Monday, February 19, 2018

What's in your sled?

 It's the last week prep before the Iditarod, traditionally our week of Gloom n' Doom. However, I'm feeling decidedly less gloomy than the past few weeks. Though pre-race trail and weather reports look good, my mood has nothing to do with this; I know far better than to trust pre-race chatter. No,  I'm perkier because my leg rash cleared up, my sleep has improved, my morning blood pressure seems to be going down, and I'm breathing more naturally — perhaps I've hit the low point of this slump and am back on the upswing. Who knows? I certainly don't, but I choose the path of naive optimism.

 Perhaps another reason I'm happy is because I finally got back on my bike for the first time in a month, following a long bloc of focused Iditarod training. My only agenda for this ride was four hours of "killing time" on the hills surrounding Sugarloaf Mountain. The weather wasn't nearly as nice as it looks in this photo — temperatures in the low 40s and incredibly windy, with gusts that forced me to throw a foot down at regular intervals. Dirt road conditions featured blinding blasts of dust and occasional but not insignificant patches of suicide ice. Despite the relatively poor riding conditions, I was stoked — moving at now-incomprehensible speeds on descents and marveling at how little effort it takes to propel a bicycle up a hill.

 Now in focused taper mode, I took a couple of days off, and by Saturday felt a little gloomy again as endorphins faded. On Sunday, the temperature rose to 60 degrees, and the wind all but died. (There were still occasional blasting gusts interspersed with a gentle breeze, which is akin to calm around here.) Beat and I threw on shorts and short-sleeved jerseys, and headed out for a mellow spin along nearby back roads. It was a gorgeous afternoon. We've had other 60-degree days this winter, but this was the first day that really felt like spring — the air had a freshness to it, and mud and ice glistened beneath high-angle sunlight.

 Then, on Monday, the temperature plummeted nearly 60 degrees. We awoke to low single digits and a dusting of snow. The forecast predicted 5 inches, but the actual storm wasn't set to arrive until after dark. We spent the morning finalizing most of our gear and loading up our sleds. Just minutes before we set out, Beat and I switched duffels — he decided his was too long, and mine was too wide. The trade was a revelation. Beat's duffel perfectly fits my sled, with no empty space to collect snow. I can loosely stuff all of my gear inside, including my snowshoes, with ease. (Abundant space to accommodate fast, sloppy packing is a priority for both of us.)

Although I may never have faith in my own fitness again, I am pleased with my gear prep this year. I feel more comfortable and competent with my gear than I ever have. And yes, it does help that this gear doesn't include a bicycle. I'm at ease with the idea of using my stove in deep subzero temperatures and moderate wind. I've finally arrived on a combination of head gear that I'm comfortable with. I'm better practiced at using gloves for finer dexterity, in case I need to set up camp in difficult conditions (typically I go bare handed, and this will still probably be my default, but at least I'm better with gloves than I used to be.)

 I feel reasonably versed in my plan for the event of an asthma attack in a storm, the steps I'll take to get my breathing under control in high winds, and the type of rest my well-tested sleeping gear can afford. I'm confident my layers will keep me comfortable at 40 below and winds up to 50 mph. Although I have very little experience with anything lower (or a combination of deep subzero temperatures and high winds), I also have a safety buffer. I know which items I tend to lose or wet out, and brought spares. I'm happy with my decision to bring a spare base layer, in case I fall into open water (not unthinkable.) I'm happy with my decision to bring lots of extra socks and lube, as well as reinforced waders to keep my shoes dry, because nothing causes misery quite like walking 18 hours a day on cold and wet feet.

No one will ever accuse me of being a weight weenie, but I also won't be accused of being blatantly unprepared (making poor choices and mistakes is another matter altogether.)

 The temperature was 7 degrees with light falling snow when we set out for an hour-long sled drag on a thin layer of white dust over dirt. As we scraped over the road, I ran through a multitude of different scenarios in my mind, and contemplated what gear I'd need to solve the issue, where it was in my recently acquired duffel, and how I'd access it quickly — yes, even in the madness of a haphazardly packed duffel, there are methods.

 My type B personality is not a list-maker. I can't even tell you the last time I made a list for anything. Part of the reason I never make race or gear lists is because on paper it just looks like so much junk, and I don't want to scrutinize it so heavily. Also, it's so long, and so boring. But I made a list this year. Occasionally people ask me about my gear list, so I'm posting it here. If you are like me and never read gear lists, you will need to do a lot of scrolling to finish this post. It really is a lot of junk. Comments are welcome, but I'm not changing anything at this point:

To start:
Drymax liner socks
Acorn fleece socks, M
UA underwear
UA bra
Mountain Hardwear light blue fleece hat
Skinfit thermal top
Mammut hiking pants
Furry fleece buff
Skinfit Caldo jacket
Columbia Mountain Masochist shoes

Bedtime bag, blue:
(3) spare underwear
(3) DryMax liner socks
(1) Acorn fleece socks, M
(1) Acorn fleece socks, XL
Rab vapor barrier socks
Nike DriFit shirt
GORE windproof tights
Down booties
Down pants

Small gray bag:
Wiggys Waders
Neoprene shoe liners
(2) plastic oven bags (as extra VB layer)

Outer layers bag, gray:
Skinfit rain pants
REI Event rain shell
Primaloft overboots
Fleece knee warmers
Skinfit primaloft jacket
Skinfit primaloft shorts

Spare gear bag, yellow
RBH Designs overmitts
Fleece balaclava
Fleece buff
OR light windproof mittens
Mountain Hardwear light shell
Medicine bag
Spare foot lube

Electronics bag, green
(3) iPod Shuffle
(12) spare AA batteries
Spare camera battery
Spare headlamp
Cell phone?
Cell phone charger?

Stove bag, yellow:
MSR XGK stove
Long spork
Stove repair kit
22 oz fuel bottle
(2) fuel pumps
(2) flint fire-starters
Waterproof matches
Wind screen

Repair kit:
Zip ties
Repair tape
Spare buckle
Spare screws
Screw driver
Duct tape
Sled attachment piece

Bivy bundle
OR Helium bivy sack
RidgeRest sleeping pad
PhD designs sleeping bag

Sled duffle bag
Mountain Hardwear wind fleece
PhD Designs down coat
Trekking poles
Trekking pole pogies

Duffle weight (34.3 pounds)

3 pounds nut and chocolate trail mix
1 Mountain House meal
6 oz beef jerky
2 (1.5 oz) meat stick
8 bars
4 Jif-to-Go Peanut Butter

5.0 pounds of food to start
Total duffle weight: 39.3 pounds

Sled harness backpack:
Windproof buff
Skinfit primaloft mittens
Black Diamond windproof liner gloves
Windproof (red) balaclava
OR windproof hat
Feed bag
Delorme InReach
Wet Wipes
(4) spare batteries
Garmin eTrex30
Fenix headlamp
Foot lube
Cash and credit cards

Revelate Designs hydration pack:
3L MSR bladder

Harness and pack weight (no water): 5.1 pounds

Oh, and the list doesn't include Bernadette, sister to Beat's long-suffering Siberian, Bernie. Bernie has been along for the ride since 2013, so it seems apt to tow my own husky up the Iditarod Trail. The number of times Bernadette made me smile while glancing back during the three-mile march today tells me this is a good choice.

I'm happy the cargo weight came in around 40 pounds, meaning ~46 with water and fuel. If I can stay reasonably comfortable and secure in most conditions that Alaska can throw at me, I am not going to complain. My type B personality will never let me retain any level of self-confidence; thankfully, I can use excess gear and stuffed animals to soothe my aching inadequacy.

Just five more days! 
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I'll be something better yet

Well, the anxiety dreams have returned. In my latest, I'm pulling my winter sled up a steep dune in an endless red-sand desert. The drag is incredible; I can barely move my legs. When I look down, my skin is beet red, bubbling with beads of sweat. I'm following a parallel ski track, a very faint one, and I have to squint because the glare is so bad. It's hot; I feel dizzy. The sun becomes brighter. I'm blinded by white glare, sinking in the sand, gasping for breath, and then I jerk awake. Real sunlight is pouring through my bedroom window (because I slept in until 8:15 a.m., because I haven't been sleeping well at night), and I'm drenched in real sweat. It's 57 degrees inside the house, 20 outside.

Is this what I fear right now? Heat and sweat? Well, yes. What happens beyond my skin begins to feel more manageable than what happens within. I find comfort in the world around me. Saturday morning greeted us with a few inches of snow, and refreshing cold — around 10 degrees.

Beat and I set out for a hike up Bear Peak, with light packs and an easy "taper" pace. I couldn't regulate my temperature well — one minute I was overheated with my jacket unzipped and hat removed, the next chilled and bundled again. My breathing seemed far too labored. Later Beat saw my tracks in the snow and called me out for lazily dragging my feet. "I'm slipping," I thought.

It was a beautiful afternoon, though, with the city shrouded in fog and delicate rime clinging to the charred branches of skeleton trees. It's always worth the effort to spend time outside on a day like this, always. But I wasn't thrilled with whatever was happening beneath my skin. I did not feel exuberant. I did not feel strong. I felt beaten — far, far too soon.

When I come out in the open to admit my fears, people will reassure me. They'll tell me I'm just having pre-race jitters, that I'm tapering, that I'll be fine. And I'll smile politely and nod, because I want to believe it, too. But this is what it feels like to me — like my fitness is so much sand in my fist, slipping through my fingers, scattered by the wind.

On Sunday I took my sled up Niwot Ridge. Beat had a lot to do at home, so I went alone. A surprising amount of snow had accumulated since the last time I trekked up Niwot. The spacious and typically empty trailhead parking lot was bustling with skiers and snowshoers. I didn't want to maneuver my sled in crowds, so I veered toward the less-popular forest road. Surprisingly, only one or two skiers had broken a skin track on this route. At first I snowshoed outside of it, out of respect for skiers, but conditions were incredibly difficult for trail-breaking — a thin layer of fragile wind crust over shin-swallowing sugar snow.

Shamefully I drifted over to the skin track, and realized that my sled so perfectly planed my snowshoe tracks, that it left the trail smoother than before. Indeed, a couple miles later, a skier passed me and complimented my trail. "Ten points for the pulk track," he said. As I looked back at him, I saw that my sled was full of snow — I could barely see the duffel behind a foot-high pile of clumped powder. Because my sled was wider than the skin track, it scooped up snow from both sides, not unlike a plastic shovel. Damn. No wonder this climb was becoming harder and harder. "It's not just me," I thought. Even at this higher altitude, in much tougher conditions, I was feeling better than the previous day.

"Beautiful day," the skier commented.

"Yeah, but windy," I replied. "It's gonna be fierce above treeline."

"We'll deal with that when we get there."

Despite my heavy sled and stupid snowshoes, I more or less kept pace with the skier for more than a mile, shadowing a few hundred meters behind him. He had just left my line of sight for good when I saw him again, scooting toward me at a surprisingly slow rate of speed, for a descending skier.

"You're not going to the ridge?" I asked. He'd already surpassed most of the boring forest road skinning — the only terrain left was the steeper, open slopes above treeline.

"It's nasty up here. And I'm exhausted," he admitted. "You must be shelled, too."

"Yeah, this has been quite the slog. I'll probably only go another half mile, to that research shack."

The skier's track ended, and all that remained was deep, crusted powder. No one else had been up here, at least since wind-driven snow disappeared the tracks — which in the strengthening gale, seemed to be happening in a matter of seconds. I stopped beneath the last larger stand of trees and put on my knee warmers, overboots, wind fleece, balaclava, buff, and mittens. This was not my first Niwot rodeo.

I'd already been at this for three hours and hadn't even broken the five-mile mark yet. It thought about turning back, but the alpine zone is never an easy place to reach, and enduring these conditions is always good practice. I lifted one snowshoe up the 25-degree slope and punched through wind crust into a thigh-high hole. To garner the momentum necessary to move forward, I had to bend forward and thrust my hips against the backward force of the sled — not unlike the cable pull-throughs I do at the gym — then swing my leg sideways like an awkward ballerina so I could punch another hole a few inches ahead. Sometimes my leg anchor stuck, and sometimes the snowshoe slipped backward to where I started. My pace — were there any GPS sophisticated enough to measure such tiny increments of movement— no doubt dropped below 0.5mph. My heart rate shot to the maximum I'm able to maintain.

All the while, shards of snow blasted me in the face. All in all, this wasn't a terrible day on Niwot — sustained winds of 35mph, gusting to 55mph — but an abundance of blowing powder made it feel more intense. My breathing deteriorated quickly. I turned my back to the wind and took a few puffs from my inhaler. I concentrated on taking slower, less shallow breaths. I desperately wanted to turn around, and knew that on a typical endurance training schedule, any hard efforts at this point probably do more harm than good. But I don't have typical endurance fitness. At this point, what I mostly have are doubts. Anything I can do to boost my confidence is worth it. Again I turned to face the wind.

Thrust, punch, breathe. Thrust, punch, breathe, breathe, thrust. Occasionally I found a patch of crust that supported my weight, and walked almost normally. But this would only last a few steps, and then I'd crash through rotten Styrofoam into another thigh-deep drift. The crust was so thick that I'd struggle to pull my foot out of the holes, as though I was real-life sinking in the sand I'd dreamed about. When I couldn't quite extract a foot, I'd drop to a squat, paddle my arms through the snow and crawl-hop forward like a deranged rabbit. This is a situation where I will fully admit that skis would be far preferable to silly snowshoes, although I think skis would also stall out beneath the crust. Really, these were workable conditions for exactly no one, least of all me with my 40-pound sled. But if I could move forward here, and control my breathing here, well ... perhaps I can do it anywhere.

Half-blinded by blowing snow and drifting laterally in search of solid crust, I ended up too far left of the shack. Now with four hours on my watch, having traveled a literal half mile in one hour and 15 minutes, I decided to call it good. Despite engaging the most strenuous activity physically possible for me, at 11,500 feet, I'd maintained reasonable control of my breathing. My heart rate, while fast, hadn't reached concerning levels. I wasn't dizzy. But I was shelled. Truly shelled. I staggered with the wind and started punching a new trail down the slope — because even my deepest postholes were already partially buried in spindrift. It was going to be a long hike out.

Back where the skier had turned around, my beautiful sled track was already filled with snow, and the walking was somehow even more difficult — the slippery spindrift was off camber enough that my right snowshoe kept sliding sideways, which turned my ankle uncomfortably. I wanted to cry, but not in that emotional way that's caught me off guard recently, so I didn't cry. Anyway, being shelled after six miles of hiking just two weeks before you hope to do 350 is not something to cry about ... yet.

The emotions came anyway, though, as trail conditions became easier and I descended into rumination about the state of the world. For that sort of angst, as it often does, iPod helped — The Bleachers with a fitting reminder that we all have deep flaws, and no one is coming to save us. So go ahead and live your life anyway.

All my heroes got tired
All the days, they got short.
And a love that I dreamt of,
Came to me at my worst.

Yeah, the nights I don't remember.
Are the ones I can't forget.

When all your heroes get tired,
I'll be something better yet.
Friday, February 09, 2018

Jump into the fog

 I've felt melancholy this week. It's not the same as the jittery dread one might expect to feel when anticipating an upcoming challenge. This feeling is more like resignation. Dull, gray resignation. But when I step outside of myself for brief intervals, I can see that thin veneer of fog clouding a dynamic landscape of emotions. "This is not mine," I think about the melancholy. But denying its validity doesn't make the fog any less turbid.

 There was a moment on Wednesday, about an hour into a five-hour run. Maybe I should be done with long runs now. I don't know. My legs feel good. My shoulders and arms are strong. Most everything about my body seems dialed. But right now, there's a subtle sputtering. I'd like to blame this on overtraining. That would make it easy. But I can't convince myself. It's difficult to explain the difference between fatigue, and this ... feeling like the engine is running well, but the fuel lines are partially blocked. This feeling is nothing major. I can convince myself of this. The dizziness and breathing desperation haven't returned ... yet. But my fuse has definitely shortened.

Wednesday's trails were ruled by hard, practically blue ice, and rocks of course. Unlike my fancy-footwork success the previous week, I could barely stay upright while wearing microspikes. I slipped and slammed my knee into a nearby tree. "Good, I hope I'm injured," was the only coherent thought that broke through the initial flood of white-hot adrenaline rage. Then, after rage subsided and I realized I was fine, humor made a brief appearance ... "Ha! Where did that come from?" This faded to a highly disproportionate despair, and I had a good cry ... which is, yes, the second time I've cried on a trail for no real reason this month.

"This is October all over again," I thought. Later, I looked up the date of a similarly emotionally-charged bike ride that I titled "Forest Road 509 made me cry." October 13. By the end of October, I was kind of a mess. My breathing was rough enough that I barely pulled myself out of that crater in Maui. But no, there's no such thing as this four-month hormone cycle. You made that up, I told myself. You put this terrible idea in your own head. But the rash and the sleep interruptions and the night sweats and the heart rate spikes ... those are convincingly tangible.

I was a bit dazed as I wheeled down the aisles of Trader Joes on Thursday, picking up the remaining food for my Iditarod drop bags. We're allowed only five pounds for two different pick-up spots along the 350-mile route. Five pounds is really only about two days' worth of food, for sections that could take me as long as four. Yes, there will be a handful of meals along the way to supplement. And of course I can start the race with extra calories, and intend to. But it was important to keep all food as efficient as possible — meaning reasonably nutritious, shelf-stable, non-freezing, and calorie dense. A kind fan of my books, Linda from Iowa, mailed me a delicious trail mix filled with nuts, seeds, and locally sourced chocolate. I supplemented with my own trail mix — nuts, fruit and mini peanut-butter cups as "quick carb" fuel, and then bars, tuna, jerky, meat sticks, and freeze-dried meals.

So I went through the aisles, filling a cart with junk food for both me and Beat, and hesitated at the mini peanut butter cups. "Maybe I won't send in my boxes," I thought. "Maybe it's just that easy."

Then, just as I had the day prior after whacking my knee and hoping I was injured, I wondered where this childish defiance had come from. Even if I'm not the best version of myself, I still want to be out there — a tiny speck amid a white expanse, pressing deeper into the wilderness. There's truth and peace in such an endeavor, and I crave the intensity of emotion and depth of satisfaction that I find in cold, harsh, and beautiful places. But here, in the fog, I run into hesitation. I suppose this is natural.

 On Friday, I went back to town to drop off the boxes. At home, the February sun cast harsh shadows on dry ground. Trees swayed in the gusting wind. It was 55 degrees. I was going to run before heading out, but changed my mind. What does running have to do with my actual fitness, anyway? As I turned onto Flagstaff Road, I was listening to "No Rain" by Blind Melon, which was my favorite song when I was 13 years old. It's also enjoyable for a moody 38-year-old, who still ponders the proverbial "why I start to complain when there's no rain." That's when I noticed the cloud ceiling blanketing the plains.

Within increments measured in quarters of miles, the temperature plummeted — 47 degrees, then 34, then 28. I pulled over at Flagstaff Mountain, right where the edge of the fog skimmed the ground. I was dressed to go to the gym — a short running skirt and T-shirt — when I stepped out of the car into bitingly frosty, humid air.

 I did not have good layers for the weather, and had full knowledge that just a few hundred feet higher, it was nearly 30 degrees warmer. But this was the place I wanted to be. I went for a short walk on the trails — just long enough for my bare legs to turn bright red and my shoulders to tremble gently. With that, I suddenly felt giddy about the prospect of dropping off my boxes. They were going to Alaska, where I would be in just two weeks. Then I went to the gym and increased all of my weights — a few substantially, including my nemesis, the shoulder press — because damn it, I'm going to be as strong as I want to be.

By the time I returned to Flagstaff Mountain, the cloud level had climbed. A few hundred feet higher, the road was so shrouded that I could barely see the headlights of oncoming traffic as they passed. Here, the fog was still gentle, glittering with tiny snow flurries. The temperature had fallen to 20 degrees, and my short skirt and T-shirt that were now mildly damp with sweat. But I still took another walk, enjoying the beautiful contrast of gray on gray. It was a gorgeous early evening. I was grateful I had a chance to experience this place, rather than taking the easy road — chickening out on delivering my boxes, and staying at home where it was sunny and warm.

I've ridden my health rollercoaster long enough that I no longer cling to an illusion that I am in control. I think I get what I get, including some of my more shallow emotions. But beneath the surface are the same passions I've long held, the same truths I've long known. Maybe this is all I need.