Sunday, February 01, 2015

Weaknesses

 It occurred to me this week that one of the reasons I'm so nervous about embarking on a solo fat bike tour in western Alaska is because I'm a bit of a weakling. Load a 30-pound bike with 40 pounds of gear, fuel, and food, and I couldn't lift it over my head if I tried. Now you'd think that wouldn't matter, but last year I had my ass handed to me plenty of times because I lacked the strength to do something crucial to forward motion, at least well. Dragging a sled across wet, spongy muskeg in Alaska. Carrying my bike up the "tiger line" of several mountains in South Africa. Simply hauling my sorry self up that steep climb to Coda in Italy (sure, it was the descent that did me in. But sloppy legs didn't help.) Anyway, this is a thing I'm fretting about — I'm not strong. If I had to push my loaded bike up a steep or soft trail with a foot or more of fresh snow, I might never make it.

 The realization came last weekend while riding a big loop around the northern peninsula with my friend Jan. It was the most beautiful day of the year so far, with summertime heat in January and no fog on the coast. Of course everybody in the San Francisco Bay Area was out on this day. This particular route happened to incorporate a lot of bike paths linking up popular trails. It was like playing an arcade game with all the dodging of walkers and strollers and dogs, and then we took a wrong turn on Sweeny Ridge and ended up on an illegal downhill trail. This one was characterized by loose dirt and 30-percent grades — the kind of trail that you just have to scream down if you're going to ride it at all; if you hit the brakes even lightly, you're going to go over the handlebars and die. We opted to walk down, slowly.

It was all in the interest of good adventure and exploring new trails. But by the time we started up a crowded Montara Mountain, I was tired of dodging people and admittedly grumpy. Jan made a valiant effort to clean all of the steep, loose-gravel pitches on that rutted fireroad (the middle section gains 900 feet in a mile.) I gave up early. A group of male hikers in their early 20s taunted me as I pushed uphill. "Why you walking? It's hard, huh? Is it too hard?"

"Nah," I growled. "It's just, eh. What's the point?"

What's the point? Trying to clean a steep climb is fun, and it's important training for strength. I've become too lazy about hard efforts, I recently realized. There was a once a time when I would ride a singlespeed up steep climbs until it felt like my abs might rip apart; now I step off my bike as soon as my legs start to feel the slightest lactic acid burn. Last year, when I was either preparing for or participating in three big multi-day efforts, I developed a tendency toward "Forever Pace" all of the time. I needed to save my energy and strength for the next day, and the next, and the next, for most of a year. I could never go all out. It's important to be conservative during a 21-day bike adventure, but this "save your legs" strategy is not so good for training.

 On Wednesday I had to take my car in for its 45,000-mile service. This is one of my favorite chores because the service department always take many hours, and it gives me a great excuse to ride away from San Jose and hit some dirt in Sierra Azul. I had in mind this 40-mile lollypop loop with two steep climbs, and I was reasonably confident that I could pound it out in four hours with a concentrated effort. Four hours is about all I had between my 1:45 p.m. appointment and 6 p.m. closing time, sorry but your car's stuck here overnight, so you're going to have to ride home along traffic-clogged Stevens Creek Boulevard in the dark.

So I had time and motivation. Even still, I lost heart during the Limekiln Trail climb that mountain bikers refer to as "Overgrown," especially after I started spinning out on dry leaves that kicked up clouds of dust. The trail-work guy in the front end loader warned me that they'd been pulling out massive patches of poison oak, and all I could think about was poison oak dust lodging in my lungs, which only recently finally healed from the Fat Pursuit.

I justified walking, but I did not feel good about it. By the time I hit the rolling traverse, my progress was behind schedule and I considered turning around. But no — no surrender. I could clean this thing. Even if some of the steeper pitches had me riding and 2.8 mph and I can walk at 2.5 — no, riding is still faster. I commenced mashing pedals. The next three miles were all hard breathing and occasional grunting, but I made it the rest of the way to the top of Sierra Azul without putting a foot down.

And even though the Woods Trail resembled one of those runaway truck ramps — 25-percent grades and shin-deep gravel — and even though descending it on a bike was like wrestling someone in tub of marbles, and even though there were still several rolling climbs that I had conveniently forgotten about ... I still made it back to the dealership by 5:38 p.m. Twenty-two minutes to spare. Victory.

On Saturday, Beat sweetly switched out the tires on our expedition fat bike to a set of old Larrys, so I can ride it around town without wearing down the new and expensive studded Dillinger 5s that he sweetly got me for my icy coast expedition. Riding Snoots on pavement and dirt is difficult and slow, but I plan to stick to it in February. "Seriously, don't let me ride Sworxy," I said to Beat. Sworxy is our awesome Specialized S-Works Roubaix carbon road bike. It pedals itself up hills. It has made me weak.

We planned to ride the Steven's Creek Canyon loop, and I was plodding up the hill. By the time I reached the gate on Montebello road, Beat said, "I've been waiting here for a while." I looked at my watch. "Yeah, I'm sure you have because it's been an hour and twenty minutes. I don't think it's ever taken me that long to get here." Personal worst. Thanks, Snoots.

We looped around the Bella Vista Trail and started down the canyon, where Beat stopped at the Indian Creek intersection. "Should we go this way instead?" he asked, pointing up the hill with a sly smile. Let's see, descend fun canyon trail, or climb up a steep fireroad back to the top of Black Mountain?

"Let's do it!" I said. "I might have to walk most of it. But I should try to ride the whole thing. Don't hold me to it, but I'm going to try."

Indian Creek is tough not because it climbs 1,000 feet of loose gravel in 1.5 miles, but because it does so on a series of gut-bustingly steep pitches broken by tiny descents rather than a nice, even grade. It's tough to ride clean on a light mountain bike with aggressive tires, let alone an expedition fat bike with snow tires. But it had to be done. The success of my Alaska coast expedition was at stake.

I followed closely behind Beat, grinding the pedals. A few times the rear tire started spinning in place, and my heart skipped a few beats. "No dabs, no dabs, don't stall" I chanted in my head. A few solid pedal mashes helped me break free, and I continued up the hill, saturated in rich afternoon light as I breathed fire.

About three-quarters of the way up, I ended up on the wrong side of a deep rut. There was no way around, and I didn't believe there was any way to ride over that rut and clear it. This was the end. My leg muscles were already spinning on fumes. But I had to at least try. I stood out of the saddle just long enough to jump-start the surge, and mashed as hard as I could. I weakly hoisted the front wheel over the rut and spun furiously to propel the rear wheel out of the narrow hole. Astonishingly, I made it, and rode the soaring sense of satisfaction to a seemingly effortless climb to the top. No dabs Indian Creek! Victory!

"See, you can do it when you try," Beat said. I hope so, because I only have six more weeks to train. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January heat wave

It's been a productive week-plus, but more time than I care to admit was spent coughing up gunk that was still lodged in my lungs, and fretting about all the reasons why I maybe should just cancel the plane tickets to Unalakleet and not embark on a Bering Sea coast tour in March. For all the potential this bike trip has to be an incredible and intense experience, that meek little voice keeps reminding me that yes — it will be an intense experience, and yes, there are a lot of intimidating unknowns, and yes, I'm not all that strong, and yes, I'm not overly confident in my mechanical skills, and yes, that doesn't matter anyway because the terrain is going to be so exposed and the windchill so extreme that I'll be lucky if I can stop long enough to eat and drink. Even fixing a flat tire will be out of the question if the weather's horrendous, which is to say if there's typical weather.

It's funny that I'm so dubious about this trip. If it were a race, I might be able to bolster the self-confidence to get over myself and be brave. When outside influences set the parameters, it's easier to convince ourselves that something is doable. But because it's my own plan, which I dreamed up with no encouragement save for my own overactive imagination, that meek little voice has more sway. "This is kind of crazy. You're going to be scared. Maybe you should just switch those tickets to Hawaii instead."

"But I don't even want to go to Hawaii. It's hot there."

It's hot in California. Record-breaking temperatures hit the Bay Area, which means it's 75 degrees, which would make most of the human population giddy. I guess it's okay. I'd rather it was rainy again, but it's bad form to complain about perfect weather.

On Saturday Beat and I embarked on a run into Peter's Creek in the heart of Portola Redwoods State Park — Beat's favorite local trail. The 16-mile route plummets off of Skyline Ridge on a steep fire road, and then continues winding into the Slate Creek drainage on brushy and deadfall-strewn singletrack, before climbing up another wall of a ridge through perilous blowdowns, before finally descending just as steeply into Peter's Creek. The old-growth redwood grove — which Santa Cruz loggers left alone because it's really hard to get in and out of — is about as secluded of a place as you can find in this area. It's more remote than you'd expect.

The scenery is beautiful, but I even after four or five outings, I'm still floored by how tough this run is. I find the treacherous descents to be the most strenuous of all, and I was shattered by the time we worked our way around a small loop along the creek. After that, there's still 3,000+ more feet of climbing in the remaining eight miles, it all seems to be on 20-percent-plus grades laced with more steep descents, and it's all brutal. I haven't done a whole lot of running since August, and I'd almost forgotten just how brutal it can be. I'd like to blame the gunk in my lungs for how worked I feel right now, but that's pretty much cleared out. It has been two weeks, after all.

It's funny because I'd been bugging Beat all week to go for a "long" run this weekend. We only shortened it to a "medium" run when I made a plan with a friend to spend all of Sunday on a long bike ride.

"At least biking's easy," I said to Beat. Then I had flashbacks of gasping and dizziness for most of the final fifty miles in the Fat Pursuit, which made me feel sick to my stomach and renewed thoughts about flying to Hawaii and laying on the beach.

Neil Beltchenko, who took second at the Fat Pursuit, posted this fun finish line photo of Beat, me, and Andrea. At the time I was fighting off what felt like an impending blackout, and don't remember much about the finish, or the hours surrounding it. But we all look so smiley that you can't even tell at least one of us is about to keel over. I found myself thinking, "Look how fun that looks. With that big sexy bike! Think how much fun you'll have pushing that thing through a 50-mph blasting whiteout over sea ice!"

At least this photo helped convince my voice of doubt to tear up those virtual tickets to Hawaii, for now.

Time will tell what conclusions I arrive at while sweating in California over the next month. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Things that last

The shortness and breath and lung congestion persisted, so I couldn't go snowboarding on Monday — as had admittedly been my hope. My mom urged me to take at least one rest day after the 29-hour fat bike ride that often left me winded to the edge of hyperventilation. She wasn't wrong, of course. 

"But I'm only in Salt Lake for a couple more days," I protested. I won't be coming back this winter. "These opportunities are rare."

Monday's weather made the right decision easy, with more than an inch of rain that reportedly fell as sleety snain up at elevations where I couldn't breathe anyway. I retreated to the basement to go through several boxes of old things. Since my parents both retired last year, they've begun downsizing. I needed to decide what was worth keeping. It was easy to cast aside the old books and toys, but I lingered longer on the photographs and news clippings, the high school artwork that still reflected dreams of becoming an illustrator, the earnest first newspaper columns, the concert tickets and binders full of angsty teenage journaling. I read through a few entries and thought, "Wow, am I lucky to have gotten through adolescence before the Internet really got huge." After all, the Internet never forgets. I zipped up the binders and carefully placed them back in the trunk. 

 A few of the items in the trunk were a complete mystery, and I lingered over these longer than anything else. A broken seashell, a pen shaped like a skeleton, a small bottle of sand, a tiny bean bag. "What are these?" I wondered. "Why did I save these? Why did they survive every other cull of my archives?" I scoured my memory but it was a blank wall. There were a few other items whose meaning I remembered distinctly — the plastic frog that the boy with whom I was hopelessly and unrequitedly in love at 16 won in an arcade game, and gave to me; the fern-leaf "fossil" I pulled off a mountain in the Wasatch as a young child; the gold accordion pin I was given when I completed accordion lessons in second grade. Each one of these trinkets sparked a rush of warmth to my fingertips, which made the forgotten pieces all the more irksome. "They were important at one point. And now, nothing."

It's an unsettling reminder — that everything gets replaced, and everyone gets forgotten, and time erases everything, eventually. Still we all spend our lives striving to find experiences that have meaning and moments that matter, and this in itself is a beautiful mystery.

 On Tuesday my dad turned 62, whose milestone, he bragged, was that he now qualified for a lifetime Golden Age national park pass. It's another perk of retirement that he seems to be enjoying immensely. He's as vibrant and strong as I've ever seen him, if not more. I had a few free hours on Tuesday morning before my deadlines set in, so we headed for a hike up Grandeur Peak. The mountainside was carpeted in more than a foot of fresh powder, and low-hanging branches rained continuous showers of snow down on our heads and necks. Otherwise the morning was quite warm and I was stripped down to "summer" wear — pants and a thin long-sleeved shirt, no gloves or hat — as I gasped my way up the mountain. Dad broke trail and I lagged many meters behind, wondering whether I should perhaps be more concerned about this raspy breathing. Was it potentially damaging to my lungs? The night before, I had dinner with my best friend from high school, and we discussed our "30-something" aches and issues. She still feels lingering effects from a serious car accident that happened more than 15 years ago.

"When you're young, as long as you survive something, you think it's over, it's okay. And then, when you get older, you realize that no, these things stay with us."

 I decided against extending my stay to snowboard with my sister on Wednesday. Although I wanted to spend time with my sister, my lungs were still raw and sore, and my congestion was getting worse again. Also, the truth of the matter is that I'm downright terrified about the prospect of snowboarding. It's been a lot of years and my balance seems to be getting worse. I'm not 20 anymore and can't go cartwheeling down a mountain with the same consequences I enjoyed back then, which were none. 125-mile fat bike rides are something I understand well now, something I can handle. Snowboarding is ... something in my past.

Still, the lungs issue was a bit disconcerting. There were times in the Fat Pursuit when it felt like a 500-pound man was sitting on my chest, squeezing out all of the air. A friend of mine who is a physician suggested that high altitude pulmonary edema was one possible cause. Even though 8,000 feet is a relatively low elevation for such a severe reaction, a combination of sea-level acclimation, a high rate of exertion, dehydration, and the cold virus I was battling, could produce an environment ripe for HAPE. Unless I get my lungs scanned, there is no way to know what affected my breathing, or whether it might persist in future efforts. What if it's the kind of thing that sticks with me?

The drive home was uneventful, except for getting out of my car to walk three miles in the Ruby Mountains north of Elko. I just wanted to break up the drive to better my chances of staying awake, and kept the effort very low, but still fought with my lungs for oxygen flow. Still, it was a beautiful day and nice to get out; I was feeling triumphant as I hurtled toward Elko while dreaming about smothered burritos. A motivating song came onto my mP3 shuffler: the theme song from the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This song is an overwrought pseudo-latin march from a film about Christopher Columbus, appropriately titled "Conquest of Paradise." Beat often has me make playlists for him before races. I downloaded this song before the Tor des Geants specifically to annoy him, as this song is played incessantly at UTMB events.

So I downloaded the song as a joke, but admit I find it enjoyable for the memories it elicits. As I was singing along with the lyrics — which in my mind just go "Du-du-dum, dum-du-du-du-dum" — a text pinged on my phone. "Congratulations for getting into UTMB!" Beat wrote.

Even though I'm not sure what I want to do with my summer, I signed up for the UTMB lottery last month, because I badly want to try again to finish a full race in the Alps after one partial UTMB and two DNFs in longer races, and because at my current rate of ultramarathon racing, I may not qualify again for a while. When the news pinged my phone just as "Conquest of Paradise" was playing — and I promise I'm not making this up — it seemed like a sign, an important precursor to a meaningful experience. I turned up the music, pumped my fist triumphantly to the rhythm, sang the "du-du-dums" as loud as I wanted, and felt invigorated for the long drive home.