Monday, February 27, 2006
Today, for no reason, a mundane conversation I had with a coworker about a year ago suddenly popped into my head. It's been buried in the back of my mind, and I have no idea why it's even stored in my long-term memory - except as a glaring statement on how much I've changed since I moved to Alaska.
My coworker was training for the upcoming cycling season, and was trying to plan a fitness routine he could stick with. He hated the hamster wheel/spinning bike/whole indoor workout setup more than anyone I know. So he asked me what I knew about studs that you could attach to bike tires. He thought they might help him navigate icy Idaho highways during longer rides.
I remember shooting back a reply that was something along the lines of "That's crazy. Why in the world would you want to ride outside in the winter when you have a well-lit, climate-controlled gym at your disposal?" (I was a big hamster wheel advocate at the time.)
He told me he was training for a double century, and needed to keep a pretty strict routine that required him to step up his mileage soon. And he just couldn't put in the time indoors.
"But that's crazy," I replied. "Why would anyone want to ride a double century?"
Not only did I not have any advice to offer, but the whole idea turned my stomach. I promptly forgot the unpleasantness - until today, only one year later. I'm still plugging away on the hamster wheel, but this time with big dreams of double triple-digits running through my head.
There are a lot of things I want to do this summer, but I think the first event I might like to plan for is the Fireweed 200, a 200-mile highway ride from Sheep Mountain to Valdez. The race is slated for July 8. That's a little too close to 24 hours of Kincaid (June 24) to feasibly train for both (there's another similar event I specifically told another coworker she was "crazy" for doing - in her case, the 24 hours of Moab race.) So I do have to make some decisions, and map out a plan. The Fireweed 200 has a nondrafting division that appeals to the rabid soloist in me, so my early pull is for the road race. (However, some have suggested that I consider riding the entire Fireweed 400. While I do have a plug-along attitude that has gotten me through some tough spots, I'm not exactly an ultra athlete - and the Fireweed 400 is not only Four Hundred Nonstop Miles, but also 28,000 feet of climbing! UltraRob has done it. But UltraRob is UltraRob. He's one of those RAAM people that even the current me would call crazy.)
But I am excited about the prospect of training for and riding in these "ultra" races - if nothing else, to spite my 2005 self for being so self-depreciating and cynical. I do not need Cat 5 status or quads of steel to ride 200 miles or spend 24 hours on a mountain bike. I have love! I have Power Bars! I'm good to go.
February mileage: 414.9
Temperature upon departure: 22
One thing that makes winter cycling so exciting and yet so frustrating at the same time is its total lack of predictability. Sure, you can gage weather conditions, new snow, temperature, etc. But you're never going to know what a trail will be - or become - until you're right on top of it. You could go out for a 13-mile ride that you'd successfully pounded out in less than an hour in the recent past, and watch it take you more than two.
Geoff and I went out for what was going to be our easy, pre-ski ride and spent over two hours navigating conditions that dangled on the precipice between rideable and not. Even the roads, which yesterday received about four inches of snow (not enough to plow on a weekend), were zig-zagging, fish-tailing affairs. On the trails we met soft, deep and sometimes all-together untrammeled snow (had I had my snowboard with me, I probably would have giggled with joy.) I enjoyed the challenge of trying to pedal through stuff that very recently I would have deemed unrideable, but there are only so many times you can bury your front tire in a drift and slam your crotch into the handlebar stem before you start asking yourself - why? (I'm sure if I were a member of the opposite gender, that question would have been asked much sooner.)
There was some poetic justice to today's ride, as we swerved down the final steep hill to the reservoir. Geoff, who is by leaps and bounds more athletic than I am, said "You know, I have a lot more appreciation for what you did last weekend." And I know, deep down, that winter cycling isn't the classic struggle of man against man or even man against self. No, it's the much more modern, much more sinister battle of man against machine, in a place where the very tool you chose to save you can become your worst enemy.
That said, the Iditarod Invitational racers are clearing checkpoints pretty quickly. As of early this afternoon, four bikers had already passed the 130-mile point. That's 24 hours for the leaders. Now they're really moving into the Alaska Range, above treeline and onto the sweeping tundra so remote the race organizers call it "The Black Hole." As of 3 p.m., Rocky Reifenstuhl was one of two in front. His brother, Steve, is marching the 350-mile distance on foot. He did the race last year, and here's what he said about the experience:
"The edge with which I am dancing is where the mind can make the body perform beyond what is believed to be possible. It is spiritual, it is dreamlike, it penetrates to my core and when I come back from it, I know I was there, and it beckons for months afterward ... At the finish line in McGrath, the physical and the emotional unite in a crescendo of emotion, pain, elation. The "other" becomes a memory. This unique reality has been reached by the passage of miles, time, physical exertion, psychological strain and sleep deprivation. It is so close to me, yet a world away."
Saturday, February 25, 2006
The 2006 Winter Olympic Games are almost over, and the pictures in the newspaper make me nostalgic for the balmy February nights of 2002, tearing through the crowded streets of Salt Lake City with a massive Canadian flag, just to stir things up a bit.
I came of age in the shadow of Olympic anticipation - learned to drive on streets under massive construction, lost my favorite wrong-side-of-the-tracks concert venue to a beautifying "Gateway" project, watched my alma mater squeeze out students to make way for an athletes-only Olympic village. Everything seemed to be closed down or off limits or reserved for the Olympic elite. By the time 2002 finally came around, I was about as close to anti-Olympics as they come. I thought the entire thing was an elaborate publicity sham. I thought that Salt Lake City was delusional to think it could host such an sweeping international event with any success. And I was pretty sure I was just going to hole up in some place far away and wait for them to be over.
But then they came. And I was living four blocks from downtown Salt Lake City, watching the sterile city streets transform into something colorful, loud and wholly alive. There were people everywhere - dressed in elaborate costumes, gyrating to ghettoblasters, guzzling from suddenly-legal open containers and lining up by the thousands for the free medals ceremony rock concerts. Athletes showed up at all the hot clubs. Latvians and Croatians and Slovakians were dancing in the streets. People waved flags from their balconies. How could you not get caught up in that?
One particularly memorable night, we set out with a video camera and all of the sense of a horde of 6-year-olds set loose in Disneyland. The rest of the night generated a series of caught-on-tape outtakes that at the time came so naturally, and now seem so surreal: an interview with Barney the Dinosaur, absurd arguments with anti-Mormon activists, "short-track street skating" in downhill ski boots; crashing a street rave; and taking on Canadian identities to join a group of real Canuks in full-gusto cheering.
It's kind of funny that those street parties became my Olympic experience. The only actual event I saw was the Men's Super G. Tickets were so expensive - and by the time I realized that I was in fact completely in love with the Olympics, they were over. Sometimes I wonder if I'll have to explain to my grandchildren someday about the time I was sitting right on top of the Olympics and missed them, but I don't think so. I think I saw the Olympics for what they really are - one big, surreal party. And everyone's invited.
February mileage: 401.7
Temperature upon departure: 18
Today Geoff and I went to lunch at our favorite semi-organic greasy spoon, Cosmic Kitchen (there are two types of restaurants in this town - the swank places that welcome Xtratuf-wearing locals with open arms, and the carrot-juice-brewing hippie places that also serve beef and cheese burritos the size of your head.) After months of hugging the horizon, the noontime sun ventured toward midsky, bathing the whole restaurant in white light. We took our plates into the glare of a south-facing window just as a family settled in next to us - only on the other side of the window, where snow-covered picnic tables lined the balcony. There they sat for nearly an hour - sipping coffee, munching on corn chips, soaking in sunlight - with steam pouring from their burgers and breath in the subfreezing air.
That's when I decided it would be a great day for a bike ride. I left work a little later than hoped, but I still thought it would be good to go out for an hour, absorb some vitamin D through that narrow slit in my balaclava, and come back with time to spare before Foreign Film night.
But one aspect of the Susitna 100 that I didn't anticipate letting go was this whole training thing. Giving up the multihour, four-times-a-week bicycle rides I've become so accustomed to almost feels like losing a job. I fear that suddenly I'll find myself sprawled on my coach, pouring through classifieds for used bicycle parts and struck with that hollow feeling that my life is slowly sinking into uselessness ... meaningless ... joblessness. Sure - I could get some other hobby. Find a new passion. Maybe even get a life. Sure - and while I'm at it, I could apply for new jobs. It's not as easy as it sounds.
That said, my one hour ride turned to three, as simple as cranking those pedals and wishing I had decided to bring my Camelbak with me, especially as I was laboring up the 1200-foot-vertical, 3-mile climb the locals call East Hill (I don't typically bring water on short rides, because bottles freeze in about a millisecond and the Camelbak seems like overkill.) The whole time, I had this freeing feeling that I was riding for fun again - spinning down the snow-dusted bike path on the Spit, bouncing through the surprisingly technical ice boulderfield created by snowplows along East End Road. I was riding like I wasn't trying to put in miles, so the miles just came.
Before I knew it, the sun was slipping below the horizon. It was so far west that I could only see streaks of orange light reaching above treeline - a long way from its position in the south that I've become so accustomed to. And I knew what it felt like to be that family eating their lunch on the balcony on a 20-degree day in February. Despite all appearances, it felt good ... a rare and much appreciated afternoon in the sun.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
I look forward to putting this mug to good use this weekend when I kick back to watch the check-in times on the Iditarod Trail Invitational. This race makes the Susitna 100 look like a few turns down the Bunny Slope. I'd like to try it next year. I really mean that. With a little bike investment, a little more practice and a lot of workouts, it's not totally incomprehensible. By 2007, Geoff will be ready to take on the 350 miles to McGrath on foot anyway, so I sure as Susitna should be able to do it on a bike. Unless the trail conditions are bad ... how long is 350 miles at 2.5 mph?
As for this weekend, I'll be cheering on local rider Adam Bartlett, Alaska Magazine columnist Ned Rozell on skis, and my boy from back home - Eric Johnson of Utah on foot. In the long race, I'm watching out for Kathi Merchant of Chickaloon. She's a woman. She's Alaskan. And she's riding her bike to Nome. I am in awe.
I forgot to link this before, but I answered "20 questions" for Daniel of St. Louis. Daniel was kind. They're mostly softballs. But as for the Iditarod Invitational, which begins Saturday, I encourage all to join me, Tim, Old Bag and everyone else who has committed to kicking back with rich food, a warm hearth, and good vibes for those who are still out there, suffering toward wisps of glory in the endless snow.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
February mileage: 371.8
Temperature upon departure: 25
First "after the storm" ride today. I didn't ride much differently than I would have before Saturday - in fact, I rode a little harder because I was thrilled to see patches of bare pavement on Skyline Drive (although the majority of my ride was still atop packed ice.) I noticed I had a lot of lactic acid buildup in my legs early on - probably because my muscles are still fatigued. But some good, hard gulps of subfreezing air felt good (how I missed that air on Saturday. Really.)
One thing I didn't quite realize the extent of was the mayhem caused by the Susitna 100 Web site's failure to post my finishing time until several hours after I came in. I was back in Palmer, showered, fed and semi-rested before I called my mom - who by that time was semi-frantic. Later, I found out friends of mine in Utah had been watching my progress with some trepidation - enough put in phone calls to any race official whose number they could track down. Geoff's mom was worried. My co-workers were anxious. Even fellow bloggers Tim, Old Bag and Velocipete, who were making good on their promise to kick back with some snacks and a roaring fire and cheer me on, were posting notes of concern. And you know, that feels really good. It's nice to know that, if I was lying out on the tundra with my face in the snow, that there are people out there who would call on the search and rescue party.
When I set out on this journey, I had no idea such a great and extensive support network would rally behind me. Before the race, I received dozens of "good luck" e-mails, some from old acquaintances who I didn't think even knew I was living in Alaska. My boss greeted me upon my return with a huge basket of Pepsi, Goldfish and cereal. People from all over the world dropped in comments. Out on the trail, we may have to battle our inner demons alone, but the knowledge that others care is a powerful ammunition.
Speaking of, I never posted my "Ride all the way to the Susitna 100" fundraising results. With the help of more than 25 kind sponsors, I was able to raise $438, and ride more than 1200 "arctic" miles in the process. After I hit my original goal, the race entry fee, I still saw $213 in support - which means $107 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and the other $106 easily covered the cost of transportation and food (I even splurged on the turkey jerky.) Which means I did this entire race on the love and support of family, friends, cyclists and the blogging community at large. I don't even know how to begin to say thank you, but I'm open to suggestions.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
So now what do with myself? The cycling can only get better, really, because how can you do worse that ice biking? (unless Geoff's "stream cycling" ever crosses into the mainstream.) The roads today were as dry as I've ever seen them; the trails blissfully hardened by the thaw/refreeze. There's riding in me still, and I've started a quest that I'm not ready to stop. But where do I go from here? The Soggy Bottom 100? The Fireweed 200? The possibilities seem endless.
No. This isn't over.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Also, I forgot to mention in yesterday's post that Geoff won the foot division of the Little Su 50K. He came in first with a time of 3:54, just ahead of elite ultra-marathoner Julie Udchachon. I biked the first 25 miles of my race in about that time. He ran 31. Geoff's the champion. I'm not even a contender. But I do feel good about what I did. Really. I did something that as recently as six months ago I would have never imagined myself doing, and I had an incredible journey.
Yesterday, when I was mulling over some of the decisions I made on the trail - and the times I posted - Geoff told me, "Only you know what you did out there." He's right. The ideology behind the Susitna 100 is not necessarily to be the fastest runner or best rider. It's about pushing into the Alaska wilderness and making some tracks in the snow - whether they're tire tracks, footprints, or a swerving combination of both.
There are some ways I could have been better prepared. I knew it when I lined up next to my fellow racers, most equipped with specially-built snow bikes, wide rims, 3-4" tires and rigid forks. And there I was, straddling my rock hopper. I felt like I was standing at the startling line of the Tour de France with a beach cruiser. In conditions where flotation was everything, that analogy isn't really isn't that far off. But I did the best I could with what I had. And, for its highs and lows, its lonliness, pain, joy, beauty and desolation - the experience was amazing.
What was the best moment of my race? It happened as I was cruising across the Susitna River on the first leg of the race. I looked toward Mount Susitna, bathed in golden air and shimmering in the sunlight. Across the river I saw a gray shadow dart into the woods. I convinced myself it was a wolf. I'll never know if it actually was - but I felt absolutely inspired. I don't think it matters what your religion is, or if you even have one - it's in these moments that you see God.
And the worst? Ironically, that happened in nearly the same spot, just after I had climbed out of the Susitna River on the incoming stretch. It's a place they call Dismal Swamp, a bog even by winter standards. Rain was coming down hard. I had just spent the last two hours spinning in my lower gears through the deteriorating conditions. When I got to the swamp, my forward motion stopped all together. All I could do was spin a few inches deeper into the soft snow before I fell over. I got off to push but the bike still knifed into the snow, making even the walking tedious. Even my body felt bogged down. I stopped to check my clothing situation and realized my "water resistant" winter coat had given up the fight. My lower layers were dripping, my gloves were dripping, my nose was dripping. I don't think it matters what your religion is, or if you even have one - it's in these moments that you pray for miracles.
That's the moment I've agonized over a bit since Sunday morning. I worry I may have given up on the Susitna at that point - walked out because, well, I had to. I knew I would have to deal with some bad conditions, but it seemed like they hit me harder than they hit other bikers still on the trail when the rain hit. It could have been my "skinny tire" bicycle. It could have been my inexperience. For what it's worth, I did try to ride through that last leg. Continually. I would get back on the bike for short stretches. Swerve a bit. Hit a snowbank. Stop. Walk some more.
It's hard not to second-guess the decisions you make in the middle of the night. I haven't pulled an all-nighter since I worked at Einstein's Bagels in college. I forgot how precariously unbalanced my mood can become, and I had some amazing swings during the race. One minute I'd be lying with my helmet in a snowbank after one of the many sideways falls I took, on the verge of sobbing and contemplating just staying there, crumpled in the snow. The next I'd be back on my bike, singing along at the top of my lungs to a lovably dated TLC song on 3 a.m. radio ... "I don't want no scrub ... Scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me." Just about every emotion I had was terribly exaggerated.
But through all that, I forced myself to keep some perspective. I thought about other moments on my bike that took me to the edge of my breaking point, and how I got through them. I thought about all the people back home - and across the world - that might be cheering me on, even at 3 a.m. I asked myself if I'd rather be pushing my bike through the dark Alaska wilderness or baking bagels in some lonely, starchy kitchen. And I realized that there were some people beneath the orange glow of Anchorage city lights on the distant horizon that had it even worse than me.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I can overanalyze my performance until my fingers hurt, but the truth is, what I did was go out for incredibly beautiful - incredibly long - bike ride. That's all. Anyone could do the Susitna 100, but the real joy of it is it takes you to places so few see. It takes you to the edge of the brutal, lonely wilderness and it makes you look deep inside yourself. You have to ask yourself some hard questions. You have to get a grip on your limitations. And, when things are really looking bad, sometimes you have to sing some bad '90s pop music just to get through it. What a great way to be inagurated into the Alaska lifestyle.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
February mileage: 354.0
Temperature upon departure: 32
Hello. I don't really have the time or coherence of mind to do a full race report by now, but I thought I could drop in a note for those who might be watching the Susitna 100 race results and are feeling a bit concerned that I checked in 13 miles from the finish at 5:45 a.m. and haven't finished yet (for the record, I came in at 9:54 a.m. I'm sure the Web site will update soon.)
I'm back and elated that I finished. I did manage to make most of my goals for the race - that is: survive, survive with all my digits intact, and finish the race. I was on pace to make it to the finish in 24 hours, but I wasen't paying attention and took an accidental 2-mile detour toward the end of the race that I had to backtrack - earning me an extra four miles but costing the 24-hour cutoff.
So I accomplished my goals. But in the fully-sunlit hindsight of my race, I'm feeling a little disappointment with my performance. This stems from something I've been saying all along - that, for me, the Susitna 100 was a psychological race. A real test of mind over body. And now I realize that my body did great. My mind, however, really dropped the ball.
I'll try to post in more depth tomorrow. But, basically, the race started out with ideal trail conditions. I was pushing easy, enjoying the sunshine reflecting across the frozen boreal bogs. I was halfway through the race in eight hours, feeling strong, certain I was on pace for an 18-hour race. I was stoked. And that's where I let my guard down.
Right after sunset, just as I was checking out of the 53-mile checkpoint, a heavy rain started coming down. The warm, wet downpour, compounded by temps in the 34-37 degree range and daylong sun quickly reduced the trail to soft sugar. Within an hour I was soaked to the core, fighting the pounding headwind out on the exposed surface of the Yetna River and plunging through a trail that had the consistency of wet sugar. I could have just dealt with the fact that movement was going to be slower. I could have stopped and put on a change to dry clothing. But I dwelt on the sudden misfortune and I let it get to me. I pushed through most of Dismal Swamp because it was truly unrideable for someone with my type of bike. But the time I returned to the 25-mile checkpoint, there was two or three new inches of wet snow accumulated on the ground, and it was coming down quick. I think that was the point I gave into my suffering. I was having such a hard time pedaling that I decided I was going to walk the rest of it. All said, I probably walked 25 of the last 40 miles. Of course, now I'm asking myself a lot of questions about that decision - was it really necessary? Did I really need to take it at that level? Couldn't I have pushed a little harder, despite my lack of perfect equipment or experience?
The psychology of racing is interesting. Now, looking back on it, I see that my body wasen't hurting. My body felt strong. But everything about my last 40 miles was so frustrating, frustrating - all because conditions started out so well, and deteriorated so suddenly. Still, I am really happy to have finished - and even the really tough stuff about the experience just make me want to go out next year and try again as a season veteran. I didn't mean to be such a downer in this post. But, these are my first post-race, pre-sleep thoughts. More tomorrow. Pictures too.
Friday, February 17, 2006
February mileage: 250.0
Temperature on departure: 19
I just thought I'd do a quick post because I forgot to mention yesterday that the Susitna 100 race officials will be posting racers' progress live on their Web site. I'm not sure exactly where on the site this info will appear, or how up-to-date it will be, but there's a pretty good chance the World Wide Web know how well I'm doing before I do. How great is technology?
I wanted to put in a good, I mean really good, veg-out day today. But instead I spent most of the day doing last-minute TLC on the bike - gluing the tires to the rim, packing and repacking my gear, practicing tube changes on those awful-tight studded tires, adjusting the brakes and gearing, etc. I got out for a short ride early this morning to stay loose. I've been lulled into light dressing by the recent warm snap, and today's ride was a good reminder in one of life's important lessons - "just because it's not -20, does not mean it's warm." So, despite the call for sustained close-to-freezing temps tomorrow, I packed on the heavy side with extra clothing (after all, there's a better-than-not chance that I'll be rained on during the race, so I'm packing two complete changes of my bottom layers as well as every neoprene piece of gear I own.)
I've probably said this before, but I feel like I'm as ready as I'll ever be. That is, I'm as ready as I'll ever be in the universe where I don't have an extra two months to train or the money to buy a bomber winter bike. My current state of mind has tipped backed toward creeping anxiety. That's OK though. How crazy would I be if I wasn't nervous? Thanks to all for the well wishes and good energy. Hopefully everyhting will go well and I'll be back here in the next 48 hours to post a race report. That is, I'll post a race report after I've called my mom, caught a few winks and eaten the biggest Pepsi and goldfish breakfast this side of IHOP.
T minus 0 days, 12 hours, 48 minutes and counting.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
I didn't learn too much at the meeting that I didn't already know. The race officials traveled the trail on Sunday to set up markers, and supposedly rain dumped down the entire time. There's still a threat of rain on Saturday, but if what some of the checkpoint volunteers have been saying about recent nighttime temps is true, the trail could be deliciously solid. Bad for the skiers - but good for me, if it stays cold (if not, bad for everyone.)
Right now I'm feeling a surge of optimism. Watching my gear pass the test, listening to race officials describe the trail, looking at their slides and comparing the images to my memories of the portion of the trail I've traveled - all this has worked my spirits up and right now I feel more excitement and less anxiety. My comfort level was also boosted by their description of the sheer number of markers they put up and the volunteers' heavy patrolling of the race course - basically nullifying my chances of getting hopelessly lost out there (even beyond cold, fatigue and injury, this has actually been my biggest fear all along.)
Now I guess all I can do is go out and Git'R'Done, as my friend Jessica suggested. (Jess actually worded it "As we like to say in Canada, just gid'er'done." That's pretty much the funniest thing I've ever heard. ) But to everyone who has supported me along the way, and who has been sending me good energy this week, I just wanted to say thank you. It means more to me than you know. That's the kind of energy that really makes or breaks life's hardest battles, and I just want you guys to know I'm feelin' the love. Now, it's just about time to go out and represent.
T minus one day, 10 hours, seven minutes and counting.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
February mileage: 238.8
Temperature on departure: 37
Yup. It took two and a half months, but I've finally collected and compiled the gear I need for the Susitna race. Today I loaded most of it on my bike (a bit haphazard, but daylight was a-fadin') and went out for a short ride. Including water and other gear I plan to hoist in my Camelbak H.A.W.G., the total addition is about 20-25 pounds. And you know what? I got better traction today.
I also whipped down the hills. And climbs? Well, I'm a slow climber anyway. I probably should have added the weight to my workouts before now, but I don't anticipate the gear making or breaking me. At this point, any semblance of good trail and weather conditions would have me so stoked I could probably set out on a loaded touring bike and be fine. Well, maybe not fine. But if I could just finish the race with a smile on my face, I'll chalk it up as "probably the best one I've ever done." (I know - I have to stop with the Napoleanisms.)
Oh yeah. I nearly forgot that today is the V-day-that-must-not-be-named. Not that I'm one of those people that marches for Single Awareness Day. In fact, Feb. 14 is tied to several of my more memorable anniversaries. Today I realized (because this is the kind of stuff I think about when I'm riding my bike) that it's been 10 years since my first kiss (not exactly the first, but the first one that meant anything to me, so I quickly disregarded the rest.) It was a classic moment of teenage angst: Valentine's date ... sitting shotgun in some beat-up old Buick ... idling loudly ... eyes locked on the windshield ... streams of melted snowflakes slithering down the glass ... sinking into the congested silence ... paralyzed and unable to look this boy in the eyes because I knew, just knew, it was coming.
But what really stands out about the memory is the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing softly through crackling speakers. I ran out to Tom Tom's Music the next day to purchase the "Soul to Squeeze" single for prosterity. And now, here I am, 10 years into a strange future, singing to myself as I pedal across the snow.
"Where I go I just don't know
I got to, got to, gotta take it slow
When I find my peace of mind
I'm gonna give you some of my good time."
T minus three days, 12 hours, 55 minutes and counting.
There are some encouraging reports at the MTB Alaska forum. Although one rider mentioned renaming the race "Ididaswim," another reported riding out to the Susitna River earlier today on hard-packed trails with a light dusting of snow. Mmmmm. If it could only stay cold enough to remain that way.
But with Saturday fast approaching, I'm going to have to decide beforehand how far I'm willing to "swim" without quitting. I've decided that as long as I feel healthy and am not suffering beyond reason, I should have no reason to quit the race before the official cut-off time (48 hours. That's right.) I have the option of sleeping along the way. I'll have enough food to stuff a luau pig. And if there's one athletic talent that I have, it's plugging along - even when the going is insufferably slow. How long will it take me to swim 100 miles? I don't know. But I'm fairly certain I could walk 100 miles given 48 hours to do so. Not that I'm about to enter this race in the foot division.
Still, good reports are coming in. (Although I can't get the image out of my head of that random extra in "Cannibal, The Musical," walking past the miners chanting "Doomed. You're all doomed. Doomed. Dooooomed.") However, I shouldn't put my faith, good or bad, in the weather guessers. At least the U.S. snowboarders are tearing things up in the Olympic Winter Games. Until the IOC decides to install ice biking as an official winter sport, the knuckle draggers will always hold the softest spot in my heart. T minus four days, nine hours, 47 minutes and counting.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
I was pretty frazzled after the ordeal, but I did promise my editor I'd take photos at the ski 'n cheese. So I drove into the blizzard and hit the trail about 45 minutes late, with most of the pack far ahead and probably already polishing off the Swiss. The photo opportunities don't really get good until after the skiers have had their shiraz, so I didn't sweat it too hard. I skied into the blasting snow, trying to separate the trail from the landscape from the sky from anything else. I thought I was doing OK. But the adult nature of the event must have compelled the ski club to set up the expert course, because about 20 minutes into the run I came to an arrow pointing straight down the longest, steepest hill in the area.
I stood there in disbelief for two or three minutes, trying to imagine exactly how I'd get down that thing. Finally I decided I was going to point my skis in the classic "A" and go for it. It goes without saying that they crossed about 20 feet and 15 mph into my descent. Down I went, knee going one direction, body going the other, everything in a cloud of powder and skis and limbs. I literally stabbed myself in the back with one of my poles, wrenched my left knee and came to a sliding stop about halfway down the hill. So there I lay with my legs twisted around the one ski that didn't pop off, cursing the throbbing pain in my knee. I could feel something wet on my back and thought I was bleeding, but it turned out to be snow coming in where I had torn a hole in my coat. And all I could think was what an idiotic way this was to injure myself one week out from my race. So that was it. I took off my other ski and walked back to my beleaguered car.
My knee felt better later this evening, so Geoff and I went out for more skiing. He was going to show me some moves. What he mostly did was show me up; I could barely keep up. But I did find I could gain a lot of speed "skating" on my classic skis, and felt more comfortable moving that way anyway. Still ... I'm a terrible skier. I guess that's the only point this post has. Also, I wish it would stop snowing. T minus five days, ten hours 27 minutes and counting.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Date: Feb. 11
February mileage: 225.4
Temperature on departure: 34
I took about 15 photos of the Homer Winter Carnival parade today, and this was the driest one I got. At this point I was straddling my bike, clutching my camera with soaked-through neoprene gloves and trying to shake about a half gallon of water out of my overboots as I watched Scouts in short-sleeved uniforms march by. It rained nonstop today, melting vertical feet of snowpack and unleashing the whole mess in chocolate torrents down the streets. That didn't stop the Homerites from turning out in droves for the annual "winter" celebration, despite that fact that the car race on Beluga Lake was cancelled due to standing water and the firework show was threatened by the compounding downpour. This kind of weather should have a season all its own - something rooted in the word "gunk."
I guess the weather didn't stop me from doing a four-hour ride today, which included a too-lengthy stop to watch the parade (Brrrr). The first time I got off my bike, I realized my overboots were literally full of water. The only reason I wore them was a misguided attempt to keep my feet dry. Overboots seemed like a good idea - but I don't think you're supposed to go swimming in them. And pedaling 15 mph through 6-inch deep shush puddles pretty much qualifies as Olympic pool cycling. But it was just another important lesson - when in doubt, stick to neoprene.
I honestly thought the fireworks would be canceled, so I didn't go back to town tonight. But I just heard them go off, so I guess I stranded myself at home for nothing. Anyway, I've been killing some time and doing some blogging, and I realized that I've had this blog for three months and I've never posted a picture of my cat. People have entire blogs dedicated to their cats, and while I don't condone the idea, I do realize that my blog is becoming a little, well, single-track minded. So this is Cady. She is the world's neediest cat. She is also about as graceful as her owner is on wet ice (that is to say - not.) But she acts like she loves me, and that's gotta count for something.
Also, Caloi-Rider did a post today about the interesting ways people found his blog. I thought I'd check out my stats, and found that someone landed here earlier today with an msn search for "are people crazy in Alaska?" Hope they found their answer. T minus 6 days, 11 hours, 54 minutes and counting.
February mileage: 185.9
Temperature on departure: 35
Well, I can check the 10-day weather forecast and see the day of my race now; I'm receiving empathy e-mails from fellow racers. Looks like the countdown's on. I feel like I'm physically ready for the race, but right now I'm so obsessed with the weather that nothing else seems to matter. I might as well go eat a row of Oreos.
Instead, I took Geoff's advice to do one short-but-hard ride. Thanks to a full day of ad design (blah), I only had about a two-hour span between punch-out time at the office and the start of a foreign film I really wanted to see, "The Story of Weeping Camel." (Mongolia is definitely a place I want to bicycle tour through someday.) Anyway, today was probably not the best day to decide to go out at "run" pace. Above-freezing temps and a full day of rain unleashed havoc on the deep snowpack, turning every road shoulder and bike path into unholy basins of slush. Sloppy, slurping slush that rose to my calves in some spots. I should have geared up with my new overboots. As it was, I was dressed for 35 degrees (basically, my summer suit). I biked until I was soaked through and through, and then I biked another 24.4 miles.
Hard pedaling helped me stay warm, although the wind chill was an definite minus. I pumped out 25 miles in one hour, 45 minutes. Laughably slow for road cyclists, I know, but for moving a full-suspension mountain bike with about 30 psi in high-treaded snow tires through an ocean of melting snow, it didn't seem too bad. In fact, it felt really good. Until I stopped. Then I was really cold.
The camel movie was really cute, too. I highly recommend it to anyone with an actual DVD rental store in their town. T minus one week, eight hours, 58 minutes and counting.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
"How come you didn't ride your bike today?" my boss asked.
I think she was joking, but I'm not sure. I have developed a reputation for bicycling in nasty conditions, and bike commuting when the driving's bad. But I don't think she understands that, even if I could successfully ride - not walk - my bike through eight inches of snow, I'd likely be killed by traffic while negotiating the roads through the blasting wind and extremely low visibility. Big SUVs were sliding off the road. "Blizzard-like conditions" and two massive avalanches closed the Seward Highway, which means everyone on the Kenai Peninsula is stuck here until the storm lets up. My point is ... there are some days that you just can't ride.
For what it's worth, I did put in 90 minutes running intervals at 85-90 percent maximum heart rate on the elliptical (how boring is that?). But it's good to get in these hard cardiovascular workouts that I can't always achieve on my bike. And the gym was absolutely abandoned, because no one in their right mind was out driving today.
But if they're even getting a fraction of this snowfall north of Anchorage, no amount of heart-pumping intervals can save me, especially if it stays as warm as it's supposed to. Ned Rozell recently wrote a great description of conditions I fear the most in the lead of his latest Alaska Magazine column. But all I can do is watch and wait, and hope my prayers override the skiers'.
February mileage: 160.5
Temperature on departure: 26
Today's ride was sponsored by Andy. I realized that I passed 1,000 miles for my winter "season," which officially began Dec. 1. The total right now: 1,042.9. I've always been a recreational rider, and I think it has probably been a while since I logged 1,000 miles in a two-month span. I especially let myself go last year, when I discovered a cheap gym membership through my employer would allow me to spin myself into pretty good shape without all of the psychological turmoil of wind and heat and mud-soaked trails. My bikes, which together are worth more than my car, spent most of summer 2005 in my apartment gathering dust. What a fool I was.
Outside is where it's at, elements be damned. Doing all this winter riding has reminded me why I started cycling, back when I didn't really care about speed increments or my ghetto booty. I wanted to be entertained. I wanted to be engaged. I wanted rare moments of clarity, and I wanted to work for them. Yes, I lost my way. But I've reformed.
And, if nothing else, I think riding in the snow has really improved my handling skills. Come summer, I expect to be fully charged and ready to tear up the trails on my mountain bike - rather than hedging for more time on the road and choking the brakes down winding single tracks. Today, while riding downhill in the soft, uneven slush, I lost control of my bike twice and managed to ride out of it each time with nary a foot on the ground. I feel so much more confidence. I feel like I have skills. You know, like numchuck skills ... computer hacking skills ...
I need to go find some sweet jumps.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
February mileage: 141.3
Temperature on departure: 24
Today's ride was sponsored by Thomas, and by my beautiful sister Lisa, who has some very exciting "unofficial" news that I'm probably not allowed to publish, but I'm very happy for her nonetheless.
I got out of work just in time for the most beee-utiful day imaginable - that is, there was some semblance of sun outside. So I set out in a very good mood, only to realize very quickly that the price I would pay for the warmth and sunshine was miles and miles and miles of this mess ---> (and, really, this picture does it no justice.)
This point is about a half mile from my house. The going was slow, slippery and precarious, and I was trying to decide whether to return home and ride the trainer for some good, heart-thumping exercise, or stay out and ride in the slop to practice, well, riding in the slop. I chose the slop. And I'm glad I did. Because it was a beee-utiful day; I did get some good practice riding through soft snow and semi-frozen puddles; and I ended up dropping into town, where I had to deal with fierce headwinds and the grueling climb back, so I even got some good exercise.
Since I was planning to do a longish ride after work, I turned down free pizza to eat Mini-Wheats cereal and yogurt for lunch (I usually only do good by conscious nutrition *before* rides. After-ride meals can and often do descend quickly into all-out sugar binges.) So before I took a shower I decided to weigh myself, because I was so proud of myself. But I was more than a little surprised to see it stop on 127. Since I still have tree-trunk legs and I'm always buried in three or four clothing layers anyway, I didn't really notice how slight my upper body has become. My weakling arms are starting to show muscle definition - probably because there's not much else there. My collarbone looks like it's trying to escape from my chest cavity. Even Geoff said my faces looks "thinner."
I thought my publisher was referring to my grumpy demeanor this morning when she looked into my eyes and said "you need pizza!" I fear that if I've actually dropped eight pounds during the past month, what I may have lost is muscle mass, which I probably burn through during my longer rides. It seems unlikely that I actually burned that much fat, since my caloric needs are well fortified, believe me. I don't know. I think that best thing to do about it is not to worry much about it. I feel strong today, and that's what matters.
On a related note, The Old Bag compared me to this guy in a Bicycles and Icicles post dedicated to "real" football players. That's right. Jack Lambert. Um ... thanks. This guy is scary, not to mention about as attractive as the back end of a rhino. But I guess he's tough. I guess he's real. And I hear he rubbed a lot of faces in the grass. So I probably should feel complimented. Even though putting myself in that category of "tough" really is kind of laughable. Right now, there are people in Alaska attempting winter summits of Denali, running their dog sleds in -50 degree wind chills and trying to cross the Bering Straight on skis. What I do is go out for bike rides. But they keep things interesting, and that's what matters to me.
Monday, February 06, 2006
I'm still haunted by a night Geoff and I spent bicycle camping in a little park in Chester, Illinois. Swirling clouds gathered in the Midwestern sky as blasts of hurricane-force wind tore through the deserted park, ripping down tree limbs and blowing through the rickety public restroom structure - the only building within sight. I sat in a "covered" picnic area, both arms stretched across a Rand McNally map to hold it down, my weather radio turned to high volume against the howling wind. Scratchy reports of tornado warnings (warnings, not watches, meaning tornados were imminent or were already happening) came in for nearby counties. Approaching counties. Then, finally, my county.
I remember being locked in a frozen sort of panic. Where would I go? What would I do? My best effort on a bicycle - even surging adrenaline - might reach oh, 35 mph. Maybe 40 with the wind behind me, although you'd have to knock off another 5 for the panic factor. Either way, not really enough to outrun shrapnel being shot out of a swirling vortex. So there I sat in the vertical rain, subdued by my powerlessness, and wondering how much better off I'd be if I just kept the stupid radio turned off in the first place. After all, the warnings only go as far as you can.
Not that I'm saying it's bad to have a good tsunami warning system in place - it's definitely better to create a little false hysteria than to risk loss of life. But it seems to also be true that we pay for this vigilance with increasing levels of elevated fear, even though the overwhelming majority of us will never encounter a catastrophic natural disaster. Still, some of us will. And I guess awareness is the price we pay for knowledge.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
Turns out it was the former. At 7:15 a.m., a 5.3 earthquake hit about 18 miles south of Homer. A minor earthquake by damage standards, but large enough to be felt by people more than a hundred miles from here. And large enough to eclipse the all-time largest earthquakes of at least 10 states, according to a quick Internet search I did, including New Jersey and Indiana. OK. Not that impressive. Still, I hope this isn't a pattern that continues. Judging by the ruckus the bookshelf was making this morning, I think a 6-magnitude earthquake might just send it through the floor.
Geoff and I went snowshoeing this afternoon right before the Souper Bowl, which we missed the end of anyway in order the catch a movie (I actually missed pretty much the entire thing. It's amazing how much time a person can spend reading the Sunday paper when they're really locked into it.) Snow was deep and untrammeled, so it was a great workout for calves and quads. But the snowpack was warm and settling fast, which made for scary whoomps and thumps below our feet. At one point we watched a distinct fracture form across the gully we were trekking through. The hills around here are really mild as far as hills go, but you have to wonder - what could little avalanches do?
Little avalanches, little earthquakes. It's hard to keep on top of it all. At least one natural force is carrying out according to my evil plan. It's currently 37 degrees in Wasilla, where, as I type, the snow on the Iditarod trail is melting and settling and packing in tight beneath the weight of snowmobiles. If only the minor warmth keeps up for a few more days ... followed by the return of a deep freeze before oh, say Feb. 13 or 14 ... followed by clear, cold, sunshiney days with no new snow. Think I could will it so? It's worth a try.
February mileage: 109.1
Temperature on departure: 20
Well, according to some scratchy multiplication I just did, I rode about 102 kilometers today. If I were in Canada right now, I would have ridden a century. In Alaska, however, my ride was just a 63-mile slog against gale-force winds.
Today's ride was hard because I felt like I was in a constant battle with forces greater than myself - deep, uneven snow drifts across every road and trail, hills that seemed steeper than they probably actually are . And the wind. Oh, the wind. For most of the ride I was heading north or south with the wind right at my side, gusting to 40 mph and forcing me to lean like crazy diagonal biker woman just to stay on the road. Riding east, the chill would bring tears to my eyes, but at least I couldn't see my odometer registering its ridiculously low speeds. But there were the rare and beautiful moments riding west, skirting along at an even clip with traffic, feeling those oh-so-rare beads of sweat gathering beneath my layers. It was, after all, in the balmy 20s today. Felt much colder.
Also, my first experiment with the Camelbak thermal control kit was a massive failure. I made the mistake of neglecting to check my hose before I left the house. But I must have forgotten to blow the water out, because by the bottom of Diamond Ridge, 3.5 downhill miles and 10 minutes into my ride, the entire system was frozen solid. Because of the neoprene wrap around the tubing, I couldn't thaw it under my own power (by sticking the hose in my mouth) and I couldn't stuff it back into the protection of the pouch, where it would have been had I not purchased that false security system in the first place. The entire day, I had to drink straight out of the bladder, water slopping down my chin and raining onto anything below it (by the end of the ride, I had a fairly prominent frost bib down the front of my coat. Sad. Just sad.) I was really annoyed by the process. It caused me to never stay as well hydrated as I should have, and that combined with the pounding wind made for a really grumpy ride. I stuck it out to 5 p.m. because I promised myself I would. Under my training regimen, I could and probably should have gone further. Had I not been training, I would have turned around at the bottom of Diamond Ridge.
Oh well. I did have one bright spot during the ride. I took a little spur out from Anchor Point to a point that looked over the Cook Inlet. There, standing behind a mass of picnic tables buried in snow, was a sign informing me that I had just reached the furthest point west on the interconnected highways of North America. I had a short-lived but satisfying moment of standing somewhere important ... sort of like the time I stood at the end of the road in Prudhoe Bay (furthest point north), only this time, I was on my bike. That perked me up for at least two miles. Then, I remembered that it was really windy. Oh, the wind.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
February mileage: 45.7
Temperature on departure: 7
I took the "long way" to work today (if overshooting the distance by 27 miles counts as long). It was a beautiful morning - sun came out just after 9 a.m., stayed out for the first time in days and cut through the lingering cold snap that's on the cusp of snapping out of it. I was riding fast in hopes of putting in the full loop before noon. When I arrived at the cement box I had a stack of work and no snacks, so I ate a big piece of cheesecake for lunch (if there's one thing an office is always good for, it's copious amounts of free sugar.) The whole rest of the day I felt blah. I'm guessing cheesecake is not the best food for training.
So by that logic, the Subway sandwich, bag o' popcorn and diet Sprite for dinner was probably also not the best way to go. Oh well. It is Friday. I'm gearing up for a long ride tomorrow. It's supposed to be windy. That makes me feel blah, too.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
February mileage: 13.3
Temperature on departure: 0
So it's Groundhog Day. When I was a kid, I loved holidays. All of them. Not equally, of course, but I made it a point to savor every one. I never could wrap my head around Groundhog Day, however. Even as a kid who carefully planned my March 17 wardrobe so as to wear the most esoteric yet unarguably green attire, the Feb. 2 holiday always seemed so pointless to me.
But now, I don't know. After all, Groundhog Day is all about blind optimism in the face of unyeilding forces. Shadow or not, I don't think there's a person in Alaska who wouldn't love to believe that some semblance of spring will emerge before March 21. Of course, our hometown groundhog would have to burrow through about four feet of snow before peaking his little head out to the 0-degree, blowing blizzard outside. At that point, any pronouncement with the word "spring" wouldn't really qualify as optimistic - more like certifiably insane. That's probably why there aren't any groundhogs in Alaska.
We have a lot of snow. It's the cold, dry kind that makes for great traction when packed, but the trail riding is horrible. Impossible. Impossible in that you could maybe walk through it, if you had a pair of snowshoes and weren't pushing a 30-pound dead weight. Otherwise, you may as well just build an igloo and hunker down, because where are you going to go? Good thing they still plow the roads around here, so I can still ride. But the city never seems to plow my road until very last. It's a good thing my Geo Prism was a tank in his former life - busted right through nearly a foot of new powder this morning, bad clutch and all.
I actually had to cut my bicycle ride short today because I didn't dress thoughtfully enough and froze my toes on the early downhills. I got off my bike and walked for a while, but I couldn't get them to warm up much. Also, I've realized I don't have as much, um, "bladder capacity" when it's really cold out. So I turned around and rode back. I was going to do 30 more minutes on the trainer to get a solid two-hour ride, but when I came home, I discovered my road bike had a flat. How does a bike on a trainer get a flat? Those tires must have well over 2,000 miles on them, and this is the first flat they ever sustained. On a trainer. How undignified. Anyway, I was too lazy to repair two rear-wheel flats in two days, so I made a cup of hot chocolate instead. In the end, I guess I won.
Another thing I gave some thought to today (it was an elliptical machine and trainer day - lots of time for wandering thoughts) was food. Up until now, I've had this vague idea of my race requirement to carry 5,000-7,000 calories, 3,000 of which I have to end the race with. But what to actually eat? This is important because I want to go light. I want to go quickly digestible. But most importantly, I want to bring things I can eat frozen. Powerbars, I discovered, turn to teeth-shattering bricks when they freeze. It takes more energy to bite and chew than you probably gain by eating them. But maybe I could bring those bags of Powerbar bites, which I could stick in my mouth and wait for the eventual thaw before chewing. I wonder what the freezing point of those carbo-loaded goos are. How about cinnamon bears? Jar of peanut butter?
During my eight-hour ride, I ate two peanut butter sandwiches and a baggie of Triscuits. These foods aren't as practical for a 100-miler, but I definintly want to bring food I actually want to eat, thereby increasing my chances of staying energized rather than reluctantly gnawing on a Powerbar before I pass out. However, I'm not sure what to bring. Bananas are out. I love peanut butter ... but once a peanut butter sandwich freezes solid, can you even bite into it? I always have the option of keeping food against my body, but I only want to do that as long as it's comfortable. Is there anything out there that won't freeze under daylong exposure to subzero temperatures? (One of my co-workers suggested Vodka. That's probably not a good idea :-) Hmmm. Today I learned about Neos. Now I have something to research tomorrow.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
January mileage: 501.3
Temperature upon departure: 11
Well, it's the end of the month. Geoff already pointed out how close I was to 500 miles yesterday, so I had to go for it. Just had to. Why put so much emphasis on an arbitrary number (and, due to some guestimation during one ride, not even an exact number)? Why not 497? 481? I don't know. We're irrationally drawn to even numbers. Anyway, it got me out for a healthy 40-mile ride after work today. Plus, it beats going to see the latest Hillary Duff movie at the singleplex.
It's funny, actually, because I was not feeling good when I first set out in the blowing snow. I got out of work late and then had to spend 20 valuable daylight minutes changing a flat on my back tire (the valve tore. Tube creep is one of the perils of running bicycle tires at low pressure.) Snowfall was light, but there was a fierce headwind out of the east sending drifts everywhere. Plowing through the accumulation made for slow progress. But as I pedaled along, my mood began to improve. So I dropped off the ridge and made my move.
I spent about four hours on the bike today, navigating the unplowed roads, charging through snowcovered trails, and on (rare) occasion, coasting with a strong tailwind down reasonably clear roads. Most of that time was under night skies, and I finally burned out both my head and tail light batteries. But with all this trail riding I've been doing, even averaging 10 mph felt unbelievably fast. I can't wait to feel what it's like to get on a road bike again.
Someone asked me the other day if I could squeeze in some road rides to rack up my mileage. And I thought - roads? What are these roads that you speak of? I'm guessing the person was refering to a dry surface, generally smooth and covered in pavement. Such luxuries do not exist in Alaska in mid-winter. Even plowed highways are almost entirely covered with a thin layer of packed snow and ice, and usually a fair number of snowdrifts, for weeks on end. The gravel roads (of which there are many) might as well be packed snowmobile trails. When it snows, they might as well be an open meadow covered in moose-trampled powder. No one in town even dreams of running their vehicles without studded snow tires. We bikers feel the same way. I did get a few runs in on my road bike during an extended thaw in December, but it's looking like it may be a while before that happens again. For now, roadie sits on the trainer, dejected but probably thankful it doesn't have to incur the frozen abuse my Gary Fisher endures.
Sure, I miss riding my road bike. But, then I have days like today ... pounding through snow drifts on the Spit bike path as freezing spray splashes up from the Bay, facing the blowing blizzard and sucking up subzero windchill. And the best part - I'm feeling kind of good. Maybe even enjoying myself. After all, I think, I have this whole place to myself. I feel toasty in my winter gear anyway. I only have a few more miles to go and I may even get there.
Who needs summer?