Category Archives: Friends and Family

Chicago Double Feature

September 12, 2012 update:  I made another trip through Chicago last weekend, so I added the wide shot now at the bottom of this post, and the mafia hit picture now in the ‘rotating’ gallery.  

Even if you’ve never heard of Chicago’s Second City comedy institute, you know its alumni.  People like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Amy Pohler, Mike Meyers, Bill Murray, Shelley Long and Dan Aykroyd.  It’s the Harvard and the Mecca of aspiring comedy writers and performers.

If it had never dawned on you that there was such a thing as a comedy training “school,” you’ll be doubly surprised that Chicago has two – spaced just a few miles apart near Lincoln Park and Wrigley Field.  “iO” is a symbiotic rival of Second City, with a slightly different focus but a comparable list of famous recent alums and a reputation for some hilarious shows.  (My favorite “iO” progeny is that guy who’s always in the passenger seat in the drive-thru window in Sonic commercials).

A few days back, my nephew Tyler’s comedic stars aligned on a Monday evening – putting him on the stage in separate shows at The Second City and at “iO” on the same night.   At Second City, it was sketch comedy like you see on Saturday Night Live.  There were several musical skits, too, with funny songs and goofy choreography.  I promise:  most of the other audience members were not blood relatives of a cast member, and they, too, were laughing and cheering.

At “iO”, the show was a “long-form” improvisation show known as a “Harold.”    Many improv sets often begin with a random “suggestion” from an audience member – like a place (e.g., airport, deli), or an occupation (librarian, jockey) – with the cast spending the next couple of minutes improvising something that has to do with that suggestion.  In the Harold show, Tyler stepped onto the stage and asked the audience for a suggestion “of anything at all.”  Someone yelled “unicorns,” so the 8-person team (“Trolley”) spent the next 25 minutes improvising a pretty-darn-funny show about escaped unicorns, distraught unicorn ranchers, master unicorn hunters with singing crossbows, and clever disguises for fugitive unicorns.

Any kind of show business is a tough business.  To get onto those two stages last Monday, Tyler had survived multiple layers of auditions and cuts that winnowed hopeful hundreds down to dozens, then dozens down to the few gifted folks we saw onstage.  So far so good for Tyler’s Chicago adventure.   Both shows are still running on Monday nights.  Also, over Labor Day weekend, he’s got a big role in a “live stage reading” of The Lockout: An NBA Musical — which has already been touted by an ESPN blog!  Go see it (details here)!


Caitlin Parker (one of Tyler’s sisters), his proud parents and I made the quick trek to Chicago for the shows.  Long-sleeve shots above are at Second City; short sleeves at iO.   The outdoor “portraits” of Tyler and Caitlin are out on Navy Pier with the Chicago skyline in back.  The animals were safely confined in the Lincoln Park Zoo.  The sketches in the Second City show will change after this week, so I’ve already got my plane ticket for a return trip in September.



September 10:


Race Across the Sky: The Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race

If you can finish Leadville’s 100-mile mountain bike race in less than 12 hours, they award you a belt buckle.  And the faster you finish; the bigger the buckle*  It’s a great tradition and a fun souvenir that’s a nice reminder of the town’s rugged western past.  A half dozen or so great friends and I earned buckles in Leadville last weekend.  Though none of us ordinarily wear big belt buckles, that hard-earned hardware is now among our most cherished possessions.

I just had one of the best weeks of my life.  More than once, I was positively giddy.  More than once, I was misty-eyed.  And more than once, I was in a fair amount of pain.  Starting something like a 100-mile mountain bike race can be overwhelming.  It’s a strange mixture of fear and dread, excitement and adventure, camaraderie, competition, and adrenaline.  I was expecting at least 11 hours on the bike, which was longer than I’d ever spent on a tiny cycling saddle.

After several days spent preparing for the race with an amazing group of close friends, we all crossed the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100 last Saturday morning with 100 miles (and several hours) of mountains, trails and rocks in front of us.  By dinner time, we had all finished – mostly-safely and mostly ahead of our self-imposed goals and schedules.  For us, that’s victory.

Leadville, Colorado is the highest-elevation city in America, and its annual 100-mile LT100 race is considered one of the toughest in America.  Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong have come here and lost, though Lance came back in 2009 and won the thing.  Last week, Lance showed up in Leadville on Friday and told us that the Leadville race may be the hardest thing he’d ever done (which is saying a lot).  I can relate.   As I said after it was over, I had seven hours of the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike (bear in mind, though:  my race lasted eleven hours).

We were TEAM MRE, sponsored and outfitted by MRE Consulting — the company founded by my friends (and fellow riders) Mike Short and Shane Merz.   That’s Shane in the first picture below (I grabbed a camera and took this shot just seconds after he crossed the finish line).   Don’t worry; he recovered just fine.  Mike is pictured a little further down with his teenage daughter Emily.  I’d never seen Emily smile as big as she did when her Dad came across the finish line.  Somehow Mike had lost his helmet out there somewhere.  Some MRE executives (including COO Bjorn Hagelmann, pictured in the safari hat) were even on hand as a support crew, selflessly delivering Gatorade and food to us at key spots on the race course.  Spouses, friends and kids were on hand to help, clap and cheer.


As with most of the crazier things I get into, longtime friend Scott Humphries was on hand.  He usually beats me in races, but this time the acclimation from my high-altitude summer gave me a tiny 65-second advantage at the end of an 11+ hour day.  Since that’s about the time that it takes to stop and pee, or drink a Gatorade, or hug your kids (him) or parents (me) on the roadside, I think we’ll call this one a dead heat.  Ned Barnett led all Houstonians (me, Scott, Shane, Mike, Caj Boatright and Greg Binion) on our team, improving his 2011 performance by more than an hour.


 We had a couple of ringers:  last winter in Costa Rica, I’d met and hung out with Peter Thomsen and his wife, Jana, both of Santa Cruz, California.  It turns out that Peter is a stellar mountainbiker.  Crazy good — something I didn’t even fully appreciate when I invited him to join us in Leadville.  Then when a last-minute opening came up on our Team, we called Peter’s Santa Cruz buddy Zach Brown.  Zach bought a new bike, flew out, couch-surfed, saddled up, and turned in an impressive bike performance — all while adding plenty of fun and class to the mix.

Once again, my loving Mom and Dad were my heroes.  Remember what I said above about getting misty-eyed?  They had their truck and ATV lined up to chase and cheer me every hour or two along the course.  To help me spot her quickly, Mom sported a feather boa in MRE Team colors.  It’d be impossible to quit trying when you know your Mom and Dad travelled 1000 miles to watch you cross the finish line.

Truth is, a little more than a year ago, neither Scott, Shane, Mike, Ned or I even owned a mountain bike, or had much of an idea how to ride one in real mountains.  We were road bikers and triathletes.  In a celebratory mood the day after the race, Scott announced:  “Jeffry, I believe we are now ‘mountain bikers.'”  I had to agree, but then asked the critical question:  “Yup, but what are we gonna be next year?”


Photo Credits:  Obviously I was mostly biking, not photographing.  I regret that I don’t have more pictures of Ned, Caj, Peter, Zach and Greg — they finished before I did and had already changed out of their jerseys before I got ‘hold of my camera.   Fortunately, Jana Thomsen, Stacy Humphries, and the on-course photo service “Zazoosh” got several good pictures.  Lots of the shots in the grid above are by those guys, and I think all the cameras got passed around after the finish — even pro-photographer Peter took a few after his finish.  Forgive me for not sorting out exactly who took which picture.  And forgive me for including more pictures of myself than I’m usually comfortable with. 

* Full disclosure:  The faster you finish, the bigger the belt buckle you’re awarded.  The very-big buckle in the close-up picture above belongs to friend/teammate/Californian Peter Thomsen, who is a mountainbiking badass — a whole order of magnitude above me.  The rest of the team earned buckles a bit smaller and with less gold.  Of course ours are waaaay more tasteful….but his made a better picture.





Rocky Mountain Highest: Leadville, CO

I’ve been without a WIFI connection for a couple of weeks!  Forgive the delayed posts.


If you’re looking for America’s highest post office, head for Leadville, Colorado —  America’s highest town.  Depending on just what and where you measure, it’s around 10,200 feet in elevation.  The town also boasts (literally) the country’s highest airport.  Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft), looms over the south side of town; Mt. Massive (the second highest at just 14,428) is just west of town.  Around here, thin air and isolation are selling points and badges of honor.

There’s plenty of evidence in Leadville of a past that was both grander and rougher.  The town started in the 1800s as a mining “boom” town.  It’s just got 3,000 or so people now, but it allegedly had 10 times that population (and 100 saloons!?!) in the 1880s.  Back then Oscar Wilde lectured in the city’s Tabor Opera House (probably with Leadville residents (unsinkable) Molly Brown and maybe Doc Holiday in the audience).  At the same time, thousands of men braved sub-zero temperatures, using mule and muscle to drag tons of silver-laden ore out of the mines that surround the city.



130 years later, there’s still a lot going on in now-tiny Leadville.  The first weekend in August was “Boom Days,” celebrating Leadville’s past with gritty mining competitions (see the jackhammer and sledgehammer pictures) on one end of downtown and a lacy Victorian costume contest on the other.  These are two very different crowds.  Meanwhile, a 22-mile pack burro race shut down Highway 24 through the middle of town.  This being Colorado — there’s always a laid-back “hippie” crowd around town, too, and on most summer days there are a dozen or so leather-shrouded Harley riders cruising the streets.  Talk about diversity.


Yet another crowd (this one with spandex shorts, carbon fiber bikes, and Gatorade) swarms the town in the summer, gearing up for  arguably the biggest mountain bike race in the country – the Leadville MTB 100 “Race Across the Sky”.  Like the Leadville Marathon I did a couple of months back, it starts at 10,200 feet and generally just goes higher and higher from there.  That’s why I was in town, along with a half dozen or so good friends.  More news on the bike race in a day or so when the pictures get compiled.

Topping it all off, camped out west of town were none other than Joyce and J.B. Cotner (my mom and dad!).  One day when we were doing a practice ride of the toughest climb on the bike race course (climbing up to Columbine Pass at 12,400 ft), there sat Mom and Dad at the summit on a red ATV, waiting for us.  To say that my Mom and Dad are troopers would be a terrible understatement.  I’d convinced my Dad to come to Leadville by telling him we needed to come up with a strategy to win next year’s burro race (me as runner, him a burro trainer).   Crazier things do happen — especially in Leadville.

In the photo grid above:  The big green rock is part of the mining competition.  Yes, that’s an attractive young woman operating the 120 lb. jackhammer.  Do not mess with her.  The two-man sledgehammer (“double jack”) competition requires more trust in one’s teammate than I have for any of my friends — no offense guys.  The two men in the sledgehammer pictures apparently set an unofficial state record — chiseling a 27-inch hole in 10 minutes.  You don’t ride the burros in the burro race — you lead/push/drive/drag them 22 miles.  The winner makes it back to town in about four hours.  Apparently Leadville is the second leg of Colorado’s “Triple Crown” of pack burro racing.  That’s my Mom and Dad above (in red and blue) downtown watching the burro race and parade.  And that’s also them with me (bottom) behind their ATV at the top of Columbine; they’re showing off their preferred means of high-mountain transport and I’m showing mine.  If you pay attention to such things: I do have a fabulous bike (Specialized Epic S-Works 26; full suspension and weighs less than many road bikes) — because I need all the help I can get. 

I threw in some shots of the mountains around Leadville.  I didn’t really dedicate the time it takes to get really good mountain photos (scouting locations then waiting on perfect weather and light), so these do not do Leadville justice in the “majestic views” category.  Hopefully you can still get a sense of the landscape. 

(Bottom photo by Peter Thomsen, using whatever little camera he’d stuffed into his bike jersey).





Leadville Trail Marathon 2012: Formal Finish

Of 500+ finishers, I was the only one who somehow wound up crossing the finish line accompanied by an entourage of a dozen tuxedo-clad fourteen-year-olds.  It was as hilariously odd as it looks.  Lots of stories from a fun day.





Start with a regular, 26-mile marathon.  Put it on rocky, uneven, ground with lots of slippery, sandy grit.  Add in about 6300 feet of climbing (the rough equivalent of climbing up and down the stairs of the Empire State Building five times during the run).  Then move the whole thing up to the very-thin air of Leadville Colorado, so that most of the run is above 11,000 feet, and one section climbs up over 13,000 feet elevation.

What kind of idiot would sign up for that?

Here’s some perspective on that thin air:  Aviation regulations require that if a pilot is going to spend more than 30 minutes above 12,500 feet, he has to be on supplemental oxygen.  Remember, this is a guy who remains seated at all times.  At 13,000 feet, a given volume of air has only about 67% as much oxygen as it would at sea level.  My red blood cells were sure to be put to the test.

This was obviously not a recipe for achieving a personal-best marathon time.  The only goal was to see if I could get through it, alive and smiling.  The time cutoff was 8 ½ hours, and I’d decided I would count anything shy of 8:29 as a victory.

And . . .  I finished in 5:54!  In 196th Place (out of 509 who finished).  They published a separate set of “Flatlander” results (people who don’t live in the Rockies):  I was #33 out of 169 Flatlanders!  Good enough.

Incidentally:  Later in the summer, Leadville has 50-mile and 100-mile trail runs.  Seriously.  So if you think I’m a nut, come up and watch those guys.



There’s a half-mile, downhill straightaway to the finish line in downtown Leadville.  About three blocks out, I saw four or five young Hispanic boys – probably 13 to 15 years old — wearing tuxedos, about to cross the street in front of me.  I’m assuming they’d probably just left a quinceanera party (roughly the Latin American equivalent of a bat mitzvah).  They all wanted to “high-five” as I ran by.  Not wanting to slow down to dole out high-fives, I yelled, “C’mon.  Let’s go!” and motioned for them to start running.  They did.  About a block later, “we” encounted another group of a half dozen, who also started running with me.   And they flanked me the rest of the way to the finish.  My impromptu posse.

Surreal, to say the least.  Hilarious.  Leadville is a rustic mining town and I wouldn’t have guessed there was a tuxedo to be found within 30 miles.  And yet, somehow, my finish-line photo looked like that.



Coincidentally (sort of), I had five Houston friends in Leadville on race day.  Michele and Shane Merz and Mike Short drove me to the start line, pumped me full of pre-race Gatorade, and then spent the day chasing me around the course to cheer me on and offer up more Gatorade, powerbars, Payday bars, “Gu” and general moral support.  Their trip to the first checkpoint involved a frantic 1200-foot vertical climb of their own.  Apparently they drove back to town and purchased more suitable climbing shoes, then got the bright idea to rent 4-wheeler ATVs.  They spent the rest of the day chasing me around on those.  I’m pretty sure they had more fun than I did.

One point of interest:  Shane and Mike are the founders of MRE Consulting in Houston, which was a sponsor (long story for another day) of the Leadville Race Series, so the start-finish area actually had a banner ad for MRE.  Through a combination of Shane and Mike’s VIP status and my own stupidity (lost my assigned timing chip), I wound up wearing race number 3 – a number usually reserved for, e.g., the prior year’s #3 finisher or some other elite runner.  I got some perplexed looks back in 196th place.

Rolling into Leadville from Houston during the race was Ned Barnett.  He joined the fun at the finish line, just in time to see my black-tie middle-school posse escorting me across the finish line.  Huge thanks to all the Superfans for the fun, the moral support and the friendships.


Obviously, this is a post dedicated to my foolishness — not my photography.  So thanks to Mike Short for taking my camera and getting several fun shots before, during and after the race.  I carried a small camera with me on the course, though I probably should have calculated how much extra energy it would require to tote a 9-ounce camera up and down those trails.  A few of the shots are by other racers who were nice enough to stop and take my picture during the race.

WTF! (Welcome To Frisco!)

Rocky Mountain Goats at 14,000 feet in central Colorado:


I’d like to claim that the mountain goat encounter was the culmination of a heroic, back-country mountain climb to capture shots of a rare and dangerous isolated species.  But these mountain goats were almost as docile as cows, and (as the last photo in the grid above shows) they’d pretty much taken over the un-manned park area at the top of Mount Evans.  So none of these pictures were taken more than 40 yards from the car (which was on a paved road).  Mt. Evans Road is the highest paved road in North America — 14,130 feet, which is eerily high up and desolate.

A few days back, I arrived in Frisco, Colorado hauling five bicycles, about six pair of running/hiking shoes, six cameras, ten or so non-fiction books, and a photo printer that weighs about fifty pounds.  I’ve already had five visitors from Oklahoma and Texas, already done about 30,000 feet of climbing (on bike and on foot), and already been nose to nose with a momma mountain goat.

The pretty sunset shots below were near Buena Vista, about an hour south of here.  You’ll recognize the happy couple pictured at the top of Mt. Evans as my Mom and Dad, who drove up from Oklahoma to hang out with me for a while.  Most of the other shots are of me or my biking crew (more on them as the summer progresses).  That’s Mike Short on the dirt bike path (east of Breckenridge) and Shane Merz on the paved path near the top of Vail Pass.  That’s me hiking at the top of Mt. Royal (overlooking Lake Dillon), me on a mountain bike in the woods near Frisco, and me at the top of Loveland Pass on my road bike.  It’s already been a great trip and there’s plenty more to come.

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(Photo credit for the picture of me mountain biking through the woods goes to Mike Short, who was far enough ahead of me to stop, dismount, dig his camera out of his backpack, and get into position for a fun picture before I finally rode by.  Photo credit for the Loveland Pass shot goes to some stranger who insisted I was crazy for biking to the top (for the second time that day) and offered to take my picture).