32 years, the pond filled up with silt. It doesn't matter if you know how to swim, the pond's pretty much quicksand.

Looks can be deceiving, I guess.

Another shot of the death trap. (Yes, the lens cover failed to fully retract. Grrr!)

Descending to Upper Peirce Reservoir.

One fine Sunday afternoon in the 90s, along with 2 classmates, we caught a record 37 Common Snakehead (Channa striata) in 30 minutes. It was hell lugging all the fish back to my house. My family ate fish for lunch and dinner for a week.

I suppose it could have been worse — we could have caught 37 of these critters instead. The Giant Snakeheads (Channa micropeltes) are awesome. Sometimes they would attack a hooked fish as the helpless animal is reeled in, resulting in a nasty surprise for the angler.

There are trails on the other side as well, but I didn't explore them today.

Many quiet afternoons were spent here. Occasionally, the soothing sounds of the lapping waves would be punctuated by the antics of the White-collared Kingfisher (Halcyon Chloris), or the splash as a White-bellied Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) grabs its prey off the surface of the water. Meanwhile, stalking in the background like mini AT-STs, are Great Egrets (Egretta alba).

Zooming in on Upper Thomson in the distance.

A composite shot.

Sorry, no directions this time, the fewer people know how to get here, the better. (Besides, it's a $150 fine if the ranger catches you there. $500 if you are fishing.)