Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Almost like a comeback

 I was a bundle of nerves about this 50K on Sunday, which Beat found hilarious. "How many of these have you run now?" he asked. I've lost track of my official 50K number, but I guessed I could still count the number of times I've run a Woodside event. Three different race promoters offer two events here per year, so one rolls around seemingly once a month. It's gotten to the point where the question, "What do you want to do this weekend?" can be frequently answered by, "Let's run that 50K in Woodside."

I tallied each one I could remember. "Seven," I answered. "I think this will be my eighth Woodside."

Beat and I like to participate in these events for the same reasons people go to their favorite restaurants. They're fun social outings in a familiar and pleasant setting. We get to indulge in an activity that releases a surge of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins, and drink ginger ale in a setting that elevates the taste to something like unicorn tears (Oatmeal reference.) There are friends to visit and fun people to meet. I always enjoy these events even through occasional discomfort and nagging pains, which are as natural to a trail race as indigestion at a French restaurant. But after a June bike tour across South Africa, a tight recovery period, a failed hiking race in the Alps, and a subsequent injury, it had been more than six months since my last long run, and there hadn't been all that many miles of actual "running in between. I didn't really care about going slow at Woodside, but I was scared of my LCL giving out, or buckling my knee, or IT band agony, or damn it, tripping and falling — because eating dirt is the source of nearly every running injury I acquire.

 To get my mind off pre-race jitters, Beat suggested we take the fat bikes out for a Saturday afternoon ride. He recently installed a 1x11 drivetrain on Snoots that I needed to test out, as well as contemplate gear distribution and handlebar position for the real adventures this winter — the 200K snow race in Idaho, which in itself is just a test ride for a 250-mile tour on Alaska's western coast in March. This plan is actually scary, as opposed to the Woodside Ramble 50K, which was only scary in the ephemeral sense of fleeting pains and ego-trouncing poor performances. I'm glad there's something to keep it all in perspective.

This was the Woodside Ramble 50K, somewhere around mile 15, where I was thinking, "I'm about ready to be done running now. Yup, just about ready to be done." The first ten miles actually were quite fun, and I was buzzing with happy hormones, but I admittedly started out too fast relative to my current running fitness. One problem with running a similar course eight times is knowing exactly how well I *should* be moving at any given point. There's also the fact that even with 5,000 or so feet of climbing and sections of roots and mud, Woodside is 100 percent runnable on fresh legs. So it's difficult not to berate myself for any walking, of which I did a fair amount.

Beat loves to stroll and chat during this race, and I caught up to him near mile 19, as he and his friend Tony were distracted by shared tales of past derring do. "It's all going okay," I told Beat. "But I'm working really hard for this. It feels a lot harder than usual. My hamstrings are super tight and I'm fading. I'll have to take the descents slow."

After some stalling at the aid station, Beat surged ahead and I loped along the Skyline Trail, which is my favorite part of this enjoyable course. The trail slices a narrow path along steep slope beneath towering redwood trees, winding in and out of drainages on a rolling traverse approximately a hundred feet below Skyline Ridge. Except for aforementioned sections of mud and roots, it's not all that technical, but steep drop-offs always keep me extra vigilant on this section. Despite this focus, around mile 21 I still managed to put my right foot down at a point where there was nothing beneath it. I actually ran right off the trail, in a spot where touching down on the 45-degree-plus slope could easily result in a tumble that wouldn't end until my ragdoll body slammed into the broad trunk of a coast redwood. Somehow, the side of my foot caught the edge of the hill a few inches below the trail. I instinctively rolled my ankle to dig in some toes before setting my left foot down on safety, then flailed dramatically to the left until I had both hands punched in the mulch on the steep uphill slope.

Damn, that was close. Here I am, scared of Alaska, when I'll be lucky to survive the Woodside Ramble.

And if you're wondering whether I'm still concerned about potentially worsening problems with coordination. Yes. Yes I am. I have no idea how I stepped off such a simple trail when I was deliberately focusing attention not to do so. It's still impossible to make any tangible connections to an ongoing tally of incidents. But this one left me rattled for the final ten miles, enough to not think too much about my searing hamstrings. Either way, the downhill miles were slow.

Still, the left knee and LCL performed perfectly, until that night when it was sore in the same spot that had been injured. There were a few disconcerting hours of "what have I done?," but it proved to only be superficial soreness and was gone the next day. I went out for a four-mile run Tuesday afternoon without incident, and despite 25-mph winds and rain, I managed to not stumble and fall, not even once.

It's continued to be rainy and gray all week — which I'm also enjoying as a welcome change — but the sun came out for the half day on Sunday and we enjoyed perfect weather for the Woodside Ramble. Afterward the race organizers put out a delicious spread of fresh fruit and other snacks. I was ready to sit down and stuff my face, but Beat finished ten minutes earlier and had become so chilled in the interim that we couldn't stay long — not even long enough to pick up my age group award (third! heehee.) I didn't tell Beat about my stumble because I was deeply embarrassed about it. It's kind of funny, actually, how I can be so embarrassed about something and yet feel no qualms about blurting it out to the whole world on my blog. Funny indeed. (Sorry Beat.)

Turns out anything can be treacherous, therefore every day is an adventure. I'm glad there's something to keep it all in perspective. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cry me an atmospheric river

Where did this week even go? I've been wrestling with two writing projects, in that sort of phase I think most people can relate with — the phase where everything becomes drivel and I need to step away for a while before the whole project is slashed and burned. Journalismjobs.com is a good diversion, a place I like to go to daydream about landing angst-free copy editing contracts that let me work on my own schedule. Twitter can erase a surprising number of minutes as well, for shouting at random into an echo chamber.

A college friend, Craig, came to visit from Alaska. We spent the weekend in the city doing city things — tapas at a Mexican restaurant; an afternoon at the de Young Museum of fine art; getting our exercise by walking eighteen blocks from the place where we actually found parking; being coerced into buying a 100-pack of fancy jasmine tea I didn't even want because, well, someone like me really shouldn't enter shops in Chinatown; late nights with other old friends talking about the best days that were now 15 (!) years ago; and attending the lively and harmonic Sunday services at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church (Craig is a Mormon, but joked it was fun to spend one Sunday worshiping the sound of saxophones.)

I finally booked all the reservations for Fairbanks at the end of the month, and became immeasurably excited about Christmas.

Somewhere in there I remembered I needed to train a little for this 200-kilometer snow bike race in Idaho that's just a month away. After a weekend getting fat on tapas and dumplings, I lumbered outside on Monday afternoon to climb the best tear-inducingly steep roads near my home. Redwood Gulch (ouch) to Skyline (tell me that doesn't start to hurt after 3,000 feet) to Montevina (2,000 more feet of !!!) The tires cut like knives into the mud as I ground the road bike over Montevina's dirt section with the fading light, then nearly burned out the rim brakes on a pitch dark, damp pavement descent down Bolman. There was a certain exhaustive quality to this four-hour ride that left me dangling on threads, but I was glad to put in some saddle time before the storm.

The storm. "Hellastorm." Also "stormaggedon" to the Twitterati. A forecast for a particularly strong flow of atmospheric moisture was played up heavily in the local media, and I'm not sure anyone thought it would live up to the hype. Everyone likes to joke about how Californians can't handle weather, even Californians. Even I shook my head and recalled past days of weathering "typical" storms in Juneau — being knocked off my feet by wind gusts on Gastineau Ridge, full days of constant rain, nearly swamping my car on inundated roads dammed by piles of slush, spending on evening on a moored boat on Juneau Harbor as 60-mph gusts rocked the vessel violently against the dock. There was no way hellastorm was going to be that bad.

However, it sort of was. Locally there was widespread flooding, flash floods, 80 mph gusts recorded on nearby peaks where I ride my bike frequently, and, as of 6 p.m., 3.93 inches of rain had been reported at the nearest weather station to my house, since midnight. I used to track weather reports religiously when I lived in Juneau, and I don't think I ever saw a 24-hour total over 2.5 inches. If 3.93 inches fell in downtown Seattle, it would be the second wettest day in recorded history for that city. (Juneau's record single-day rainfall is 17.38 inches. So yeah. There's that.)

But yes, stormaggedon made a dent. Even amid three years of exceptional drought.

Of course, I made a big deal about going for a run on Thursday afternoon. Not because I thought we would assert any semblance of Californian badassery by going out in hellastorm, but because I thought it would be hella fun. I even put in extra effort to pick up Liehann at Google, braving standing water and multiple collisions on Highway 85, just so he could join. Liehann, Beat, and I hit a nearly abandoned Rancho San Antonio park for good splashy lunchtime fun. The gustier wind had calmed, so we weren't too worried about trees falling on us. But there were a lot of trees already down, including two elderly oaks that we simply couldn't climb over or find a way around without risking a high-consequence hack through poison oak. Trails were inundated by shallow streams that carved deep ruts into the surface, and puddles were sometimes shin deep. Creeks that are usually dry gushed with brown rapids, and the hills were a vibrant shade of green, when prior to Thanksgiving the grass was so dry it was gray. This was the most fun I've had with running in a while, and I've been having a lot of fun with running since I took it up again post-knee injury.

Beat and I signed up for a 50K run in Woodside on Sunday, which is admittedly not a great idea since ten miles is the longest run I've completed since the Tor des Geants debacle in September. But I'm so stoked on running right now that I just can't let it go, even with that Fairbanks trip and the 200K fat bike race on the horizon. Beat expressed strong disapproval at my desire to go snowboarding in Utah, citing high-consequence injury risk, but he's surprisingly nonchalant about this 50K. Of course I don't intend to jeopardize winter plans; I'm not above quitting a 50K at the slightest tinge of knee pain. But I'm unabashedly looking forward to this Sunday run, especially since it's supposed to be nice and sunny again. 

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Wells, NV

I first sauntered into Wells, Nevada, while commuting to northern Utah for the Bear 100 in 2012. I just wanted a cheap place to crash for the night, and the Wells Motel 6 was a full $10 cheaper than the one in Elko. At the time I still had a blah view of the I-80 corridor and Northern Nevada in general, but Wells won me over with chicken dinner at this homestyle restaurant that reminded me of the Tour Divide, a boisterous older lady who talked me into buying locally produced cheese curds at the convenience store, and a vast swath of open space that only expanded as I drove north and east. Since then, I've made an effort to stop in Wells every time I roll by on the Interstate. 

 On Wednesday, I spent the first three hours of the drive listening to NPR and feeling disheartened by the state of affairs and the justice system. So I switched to an mP3 playlist that soon cycled through "April 26, 1992" by Sublime, which only reminded me that not much has changed in a generation in this regard. As Salt Lake radio faded away and Capital Public Radio out of Reno flickered in, I caught news of major flooding that was inundating streets and snarling traffic in Sacramento. My timeline had me going through that area right at rush hour, and it seemed prudent to stall for a couple of hours. I pulled into Wells for gas, I thought, "maybe I should go for a short run."

 Since I started engaging in this California/Utah commute, I've become more enamored with Nevada. The view from the highway corridors reveals a seemingly endless ripple of stunning mountain ranges amid the wide-open space of the basins. There's just so much out there, largely under the free-ranging jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest system, and I'm convinced Nevada has to be the most underrated outdoor destination in the United States. I must explore it! But I never make the time. I just zip through during drives between Utah and California, just like everyone else.

After topping off the tank, I pointed the car south and found a single road heading into mountains. I figured I'd just find a place to park and run on the road, since I didn't have any knowledge of trails in the region, and figured they'd be largely inaccessible this time of year anyway. A large barrier and a "road closed" sign blocked the road after five or so miles. I parked the Subaru, hoisted my backpack — which was still stocked with all the same stuff I hauled up Gobbler's Knob including four-day-old water — put on the Hokas, and started running.

 Oof, I struggled. Without acclimation I find myself getting noticeably more winded above 6,000 feet, and it's often the worst after a week (after which acclimation starts to kick in, and then it gets better.) I was shuffling and coughing as an "April 26, 1992" earworm taunted me. Eventually there was enough snow on the road that I had no choice but to hike, and finally stole chances to breathe and look up.

 This road is called Angel Camp Road, and it's just stunning. A fortress of castle-shaped peaks towered overhead, clouds streamed off the ridges like smoke, and the thunderous booms of unseen avalanches reverberated through the still air. I witnessed one avalanche erupt in a blast of powder in a gully below Greys Peak, and watched in trembling awe at the fury of this relatively small slide. I was in a safe zone on this road and grateful for that, as it was an invigorating experience to hear and witness these avalanches without feeling threatened by them.

I turned around after four miles. The snow was now knee-deep and reduced my "running" pace to a 35-minute-mile trudge. I put on spikes and once the snow cover diminished some, I embraced the power of gravity and let go, bounding down the hill like one of the many deer whose tracks I could see in the snow. The road snaked down the steep hillside, opening up invigorating views of the treeless basin and my tiny Subaru parked almost directly below. I ran and felt completely free, far away from the deluge and traffic that awaited once I crossed over the Sierras. 1:20 up, 0:40 down. A beautiful way to kill two hours in the midst of a thirteen-hour drive.

I have this idea to plan some kind of traverse of northern Nevada, maybe pack-biking style with mountain biking across the basins and backpacking over trail-less regions of these ranges. I could even plan to route to cross through Elko or Winnemucca so I could get a $7.99 New York steak and maybe drop a few bucks on the roulette table before heading back into the wide-open expanse. Who knows when and if I'll make this happen, but I'm already looking forward to my next visit to Wells.