Tuesday, August 19, 2014


 My birthday is this week. It's my 35th. This also marks three and a half years of living in California; both numbers baffle me. It's not that I feel young — I've been more of an "old soul" ever since I was actually young — but I just can't believe that half of a decade has passed since I climbed on top of Mount McGinnis to embrace my thirties. "It's such a cliche but it's true that once you hit 30, the years really start slipping away," I told my friend Leah as we headed out to Big Basin for a ride on Saturday. She reminded me that I've filled these California years with adventures, which is one of the reasons they've gone by so fast. I actually think routine is what really makes our perception of time speed up, because days that are filled with sameness are the ones that tend to disappear. I have plenty of habits, but also a sense of curiosity that injects sparks of wonder into even the mundane days. Wonder is what keeps me young. It's certainly not my skin, because 35 years around the sun has not been kind to that.

We enjoyed a fantastic ride on Saturday. It's been a while since I coaxed Leah out to the Peninsula, but I had a fun idea for a loop through Big Basin — descending the steep and narrow spine of McCreary Ridge, rolling along the coast, and climbing Gazos Creek fire road. I thought if any trails around here had even the faintest hint of tackiness left, those sheltered by sixty-foot redwoods would. I couldn't have been more wrong. I don't think it's rained around here since sometime before my last birthday, and the parched ground has been stirred up to a chunder that resembles granola mixed with powdered sugar. Leah is back in training for cross season and I told her that she'd probably be fine with her cross bike, but the McCreary Ridge descent was loose and sketchy. There were a few instances of chunder-surfing with a locked rear wheel, some downhill hike-a-bikes, and blasting through curtains of cob webs and moss dust on a baked-mulch descent to the coast. I don't think McCreary Ridge sees much use, by anyone.

It was a beautiful afternoon at Waddell Beach. We still had to make our way up Gazos Creek on a steep dusty road ripped up by logging truck traffic, the kind of surface that keeps you close to red-lined even in granny gear — but if it wasn't for that obligation I probably could have relaxed here for a few more hours. This is probably something I'll do more frequently someday if I have the privilege to get really old — sit on a beach and stare at the ocean.

I'm wrapping up some final training runs before we head to Europe for Beat's third year of PTL, which starts next Monday. Today I headed up Black Mountain to hike the steeper pitches with my trekking poles. I haven't done much trekking pole training recently, but I don't think that matters. I use them frequently and juggle them well when I'm running; I've had a lot of practice yet. I've been trying out the Hoka Stinson trail shoe; put about a hundred miles on them so far. This is my first venture into a different model of Hokas since I found the Mafate 1 in 2010 (I like to joke that I'm not a Hoka convert — more like a native born, since I ventured into running while using Hokas.) I like the Stinsons but I'm worried the durability may be lacking; I've already torn the tongue twice and fear for the mesh outers on rocky Alps trails. I have one more new pair of Mafate 2s and may break those in for Tor des Geants. My older pair of Mafate 2s has nearly 950 miles. I was going to try to push them to 1,000, but the now-bald soles are beginning to separate so I may have to accept their early demise.

I planned a longer run today and assumed it would be tedious so I downloaded some new music and settled in for a grind. But what I found was this cool, almost autumn-like breeze wafting along the ridge, a cape of sea fog draped over the mountains, and rich evening sunlight that reflected off the golden hillsides with a mesmerizing shimmer. I shuffled along with my trekking poles and cackled at Weird Al's new album, which I downloaded because until recently I didn't even realize Weird Al was still making new music, but he was one of my favorites when I was 12 and listening to Weird Al makes me feel young. As it turns out, his parody of Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" makes a great running song, even if it's about being "Really Inactive."

"I'm giving up. My energy is shot. I'm never moving from this spot."

Singing and clicking my poles and just like that, 17.5 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing was done. Maybe it's true that once you hit 35, even the miles start slipping away before you notice. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dog days

August is the month for reluctant training, stirring up clouds of dust from the chunder trails, wiping the burn of salt from my eyes, and running without water for eight miles in the midst of a 20-mile run in 85-degree heat because my region is in exceptional drought and the groundwater taps are dry. Through it all, I wonder why I so ambitiously signed up for a late-summer race. But I know the reason. Registrations for these things always take place in January, when California's outside temperatures are tolerable and spirits are still fresh. (I wouldn't call my January legs fresh, however, since I'm usually in training for some hard Alaska race. But at least the legs are peppy in January, because they're going to Alaska.)

Then late summer comes around and the legs are tenderized, spirits over-ripened, and the consequences of January ambition ... those are still the same.

I actually wouldn't mind hibernating through August. One of these years I probably should. But I really do want to participate in the Tor des Geants, and so I need to do at least some physical preparation. Since mid-July I've been aiming to balance more frequent rest days to continue recovering from the Freedom Challenge, slow runs and hikes to add a little more spark to the legs, and some cycling as well because I do really like cycling. Slow is all I've been able to accomplish, but both my speed and energy levels are improving with every run. Since I'm not experiencing much in the way of overtraining symptoms besides being slow, this ongoing improvement suggests that I'm not burned out — I'm just out of shape. It makes sense. I did focused running training through March, which developed into a routine complete with pace expectations. Then I turned to long-distance cycling for three and a half months. I can't just expect to pick up where I left off with running, regardless of how much cycling I did in the interim.

I've been analyzing the data from the Tor des Geants course because — while I am slowly regaining fitness — in truth my only real chance of finishing this race is to go in with a well-understood plan that I can use to crack a whip on my less-than-peppy legs. I never make race plans because plans fall apart, every time — but PTL last year taught me that if I don't adequately judge my abilities against the cut-offs, I'm going to end up chasing them for four days and DNF anyway.

The Tor des Geants is 205 miles with 78,740 feet of climbing. That's an average elevation change of 768 feet per mile, but the reality is usually north of 1,000 feet per mile with the occasional flat section thrown in just to really piss off your feet. Yes, that is a higher average than Hardrock and yes, the TDG is twice as far, and yes, my plan is to hike the entire thing. There may be an occasional shuffle on the infrequent lower grades just to mix up muscle use, but personal experience has taught me that — unless you happened to be named Kilian or are sponsored by Salomon — a focused power-hike is both more enjoyable and more efficient over a long enough period of time. The most common reason people drop out of the Tor des Geants is because they went out too fast and tore up their feet, crushed their knees, and shredded their quads. They didn't think it was too fast. It was probably slower than they'd ever run in their lives. But it was too fast.

Still, to actually finish the Tor des Geants in its 150-hour cutoff, you still need to cover 33 miles per 24-hour period. At a glance, it doesn't seem that bad. A 50K a day? Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers do that all the time! But what's contained in that 50K is what matters. The first 49 kilometers, for example, has 13,110 feet of climbing. (When analyzing run data I often think it terms of kilometers of distance and feet of climbing. It think this is because I grew up with imperial units of measurement but focused the bulk of my running on either 50Ks or Euro-races, so I visualize kilometers.) But to reiterate, that's 49,000 meters of horizontal with 8,000 meters of vertical change, otherwise known as the takeoff angle of a jet. The whole course is more or less like this for 330 kilometers. You can see why I would love this, right? It's a foot race more or less designed for strong and determined hikers. I only wish I was in better shape.

But I am trying to figure out how capable I might be at any given section so I can design a plan with expected rate of travel along with the best, or at least most strategic, places to rest. To do this I tapped my four-time finisher boyfriend for recommendations and then dredged up old Strava data from some hikes I've done on the course. There are 25 prominent "peaks" on the course and I've seen seven of them, some several times because the timing for a crewperson in the Tor des Geants usually works out to hit the same places year after year. Here's a profile of one of my favorites, Col Pinter:

Why, yes, that is 4,500 feet of climbing in 3.5 miles. So fun! Probably even more fun after 120 miles of slogging through much of the same. The blue line is my pace chart. Not sure why it fluctuates so much (guessing stops to catch my breath) but the higher ends are probably most accurate. Shooting for 25-minute miles seems an ambitious but worthy goal. I realistically have to keep my overall moving average below a 30-minute mile to make this work, while still finding the necessary time for sleeping, feet-drying and repair, and eating ... in that order. (Actually eating is the most important thing in an endeavor like this and the hardest to keep up with. That's actually another very common reason people drop out of a multiday event ... they just run out of gas. Low calorie intake was likely my biggest physical setback during the PTL and greatly exacerbated my psychological meltdowns.)

Here's another fun one, Col Loson, and the reminder that there are definitely going to be some 60- and maybe even 90-minute miles in the mix. This is why I'm doing the math even though I doubt I'll be able to adhere even loosely to any kind of race plan. But I have experienced pieces of this route, and feel like these previews will help me set reasonable expectations for myself. The Tor des Geants will be the kind of 90-percent-mental mindgame that I both love and fear the most. Three and a half more weeks to go.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Before it gets dark

I learned about Rob's death the way many of us learn about tragic events involving friends and acquaintances these days — on Facebook, a day before any concrete information was out there. From the timing and a few vague statements, I could only discern that the likely cause was an accident during the Alaska Wilderness Classic, an unsupported adventure race through the Wrangell Mountains. The news had a somber impact on the early part of this week. I did not know Rob well, but he was someone who was kind to me when I was scared and vulnerable, and left a lasting impression.

Rob was a perennial volunteer for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and always manned the checkpoint in Rohn — a remote, spartan outpost on the far side of the Alaska Range. We first met in 2008 when I stumbled into his lovingly outfitted wall tent after spending nearly thirty hours making my way over Rainy Pass. I was physically shattered, emotionally spent, frightened by my night out at thirty below, and had a wet boot and frozen drivetrain after accidentally dropping my bike in Pass Creek. And yet I was in the middle of this race so I felt obligated to either quit or keep going. "Just sleep for a while," Rob encouraged me. "It's okay to sleep."

We met again in February of this year after a tough slog through the slush, mud, glare ice, and puddles of a freakishly warm Dalzell Gorge. Rob greeted me with his characteristic big bear hug and an offer of bratwurst that he was warming on a tiny camp grill. Although it had been six years, he remembered a lot about our first encounter and teased me about leaving my bike at home. "Last time you told me you always felt sorry for cyclists and their anchors," I reminded him.

"Yeah, you certainly picked the right anchor this year," he said, jokingly referring to my sled and the fifty-odd miles of bare ground beyond Rohn.

After too few hours of rest, I was waiting for Beat to finish packing up and chatted with Rob about the upcoming winter version of the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which he planned to start a few weeks later.

"The Ski Classic is something I would love to try someday, if I ever actually learn how to ski," I said, and then continued to ramble about how I could never aspire to the bushwhacking-and-packrafts summer version of the Wilderness Classic because of a paralyzing phobia of moving water.

Rob told me that he, too, felt nervous on the water. "But that's what we do, isn't it? Go beyond where we feel comfortable."

Rob was the type of experienced outdoorsman and endurance athlete who knew how to achieve the edifying balance between comfort zones and reckless risks. He turned back from the Ski Classic this past March after his partner came down with stomach flu. During last week's summer Wilderness Classic, he and his partner hacked through the brush several miles out of their way to avoid a section of Class IV whitewater before preparing to launch their packrafts on the Tana River. Shortly after Rob put in, his boat disappeared into a swirling eddy. He never emerged. A search party located his body 2.5 miles downstream.

When things like this happen to people we know, people who lead lifestyles that we admire or aspire toward, it's human nature to look for the reason. What mistakes were made? How could this be avoided? We cling to illusions of control, whether it's asserting confidence in our own skills or assuring ourselves we'd never do something so dangerous as we sit complacently in a thin metal box hurtling down a freeway at 80 mph. Life is fatal and only we, as individuals, alone, can determine its value. I feel saddened by Rob's death but comforted by the notion that his life was filled with moments that were meaningful to him, and actions that had a meaningful effect on people who knew him, and people who loved him. Ultimately, regardless of how we go, that's all that remains.

John Muir said, "The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark."

Rest in peace, Rob in Rohn.