All posts by Terrence E. Sweeney Ph.D.

Mountain Biking: 50% Luck, 50% Pain

Yet another day in the desert of Tucson has passed filled with deception and lies, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Stellar views
Stellar riders

It began this morning when, luckily, we were able to transport some mountain bikes by van over to Saguaro National Park, a site we biked to a couple days before.  Dr. Sweeney led us on a few of Saguaro’s “beginner” mountain biking trails.  Within the first five minutes, five brand new mountain bikers were going downhill at 90° over boulders, barrel cacti, and other people’s bikes.  That may be a bit exaggerated, but not by much.  We swiftly returned, got onto an easier course, and had a great time learning the ropes of our new favorite activity.

There were many falls (myself included), but perhaps the best (and by that I mean funniest) was Cameron’s bloody encounter with the always-feared “Jumping Cholla.”

Jumping Cholla extraction

Our skills were overestimated, and we were taken on courses a little over our heads, but I think we had the last laugh when our fearless leader was a bit too ambitious himself. Oops!

When the Fearless Leader loses against ruts and boulders

Our first mountain biking episode ended, and we went back to the house for a quick turnover so that a few of us could drive up to Mount Lemmon for the sunset.  Making it up with some time to spare we made a couple of snowballs, definitely made it in time to eat some cookies from “The Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin,” and stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks.  We’ve all been impressed with the scenery in AZ.  It’s truly unlike anything we have ever seen before, and pictures don’t do it justice, but here’s an attempt at capturing the sunset from Windy Point Vista:

As the day came to an end, we, of course, stopped at the grocery store to pick up the essentials – brownie mix.  Little did we know that Tara had prepared a betrayal that would rival Brutus’ assassination of Caesar by making bean brownies. Yes, bean.  Black beans puréed and put into brownie mix.  We were even told that there would be a normal batch.  No such batch was prepared.  I’ll never admit that the brownies were great, but I did eat quite a few – we all did.  All in all, today was a blast.  Can’t wait to see what is in store for the next one.


A Day Like No Other

Wow.  Where to begin…

Following a brutal day including the Wingate test, a one and a half mile run, and a 10 mile bike ride, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves the next morning. It can’t get harder than that, right? We even got to sleep in before our 10:00 departure for the mountains. Sounds like the making of a good day right? That’s what we thought too, so we hit the trail with heads held high, excited about the views this hike could bring us.

The first few miles of the Ventana Canyon Hiking Trail were awesome. We were introduced to carins (pictured below), the ascending rock placements that point you in the direction the trail continues (turns out they aren’t just something people make to put on Instagram).

A cairn along the trail

We passed some of the pools and covered our first stream crossings of the trip. As we kept climbing, the view overlooking Tucson kept getting better. Each time we stopped it was even more incredible then the last time.

We stopped for lunch, which is possibly our favorite time of the day, again still feeling pretty good. I mean, after all, the trail marking listed the distance as only 9.5 miles out and back. Nothing we couldn’t handle right?

What you look like when you brought enough water

After lunch, we really started to climb. It hurt, no doubt about that, but we knew it would be worth it. Then…it kept going. The switchbacks piled up like the steps on our Fitbits, and the burn was real.
Half of the group ran out of water on the way up (lesson learned), and they pushed through it. We looked for any excuse to call our stopping points the top, but the mountain would not quit. Higher and higher we went, more and more we felt the effects of the previous day’s work. It was surreal, to say the least, but for whatever reason (possibly insanity), we kept going.

Finally, we made it to the top…or so we thought. While a majority of us were ready to call it done, Dr. Sweeney was so kind to point out we still had about 50 feet left to ascend. So, while some of us posed for pictures, he and Dave continued and reached the top. If not for their convincing texts, we would have missed out on a 360 degree view we would never forget.

The EP Crew summits its first peak!

The pictures don’t do it justice, but we were stoked. Only one problem…it was 3:30 PM when we reached the top. For those of you at home doing the math, we hit the trail at 11:00 AM and took 30 minutes for lunch. That means 4 hours and 30 minutes up. Sunset was coming at 5:33 PM…notice the problem? Hiking in the dark became inevitable but the van wasn’t coming to pick us up at the top anytime soon. So down we went, and possibly for the first time ever, Dr. Sweeney and Professor Fay were happy to see students with their phones out to use the flashlights. It was a little scary but we made it to the van without a problem and I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a group. Turns out that “9.5 mile” hike was actually about 13 miles and we (somehow) crushed every mile.

Ventana Canyon Trail at sunset

In desperate need of food, we headed toward Rosa’s Mexican Food near the University of Arizona campus. As if the day wasn’t crazy enough, Dr. Sweeney punished us even more with a weird mixture of smooth jazz music and Demi Lovato. The night got even weirder there when the owner of the restaurant told me that the tacos I wanted to order “aren’t good today.” I held my ground in a dead panic, and the tacos turned out to be great. The guys are never going to let me live that moment down though. In one last strange turn of events, we piled back in the van to finally return to the house, and the last song that played was “Trap Star” by Young Jeezy, courtesy of Dr. Sweeney’s bizarre music library.

Words could never fully explain what a wild ride that day was, but the important thing is that we made it!

More to come, and we hope everyone back home is doing well!



Today was a day full of non-stop movement.  We biked, we ran, and we biked again.  The day started out back at the University of Arizona where we performed the Wingate test. This test consists of 30 seconds of biking on a machine when a weight that is 8% of the person’s body mass is dropped onto it.  The person has to keep biking for the full 30 seconds after the weight has been dropped.  Now, most of us thought, “How bad can this really be compared to yesterday’s test?  It’s only 30 seconds!”  But wow we were wrong.

Yes, it was only 30 seconds of intense exercise, but the effects are still being felt as the night goes on.  Although it was insanely intense and not enjoyable whatsoever, we all rallied for the person on the bike.  There was a ton of cheering, clapping, and yelling “GO GO GO!” Some might call it a good bonding experience.

5 seconds into the test
5 seconds left in the test
Test complete!

Now, one would think that we would get some time to recover from that, but no.  Before we knew it we were back in the new van (sigh) and headed to a track to conquer our first mile and a half run.  With heavy feet and noodle legs, we trudged to the track. It definitely wasn’t easy, but we all finished.  So back into the van we went and devoured our packed lunches.

We had a nice break when we got back to the house. Some of us dozed off (me included) and others just chilled.  This was when Dr. Sweeney and Professor Fay were assembling their bikes that were shipped from Scranton.  So, after intense biking this morning and running a mile and a half this afternoon, our day was not complete.  Everyone begrudgingly put on their bike shorts to prepare for our first bike ride.  The general consensus was that they are definitely not comfortable, but they ended up saving our asses, literally.  We then set out on a bike ride that was a little over 11 miles long.

When we returned to our haven that is the Tucson house, it was easy to see just how exhausted everyone was.  Stairs were not a fun time for anyone.  Casey, Dave, and Brian braved the ice-cold pool to soothe their aching and tired legs.  Lizzy even went for a swim (props to them all).

Now Kyle and Anthony are cooking dinner for us; chicken and eggplant marsala are on the menu tonight.  I think we’re all looking forward to some delicious food and relaxation.


VO2 Max: Round 1

Today, we went to the physiology lab at the University of Arizona to perform our baseline VO2 max tests.

We began with a lecture by Doug Keen, a physiology professor at the university. He outlined the three main pathways of ATP production in the body, and then taught us about VO2 max testing, which measures the efficiency of the aerobic oxygen system in particular. VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen that can be consumed by the body during intense exercise. It varies with age, sex, conditioning and altitude.

Arizona faculty member Doug Keen guiding EP students in the VO2max test

The VO2 max test involves three stages: measurement of resting VO2 during one minute with the subject seated, measurement during walking at 3.0 mph, and measurement during increasingly strenuous exercise, up until the VO2 level plateaus, i.e. reaches its max. In our case, we increased the grade of the treadmill on which we were running by two percent every two minutes until exhaustion.

There were four additional factors that were indicators of whether an individual has reached his or her max VO2 level other than the measurement of VO2 itself. They are the rating of perceived exertion (RPE), respiratory exchange ratio (RER), heart rate (HR), and blood lactate. The RPE is a scale from 1-20 that is called out by the individual based on how hard they think they’re working. A value of 20 indicates that they have reached their VO2 max and cannot continue any longer. The RER is measured by dividing the CO2 production by O2 consumption, and is an indication of which substrate an individual is using to fuel exercise, as well as whether hyperventilation is occurring. The maximum RER value is 1.15.  A person’s maximum heart rate (beats per minute) can be estimated by subtracting their age from 220. Finally, a blood lactate measurement of at least 8.0 mmol/L indicates that the max VO2 level was reached.

Practically speaking, the look on one’s face is also a pretty good indicator of when VO2 max has been reached!

Today, Casey set a record for Extreme Physiology VO2 max, at about about 67 ml/min. Kyle came in second for the class, at about 63 ml/min.

Kyle, prepping for his VO2max run.

After the VO2 max test, we immediately had our finger pricked to draw blood to measure hematocrit and hemoglobin (Hb) and blood lactate concentration. Hematocrit is the proportion of the blood volume taken up  by red blood cells. The normal range for men is between 38.8% and 50%, and the normal range for women is between 34.9% and 44.5%. To perform a hematocrit, blood was collected in a capillary tube and centrifuged. The resulting tube had three layers; from most dense (lowest) to least dense (highest) they were composed of red blood cells, white blood cells + platelets, and plasma. Hematocrit is calculated by dividing the height of the red blood column by the total sample column height. Hemoglobin concentration and blood lactate are both measured by collecting a drop of blood into a pipette and placing it into an analyzer. The normal range for hemoglobin concentration in men is 13.8 – 17.2 g/dL; and the normal range in women is 12.1 – 15.1 g/dL. A normal resting blood lactate concentration for both men and women is about 1 mmol/L. However, since we were assessing whether  VO2 max had been reached, we were looking for values above mmol/L.

Lizzie collecting and compiling hematocrit data

After all the VO2 max tests were completed, Dr. Sweeney gave a lecture about hematocrit and the effect of altitude on hematocrit levels. At high altitudes, hematocrit increases and dehydration may occur if water intake is not increased, because more urine is produced. For about 90 days after living at high altitude, the hematocrit levels will be elevated compared to baseline at lower elevation levels.

Once we were all done at the lab, Geena, Lizzy, Brian, Dave, and Cameron and I explored the downtown U of Arizona area and stopped for coffee at a combination coffee shop/hookah lounge. We also bought some U of A apparel at a school store, and tried to get into one of the many stadiums at the university. We walked into part of a basketball practice, which was the highlight of Brian’s day. Meanwhile, Kyle and Casey went for a very ambitious run to find a gym. We got a new van, but it wasn’t as good as the old van. After a delicious dinner of salmon, string beans, and brown rice, we tested out our bikes for our ride the following day.

First Day Fun

Today was our first full day of Extreme Physiology 2017, so we took the students on a hike at Chiricahua National Monument in Willcox, AZ. Covering 12,025 acres, this monument was established in 1924 so that the 27-million-year old rock pinnacles (called “standing up rocks” by the Chiricahua Apache in the 1500-1800s) would be protected. The pinnacles were formed when the Turkey Creek volcano had a massive eruption, forming the pinnacles as superheated particles of ash melted and molded together. As time passed, water, wind, and lichen have cracked and smoothed the rock into the picturesque pinnacles we see today.

Chiricahua National Monument is considered a “sky island” because it’s rock pinnacles tower over miles of flat and slightly rolling desert and, interestingly, the animals that inhabit this mountainous area cannot tolerate the heat of the desert that surrounds it, so they are confined to the higher, cooler pinnacles which collectively compose an “island” in the middle of a sea of desert sand, cacti, and mesquite trees.

From the Visitor Center, we were able to access the trailhead and begin our trek on the Lower Rhyolite Canyon trail (the term rhyolite refers to gray rock made from superheated volcanic ash particulates melting together) sporting several layers of clothing to keep us warm in the chilly air, and carrying plenty of food and water in our backpacks.

The trail passed by a creek bed, where we could see lingering damage from the 2011 fire that tore through the region. Many tree trunks were still covered in soot.
The trail quickly turned more challenging as we started to ascend. As we trudged up an incline littered with large rocks to step up and over, several of us had worked up a sweat and needed to pause briefly to take our jackets off. A little later we encountered a few switchbacks, and stopped to take our first group photo at one of them.
Continuing on, we passed yucca and prickly pear cacti and stole glances of giant rock pinnacles as we navigated over patches of ice, finally reaching the Sarah Deming trail. This trail gains 880 feet over about 1.5 miles, so we mostly focused on breathing as we gained altitude. We came to an open area where another group was having a snack, so we also took a little break here to chat with them, enjoy the views, and climb on some of the rocks.

We said our good byes then huffed and puffed our way to the junction of the Heart of Rocks loop and Balancing Rock trails as we continued to ooooh and ahhhh at the beautiful rock formations.
We traveled along part of the Balancing Rock trail to get a nice, close look at it and then we returned to the Heart of Rocks loop.
This loop took us past a variety of interesting rock formations and yielded breathtaking panoramic views of distant mountains. Near “Thor’s hammer” we had lunch, basked in the warm sun, and took another group shot.
After completing the loop, we headed back down the Sarah Deming and Lower Rhyolite Canyon trails at a blistering pace, as every step brought us closer to a delicious chili and cornbread dinner.


Final Impressions…

So, I’m assuming if you’ve read all of our blogs and have gotten this far, you’re either our parents or you’re really interested in this course. My advice: take it, but let me tell you what you’re in for. You will be pushed and challenged to do strenuous activities over the course of four weeks. Yet, you will also be able to understand everything your body is going through. Such as: did you know you will grow more capillaries? You will bike 30 plus miles and somehow not die and still be able to walk afterwards. You will be given machetes and still return with all of your limbs. You will hike for miles and miles but the view at the top will always be worth it. You will learn the rules of biking with traffic and just when you thought your seat was high enough it’s probably not. You may or may not get second breakfast. You will learn that kayaking is actually all in your core. You will end up actually enjoying getting lost because trust me, you will get lost. So, take the plunge and don’t worry… it’s all in the waiver.

Virginia – For the EP NEPA Crew – signing off…

Impressions – Week 3

  • This week was very exciting. Everything we did was not only physically exhausting but also breathtakingly beautiful.  Each day keeps getting more eventful. I am constantly amazed at how much there is to do around our area. I look forward to this upcoming week of testing and I am curious to see how my results play out. This course has definitely affected my summer for the better.
  • This week was pretty good. The bike ride on Monday was intense but rewarding. The terrain on Moosic Mountain was really cool, and I liked learning about the controlled burns and the barrens. The Mount Minsi hike was “vigorous” in some parts but mostly enjoyable, and the history was interesting to hear. I really enjoyed chopping the Japanese knotweed, and I think I found my zombie apocalypse weapon of choice. This week sucked a little because Tara wasn’t there, but overall it was pretty good.
  • The bike ride through Clarks Summit was difficult, but aside from this, all the other events this week were good. The views at Mount Minsi were exceptional, and I liked the trails at Moosic Mountain. The work at Sweeney beach was fun, as it was easy to see the direct impact of our labors on the shoreline, though given the knotweed’s shockingly fast rate of regrowth, it may have been an exercise in futility. Overall, the week provided some of the course’s best experiences to date.
  • Week 3 was a lot of fun. I got to re-experience one of my greatest outdoor achievements as well as learn something new about the city I’ve lived in all my life. One of the cool things about this course is that you never know what you’re going to expect. All of the different people we meet each tell us a piece of the puzzle. Bernie McGurl helped me realize that when he made it all come together. You never really think about what’s involved in order to conserve and protect nature for enjoyment. A lot of it is taken for granted and it’s really cool to see the process and meet the people that fought for it!IMG_1941

Day 12 – Service Day at Sweeney Beach on the Lackawanna River

Seeing that we attend a Jesuit university that cultivates men and women for others, this class wouldn’t be complete without a service day.  For the day, we spent hours at the Lackawanna River’s Sweeney Beach trying to put a dent in the elimination of the Japanese knotweed – a highly aggressive invasive plant – that has plagued the beach.

Lackawanna River Conservation Association Exec. Dir. Bernie McGurl with the EP NEPA crew
Lackawanna River Conservation Assoc. Exec. Dir. Bernie McGurl with the EP NEPA crew

Bernie McGurl shared with us a small portion of his trove of geographic and historical knowledge on all things Lackawanna – maybe even on all things.  It was interesting to hear him pull together all the different elements of local history that we had come to learn of in bits and pieces in the previous weeks, such as the Tocks Island Dam controversy that ultimately led to the creation of the Delaware Water Gap National recreation area and the prescribed fires used to reclaim the ecology of a number of local lands. He told us how Sweeney Beach was named after the Sweeney brothers paving company located nearby.
After Bernie finished – well, not quite finished – we were handed gloves, brand new machetes, and we turned toward the knotweed. We split up so that we were in no ones “blood circle” and took on the weed. We chopped, “raked”and grunted for a couple hours with a hoagie break in between. Gared almost lost a finger in the process… It was a successful day and a great way to end the last week of activity before we returned to the human performance lab.

A day well spent tackling the notorious knotweed
A day well spent tackling the notorious knotweed

Virginia, for the EP NEPA crew…

Day 11 – Delaware Water Gap – Mt. Minsi Hike

The class presented PowerPoints on various NY Times articles on exercise in the morning. After these concluded, we drove to Mount Minsi at the Delaware Water Gap.
IMG_2028IMG_0999After a brief lecture from Ranger Michelle Stevens, we were to make our way up the mountain. This is Michelle’s second year at the recreation area. She is responsible for community outreach activities and some programming, and as she stressed, she spends more time behind a desk than outdoors after accepting her promotion.

After a vigorous, challenging, stimulating, and eye opening, yet somehow relaxing journey up the mountain over many rocks, the class finally arrived at the peak and stopped for lunch with a beautiful view of the valley.

EP NEPA crew with Extreme Physiology 2015 alumna Marissa D'Avignon (center)
EP NEPA crew with Extreme Physiology 2015 alumna Marissa D’Avignon (center)

When Ranger Stevens made it to the top, she explained how the area was originally going to be flooded by constructing a dam. The land was seized from the residents by eminent domain, causing much tension between them and the government. Grassroots activists halted this project, and the land was converted to a federal recreation area, retaining its original natural beauty.
IMG_0995Ranger Stevens asked the class to each think of one word or phrase to describe the adventure on their way back down. (All the words are contained in the first sentence of the last paragraph.) Her own word was “sweaty.” The hike covered 4.5 miles with 1100 feet of ascent. The class completed it in 2.5 hours.

Eva, for the EP NEPA crew…IMG_2029