Wednesday, May 27, 2015

We all try harder as the days run out

For days the Santa Cruz Mountains were enveloped in a freight train of fog, as apparently thirsty inland winds sucked moisture from the coast. I climbed into it each afternoon, Tuesday through Saturday, in a two-dimensional world where I had to squint to discern the blurry silhouettes of trees from flickering clouds. There was no context or familiarity; vertigo pulled at me as I descended through gray tunnels. I would shiver, even with a puffy coat and mittens, which was such a treat here in California in late May. The cold makes me feel alive.

I had this goal to put some hurt in the legs. Seven moderate to long days, with at least 3,000 feet of climbing each day, on up to 9,000. I felt so strong on Wednesday, chopping a minute off my PR of the mile-long, 800-foot ascent of Indian Creek trail, without even breathing hard. On Thursday I attacked Redwood Gulch on my road bike and imploded in spectacular fashion, heart beating 195 while snot and tears streamed down my neck. Near the end of this mile-long, 800-foot ascent, the fog hit my searing lungs like water on a skillet. "I have no top end, no top end at all," I thought with a smirk. I knew that single mile was going be the only reason my legs hurt at all the next day. Friday had 5,000 feet of climbing, but I took it at a more reasonable effort, and was fully recovered for Saturday's 13-mile run.

As Beat and I ascended Black Mountain into a white ceiling, I listened to the new Sufjan Stevens and Lord Huron albums and imagined I was doing something relaxing, like laying in the sauna. Cold wind licked at my clammy skin and I settled into a soothing rhythm, a place of deep breaths and dreaming about riding a motorcycle across Africa (which is what I frequently imagine when I listen to Lord Huron.) I was happily sedate, and yet I was running up a mountain. "Resting in motion," I thought. "This is resting in motion." I wondered how effectively I'd be able to employ this meditative technique when motion really became difficult. The wind-driven clouds roared past, enveloping me in their paradoxical calm.

Sunday morning we were up bright and early to drive to Oakhurst for an overnight bikepacking trip that I planned. Oakhurst is a town near Fresno, in the foothills of the Western Sierras, which I effectively chose at random. I found a vague recommendation for a touring loop, and drew a GPS track over unknown squiggles on Google Maps. I had no idea how difficult this route would be, whether it would be scenic or bland, and what the percentage of pavement to jeep road to faint forest track might be. Most people would probably do more research for weekend tour where they were effectively guiding their friends through a new place, but that is not necessarily my modus operandi. I prefer a little ignorance in my explorations, with all of the surprises and disappointments.

 I warned Beat and Liehann that I knew nothing about this route beyond some interesting topographic lines on the map and the fact it was just south of Yosemite, and hoped they didn't set their expectations too high. The initial climb was a tedious grunt, climbing 5,000 feet in 18 miles into a gray pall of storm clouds that looked lightly threatening. Air is thin at 7,500 feet for sea-level-dwellers. Still, I felt peaceful and relaxed, refusing to hurry up the hill while I rested in motion. The guys seemed to interpret this as crawling, and based on their demeanors, I was worried they were going turn around and race back to low-elevation sunshine. Slowly, the paved road began to break apart and wind its way out of the dense forest, to more open views of granite domes and jagged spires. The Sierras.

 For lunch we went for a short hike to better views on a granite ridge. The guys carried their bikes part-way for Freedom Challenge training. The wind up here was almost winter-like in its briskness, and we huddled against boulders to eat lunch.

 After riding chunky dirt, climbing some more, descending a whole bunch, and collecting many liters of water from a stream, we climbed after dark to camp on a sandy knoll where we hoped the views would be nice in the morning. I was trying out my new Outdoor Research Helium bivy for the first time, as well as a new pair of nylon three-quarter running tights (I found the bivy cozy and slept well, better than I usually do when bikepacking, actually. I also decided I prefer no chamois during longer rides, and did not miss the wet diaper feel and occasional pinching on sensitive parts.) We used up four liters of water (which Beat carried) making multiple hot chocolates and dinner. Liehann raved about his Mountain House lasagna, declaring it as delicious as anything he could eat at home.

 "I challenge you to try one of these meals at home, and tell me what you think about it then," I teased him. Then we all told stories of the most amazing meals we'd ever experienced, which all shared the theme of mediocre food eaten after a long, difficult effort. The sky had cleared to a palette of stars. A thin film of flowing mist, illuminated faintly by moonlight, made the stars appear to wobble. It was strange to watch stars dance about. I imagined fiery orbs rocketing through outer space as planets spun around them. Rest is the illusion; everything is always in motion.

 Day two was a coaster of a day with mild climbs and lots of descending. We wove through a maze of forest roads in varying states of erosion, with almost no traffic on Memorial Day (a few motorcycles close to campgrounds.) Ah, relaxation. The guys seemed to enjoy this day's set of squiggly lines much better than the first, as I'd luckily chosen more dirt and more rugged terrain.

The scenery was not too bad either, even as we descended down, down toward the furnace of the Central Valley, where it was somehow, inexplicably, 90 degrees. (I'd almost convinced myself that we were having February in May, to match the May we had in February.) I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but felt like I had failed in my goal to exact some punishment in my legs during this bulky training week. Still, when I think about my preferred state of fitness, relaxation and contentedness are better indicators than soreness and suffering. Isn't this how I'd want to feel, if I wanted to be nearly always in motion?

Week's totals: 227 miles ride, 13 miles run, 33,200 feet climbing

Monday, May 18, 2015

Week in motion

Some weeks seem locked in continuous motion, so much so that I feel the need to go out for a quiet run by myself, just to be still. As I drove through the freeway sprawl of Orange County after a day of mountain biking with Keith and Amber and then working at the Starbucks in Big Bear Lake, I thought about how much of my life I invest in movement. In 2014, I spent upwards of four months away from home. This year, the final tally may be more. Strava has already tracked 15 days' worth of self-propelled motion in the past 4.5 months, and the time investment of movements I don't track — flights and long-distance drives — adds up as well. What is it about movement I so value? I thought about this as I drove up and down the quiet streets of Laguna Niguel, ignoring a confused GPS and trawling the entrances of gated communities to find the one where my sister, brother-in-law, and new niece are house-sitting for an indefinite period of time.

Gated communities are a bewildering concept for me. I understand the desire for security, but I feel locked inside when visiting such places. I find myself wandering the maze of a spacious home and wishing there was a 7-Eleven nearby that I could just walk to, and sit on a curb while sipping a Big Gulp and watching the world go by. You don't really see people outside their homes in gated communities, and everything feels far away.

The purpose of the visit was to meet my niece, now 8 weeks old. She's a cutie, with a big-eyed stare and an occasionally bewildered expression that makes me feel envious — "This is completely new to her. She still has everything to discover."

My parents were in town as well, and I was able to go for a couple of hikes with my dad. I don't think either of us expected to find anything terribly interesting in Southern California, at least within a half-hour drive from Laguna Niguel. Dad found a trail idea on Yelp, Black Star Canyon. I looked up a route on Strava and got the impression that this was going to be a painfully easy road walk, winding up a gentle hillside to the top of a ridge. This was a good thing, as I was in taper mode before the Ohlone 50K, and anyway this was a good way to spend time with my dad (in the spacious house, we all tended to retreat to personal spaces, which is something else I don't like about big homes even though I'm an equal offender.)

The first mile after the gate was a flat paved road. I felt bad, like it was my fault that coastal California was a boring place for my Wasatch-Mountain-trekking father. We wound our way along a fireroad to a weathered post where someone had scratched "waterfall" with some arrows in the wood. So we followed them, dropping into a stream bed that was teeming with poison oak. I pointed out the identifying characteristics of the plant to Dad, and within ten minutes he was more attune to its presence than me. As the canyon narrowed we picked our way over and around increasingly larger boulders, until we were fully scrambling up stone walls. I came to one maneuver where I couldn't quite lift my foot into the only available foothold ($%!* tight hamstrings), and Dad grabbed me underneath my arms and pulled me onto the ledge. It instantly brought back a memory of being 17 years old and hiking with Dad along the knife ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, where he similarly boosted me onto a narrow ledge beside dizzying exposure. I was never afraid of the mountains back then; I always felt safe when I was with Dad. I still feel that way, at 35 years old, with two more decades of fearfulness and scary experiences in my memories.

At the end of the boulder-choked box canyon we reached the waterfall, which was dry (this is California.) The following day, we did a much more mellow five miles to a robber cave, where we ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches as rain poured down outside the sandstone cove.

I'd hoped to spend more time with my sister, who was understandably preoccupied, but I'm hoping we'll have another chance to visit before spring comes around again. I had to leave Friday morning for weekend plans at home. Traffic was demoralizing, from the parking lot of Los Angeles to the aggressive, bumper-to-bumper peloton of I-5. Driving in California makes me want to stab sharp objects into my legs, which is why I don't actually do all that much traveling close to home. But I persevered through the road rage and made it home just in time to join Beat and Liehann on our weekly training ride up the Black Mountain and Indian Creek climbs. By late evening our friend Roger arrived. Roger was visiting from Australia for a Hoka One One sales meeting and the Ohlone 50K, and planned to spend the whole weekend with us.

We found out late Friday afternoon that our race had been cancelled, supposedly because it had rained on Thursday night and the access roads were wet. There were also reports that lightning struck near the finish staging area and the power was out at the picnic area. Either way, a little rain on extremely dry fire roads, three fair-weather days before the race, seemed a strange reason for the park administration to cancel one of the Bay Area's longest-standing trail races. We were all disappointed, but promised Roger we'd show him a good time anyway. On Saturday we put him on Snoots for a five-hour ride up and down several steep hills. On a fat bike. For a guy who's mainly a runner. Because we're awesome friends like that.

Since Roger came here for a 50K, we schemed our own 50K, joining friends Steve and Ken for an all-day outing in Henry Coe State Park. Ken designed the route, and although I don't know Ken well, I do know he likes technical terrain and he's a fast runner, so I should have known better than to agree to what turned out to be an ambitious loop. My running has been limited lately, and although my base is good I'm a fit enough to put in long miles, I feel out of practice and a sense of imbalance has returned. Ken's route connected pieces of singletrack that were sometimes so faint it was difficult to discern the route from anything else, although bushwhacking across grassy hillsides and thorny manzanita groves was fundamentally no different than following the "trail." Roger took a series of photos that sum up this excursion well:

Navigation huddle.

"Running" on the "trail."

Picking burrs out of our shoes and socks. Roger had to leave his pair of shoes with us in California, because he was never going to extract enough of the plant material to get them through customs in Australia.

I rolled my ankle on a clump of grass around mile nine. The joint didn't swell, but it became increasingly more sore, and my footfalls felt even more unstable then before. By mile sixteen I was concerned about the risks I was taking with my summer cycling ambitions by continuing to attempt to run on this terrain, and also feeling guilty about the slowness of the hiking I was mostly doing. We let Ken and Steve continue on their epic, while Roger, Beat, and I made our way back to headquarters on an extremely steep, rolling fireroad. Compared to the more gentle grades of the "trails," most of the fireroads in Coe are gut-busters. Boring, too, when you consider that you're a person on foot and could be out blazing your own adventure through, as Roger calls it, "The evil poisony oakses." (Roger, like my Dad, also learned what poison oak was this week and became an expert at identifying it. "We don't have stuff like this in Australia," he said. To which I replied, "Yeah, but don't you have all those bad snakes and spiders and pretty much everything out there is trying to kill you?" "I'll take the sharks over this," he said.)

"I actually like fireroads," I thought. "Room to breathe. Room to move." We wrapped up 22 miles, which feels so much longer and harder in a place like Coe. But since it wasn't the Ohlone 50K, I think we all left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, quietly scheming our next chance for motion. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So this is SoCal

On Friday afternoon, I got in my car and headed south for more than seven hours — through the traffic-clogged corridor of the South Bay, into the dusty fields of the Central Valley, over parched hillsides north of Los Angeles, and through the palm tree boulevards of Pasadena. Darkness set in, and my route climbed up and up this narrow highway called "Rim of the World." A thick fog enveloped the sky, ice slicked the road, and suddenly there were several inches of new snow draped over granite boulders and pine trees. Huh? What is this place?

 My friends from the Canadian Rockies — Keith and Leslie — have been in the state for several weeks. Leslie has been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and Keith has been vagabonding around southern California, vaguely training for a summer tour on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. His friend Amber was flying out from Montana this weekend, and Keith invited me to join them for a SoCal bikecation. The timing was good, as I'd been meaning to make a trip to Orange County to visit my sister and her baby daughter, my new niece.

"Sure," I said. I wanted to visit Keith, and I like to ride bikes. I proposed Idyllwild, as that's the only place in Southern California with which I have any trail familiarity. Plans shifted when a friend of Keith's offered up his cabin on Big Bear Lake. The resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains is stone's throw from Los Angeles. And 6,800 feet higher.

The snow fell fast and fierce on Friday. But in true Southern California fashion, it had mostly melted by Saturday, giving way to a beautiful, sunny, hero dirt day. This would be the beginning of a bike (and running!) binge weekend that left me gasping for air and reduced me to a wheezy, congested mess in three days — but with a newfound appreciation for this island of quietness surrounded by ten million people.

 We rode some singletrack and climbed to the top of Grey's Peak, at about 8,000 feet elevation. The pace remained mellow, and we took long breaks to take in the scenery and have multiple lunches.

 Amber went over the bars and was grateful for patches of snow to ice her knee.

 Although biking has been my main training focus, I do have the Ohlone 50K on Sunday, and didn't want two weeks of single-digit mileage leading up to the race. So on top of the day rides, I put in evening trail runs. This was a ten-miler up to Grandview Point and back. The altitude was annihilating; for a route that only gains 1,200 feet in five miles, I felt like I was ascending a steep mountain in the Alps. Trying to inject more oxygen in my blood only left my throat raw and my lips parched. By the next day, I'd have a cold, heavy congestion, and a sore throat. Thanks, SoCal.

 On Sunday we connected with a small group ride from Bear Valley Bikes. When the only other people to show up turned out to be three talented racer types, I got a little panicked (those social anxieties and inferiority issues run deep when they're directly connected to my passions.) But they turned out to be genuinely nice folks who were stoked to show three tourists around their local trails, and rode alongside chatting amicably rather than racing ahead and waiting impatiently at all the intersections. We followed them through miles of snow and mud, and then afterward the shop's owner, Derek, invited us over to his place and cooked buffalo tacos with fresh guacamole. Awesome folks. Give them your business if you're ever in Big Bear Lake.

 The Skyline Trail — it's okay I guess.

 Sunday night, I headed out for another run. I was really breathing poorly at this point, and aimed for a lower section of the Pacific Crest Trail to avoid long climbs. This is height of hiker season around Big Bear Lake, and I saw a dozen thru-hikers on my eight-mile jaunt out and back. They were all just babies — fresh-faced kids just out of college if not high school. I suppose that makes sense. Not many 30-somethings are in a place in their lives to take off and go hiking for five months. I like to imagine thru-hiking a long-distance trail as something I'll do when I'm in my 60s or 70s. I'd love to be a solo old lady with unruly gray hair and a trucker cap, chiseled calves and my trusty trekking poles, and maybe a huge pair of pink Hokas if those are still a thing. Dare to dream.

 On Monday the three of us all set out to do our own thing. I wanted to get a long ride in, but I was really feeling rough at this point, with my congestion, the altitude, and maybe just a touch of overdoing it. Amber was joining the bike shop racers for an epic, but my social anxieties got the better of me and I declared myself not fit to chase them all day. Instead, I drew out a rough loop on a map, and hoped it would take me somewhere neat and maybe not too punishing.

My loop featured a spur up to Butler Peak, which I included because it was a high point on the map (8,500 feet.) As it turned out, the track was fenced off and there was this fantastic fire lookout at the top. It just sat there, perched precariously on a boulder, looking as though a single dislodged pebble could send it tumbling 200 feet down the rocky face. 

 Fire lookout view to the southeast.

 Fire lookout view to the northeast. The wind was ripping up here and it was, like all of the spots I visited in Southern California so far, not warm. I ate a quick lunch and scrambled down the rocks to my bike.

 The rest of my route was tough, sandy, and disconcertingly lonely. I wheezed my way up and down and up and down a long ridge of steep rollers, before descending down, down, down into Green Valley Lake. The entire community seemed comprised of second homes, and there was absolutely no one around on this early season Monday afternoon. There weren't any vehicles parked outside homes, no dogs barking, no signs of life. It had a post-apocalyptic feel that didn't improve as I turned onto another steep, rolling climb back into the mountains, churning up a sandy jeep road and seeing not a single other human for hours. Somewhere not far away live ten million people, and this whole place was eerily empty.

The loop ended up registering 54 miles with 6,700 feet of climbing, but admittedly was tougher for me than the stats would indicate. I am going to go ahead and blame altitude, and hope a return to oxygenated air and recovery from my cold leaves me in better shape for the Ohlone 50K on Sunday. Of course I still got out for a quick spin up Pine Knot trail with Keith and Amber before taking off on Tuesday. Because this is what you do in SoCal — you ride bikes in the cold wind and snowy mud until your lungs hurt, and then you ride some more!