Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Covering ground

When it comes to preparing for a long-distance bikepacking event or tour, long days in the saddle are a requisite part of physical and mental training. I'm not sure anyone has figured out an effective way around this yet — at least, not without significant butt, back, and leg pain. No matter how meticulously fine-tuned your machine of a body is, it still needs to adjust to being all hunched over and turning pedals continuously hour after long hour. But ... I've found ... eventually they do. And the results are wonderfully freeing. You find yourself thinking increasingly about "where can I ride today?" The sky (and daylight hours) are the limit! 

For obvious reasons of daylight hours ... and money ... relative proximity to where I reside is also a limit. But my goal for the next few weeks is to put in at least one, hopefully two longish rides every week, with a sub-goal to explore as many corners of the Santa Cruz Mountains as I can manage. I don't want to just ride the same two worn-out routes every week. I want to see new places. Enjoy some day tours. That's what bikes are for. The map shows the three routes I rode since last Monday — the left is my "Santa Cruz Century," the middle is a gut-buster of a gravel extravaganza that I called the "Quicksilver Grinder," and the right is a somewhat failed exploratory loop around Loma Prieta summit. I was able to cover quite a few new-to-me miles, not to mention a large cross-section of this little mountain range by the sea. 

Liehann joined for the Quicksilver Grinder. I warned him that at our comfortable day pace, this 70-mile loop was going to take nine or ten hours. I'm not sure he believed me, but meanness sets in quick. Two 2,500- and 3,000-foot climbs are packed with 16-percent-plus grades, and the second is on loose gravel, exposed to the hot sun, with rapacious little flies hovering in an insanity cloud. Six miles up the Priest Rock Trail in Sierra Azul took two hours, and I only actually hiked about a hundred meters — most of the time I was pedaling at < 3 mph. I relish in this sort of thing — spun out on some hot dirt road, drenched in sweat, clawing at the flies buzzing my ears, only to arrive at the summit with a cool breeze wafting through the brush, look out over the valley, and think, "Ah, that was so worth it!" Why do I think it was so worth it? That's a bit more difficult to articulate than the reasons why I thought it was hard. 

My accurate time estimate put us in Quicksilver in the late afternoon. I've been to Quicksilver once before and I remember the park having hills. Compared to El Sereno and Sierra Azul, Quicksilver is pancake flat, and Liehann and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening spin. We still had to ride 25 miles back through hilly suburban streets to get home, and that was admittedly less fun. We did, however, navigate the entire route solely with paper maps that had no street or trail names listed. I managed to keep the GPS turned off the entire time. It was a win on multiple levels. 

On Sunday I went for a run with Beat. He is not so interested in long day rides or tours right now (I'm still working on him in this regard), but it's still nice to get outside together. I am still adjusting — I would say not well — to California heat. I suppose I could adjust my habit of working out in the late afternoon, but morning workouts have never gone well for me, regardless of temperature. Still, I struggle when the mercury climbs above 80, and Sunday's run kept me drenched. I managed to suck down two liters of water in two hours. Drinking lots of water is one of the things I do to cope with heat, and it's not necessarily a positive thing. My head feels better but my body has to slosh through a lot of liquid while shedding salt. I basically need to figure out a strategy of not carrying so much water that I drink too much, while still having enough to stay hydrated and not run dry (which tends to freak me out.) Still, it was a beautiful afternoon, and Beat was happy with a mellow pace. 

I blocked out Monday afternoon for my second long ride. Luckily this afternoon was overcast and cool, and I had mapped out an exciting new route near a 3,700-foot mountain called Loma Prieta. The problem with creating new routes from maps and quick Google searches is that I can never be certain if my route is passable. In Alaska and Montana, the question was always, "Does this road or trail still exist or is it completely overgrown?" In California, the question is, "Is this road or trail open and legal?" The answer is usually no.

I ran into several closed signs (somewhat vaguely worded, I decided to interpret them as just prohibiting vehicles rather than bikes), and then finally a locked gate on Loma Prieta. I wasn't even planning to go to the top of the mountain, just around it. But my whole loop depended on that connection, so I had to revise. Without a GPS line to follow or maps, I struck out along a sandy road that rolled along a ridge. The steep up-and-down with sweeping views of Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley proved to be a lot of fun despite a "no bikes" sign that someone had dubiously posted on their own property next to this public road. I descended a long way through a redwood canyon and ended up in the valley somewhere near Watsonville, meandering aimlessly because I didn't have a map. The only thing my GPS was really good for at that point was outlining the location of the sea. Luckily, vague memories pushed me toward Corralitos and Eureka Canyon, where I was able to find my way back up to Highland. I considered a quick jaunt around the downhill trails at Demo Forest, but remembered that even one loop there takes 90 minutes, and this ride was already pushing six hours, which is all I had blocked out for it.

I do love day touring. Exploring new places helps all of the hours and miles pass quickly, and before I know it, my butt is in excellent shape for some real distance. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost. So lost.

I am working on improving my navigational skills. It is a terrifying prospect. In my early 20s, I leaned on friends to handle much of the route-finding on backpacking trips through Utah's canyon country. By my late 20s, I was leaning on GPS. I had my Atlas and USGS topographic maps to piece together mountain excursions in Juneau, bikepacking trips in Utah, and jeep road explorations in Montana — but GPS was always there to lend a friendly screen as I stared bewildered into the tree- or fog-obscured wilderness. Orienteering sounded to me like a not fun sport. Constant focus and translation of maps and non-specific gadgets like compasses and altimeters took away all of the fun of hiking. I like to just hike and look up. What's so wrong with that?

Lately I have been spending more time looking at maps and am beginning to read up on orienteering techniques. Completely unrelated to my map study, on Thursday I set up a plan to meet a friend in Berkeley in the late afternoon. In an effort to beat what can often be horrific traffic, I left two hours early and figured I could kill some time writing at a coffee shop. But then I thought it sounded better to head to Tilden Park for a quick, maybe hour-long run. I'd run with Ann in Tilden Park before, and I knew the general layout and a few specific trail sections. My car's GPS was not so helpful in finding a known trailhead; after accidentally crossing the first half of the Bay Bridge (yeah, I suck at freeway navigation, too), I meandered somewhat aimlessly toward the hills until I happened upon an entrance to the park. I looked at the clock. I still had time.

The trailhead post offered free trail maps. I studied the lines and contours and determined what looked like a great five- or six-mile loop, climbing up to a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and following a creek back to the trailhead. Easy Peasy.

Disorientation set in within a half mile. There were twisty turns and unmarked trail junctions, and yet somehow I made it to the ridge, ran along the smooth and comforting rollers with lots of landmarks in view, located the turn 2.5 miles in, and dropped into the canyon. After a half mile of twisty turns through the woods, I wasn't exactly sure whether I was running west or south, or whether I was even on a mapped trail. There weren't that many other trails on the map, but there seemed to be plenty of junctions. Yes, I get it. Maps are sort of useless without a compass. Another quarter mile across a rocky creek bed and back up a steep hillside had me questioning whether I'd even started where I thought I'd started, if I was still somewhere in Berkeley, or maybe space-time had transported me to southern Oregon or an oaken hillside in the year 1886. I mean, when you feel lost, you feel lost. The ridge was still up there somewhere, so I took the first opportunity to veer onto a fire road — not signed — and began to climb up a steep, grassy hillside.

Of course the climb was about a thousand feet. Of course I ran out of water. Of course I was behind schedule. I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend — not only to inform her I'd be late, but also hopeful that if I described my surroundings, she could tell me where I was — but there was no reception. Maybe I had been transported to 1886! But no, there were the shimmering skyscrapers of San Francisco. How the hell can I be lost in Berkeley, California? How have I gone so many years and so many adventures on my own, while remaining so bad at orientation and navigation?

Finally I gained a summit with a view of San Pablo Reservoir. This was the right ridge. I just needed to find my original route. The fireroad turned in the wrong direction, and impatience had me nearly slicing through brush flourishing with poison oak, but I held off until I located an intersection. Really, not that difficult. But it's funny how panicked I become when I don't understand exactly where I am. This does not bode well for improving my navigational prowess. Not at all.

Going back the exact way I came something like five miles later wasn't even completely straightforward. I didn't remember the trail being so narrow, so steep, so brushy. Maybe I just didn't remember. Ga! By the time I stumbled back to the trailhead, I buried my face in a drinking fountain for several minutes and then sheepishly made my way through the meandering streets to my friend's house. Maybe I could tell her I got stuck in traffic and no one would ever have to know. But no, shame is probably the only way I'm ever going to get any better at this.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Weekend on the move

After several years of self-experimentation, if one were to ask me what I believe to be the best training for maximizing endurance, my answer would be back-to-back-(etc.) long days on the move, with little time for recovery in between. Doing so forces one to approach greater sustainability, while learning how to increase efficiency, more accurately interpret body signals, and build all those activity-specific slow-twitch muscles. I like to mix up my two main sports (trail running and cycling) in order to reduce repetitive motion, which, thanks to my shrinking violet attitude toward speed, has been the main catalyst of my own sports injuries over the years. (Actually, this is untrue. Clumsiness and crashing have been by far the main catalyst of my own sports injuries. Lack of natural coordination is one of the largest reasons why I have such aversion to speed.) I enjoy my cross-training volume method because it keeps me healthy for a fair number of ambitious goals while spending large amounts of time outdoors, year-round. But don't ask me how fast I can run a 5K. It is probably not a whole lot faster than one-tenth of the time I can run 50K. 

Speaking of 50K, Beat and I decided to get back on the wagon this weekend with yet another Woodside Ramble. We really enjoy running these organized fifty-kilometer trail races, which, thanks to a large and dedicated trail-running population in the larger Bay Area, happen close by nearly every weekend. They're relatively inexpensive, put together nice courses, provide useful swag (50K shirts now comprise more than half of my sports wardrobe, and race mugs and pint glasses about three-quarters of our cup collection), snacks and drinks, post-race barbecue, and a fun community. Beat makes a new friend nearly every run. I prefer to run alone for a higher percentage of the time, but I had an enjoyable chat with a woman from Calgary named Iris, with whom I share a mutual friend, Leslie in Banff. Iris was conducting her own double-trouble weekend after running the Lake Sonoma 50-miler on Saturday. 

Beat and I look a little roughed up in the starting-line photo, for good reason. We both felt significantly sleepy, nauseated, sluggish ... I haven't felt worse before a run in a long time. That's another training benefit of signing up for racing events — it motivates you to get out there regardless of how terrible you feel, and that's how you learn that things usually get better if you just give it time. 

This Woodside Ramble was tough for me because I haven't run, actually run, more than eight miles in one stretch since before the Iditarod Trail Invitational, now nearly two months ago. I love running the trails in these parks (Huddart and Wunderlich), but I was nauseated, slightly bonked because I wasn't eating due to nausea, and severely lacking in mojo during this run. Many times, even on descents, I caught myself unconsciously slowing to a walk because blah, running. I probably would have quit due to lack of interest if I'd just been out on my own time, and I'm glad I had the self-motivating perimeters of the race to stay in it. It's satisfying to learn that even "blah" legs are usually plenty strong, and the "spring slump" I've come to expect is likely less related to real physical setbacks than it is a simple failure of mojo. It's hard for me to return from Alaska to the heat and more routine outdoors opportunities of my home in California. I do enjoy it here, but any return to routine takes a period of adjustment after more engaging adventures. 

Speaking of mojo recovery, I got up bright and (not so early) Monday morning for an exciting road route I mapped out a few months ago and never got around to riding, a "Santa Cruz Century." I bumped the long ride back to Monday rather than Saturday, because I was scared enough of trying to run fifty kilometers that I wanted to do it on relatively fresh legs. This loop from my house weighed in at 105 miles with 11,200 feet of climbing, and covered quite a few new-to-me roads. I love riding secondary roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains for their narrow corridors, lack of traffic, and scenic settings. I tend to forget about frequent 15+ percent grades, teeth-rattling broken pavement, relentless hairpin turns, and surprising (for a Bay Area road route) lack of services. On a hot day like Monday (84 degrees) I actually have to haul three liters of water and most of the day's food. I only expected one gas station stop, in Felton.   

Christmas tree farm on Skyline Ridge. A bit like riding through Alaska's Farewell Burn, but about 100 degrees warmer with much prettier trees. 

Zaynte Creek. Much of the road cuts a precarious side-slope above a steep gorge, with aforementioned broken pavement and hairpins. I am not brave on skinny tires by any stretch of the imagination, and knotted up all the muscles in my shoulders while brake-throttling the descent. 

I stopped in Felton to fill up my water bladder with ice and buy a package of Famous Amos cookies and cheese pretzel Combos (I make the strangest gas station food choices on bike tours. I usually question them the moment I step outside.) I didn't eat anything right away because the heat was bearing down and my stomach was feeling iffy again. After Felton, I immediately had to start up another 2,000-foot climb on the relentless grades of Felton Empire Road. Ooof. 

I continued climbing through the redwood forest on Ice Cream Grade, and arrived at this small mesa that was much drier than the surrounding region, with sandstone cliffs and sparse fir trees. It looked a lot like the high desert mesas of Northern New Mexico. It's fascinating how widely climate zones can vary in short distances in this region. Spring was just beginning to arrive, with ferns emerging from the brown brush. 

It was a swift drop to the coast, with an impressive headwind blasting down Highway One. Northwest is the prevailing wind; I should have anticipated it, but I did not. At this point I was feeling fairly shattered, was looking forward to some flat miles, and was not thrilled to realize that the 25-30 mph headwinds would demand a harder fight than much of the climbing, and it was going to go on like this for the better part of 25 miles. Oooof. 

A little jog over Swanton Road allowed me to escape the coast but not the wind. It was an idyllic setting though — a shallow but narrow canyon filled with strawberry farms and happy-looking horses. 

I could not wait to turn east and start climbing into the mountains again. Even climbing a 15-percent grade is better than fighting strong headwinds on a highway. I started having similar urges to my walk breaks during the Woodside Ramble, when the legs just wanted to give up and do something — anything — else. Here's where the mantra "shut up legs" comes in handy; "you're not that weak, stop pretending and keep pedaling."

 I had this delusion that I could wrap up this ride in eight hours because, "road century." But the effort was not easier mile-for-mile than mountain biking, and with breaks the duration of the ride was creeping closer to ten hours. Ah well. It was a long climb out of Pescadaro and Alpine roads, with a 700-foot descent that I conveniently forgot about.

At least there was a nice sunset to reward staying out late.

And then the moon came out; I just missed the lunar eclipse. It was a few hours later. I expected to feel more tapped out toward the hundred-mile mark, but emerging darkness perked me up, I finally got down the ham sandwich I had been carrying all day, and the reality is I could have gone quite a bit farther. That's both the benefit and technique of building "forever pace," in my experience. The ability to keep going is the ability to keep seeing and experiencing.