Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The week of gloom 'n doom

 Beat and I leave for Alaska on Friday amid grim trail and weather reports. I can't believe it's been nine years since I first fretted about "Iditaswim." (I also appreciate how this blog documents all of my famous last words, including this gem from 2006: "I'm fairly certain I could walk 100 miles given 48 hours to do so. Not that I'm about to enter this race in the foot division.")

Still, spending a healthy portion of the month of February obsessing about conditions along the Iditarod Trail has become a time-honored tradition that I can't seem to get away from, no matter how much else in my life changes. The outlook of 2015 is particularly gloomy, as illustrated by this collage of photos I compiled from Iron Dog snowmachiners and others who have been out on the trail in the past few days:

I'm currently anxiously awaiting Iron Dog Snowmachine Race reports from the coast, where I hope to embark on my 250-mile tour starting March 15. But even before then, I was planning to ride out to Flathorn Lake to cheer for the foot racers on Sunday (upper left) and venture out toward Skwentna for a shakedown ride later in the week (middle photos), and I really don't want to think about Beat attempting to cross open leads and fast-flowing overflow on big rivers like the South Fork of the Kuskokwim (lower left.) Since he took time off in March anyway, I told him we should trade in our tickets and go somewhere else, maybe New Zealand. He didn't seem to think I was serious. Why wouldn't I be serious? Really, what is wrong with us?

At least my endurance running/heat training here in California is going well. If only I had a goal to attach to this. Saturday brought my third 50-kilometer run in three weeks, the Montara Mountain 50K in Pacifica. The course is quite the quad-buster, requiring an ascent to the 1,800-foot summit of Montara Mountain, twice, and another loop with two big climbs, three times, so you compile this 7,000-foot monster with twisty descending. The event organizer, Coastal Trail Runs, calls it their second toughest course; I don't know which is the first, although I'm guessing it involves Mount Diablo. Anyway, it's a hard race, and my legs were good and tired from loading them with long runs and fat bike rides for several weeks (in past experiences, this "binge training" is what works best for me when preparing for multi-day efforts. Load them up, and soon that hazy after-50K sensation becomes the new normal and I'm okay with keeping it up for days or weeks.)

It was another warm weekend, and these brushy coastal hills are frequently exposed to the hot sun. Steep terrain also often shelters canyons from the sea breeze, so they heat up like an oven. I resorted to what is usually a mid-summer strategy of freezing a two-liter bladder of water and carrying a block of ice on my back, and still suffered in the heat. My stomach went sour and I slowed down on the second climb of Montara, fearing I might have to "walk it in." Near the top I pulled out my trekking poles for the upcoming rocky descent, and also for proper "White Mountains training," and began to perk up. Something about those trekking poles really seems to boost my spirits ... maybe because they remind me of the long slogs that I love so much.

I ended up with a 6:30 finish, which was good enough for third woman in this small local race. The White Mountains 100 is in just over a month, and I'm still on the fence about flying out to Fairbanks for the pre-race meeting. That decision will depend on what happens with Beat's journey on the mushy Iditarod Trail, as well as my own adventures in March. But right now I feel well-conditioned and excited about the prospect of a hundred-mile run in the Whites, and I hope I have a shot.

I got in one last long ride with Snoots the following day when my friend Jan invited me to join him for trail explorations in the East Bay. I expected more of a Sunday amble, but a combination of map navigation, plenty of short but brutal climbs, and tired legs stretched this ride into the "almost epic" range. We started at Lake Chabot and spent nearly six hours contouring grassy hills, rolling through eucalyptus groves, crossing cattle pastures and descending into shaded redwood forests. We enjoyed sweeping views of the canyons and only crossed a couple of small roads. It's hard to believe this whole region is a sliver of open space in the middle of the greater Oakland metro area.

Beat was in a bad mood when I returned home, as the slushy barrage of gloom and doom really began to flow through various social media outlets. We can only wait and see what next week holds, as is the case every year. Of course I just want him to stay safe, and hopefully have the great adventure he spends eleven months dreaming about, every year. What is wrong with us? I don't know, but the years keep passing by, and I still wouldn't trade it for anything else.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hot town, summer in the city

 The big news this week has been the Iditarod Dog Sled Race's decision to move the race start to Fairbanks, which effectively cuts out the first half of the route and redirects dog teams on the Tanana and Yukon rivers all the way to Kaltag, some 650 miles into the Iditarod Trail. It's a big deal for Beat and others in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which relies on the big-money events — including the Iron Dog smowmachine race — to break and maintain the trail. Without these races, the Iditarod Trail is little more than a loosely linked series of reflective markers affixed to trees, and wooden tripods. Whether or not any trail is actually broken underfoot depends on the whims of local snowmachiners, such as trappers and hunters, who might travel through before the cyclists and runners get there.

The Iditarod races were set to follow the southern route this year. After the dog sled race's announcement, the ITI made the quick decision to instead send racers on the northern route, which is at least used by Iron Dog (the snowmachiners leave on February 21. The ITI starts March 1.) The runners and cyclists will reconnect with the dog sled route on the Yukon River in Ruby, shortly before the dogs veer off the river to take a spur to the north that extends their race to a full thousand-mile distance. It will be the goal of ITI racers to *not* take this 200-mile spur, and also to avoid five miles of open river that the Iron Dog will detour around on a longer inland trail. Even in the first 350 miles, there is still Rainy Pass and a large segment of the Farewell Burn that are rarely traveled, and Iron Dog bypasses Rainy altogether. This places all the trailbreaking load — including slashing brush, moving deadfall, and building ice bridges — on the ITI and its grassroots race budget. If there's bad weather, Rainy Pass might not be broken at all, and it sounds like conditions on the western side of the Alaska Range are even more rugged than last year.

Beat of course is extremely excited at the prospect of an even higher "wilderness factor" than recent years. I wonder if he's already forgotten what it's like to break trail through hip-deep snow — which he has done, among many other grueling tasks where forward motion is hardly a given. But if there is one constant of the Iditarod Trail, it's that you can't count on anything.

These Iditarod decisions don't really affect my plans to ride from Unalakleet to Nome starting on March 15. The dogs will still go through that region at roughly the same time — I planned my window so, hopefully, the bulk of the dog teams will be ahead, as well as most of the cyclists, and the runners will be somewhere close behind. I'm still moving forward with prep for this trip: Reading through trail notes, mulling potential stopping points, planning two post office drop boxes, fretting over long-term weather reports and gear. My trip is nearly a month away, but there's still plenty to fret about.

The dog sled race is moving north because, even more so than last year, there are long sections of the route with no snow cover at all. Now that the Polar Vortex has moved in, pushing Arctic air into the eastern side of the continent, Alaska is undergoing another extended thaw. Last year, Beat and I discussed this changing weather pattern and the implications it might have for future Iditarod ventures. Of course he doesn't have weather forecasting expertise or a crystal ball, but he predicted a lot of has ended up happening: late snow, the dog sled race abandoning the Iditarod Trail, and a persistent stretch of above-freezing temperatures and rain in February. If Polar Vortex becomes an annual pattern, this could be the new norm across the wintry places of the West — low snow, extended thaws punctuated by deep cold snaps, more volatile storms and less predictable weather.


What this means for California is winter passing us by altogether. Endless summer, for real. Sure, we might still see an increase in pineapple express storms, which will help temper the almost complete loss of snowpack in the Sierras. But the people and plants are still going to bake and burn under year-round summer temperatures. I try to seek comfort from this unsettling notion by imagining that Beat and I make our escape to Alaska before it gets really bad, but this might not happen "B4ITMELTS."

Steve and Beat wanted to get in one last long run before the ITI, so we set out for a fantastic 50-kilometer loop starting near Saratoga Gap on Sunday. This route follows loamy trails through a series of parks above Pescadero Creek, rolling along grassy ridges and shaded redwood forests. With the exception of a handful of road crossings and a short jaunt through the campground at Portola State Park, it's all dirt and about 95 percent singletrack. I was quite excited for this run, even with my previously mentioned 15-percent chance of actually getting into the event I'm supposedly training for, the White Mountains 100. Even still, I signed up for the Montara Mountain 50K next weekend, which means three 50K runs in three weeks.

It's all good training, but if I wanted truly useful bike expedition training, I would go push my fat bike up hills. I actually did this on Wednesday, riding Snoots to the Table Mountain Trail and engaging in a truly awful push, gaining 2,000 feet of elevation with gooey mud collecting on the tires, baking temperatures in the shade, and seemingly hundreds of black flies swarming in my face. I spun over to Sanborn for a swoopy fun descent on the John Nicholas Trail, but it was not enough swoopy fun to repair my disillusionment about pushing my bike here in muggy California. Aw, running is good training too.

Back to the Pescadero loop. Temperatures climbed into the low 80s on a breezeless afternoon. I'm not the best in heat when I'm acclimated, but in mid-February when I'm trying to prepare for Alaska adventures, summer weather comes as a particularly unwelcome challenge. Humidity was relatively high and we were all drenched in sweat less than a mile into the run. We struggled to keep our core temperatures down with sips from a three-liter bladder of water that needed to last, because there was only one reliable water stop along this entire route, at mile 23. Steve came down with stomach problems early, and occasionally needed to sit down on the trail when he became dizzy.

Several of these trails are not all that popular with hikers and off-limits to cyclists, which means they don't see much maintenance. Recent wind and weather events left them battered, with frequent large downed trees, piles of twigs and branches strewn about, and several inches of dried leaves covering all manner of foot-catching obstacles. Beat declared the soft carpet of leaves to be "good Alaska training." I found the conditions to be mentally taxing, although engaging. Even walking was tricky at times, and running at all meant having to think fast, because I stumbled frequently. The heat and technical trails forced us to keep the pace slow, which was good for legs that were already tired from a fairly ambitious week of training. I actually felt pretty good for most of the run, despite the withering heat. I love to visit these tranquil forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I plan to keep the White Mountains dream alive with one more week of aggressive run training, before I switch all of my focus to preparing my mind and gear for the coast tour. Every so often the thought pops into my head that this Unalakleet to Nome ride is something I'm actually going to try, which is ... unsettling. Especially when these thoughts come as I placidly walk to the store beneath the hot February sun. "It might be a hurricane of ferocious cold. I have not even the remotest notion of what that's going to be like." But these dreams — dreams of intense experience and renewed perspective — are what keep me battling the encroaching gloominess of change, and what keep me striving through the endless summer. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sometimes it does get easier as you go


The night before the Golden Gate 50K, Beat came down with a fever. He was bummed because he had to miss out on the long run, and I was disappointed because these local trail races are more fun with him — even if we don't run together, there's still all the enjoyment of post-race afterglow, eating burned lentil soup and watermelon, sharing trail stories with other runners, and indulging in creaky laziness for the rest of the evening. Ah, post-50K veg-out. Is there anything better? 

Still, as usual, I didn't want to miss out on the pre-post-race fun. As I drove toward San Francisco in the morning darkness, a dam in the sky burst and torrents of rain followed. Even with wipers at full velocity, the view through windshield was a violent blur. Wind rattled the car and the city streets were eerily empty, even for a Sunday morning. I picked up Steve at a deserted bus stop. We crossed the bridge into Marin while discussing our parking and bib-pickup strategy to avoid standing forlornly in the deluge. 

This course looping around Golden Gate Recreation Area was my first-ever ultramarathon, in December 2010. The first two miles from Rodeo Beach follow a segment of the Coastal Trail that I haven't visited since, and jogging up a muddy stream with other hooded runners made me feel warm with nostalgia. "Aww, there's the old bunkers. Aww, I remember this view. Aww, I wasn't even a runner back then. Ha, I had no idea what I was in for."

We climbed Wolf Ridge into a wind tunnel, watching breakers explode out of the sea hundreds of feet below. Despite warm Rodeo Beach nostalgia, I was not feeling well, with a hollow pit in my stomach and wobbly legs. I considered whether I was developing Beat's fever, and ate some fruit snacks. Nothing seemed to boost my flagging energy. Oh well, it's going to be one of those days. I now know this feeling all too well; December 2010 was a long time ago.

(Waterlogged photos. You know that thing where your camera lens gets wet, and all of your clothing is too wet to do anything about it?) Heading out of Tennessee Valley, I started chatting with folks and followed a group of about eight runners in the wrong direction along the Pirate's Cove loop. I even wavered at the trail intersection for several seconds, analyzing course markings, arguing with a guy about it, and still deciding his inclination was the right one. (I'm terrible at reading color-coded ribbons. Give me a GPS track or even a map, and I will make better decisions than I do on ribbon-marked courses that I perhaps have even run several times.) I realized the mistake out about a mile and a half down the trail when fast runners started coming the other way, but figured since we were still running all of the same 5.6 miles of trail — only in reverse — and since we weren't in contention to win the race, it wasn't a big deal.

However, two of the women I was with became quite upset about it, and I spent most of those miles explaining why I thought our direction was the more difficult direction anyway, describing the trail ahead, and conceding the embarrassing admission that even though I studied the course map minutes before the race started, and knew these Marin Headlands trails well, I still went the wrong way. Whatever steam any of us had for the first five miles of the race sputtered out altogether in this section. We just hiked through the tepid deluge and assured other runners that we were wrong and they were right. Only after we returned to the aid station and started on the return loop — in the right direction — did it come up in conversation that the women I was running with were from Canada.

"Oh, you're Leslie's friend!" I exclaimed to Iris. "I thought you looked familiar!" Leslie is a mutual friend in Banff, and Iris and I actually spent much of last spring's Woodside Ramble 50K running together. Iris travels down from Canada once or twice a year for a warm-weather double-header, and had run a 50K in Auburn the day prior. Funny that it took us more than an hour to realize we already knew each other. We continued up Marincello Trail at a conversational pace.

Once we had cleared the crowds, I also pulled out my trekking poles, which I brought to contend with muddy descents. I love trekking poles. You know how, when you're running, there's always that lingering sensation that you're about to tip over? No? Is it just me? Well, trekking poles are my secret weapon against perceived imbalance. With stabilizers in each hand, I get a confidence boost that actually does a lot to improve my performance. I would probably use them for most of my long runs. However, I do wish I possessed better running skills, skills that don't require crutches ... and I do feel self-consciouses about the general consensus among American trail runners that once you pull out the walking sticks, you are a hiker, get out of the way slow-poke. (Note: I am a proud hiker.) For these conditions, poles seemed like a particularly good idea.

I reached the 30K point at Rodeo Beach with 4:05 on the clock. The wind was still blowing at gale force, but the rain had diminished to sprinkles and there were even hints of blue sky and sunlight to the south. Even though I had still only eaten a few Shot Bloks here and there, I was starting to feel more energetic and found new resolve. Golden Gate wasn't the easiest 50K race, with its 6,700 feet of steep climbs, muddy trails, and show-stopping wind — but I really should try to pull it off in under seven hours.

Plunging poles into mud, I propelled myself back up Wolf Ridge and down into Tennessee Valley. The aid station had since blown away, so volunteers set up a small feed station in the hatchback of one of their cars. Climbing up Marincello, I caught up to Steve, who had rolled his ankle and was limping slightly. I offered him my trekking poles but he turned them down. Although I would have gladly given them up, to be honest, I would have missed them. At this point I was feeling fresh and energetic, and credited the poles. They completed me. I powered up the trail, picking off runners one by one.

Views of the city opened up across the San Francisco Bay. I surged down the rocky trail, running an 8:xx-minute-mile pace while plunging my crutches into the mud. One of the runners I passed caught back up to me at the last aid station while I was nibbling on Shot Bloks. "That was something!" he exclaimed. "You looked like you were skiing!"

I passed about a dozen runners in the final eight miles, and most said something about my trekking poles. Contouring the ridge above Bonita Cove, the curving trail occasionally veered into wind gusts so strong that they'd stop me in my tracks, braced against a wall of air. I always had to realign myself before I could move forward again, gasping to draw oxygen into my lungs. The wind wasn't going to give an inch of respite, but it was gratifying to feel so great at the end of a long run — especially when I felt so lousy for 18 miles. Many people would give up on a bad run long before that point. I might have as well had I not committed to the 50K. You think, "I'm tired and I'm only going to become more tired if I keep running." But sometimes ... you don't. Sometimes, it really does continue to get easier as you go.

I held up my poles for the final two miles on pavement and did my best sprint to the finish, arriving in 6:33. This means I wrapped up the last difficult 20K in under two and a half hours. For doubting whether I'd even finish under seven hours at the 30K point, it felt like a decent comeback.

It's a good reminder, too, about the rewards of pushing through obstructions. Great experiences await on the other side of the wall.