Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forever pace

After failing at last year's Petite Trotte a Leon, I did some soul searching about whether I was taking this endurance racing hobby too far. Months later, I told friends that I still couldn't decide whether PTL was a valuable learning experience, or the worst thing I had ever done to myself. I joked that exploring limits is a lot less fun when you find them. I've gained so much personal enrichment from confronting difficult and frightening situations amid the parameters set by racing — which extend far beyond parameters I would have ever set for myself. But how far is too far? During PTL, an onslaught of technical terrain near the edge of my capabilities, constant focus on navigation and maneuvers, perceived dangers, internal and external pressure, and sleep deprivation drove me halfway out of my mind. It pushed me into some dark places I never wish to visit again, whether in a voluntary situation or real trauma. I race to gain control over my Monster, and PTL only revealed all the ways Monster still controls me.

I considered stepping back from racing for a while. I came close to withdrawing from the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational. And then a switch flipped. Monster doesn't control me. I don't need to slink away from adventures that feed my passion, energy, and muse just because of one bad experience. I threw my name in the White Mountains 100 lottery, and then the Hardrock 100. I agreed to join Liehann at the Freedom Challenge. And I signed up for the Tor des Geants.

I didn't write this intro to delve too deep into my personal philosophies or deeper motivations regarding racing. Only to expand on the complicated relationship I have with racing right now, and the wild swing from convincing myself I should take at least a year off to jumping headfirst into my biggest year of racing yet, culminating in the one that should scare me most of all — a 330-kilometer march around the Italian Alps, with a distance and elevation profile that very closely resembles PTL. Back into the belly of the Monster.

The allure of Tor des Geants is another complicated matter than I could ramble on about for thousands of words, but the short explanation is a desire to explore the edges of the galaxy amid the incredible setting of the Aosta Valley. Beat has completed every running of the Tor des Geants, and I've joined him to crew for three of those four years. In that time, I've developed a deep affection for this race. Hiking a handful of the route's numerous cols gave me a taste of just how physically demanding the whole loop would be — and also its potential for an intensely beautiful experience. The dream of TDG is what ultimately drew me into PTL last year, and I contended that I should have tried the "friendly" race before I jumped into the "mean" one. Not that TDG is sunshine and foot massages. It's still 200 miles of rugged terrain, with 80,000 feet of elevation gain (and, more importantly, another 80,000 feet of elevation loss) in 150 hours.

What I tend to overlook amid all of my spiritual- and emotional-enlightenment-seeking race greediness is the reality that my body is the one who needs to cash these checks. It took me longer than I care to admit to come to my senses about removing my name from the Hardrock roster. Even still, giving myself a mere two months to both recover from a 21-day strenuous bike- and hike-a-bike tour, and physically prepare for a race like TDG is ridiculous. I know that. I get that. And yet I have this dream ... the dream of forever pace ... the sweet spot where motion can persist and exploration doesn't have to cease.

I bounced back quickly from the Iditarod, resting little amid the manic opportunities of March in Alaska, and still enjoyed my best White Mountains 100 race yet a few weeks later. But post-Freedom-Challenge recovery has been more stubborn. As soon as the soreness in my arms abated there wasn't any remnant tissue damage. If fact, leg muscles and tendons seemed to be in great shape — I could hike for 11 hours without feeling remotely sore. But my cardiovascular system was worn down. I had no pep. I couldn't run. I wondered if it was a bug or perhaps residual effects from the infections in my fingers, which are still in the process of healing. I took lots of rest days — good for catching up on lots of missed work — and started using a heart rate monitor to gauge short efforts. The heart rate monitor did not inspire confidence. I was hitting Zone 5 far too soon. While riding up Montebello Road, my heart rate spiked 188 at a laughably slow pace. Beat assured me it would just take more time.

I lamented feeling terribly out of shape. And then I wondered if that was precisely the problem — I've been in forever pace for so long that I am terribly out of shape ... for short efforts.

On Sunday we planned a run in Portola State Park. Beat wanted to show me the Peter's Creek Loop — home to the largest grove of old-growth Coast Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This grove was just remote enough and difficult to access that the nearby Page Mill logging operation left it alone, and it's still remote and difficult to access.

Temperatures hit the triple digits this weekend. We actually had planned to do this run on Saturday, but were turned around by a traffic jam on Highway 9. There was a plan B, but when we stepped out of the car into a furnace blast of 98-degree air, we both looked at each other, shook our heads, and got back in the car. Sunday was going to be just as hot, but we built up a little more mojo, froze water bladders solid, and left a whole lot earlier. I left the heart rate monitor at home — it wasn't intentional, as I hoped to gauge the effect of a longer effort versus the hour-long runs. But it was just as well. Judging performance based on numbers from a watch wasn't doing me many favors. I was probably better off just moving at whatever pace made me happiest, and not worrying about where that fell in on the fitness spectrum.

So we did this run. It was 23 miles with somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 feet of climbing. It was very hot — 96 at the car upon return to Skyline, where it felt cooler than the more sun-exposed ridges. I drank 2.5 liters of ice water and then 2.5 liters more of lukewarm water refilled at the ranger station. I didn't have the heart rate monitor to tell me whether I was overtaxed or not, so I just ran forever pace. It felt good. The forest spread out above us, and happiness drove me forward. Happy legs, happy feet, happy heart.

This is the root of my "forever pace" experiment. I'm happiest on the move. Even when summer is in full force with its oppressive heat and fierce UV rays, when sweat is so thick that the annoying bugs buzzing around my face land on my skin and drown, and both social convention and personal inclinations tell me to embrace hibernation and sit indoors eating popsicles ... I still find my joy outside. Maybe I will fail spectacularly at TDG, and maybe I'll make good on past promises and take a year off of racing next year ... but I can't say I have't enjoyed the process immensely. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

One more for the road: Gear and training post

I realize that I promised no more South Africa posts, but that's before I remembered that I wanted to do a Freedom Challenge gear and training post-mortem. Shortly after the race, Liehann asked me what I would change about my gear if I were to ever try this again. The short answer is: Not much. As for what I would change about my training, the short answer is: Lots.

My bike is a Moots Mooto-X YBB 29" titanium soft tail. Here are the specs:
Shock: Rock Shox Reba RLT dual air, QR
Group: Shimano XT 2x10 (XTR shifters)
Brakes: Shimano XT
Wheels: Mike Curiak built Stans Arch + DT swiss 240s hubs, tubeless
Tires: Front: Bontrager XR3 team issue 2.30 Rear: Maxxis Ikon 2.35
Tubeless setup. Shimano XT skewers.
Seatpost,stem: Thomson elite
Handlebars: Ritchey wcs aluminum riser
Headset, BB: Chris King
Saddle: Terry something (probably Butterfly.)

This bike was my dream bike when it became mine in April 2012. It is still my dream bike. I'd be happy to never get a new mountain bike, but instead just continue fixing whatever components break on this one, until frame death do us part (which hopefully will not happen for a long time.) This bike was built to be touring bike — especially of the mixed pavement, trail, and dirt road variety — but it's also solid on technical trails (within the limits of my abilities.)

Yes, I use platform pedals. No, I'll probably never change. In addition to the comforts of wearing large trail-running shoes (Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10), I really do move my feet around on the pedals all of the time. I press down with my toes, I press down with my heels, I hold them up and shake them out for a while. I'd rather not lock my contact points into any position when spending twelve-plus hours per day in the saddle, be it my butt, hands, or feet. It's a personal comfort thing. I realize I could improve my technical control if I used clipless pedals, and my shins took an awful beating in the Freedom Challenge. Still, for me, the benefits of platforms outweigh the drawbacks. My nerve-damaged toes are happy.

Freedom Challenge racers also participate in the ongoing debate of 29" versus 26" wheels. But unlike U.S. bikepacking races, 26" full suspension bikes seem to be the most popular choice in this race. Big forks also win out in many cases. It makes sense to me; there is quite a lot of rugged terrain on this route, and all-mountain bikes, while a beast to haul on one's back, will ensure less downhill hike-a-bike. I'm likely to hike the harder stuff either way, so I'd just stick with the 29'er soft tail for optimal performance on long climbs and dirt roads.

There are also jokes about using a super-light carbon cross bike, since there's so much hiking in this race. I wouldn't recommend it. There's a lot more riding in the Freedom Challenge than my blog report lets on, and very little of it would be fun on a cross bike (think lots of barely-there cattle trail, rocky jeep tracks, and sand.)

Backpacks are also a point of debate. I used a Salomon XA 25-liter waterproof backpack, and believe it or not, I actually had one of the smaller packs among the riders we met. Many Freedom Challenge riders race with most or all of their gear on their backs, because there is so much bike carrying in this race (I know I said there was a lot of riding. There's a lot of both.) Bike bags are starting to take hold in the South Africa bikepacking community, though. Quite a few riders had seat post bags made by Revelate Designs in Alaska; they called them their "Revelates." I didn't see anyone else with a frame bag.

My system actually worked pretty well, because the backpack itself was half empty most of the time. I usually packed three liters of water and miscellaneous warm clothing (the puffy jacket always made it look fuller than it was.) I should have utilized this extra space sooner, but on the last day, before hiking up the Stettynskloof, I transferred most of the items from my seatpost bag and frame bag into my backpack, lightening up the bike as much as possible. It worked, because with a better distribution of weight, I was able to pick up and carry my bike on my back without pain for decent blocks of time — at least until that final, impossible climb.

As for clothing, I mentioned I recycled much of my Iditarod 2014 kit. Here's the rundown:

Kit: Castelli Elle skort and Patagonia capilene long-sleeve mock turtleneck with zip
Wind and rain layer: Skinfit shell pants, Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket
Insulation layers: North Face ThermoBall jacket, Freedom Challenge thin fleece pullover (only ended up wearing indoors), GORE windstopper tights
Head: Regular buff, windstopper buff, windproof hat, thin skull cap.
Hands: Outdoor Research fleece mittens, short-finger bike gloves, RBH designs mitten shells
Feet: Montrail Mountain Masochist, size 10; Acorn fleece socks; Integral Designs vapor barrier socks, Drymax socks (x3)
T-shirt and running shorts for indoor use

I'm not sure I'd change anything about clothing. There were a few items I didn't use often (the shell pants, vapor barrier socks and mitten shells), but I certainly would have used them in the event of heavier rain or snow. The GORE tights have been one of my favorite items, both in Alaska and in South Africa. They're just so versatile — warm and windproof, and yet easy to unzip and vent when the day heats up. They're running tights, so there's no chamois — which means they're great for hiking. The Freedom Trail tore them to shreds, and I'm sad to see them go. The Patagonia capilene also acquired a bunch of holes. It's been a fantastic shirt; I think I've worn it in every major race I've participated in since early last year, including a bunch of 50Ks.

As for training, well, where to begin? During the race I had major issues in the upper body department, which were largely concentrated in my upper arms and forearms — muscle pain, numbness, constant aches, and outright muscle failures during lifting. I don't even know where to start to strengthen a weak upper body — which is why mine is so weak — so I won't weigh in on what I'd do differently in training just yet. But in the unlikely event this bug ever bites me again, I would spend a lot more time building core strength, as well as strengthening shoulders and arms. I would also swallow my pride and actually go for training hikes while carrying a bike on my back, even though Californians would look at me like I was on drugs. Time in the saddle ... eh. I can't even say my mileage prior to the Freedom Challenge was all that high. Through March I was focused on Iditarod training, and then I continued running two to three times a week throughout April and May (lots of good this did me for the hike-a-bikes. Ha!) Still, I had no problems in the saddle. Riding bikes for a long time ... in the Freedom Challenge, that's the easy part.

Finally, navigation. So important. One of the guys we crossed the VuVu Valley with estimated that navigation was 80 percent of this race. For the Race to Rhodes, I would absolutely agree with that percentage. Beyond the 500-kilometer mark it gets a little easier overall, but not much. At 21 days, we finished about as fast as we could without submitting to night navigation. Most who want to ride faster than 20 days will have to be a lot more comfortable navigating in the dark. If I were to ever do this again, I would take the time to learn some more advanced orienteering techniques, such as dead reckoning. I'd also try to get a better grasp on the southern night sky so I didn't have to constantly watch a compass.

Liehann mentioned printing the 1:50,000 maps larger. This would help to some extent — it was extremely difficult to read the maps while the bike was moving. Still, these race-provided maps are partially hand-drawn and somewhat limited in detail, especially when it comes to trying to judge a position based on topographical features alone. The lines just weren't precise enough to discern real shapes. I suppose this is where orienteering techniques come in handy. Terrain association techniques, pacing techniques (because bike odometers do not work when a bike is being carried), and more focused use of compass bearings. You know what's funny? I hate all this stuff. Honestly, I do. Freedom Challenge did not turn me into a Rogaining enthusiast.

Another thing I would do different in a future Freedom Challenge is carry a more robust sleeping system — probably a 32-degree down sleeping bag and lightweight pad, along with an emergency bivy. For an extra two or three pounds, I'd gain a lot more willingness to take on some of those more difficult segments at night. Getting stuck out with little to no gear is so less than ideal that I was never willing to risk it. I feel like a sleeping bag would give me a lot more peace of mind. And it actually would be fun to sleep out occasionally, although at -10C with a granola bar dinner, it still wouldn't be terribly comfortable.

I know other blanket-wearers (as the Freedom Challenge riders call themselves) check in on this blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts and tips on how to succeed in the Race Across South Africa.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

And then it was summer

Back to California. Happy to see Beat. Jet lag. A thousand e-mails. Work catching up. Heat. Try a five-mile run. Side stitch. Downhill walks. Rest days. Book edits! Photo downloads. Blog, blog, blog. Pet the cat. Evenings with Beat, who's shored up all this excitement about next year adventure scheming, and there's five and a half more months left in this year, and still he teases me because I say I'm not ready to think about it, not just yet. Tired. 

We decided to go for a hike. 

It seems everyone's training for late-summer mountain races, and the group was headed to Yosemite for a thirty-mile loop around Buena Vista Peak on Sunday, July 13. In the week since I returned from South Africa, I attempted two short (five-mile) runs. Both did not go exactly well ... my cardiovascular system was working much too hard, I got a horrible side stitch at mile three that limited my breathing capacity and forced me to walk the final two miles downhill. This was the gauge for my fitness level going into Sunday's hike. There's no high end, and sort of not even a moderate level of power — but I knew my legs were strong and endurance solid. Our friends were planning to run the loop, but I told Beat I likely wouldn't be able to run any of it. A fifty-kilometer hike — but it is summer here in California, and daylight is generous.

 We started near Wawona, where daytime temperatures topped 95 degrees. Coming from South Africa, where 12C (54 degrees) felt like a warm day, the heat was a shock to the system. That, plus lingering jet lag, plus altitude, made for a tiring day. But worth it.

 Beat climbing the bowl below Buena Vista, elevation 9,700. Mmm, granite chunk.

Esa es una hermosa vista.

Because some in our group were running and some were mainly or only hiking, we predictably spread out. Heather ended up behind us after scrambling up the summit ridge after following an errant arrow on the runners' route. We thought she bypassed the peak and hiked on in front of us until we saw John walking back up the trail to look for her, many miles later. The off-trail scramble is just long enough that reconnecting with the trail isn't entirely straightforward, and Heather spent a tense hour or two feeling lost and alone in the Sierra backcountry. I empathized with her, with my own "lost and alone" emotions still so raw, and after spending the whole hike down worried that she might be hurt (we decided it would be best to return to Wawona and inform the rangers in the event that she and John didn't return by dark.)

It's a good reminder that if you go with a group into the backcountry, you should just stick together ... or at least make a more structured plan. But the Buena Vista loop is a wonderful route (strava file.) We don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough. Sadly, one of the main reasons for that is a strong aversion to traffic. In some ways, it's easier to travel to South Africa than it is to drive out of the Bay Area on a Friday evening.

I made up for it this week, though. My dad has been trying for a permit in the Mount Whitney lottery for three years. After two years of rejections for all ten alternative dates he chose, he finally snagged a two-person day permit for July 17 in this spring's lottery. It's almost as tough as getting into Hardrock, which, consequently, I know was also this past weekend. Several people have asked me whether I have any regrets about withdrawing from the Hardrock 100 even though it was very likely my only chance to ever run that course in the official event. I wondered the same myself, but in truth these hikes confirmed what I already knew, which is that Hardrock would have been a huge disaster. Huge disaster.

"I'm not quite on yours or Beat's level of masochism," I wrote to yet another friend (Dima, Beat's partner in the 2013 PTL) who sent me a message about it on Saturday. "I can't feel all that bad about missing out on so much pain."

"What's wrong with disaster?" he replied.

 I tell you, I'm connected with some nutty people.

But Whitney was fantastic. My dad and I first climbed this mountain together in 2001. I was 21 years old, and at the time it was the longest, most demanding physical feat I'd ever attempted. A monster. I still have the same respect for this mountain, even if my perspective on "monsters" has expanded. Dad drove out all the way from Salt Lake City in his 1994 Toyota pickup with no air conditioning. We met in Lone Pine for Chinese food and headed up to Whitney Portal to camp. We woke up at the civilized hour of 5:30 (lots of hikers get up at 2 a.m.) I had a pounding headache already ... but the weather looked good, and it's always enjoyable to spend a whole day on a mountain with my dad.

Dad retired in April and has logged a lot of hiking hours in the Wasatch this summer. He's in fantastic shape, and charged up the famous 99 switchbacks toward the summit ridge. I tried very hard and couldn't keep up with him. 13,000 feet came and went. My headache took on more of a woozy, ethereal sensation — which seemed better, but then again the summit ridge has steep drop-offs, I'm already clumsy by nature, and feeling somewhat intoxicated on an exposed, rocky trail is not ideal.

We passed by these bottles of Jack Daniels, presumably stashed away for a post-summit celebration. "You couldn't pay me to drink whiskey at 14,000 feet," I declared. I might as well have taken a shot or two; my headache came back, along with nausea, and I was plodding. I've been at 14,000 feet a few times before, and I don't think I've ever been quite so sick. But the oxygen deprivation combined with the beautiful setting sparked feelings of euphoria, so you could say I was in a conflicted state of not knowing whether I felt really good, or really bad. I made an effort not to complain. Skies were still mostly clear, and I figured we had enough time for me to take it as slow as I needed. Dad just charged on ahead, strong as a mountain goat at age 61.

Looking out from 14,508 feet to Lone Pine at 3,727 feet. There aren't many places in North America where you can sight that much vertical relief.

Aw, standing on top of the high point of the Lower 48 with my dad. Few moments could be better. I finally took in some food after feeling so nauseated most of the way up, and we made decent time hiking down. Dad was curious about our progress, and I tried to make some comparisons to my solo hike on Whitney in 2012, when I was training for UTMB. Dad will be interested in the stats: In 2012, I had a moving time of 9:11 and total time of 10:15, for an average pace of 27:18 minutes per mile. On Thursday, our moving time was 7:56(!), total time 10:36, for an average pace of 21:46 minutes per mile. Strava doesn't lie. Okay, it could have scrambled some data in there somewhere. But still — nice work Dad.

On Friday I drove back over Sonora Pass, and as a way of avoiding horrific Friday evening traffic, stalled for a few hours by hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Emigrant Wilderness. What a beautiful region. I don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough.

But I hope to return, soon.