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. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pursuit of experience

Between the high-pitched moan of the wind and the rasping of my lungs, I didn't hear all of the air burp out of the rear tire, again. It was sometime around midnight along the spine of the Continental Divide, amid blasting wind, dagger-like snow, and fog. The curtain was so thick and opaque that, when illuminated by a headlamp, it had the strange effect of making midnight look like a very gloomy, gray day. A dreadful place to have a flat. I didn't notice at first, either, while churning the pedals to propel my two-wheeled tank over a soft carpet of snow. The effort was always hard, and a completely flat tire made it only incrementally harder. Only when the dark spots appeared in my eyes did I think to stop, because I had to, because I couldn't breathe. When I checked the tire, as had become my habit over the day, I discovered that I had been rolling on the rim. 

Tubeless tires and snow bikes. It's an idea that could work, in theory, and that main reason I was here on the border of Montana and Idaho was to test that theory, among others. Problem is, the low tire pressures necessary to float on top of snow that had been softened by above-freezing temperatures, then churned up by snowmobile traffic, were too low to hold an air seal. Bouncing or mashing pedals would cause air to burp out of the rims until it was all gone. This had been an ongoing problem for much of the day, and I again chastised myself for holding onto optimism and not putting in a tube sooner. But now the weather was really inhospitable to a fifteen-minute chore like that.

"Bikes are so stupid," I grumbled as I knelt down with a pump that I had also grown to hate, because it screwed onto the valve and this was a difficult thing to do with cold fingers. This bike was a heartless taskmaster, making me work as hard as I was capable just to pedal at 3 mph up hills. Then, when I was no longer strong enough to keep pedaling uphill, the bike would push back on my shoulders and wrists until they ached. Sure, maybe I'm just not strong and that's my fault, but then then there are these mechanicals! My heart was still racing as I pulled on gloves and attached the pump. When am I going to learn to be better at these things, and why shouldn't I just take a sled and snowshoes to Unalakleet instead of this heavy bike, and where did all the air go, up here at 8,000 feet? When I faced the wind directly, it had a metallic taste, as though it was whisking all the oxygen from my mouth and injecting it with lead. 

My core temperature steadily dropped as I filled up the balloon tire with tiny gasps of deoxygenated air, then unscrewed the pump. To my dismay, the valve stem came out with it, releasing all the air in a loud sigh. I stood up, threw a small tantrum, and then screwed the valve stem back in after I calmed down. With fingers I could no longer feel, I tried to get it as tight as I could, then commenced pumping again. And again, I couldn't remove the pump without taking the valve stem with it. "This is impossible. I'm just going to walk to the highway from here. How far is it? Twenty miles? Bikes are so stupid." 

Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly, or I would have acknowledged that it would be simple enough to push the bike to the nearest wind-protected spot, put on all my warm clothing, and either put in a tube or try again with pliers to tighten the valve stem. But no, my head was reeling backward. My hands had gone numb and my core was shivering. "If I can't do this then I'll never survive the Norton Sound. This is easy stuff." Out of the fog, a headlight approached. I knew it had to be Beat, who left checkpoint two shortly after me. After an unsuccessful try with the pump himself, he suggested the obvious and chastised me for not even bothering to put on my down coat, let alone my poor choice to stop in worst spot of the whole race to pump up a tire. 

"But it was completely flat!" I protested. 

We pushed our bikes together along the ridge; I finally put my down coat on, and was struggling to get my core temperature back up. This pass was called Two Top Divide, because it crosses into Idaho and then back into Montana and then into Idaho again. I'd already lost track of whether we'd seen the first top yet, or not. The grade steepened, and I struggled more. Beat disappeared into the fog. I became irrationally terrified of losing him. I pushed harder, and my heart rate spiked, and then my airways closed up. No matter how many wheezing gasps of air I tried to push down my throat, my lungs stayed empty. Hyperventilating accelerated. "Asthma attack!" I panicked. I've never had symptoms of asthma before, nor an asthma attack, but this is what I imagined it must feel like. Regardless of cause, this was certainly what it felt like to not breathe, and not breathing was very scary. 

"Pressure breathing. Try pressure breathing. It helps," Beat said to me. He'd heard me wheezing. He'd been there all along. Black spots were appearing again in my eyes. 

"I'm over-exerting myself," I gasped when I finally had enough air to speak. "I'm sorry; I just can't work this hard." I was already moving about as slowly as possible within the definition of forward motion. Basically what I was saying was I had to stop. But I didn't do that. 

Jay P's Backyard Fat Pursuit was a 200-kilometer snow bike race put on by Jay Petervary, a well-known endurance biker and record-holding veteran of the Iditarod Trail. The race started in Island Park, Idaho, then traveled over the Continental Divide to West Yellowstone, Montana, before making its way back to Island Park on a series of snowmobile trails through the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park. 

Beat, Liehann and I all traveled out from California to race the Fat Pursuit, despite limited training in this specific regard. We were all just out here for "fun," to explore new trails scouted by an experienced rider who we respect, and enjoy a social reunion with several good friends and others in the tight-knit and inherently wonderful fat bike community. Endurance races are all about community; I think even the most competitive riders would agree. Plus, the impetus of 200 kilometers was appealing. I have an intimidating plan for an Iditarod Trail tour later this winter, and needed a good long ride to get my mind and body better tuned in to the reality of this plan. I needed experience. 

While I could certainly race a lighter bike with less gear, the loaded Snoots isn't *that* heavy. I didn't think I'd be competitive, but I also didn't expect to struggle for most of the distance. But with low mileage and limited high-resistance training these past few months, I haven't really developed my "snow" muscles. The trails were recently groomed, but above-freezing temperatures ensured this smooth surface stayed soft. And as soon as a group of snowmobiles zoomed past — which was not an infrequent occurrence — they whipped up the snow into a creamy mush. Pedaling on top of this required a lot of power output, and the mountainous terrain ensured consistent climbing and descending rather than more forgiving flat terrain. It was quite strenuous, and almost impossible to not venture into the high-intensity range, even while pushing. Remembering how I felt two weeks earlier after riding just 20 miles in difficult conditions out to Borealis cabin in the White Mountains, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be a long race." 

None of it was going to be easy, but in so many ways, spending an entire day (and sometimes more) on the move is still my favorite thing to do. The flow of forward motion calms my mind and quiets inner chaos. The physical aspect is both invigorating and soothing, even through the difficulties. I have the experience behind me to understand that discomforts are just discomforts, and negative emotions are often just a chemical response to physical deficits. The nagging pains and fatigue fade away quickly, but the satisfaction remains. 

Sometimes, when you give yourself enough time and distance, many hours will pass in a peaceful trance. The barriers between the snowy forest and your own finite body are blurred, and the landscape of your mind becomes as expansive and limitless as the universe itself. Time bends over itself, night opens amid the quiet murmurs of your heart, and the world narrows into a soft beam of light, a place of shadows and memories. It's a beautiful experience. I do not tire of the pursuit for this perspective. Unfortunately, my body sometimes does. 

 Not being able to breathe was a frustrating development, but not exactly surprising. Consistently over-exerting myself at high altitudes, when I was still recovering from a cold I caught in Alaska, was a sure path to physical breakdown. Up on Two Top Divide, I crossed a line from which I was not going to be able to return. My throat was on fire, my nostrils tingled, my head became light and my vision dark. There were 40 miles left in the race, and no way to slow down without stopping, so I'd just have to demand that my lungs keep sucking limited oxygen through a straw. Hopefully, I wouldn't lose consciousness before I finished. If nothing else, it would be a learning experience.

Beat stuck with me, as we often do in races even when we decide not to, because we enjoy each other's company and quietly worry about each other. We arrived at a wind-protecting cluster of trees and managed to fix the tire, then continued toward a steep and jerky descent down the torn-up trail into Idaho. I was in too much respiratory distress to feel sleepy, and the long night stretched out indefinitely. I thought about the things I'd do differently in Alaska: Tubes in the tires. A flip-top pump. An extra pump. Always always put on my down coat when stopped. A better multi-tool. Maybe bring some thicker gloves rather than mittens. A better face mask to protect my lungs. Do some exercises to strengthen my wrists. Wish I could make myself stronger in general, but there's probably not enough time. Still, ultimately, most of my gear performed well. Despite projecting anger onto Snoots, it's a great bike — responsive and surprisingly agile for its girth, and as I mentioned, not *that* heavy. My only complaints were my rear tire and lungs, with their infuriating refusals to hold air.

Beat and I arrived at checkpoint three just before sunrise. When it's not a checkpoint, the "Man Cave" is a frequent respite for touring cyclists — a kind of garage with a corner kitchen and a giant bison head on the wall. We enjoyed sourdough pancakes, bacon and coffee while chatting with the friendly volunteers. I was feeling downright loopy — probably from sleep deprivation, although I suspected mild hypoxia. My brain hadn't been getting enough oxygen for many hours. I was mildly buzzed, drunk on the effort and a strong desire to just sleep it off.

I finally convinced Beat we had slummed at the checkpoint long enough. We were already close to the back of the race — which I admittedly found disheartening, because although I'd taken my sweet time in a lot of respects, I'd also been trying really hard. We had 21 more miles to get'er done. A woman from Fairbanks named Andrea joined us after her short nap at the checkpoint. She'd decided to stick with us for the remainder of the race, even though I was struggling mightily and slowing even more. Andrea is registered for her first Iditarod Trail Invitational in March. She wanted to chat about that race, and was a fun conversationalist even though I was often gasping too much to exhale more than a few syllables at a time. To Andrea: I'm sorry if I came across as terse or unfriendly. I enjoyed talking with you, I just was often too winded to speak.

We arrived at the finish line just after noon, which just happened to coincide with the after-race party under the arch. Because of this, there was a large crowd at the finish, and we received quite the reception. The final four miles of the course had been especially slow, torn up my heavy snowmobile traffic, and my head was spinning with the effort of just maintaining forward motion for that distance. Grunting over the final line took every last molecule of oxygen reserve, and I very nearly blacked out (I passed out and collapsed a few months ago after stepping out of a sauna, and I now know what it feels like right before you faint — the blood pressure crash and the intense dizziness.) The crowd was gathering around us and I could feel my knees weakening. I fought it, embarrassed, but eventually I had to lay down in the snow before my body did so involuntarily.

I spent the next hour feeling heavily buzzed, tilting my head to see things clearly and laughing at everything that was said to me, funny or not. I don't remember much about that time. I had to say goodbye to good friends who I don't see often, and congratulate the podium finishers who'd been done for twelve hours. It was a great group of folks. Jay P puts on a good event, well-planned and executed with just the right amount of checkpoint support. He told us that next year he might make Fat Pursuit a multi-day distance, which I wholeheartedly support. Let the fast folks experience what it's like to venture drunkenly into the next day, and the next, with only your own untrustworthy wits and past experience to rely on.

I still can't believe I had a near meltdown over a flat tire, or that I apparently need oxygen tanks to take a loaded fat bike above 8,000 feet. But I certainly learned a lot in my pursuit of experience. I always do.