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. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Iditarod playlist

Someone recently asked me about the music I listened to during my recent races — an Iditarod playlist. Listening to music while exercising, training, or racing outdoors is a controversial subject. Some people are adamantly against it, and those who object to racing playlists often carry the assumptions that those who need music are emotionally weak, bored, or trying to drown out fatigue and pain. They accuse us of shutting out the world, but I don't see it that way at all. I don't use music to shut out experiences; I use it to enhance them. I connect with music much in the same way I connect with wilderness, and in my view, music and outdoor experiences intensify each other in equal parts. 

 I don't listen to music all of the time — perhaps not even most of the time during a multiday effort — but I still consider it a vital part of my experience. As such, I carried four iPod Shuffles for the 350-mile trek to McGrath, all loaded up with different playlists. There was one Shuffle that I filled days before the race with mostly new-to-me music, and a few of those songs resonated deeply during the Iditarod. It became by far my favorite Shuffle, and I ended up just recharging that one (with a battery-powered charger) and listening to it throughout the seven days I was out on the Iditarod Trail. Although there were more than 200 songs on that Shuffle and well over 800 total, if I were to pick an "Iditarod playlist," this would be it. Included are photos Beat took during our time together on the trail. 


"Black Out Days," Phantogram

If I was looking for two ongoing themes in my favorite songs during difficult endurance efforts, most are either outright silly or high-energy yet tinted with sadness. I suppose it makes sense. Emotions can be greatly exaggerated out on the trail. Music gave shape to the melancholy, while at the same time outlining an underlining joy. I remember this Phantogram song first came on during the first night of the journey, as we crossed the Dismal Swamp beneath green waves of Northern Lights. The moon was out and the trail was distinct enough that I could turn off my headlamp and walk through the darkness, gazing over my shoulder at the aurora for a long while. I often sang out loud when the lyrics resonated: "If I could paint the sky; Would all the stars shine a bloody red?"


"Reflektor," Arcade Fire

The entire Iditarod Trail is lined with reflective route markers, either permanently affixed to trees and tripods, or tied around wooded lath in the snow. During the long winter nights, these reflectors capture even the dim light of headlamps from a long distance away. Finger Lake, at mile 135, is a checkpoint at the end of a long series of frozen swamps. All of these swamps look the same, and it's the kind of place where you think you've arrived about three hours before you're actually there. As we made our way through the interminable swamps, every distant reflective marker somehow convinced me it was the lights of the lodge. Of course "Reflector" provided the perfect score for every mild disappointment I experienced when I realized I was wrong: "I thought I found a way to enter. It's just a reflector. I thought I found a connector. It's just a reflector." At one point, Beat was several hundred yards ahead and I indulged in singing loudly: "It's just a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! ..."

"Jump Rope," Blue October. 

"Jump Rope" is one of those songs that just landed on my iPod, and I hated it at first. It annoyed me so much. My Shuffle was usually stuffed beneath all of my clothing layers, pressed against my skin to keep the battery warm. But if I could reach it at all, I would skip this song. For whatever reason, the random song generator really liked this one; it came on a lot. One day, we were making our way over a series of snowmobile moguls on the trail and I found myself mumbling, "Up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah ... it will get hard." After that, I became hooked on the blatant motivational theme and catchy repetitiveness.


"How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?" Bombay Bicycle Club

Sometimes, amid the physical exhaustion and encompassing focus on forward motion, I imagined the Iditarod Trail as a sentient entity that would converse with me, without prompting.  This song is a good example of how I interpret my imaginary and often abstract conversations with the Iditarod Trail. I would pose a rhetorical question like the one presented in the title, and the Iditarod Trail would answer with repetitive prodding and incessant demands — "Can I wake you up? Can I wake you up? Is it late enough? Is it late enough?"


"Good 4 It," Wallpaper

This song has a line about "zombie phone" that for whatever dumb reason made me giggle every time. It also contained more resonant lyrics than that: "How to stay alive though? How the f*** should I know?"


"Leave it Alone," Broken Bells

I had a tough morning the day we traveled between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake, miles 130 to 165. Monotone clouds and light snow deteriorated to fog and moderate sleet, and then rain. The cold soaking weather, combined with dreary skies, lack of views in what I knew to be a beautiful region, and day three (or was it four) fatigue, sapped away any energy or willpower I could muster for sled-dragging and made the miles seem endless. This song was the perfect rainy day anthem. "Could it all be over now? We've seen it all the while ...  There's no dimension to the clouds ... And the moon and world around.  That's the heart of all my pain ...  cause I don't wanna go ... Oh the distant light ... in a hue we can't describe, still we know."

"Lies," Chvrches

This was a good marching song. I also imagined it as the Iditarod Trail taunting me, which the Iditarod Trail often did in my imagination. "I can sell you lies ... You can't get enough ... Make a true believer of anyone, anyone, anyone."


"I Gotta Feeling," The Black Eyed Peas


The day after it rained, we crossed over the the far side of the Alaska Range. Several days of warm temperatures absolutely scoured the already-dry region of snow, as well as a lot of its surface-coating ice. For fifty miles we hacked through knee-deep alder tangles, standing water on top of glare ice, bare dirt, roots, ankle-deep mud, wet swamps, tussocks, and shin- to knee-deep stream crossings. This wouldn't have been a terrible trail to backpack if it was a warm day in the summer, and we were carrying backpacks rather than dragging 45- and 75-pound sleds over endless obstacles. The sled-dragging part was always my weakness in this endeavor; I never became terribly strong at it in the best of conditions, and in the worst I was absolutely at my physical limit just to maintain forward motion on the steep rollers along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. We covered two miles in a good hour. In a bad hour, sometimes closer to one.

After a series of stream crossings, some of my gear had gotten wet, my shoes and socks were soaked, my sled was filled with greasy mud, my head was spinning, and I knew that the temperature could possibly drop to 30 below overnight — as it is known to do in the Farewell Burn in February. I had a complete, mucousy, blubbering breakdown spurred by paralyzing fear and frustration, that Beat was unfortunate enough to witness. Shortly afterward, iPod brought up this Black Eyed Peas song. Knowing that we were going to be spending that night sleeping on muddy ground in the Burn, with soaked feet and gear, in an area where there probably wasn't enough snow to make more water, made this song even more wistfully relatable — "I gotta feeling. That tonight's gonna be a good night." I must have repeated it eight or ten times, using the catchy beat to motivate my body to pull harder over the roots and tussocks. I sang out loud to the part where they repeated all the days of the week — "Get with us, you know what we say, say ... Party every day ... p-p-p-party every day." ... Because that's what we do on the Iditarod Trail. :)

"Last Words," Hospitality

Another haunting song that got me through some long miles. It was beautiful amid the frozen swamps, far-sweeping horizons and spindly spruce forests of the Farewell Burn.

"Army of the Damned," Lonewolf

Beat and I agree that this death metal song is the perfect anthem for walking to Nome.  But it's appropriate for all frozen-purgatory marching occasions.

"Roar," Katy Perry. 

Yeah. I pretty much had to go there.


"Team," Lorde

One the final stretch into McGrath, I operated in a dreamlike state of mind. I was slightly low on food and rationing calories, and discovered there was a peaceful place between alert and bonked, where time lost meaning, landscape features blurred, and everything seemed magical. As Beat and I traveled the wide expanse of the Kuskokwim River, we began to approach another walker who was about a mile ahead. We knew it had to be our friend Steve, who left Nikolai the previous night just as we were arriving. While in Nikolai, Steve made a phone call and learned that his father had died, and was justifiably emotional. Rather than rest in the remote village, he opted to leave not long after sunset, facing a long night on the river in order to reach McGrath and fly home. The fact that we had caught up to him many hours later, and after what had been a cold night (20 below), raised some concern. It needn't have, as Steve just needed to be alone when he left Nikolai, and had bivied for several hours on the trail. But I was worried he was distraught or in distress on top of everything else, and Beat seemed determined to catch him. We power-hiked on the verge of running for 45 minutes, and again I was at my physical limits on rationed calories and a child-like emotional state. During that hard march, Lorde's "Team" seemed to score the strange combination of stress and bliss. "And you know, we're on each other's team."

"Happy," Wrens

The temper tantrum that erupted while listening to this song is one of my most prominent memories from my first trip to McGrath in 2008. I put it on the playlist of all four of my iPods for that reason, but in the strange way Shuffles work, "Happy" did not come up once until the final day — in almost the same spot as my 2008 emotional eruption on the Kuskokwim River. Hearing this song in a similar location but very different context underscored just how different my journey had been this time around. It was a fitting finale to my 2014 playlist as well.