Thursday, May 31, 2007

Camelbak packrat

Date: May 30
Mileage: 14.4
May mileage: 168.9
Temperature upon departure: 49

Today's ride was short and sweet, punctuated by some swimming to give the day a little more meat. I've made some great progress with my knee following my joint-shredding vacation to Utah (the exercise suggestions that people sent me have really helped. Thank you!). But I'm back on a bit of a plateau. I've gained quite a bit of strength but I still don't have the range of motion I need to turn pedals comfortably. I probably should take some more non-bike weeks for healing, but I'm dubious about the whole notion of that ... if only because I'm in less pain now that I actually use the joint from time to time. Got to get blood flowing to the cartilage somehow.

Earlier today I was digging in my Camelbak to look for a bandaid, which I didn't find. This surprised me, because I'm used to finding just about everything else under the sun in that pack. I'm prone to lugging around an impressive assortment of useless stuff on nearly every long ride and hike I do. So today, out of curiosity, I emptied my Camelbak to see what was inside. Surprisingly, it's actually fairly normal right now, culled down mostly to stuff I actually use. (In the past, I have been known to carry everything from Happy Meal toys to several ounces of sand.) Still, it remains excessive. This is the current state of my Camelbak:

Random food that has been stuffed in there so long it has lost most of its nutritious qualities: because it is so old and squished and gummed up with stale rainwater, the chance that I actually ever eat it is pretty slim. Still, I keep the deformed Clif Bar, slimy GORP baggie and wad'o'fruitsnacks just the same. When you think about it, it's the ultimate workout food. It's great insurance against the omnipresent bonk, and you don't have to worry about the temptation to crack into it when you're simply feeling snacky.

A memento from an old race: I tied a Susitna 100 tag on the outside of my pack before a recent flight because it has my name and address on it. But after it fell off, I stuffed it in one of the pockets and now I can't bring myself to throw it away.

A ballpoint pen: I always think inspiration is going to hit me when I'm out riding, but it never does.

100% DEET: This is usually a permanent fixture in my pack, regardless of the season. I can not bear the thought of getting caught unshielded in a bug storm.

Iodine tablets: I've had this bottle since 1998 and I've never cracked into it. But it's gone with me on nearly every adventure I've had since then, and now it has more sentimental value than my Susitna tag (not sure if it has any bacteria-killing value anymore, however.)

Sunscreen: Also something I rarely crack into. But hope springs eternal.

Bear mace: It's arguable that that this is the most useless thing I carry, because in the time it would take me to wrestle the canister from the nether regions of my pack, a grizzly would have already eaten me several times over.

Loose change: One time I cleaned out my Camelbak and found no less than 34 pennies at the bottom, along with another $5 or so in dimes, nickles and quarters. You'd think this would teach me about the weight perils of throwing my gas station change in there, but it hasn't.

Bike tool: You know the Boy Scout motto. Unfortunately, with my mechanical skills, it is about as useful as 34 pennies.

Chap stick: These randomly multiply, too. The most I have ever carried is seven.

Old wrappers: And receipts. And folded-up sections of newspaper. And pieces of notepaper, always blank. Like I said, the muse never strikes. Why is that?

Claratin: When I lived in the Mountain West, I used to get hay fever every May. Now it waits until July to hit. Everything in Alaska comes late and leaves early, except winter.

Mountain bike tube and tire lever: For the longest time, I've only had one lever in there. I sometimes ponder what happened to the other, and what exactly I'm going to do, when the inevitable flat-changing time comes, with just one lever.

Comb and hair tie: This is probably the equivalent of hauling lipstick around the trail - but, hey, you never know when you might need to look your best.

They say a woman should never reveal the contents of her purse, but ya'll already know that I'm a spill-you-guts sort of a person. So ... what's in your Camelbak?
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

10-month itch

Date: May 28
Mileage: 21.1
May mileage: 154.5
Temperature upon departure: 51

In April 2003, I moved out of my college student commune and into an extended period of homelessness, some of which I had only my bike and whatever I could carry on that bike. Since I returned to the real world, I've never lived in one place longer than 10 months. In fact, all of my moves - Tooele, Utah; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Homer, Alaska - have all been spaced between 10 and 11 months apart. I didn't plan it that way. It's just eerie how life progresses.

I moved to Juneau 10 months ago. After a short period of homelessness during my first weeks here, I was certain the move would become very temporary. I don't think I would have guessed that this rainy, isolated, rainy, expensive, rainy place might go on to become my most prolonged post-college home.

There is enough not to like about living in Juneau. Unless I land a job bribing state legislators, I don't think I will ever be able to afford a home (or condo ... or single-wide trailer) here. There is nowhere to throw away a car. There are less than 100 miles of paved public road on which to ride a bike; and about one quarter that amount of bikeable trails ... and it's arguable that none of the roads or trails are actually "bikeable." After all that, there's no need to even consider the annual 90 inches of rain. People in Juneau forget what it's like to not be soaked.

But at the same time, there is a lot to like about living in Juneau. And it is so easy to forget after 10 months of domestic living on the outskirts of society. I rode my bike out to North Douglas yesterday, thoughts lost in the rotation of things I needed to do later that day ... grocery store ... pay some bills ... write an e-mail to my grandmother ... have all those pages to make at work ... grocery store ...

I reached my destination at False Outer Point, a campground where people set out on foot to fish from shore. The entire stretch of road was mobbed by parked cars; the shoreline infested with Memorial Day fishermen; the channel choked with boats that had launched just a mile down the road and anchored mere feet from each other, all apparently competing for the same salmon. After a winter of relative peace, I found all of the human traffic to be suffocating. I grimaced and motioned to turn around without even stopping when I caught a glimpse of a tour group filing out of a bus. And old woman that looked to be 80 or 90 clasped the arm of a middle-aged woman, her yellow blouse and bright red floral skirt whipping in the wind. I stopped on the other side of the road and watched them walk slowly together to the overlook - a simple sea-level view of a narrow channel and the snow-capped mountains of the mainland. The middle-aged woman reached in her purse to pull out a camera. The old woman, freed from her companion's grasp, suddenly lifted her arms into the air. Just like that ... those frail, skinny arms, framed in flapping yellow fabric, stretched toward the sky like a soloist in the Hallelujah chorus. I looked at her, and then I looked at what she was looking at, awestruck.

I moved on without thanking her, though I wished I had ... for allowing me, for a moment, to see my world through her eyes.
Monday, May 28, 2007


In the past couple of months, as the world of endurance cycling has rolled on without me, I have found myself more immersed in it more than ever. Chalk another one up to an amount of chair time that is directly proportional to the amount of time I'd rather spend outside. I've found these ways to move on vicariously, learning about these epic rides from afar, and reading the words of the people who participate in them.

One arching quality I've noticed in many of these athletes - some near the top of this ever-expanding game - is an almost anti-competitive introspection. These are athletes who are more immersed in the battle within than the battle outside. They are out there not to prove themselves to the world, but to prove the world to themselves. It is an interesting juxtaposition from everything I was ever taught about athletic pursuits. My teachers, my friends, all drilled it in me that sports were a way to best others. And I was not really interested in that. But I was interested in becoming better than myself.

"I woke up yesterday with an understanding about (Grand Loop Race), which simply put, is that the reasons I want to do it don't have anything to do with anyone else. It really doesn't have anything to do with racing. It's hard to explain. But one thing is for sure: I'd rather do it completely solo than in a race setting. That doesn't mean I won't try to go fast cause of course I will. It is simply more natural and agreeable to make a solo TT effort out of it."
- Dave Harris, April 2007

And so I thought about this today as I was lamenting the fact that I will not be able to enjoy any competition during the summer season. I once had grand schemes and plans to enter races that were harder than anything I have ever tried, to push myself harder than I have ever pushed myself, and therein become a better version of me. But as weeks turned to months and I continued to pick at unravelling pieces of myself, I've tried to figure out why I hold on to this ultimately self-destructive drive.

"As I progress in this world of endurance racing, I am realizing how small it can make the rest of the world feel. After the (Kokopelli Trail Race) last year, I lined up at a local XC race. It felt ... insignificant. I raced, and had fun, but at no point did I ever have to go anywhere near that spot I found on Troy's Loop, sitting in the pseudo shade, eyes blurry, feet numb, and mind foggy. At that point everything was significant. Every forward movement, each pedal stroke, each rock and boulder and passing minute meant something."
- Adam Lisonbee, May 2007

And I thought about the people who do this all the time, the people who are so talented that they can extract at least a small part of their bread and butter from something as obscure as endurance bicycle racing. Fans and sponsors love the loop races, the 24 hours of whatever. We are, after all, a NASCAR society. We like to be where we can sit and watch all the speed and pain happen. I love the 24-hours, too, because they become my chance to master a small piece of the earth. But I'm watching more and more people at the top of this game leave the spotlight and turn to self-supported, often self-imposed, self-suffering rides. And even I, who claims to love adventure and eschew competition, find myself struck back with confusion and respect.

"I love adventure. I want to be lost in the woods looking for arrows and ribbons and what not. I want to leave the car, and not see it again for at least nine hours. I definitely have no regrets on this one. This experience made me realize that I can walk away from the lap/time format and not look back. Just because I can do something well doesn't mean I have to keep doing it. I'd still be a male stripper if that were the case."
- Team Dicky, May 2007

I will never, never be at the top of this game. I will always admire those who are. But at the same time, I find a certain reverence in stories of the races that aren't races, the athletes who struggle but don't win, the people who suffer only to lose themselves in the scope of it all.

"I've had some trying moments in the woods before, but the Kokopelli was a window into a different world. Many times during the day I looked forward to putting the bike away at home and leaving it for a while, and I will. I'm also negotiating to buy Enel's Reba. I think the sickness got worse."
- Dave Chenault, May 2007

And at the end of all this blog surfing, I set goals. Every day, I set goals. I want to pedal 15 miles today. I want to be smart and do all of my stretching. I want to write off my doctor bills as the s*** tax and find new ways to love life and all of the small adventures it brings. And I want to set big goals. Even though I have no idea what my future or my health holds for me in one, two or nine months from now. Because, through it all, what I'd really like to do is get on my bike sometime next February and ride the Iditarod trail 350 miles to McGrath. Not because I am good at it, but because I am at this point so woefully bad at it. And not because it's 3.5 times more difficult than the Susitna 100, but because it is immeasurably more difficult than the Susitna 100. And not because it's a race that might benefit me, but because it's a race that might change me, irrevocably.

And now, as I set my daily goals and hope I can ride 15 miles tomorrow, I close my eyes and believe I can really do it.

"In ultra endurance, it's 90 percent drive and 10 percent everything else."
- Mike Curiak, April 2007
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Nice to be back

Date: May 26
Mileage: 18.4
May Mileage: 133.4
Temperature upon departure: 47

I've spent the past hour squinting at wet pavement, thinking only of known consequences, and shoulder-buzzing tour buses, and all the ways I can already visualize summer slipping away. Cold liquid is cascading over my lips and I don't know whether it's rain or snot. I don't know if it matters. I don't know if I should buy more neoprene. I don't know why it's so difficult to just turn pedals. I don't know if I should just quit this whole cycling thing. I don't know why I'm so frustrated by the decision. A truck pulls up beside me as the driver yells something over the downpour. I know it must be rude - it always is, in this kind of weather - so I glower at him and yell "What?!"

"Hey!" he screams, "You're hardcore!"

And we both know I'm not.

But thanks for that, anyway.
Saturday, May 26, 2007

In and out

Geoff had a big day planned today - a 25-mile trail run or something equally crazy. I was jealous. I think it's what I miss the most about the months when I did a lot of cycling - that supreme satisfaction of embarking on a long day. Some days, when everything is dialed in perfect, the miles only stoke the energy fire and I feel like I could move forward forever. Other days, I slip into a bonk coma and struggle and struggle and struggle, but when I stumble home and crash, I know I earned it.

So I wanted to do my own long day in my own long way ... something low-impact and scaled down and knee-friendly, but ~25 miles just the same.

I started at my gym with a brand new book, "Driving Mr. Albert" and a copy of the Backpacker gear issue, which is what I spent most of my time reading. I hadn't been on the elliptical machine more than a minute when the gym maintenance guy called out from across the room, something about wanted to check the wheel. I stopped pedaling and turned to face him as he bee-lined toward me, and the rowing machine that separated him from me, and he wasn't slowing down. Just as I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, he slammed his shin into the rowing machine and tumbled forward. I saw for a fraction of a second his face, filled with pure shock and terror, and then he went down, slamming his head into the back of my machine.

I hopped off and stuttered, "Are ... you OK?" He was on his knees with his hands over his right eye, and I could see blood gushing from the spaces between his fingers. "Oh no ... you need to go to the hospital." I looked desperately over at the front counter, where a woman had seen the whole thing and was rushing over to help him. I held out my hand but he was already on his feet, grumbling "I'll be fine" and dancing around the front counter woman, who looked as though she might try to pry his hands away from his face. They walked together to the desk, where she gave him a gym towel, and then they disappeared down the stairs. And all the while I just stood there, a little slack-jawed, wondering "what now?" It says something about life ... that everything we do is, by default, a risk, and nowhere is truly safe ... the wilderness, the highways, my climate-controlled gym. And it also says something about me that I got right back on the same machine - the one that elicited such an extreme response to begin with - and pedaled away.

(I did inquire about the man when the front-counter woman returned. She said he wouldn't go to the hospital, but the cut on his forehead seemed to have stopped bleeding and he had one hell of a shiner.) Pedal-Run: 2 hours 20 minutes; 18.5 miles.

I came home, ate some lunch and then headed up the Dan Moller trail with my snowshoes on my back. The snowline is already much higher than it was just a week ago, although in the steady drizzle I think I saw new flakes falling just above treeline. Where the snowpack has melted, the skunk cabbage is blooming. Hiking in Juneau is much more treacherous in the summer ... mostly mud and snaking roots and slimy wooden planks that provide close to zero traction. I have to admit I was happy to reach elevation and see winter again ... soft, forgiving winter. Hike/Snowshoe: 2 hours, 45 minutes; 7.5 miles; 2,000 feet elevation gain.

Not really to the level of Geoff's long day. After all, I'm not the one who came home and ate five different dinners. But there's something there. Something I've been missing. Some kind of risk-taking that drives the satisfying life.

I guess it's the "holiday" weekend now. I say so because it's not my holiday weekend. Going back to work tomorrow. And even though everyone is pedaling and fishing and sipping margaritas on houseboats in Lake Powell, I just wanted to say to the six people out there who share my unfortunate schedule and are sitting in empty offices and blogging ... "Happy Memorial Day."
Friday, May 25, 2007

May snow and thorn ride

Date: May 24
Mileage: 12.3
May Mileage: 115
Temperature upon departure: 54

I did not have a destination or a mileage goal in mind today. Just wanted to do a ride - any ride, anywhere. These days, the details don't mean as much to me as the simple act of pedaling.

But because I'm still unsure about whether this act should continue, I decided to make the day's ride a good one and travel out the road to the Herbert Glacier trail. I spent a decent part of the morning prying my super-tight studded tires from the rims of my mountain bike. It was a Herculean effort that I had to recruit Geoff for; even he struggled with that carbide-tooth monster for a while; I was two steps away from grabbing a burly pair of scissors when he finally freed it. Then I cut my thumb while putting the summer tires back on. And for all that effort, and all that driving, I was less than a mile into the ride when the trail started to look like this:

This is not an elevation ride. It's a couple hundred feet above sea level, tops. But here the snow lingers, an unseasonal blanket of soft sugar and hollow drifts. I made an effort to ride it ... a futile effort at best. I'd frantically pedal a few yards, eventually dig myself into a deep hole, hop off and hike-a-bike for a while, repeat. I like to think of it as an interval workout. It took me another mile to realize that my heart rate wasn't high enough to justify all the pointless postholing.

After I returned to the trailhead, I pedalled a half mile up the road to the Eagle Glacier trail. For some unknown reason, the trail - located at the same elevation - was almost completely snow-free. But what it lacked in slush, it made up for in sheer technical hardship.

It was a lot of fun at first - bouncing over root after rock after root, skirting the narrow corridor along the river and willing myself not to fall in. I never made it more than 1,000 yards without having to stop and hoist the bike over deadfall trees. It wasn't the most difficult trail I've ridden. But when I started making mistakes, I really made mistakes. The root piles seemed ever higher and slipperier. I wished for the studded tires, but what I really needed was sheer leg stregnth to power over all the slimy obstacles. I'd clear my front tire only to lose traction in the back, skipping sideways and overcorrecting until I nearly fell over. Then, eventually, I did fall over - right into a huge patch of spiny devil's club shoots. The rush of stinging pain was everything I needed to remind me that I was here and this was now. There was nothing beyond the immediacy of dozens of tiny, mildly poisonous thorns piercing my skin.

By the time the claws of death subsided to a dull throbbing, I was back on the road (with a few dozen thorns still lodged in my skin; it took me a decent part of the afternoon to pick them out, and I still haven't gotten all of them.) I continued pedaling up the pavement because I had come all that way and wanted to justify the ride somehow. It was shortly thereafter that I realized my knee was sore - really sore. I think in all of the snow swerving, root hopping and thorn preoccupation, I hadn't noticed it before.

It makes me think that technical mountain biking isn't really the best form of recovery riding - and could be worse than just putting in long miles. Who knows? The day's ride was a bit of a failure all around, but at the same time, I still prefer the adventure to the void.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Now it's seven

Eero asked me to share "seven little-known facts" the other day. I think I did this meme a few months ago when the number was still five. But I haven't tried seven yet, and I didn't go for a ride today, and I do owe her for lending me a bivy to use in the Susitna 100, so I thought I'd oblige. Seven "little-known" facts about Jill:

1. Somewhere deep in the recesses of childhood memory, I know how to play four different instruments: the accordion, the string bass, the harmonica and the piano. That may sound decidedly nerdy, but put them all together and I could form a mean one-woman zydeco band.

2. I have an irrational but paralyzing fear of moving water - whitewater rapids, ocean swells and the like. I can trace this fear back to a lot of incidents, but the first was when my parents took me to a Sesame Street theme park near Dallas, Texas, when I was 3 years old. One of the "attractions" was little more than a narrow, dark tube that children crawled through while jets of water blasted from all sides. I still have vivid dreams of a shadowed line of big kids' faces and large hands yanking me forward as I thrashed against the deluge, screaming and screaming and screaming.

3. I also am afraid of dogs. I am more afraid of dogs than I am of bears. This is because I know bears for the most part want to leave me alone. Dogs, on the other hand, have lunged at me, mowed me down, and a couple of times even bit me - hard enough to cause permanent scarring. I do not like dogs. But I'm sure your dog is great.

4. I am a big advocate of not attaching oneself to things. "Need Less" is, in fact, my zen goal in life. I really like the idea of living independently, minimizing my footprint (I am a second-hand queen) and keeping my lifestyle options open - even if it means leaving everything I own behind (I try to include my bikes in this sentiment, but I have predictably become attached to them.) The upside is that I have more money to spend on the intangible and fleeting things I really love, like food and travel. The drawback is that I own the world's ugliest couch, a Salvation Army TV that only picks up two channels, and a bed I hate so much that I only sleep in it about 30 percent of the time. But hey - I could walk onto the Alaska State Ferry tomorrow and never look back.

5. I finished my first "century" ride, the 2004 Salt Lake Century, in 5 hours, 25 minutes. However, after two years of riding with an odometer, I have concluded beyond much doubt that I must have inadvertently skipped part of the course. It's highly unlikely that I actually rode 100 miles that fast. But I guess I'll never really know.

6. I suspected a botched finishing time by the end of my second century attempt, the 2004 Ride for Life. Not because it was decidedly slower, but because I discovered how poor my route-finding skills really were. I showed up 45 minutes late and took off down the road, quickly becoming confused by the hordes of runners I was passing. Thirteen miles later, I was back where I started. Only then did I realize that I had inadvertently followed the course of a half-marathon that was happening that same day. Then 90 minutes late, I still did the ride, because I was "sponsored" back then and somewhat obligated (Thanks, Cycling Utah!)

7. I was born in Denver, Colorado, moved away when I was 9 months old, and have never actually been back (drove by on I-25 once, at night, without stopping.) It's kind of strange to have no mental picture of the place where I was born.

So there you go ... seven things. The idea is to pass this on, but I don't really feel comfortable telling others what they should write on their blogs. So I'll leave it up to you, because it's always fun to hear from others. Tell me a little-known fact about yourself.


Date: May 22
Mileage: 21.6
May Mileage: 102.7
Temperature upon departure: 57

Some time on the road today gave me a chance to watch my legs do their pedal thing. It was not pretty.

My left leg holds straight and strong over the pedal, but my right knee pulls rather dramatically to the left. How far left? It’s centimeters away from crashing into the top tube, that’s how far left. Continued effort to straighten my leg felt tight and unnatural - like I was purposely trying to pedal bowlegged. But my natural inclination is to pedal like I’m overcome by an urge to pee. Ugly, ineffective and definitely detrimental.

An effect of knee injury ... or the cause? Probably both. There seems to be some knee-cap tracking that is causing the joint to collapse toward the inside. There also is the issue of my wimpy quad muscles that are probably disproportionately wimpy to one another.

Either way, the damage has been done. My concern is what I can do about it. I realize quad strengthening is the best road, but I’m not sure what the best exercises are. Wall sits are OK. Squats make me wish I were poking myself with a sharp pencils instead. Any suggestions?

Also, does anyone know of a brace or maybe a taping technique that might correct such a thing? I have been doing some Internet research, but almost all of it leads me in the direction of changing one's running habits. Tracking is common in cycling, but there doesn’t seem to be much readily available information about how to fix it on a bike.

Probably time to call my physical therapist again. I am definitely not thrilled about all of the medical bills that have been rolling in lately. I think if I knew three months ago what I know now, I would cash in all those copays and sell my bikes and take one of those Alaska cruises.

On second thought ... scrap that. Better to go to Antarctica.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Date: May 21
Mileage: 7.5
May Mileage: 81.1
Temperature upon departure: 56

I was not going to ride today. It was an odd (off) day, so it didn’t fit into my Baby Steps Back To Recreational Overuse® cycling plan. But then I woke up a little on the early side of the day and, as directed by my plan®, went straight to the gym. Going to gym is like eating a pound of broccoli - healthy, but tasteless and unsatisfying. When I returned home, I still had more than two hours before I had to be at work. And I thought, hey, I've been good all week. I deserve some desert.

The short road goes to Sandy Beach. And low tide meant the coastline was a sparkling sheen of high-resistance goodness. I really don’t know what it is about cycling on snow or sand that turns me on so much. Maybe it’s the random swerving; the spastic spinning; the all-out effort just to hit 5 mph. But I think what's really most appealing about snow or sand is the smooth, borderless surfaces that stretch out to seemingly limitless possibilities. I mashed across a creek flowing high enough that the current almost knocked me over; but on the other side, I caught a glimpse of a line of sand that continued uninterrupted for miles down the coast. I think I could follow its narrow path and find the outer tip of Douglas Island, a place where no roads or trails go. Someday, I’d like to try.

Today was not the day, though. At first, I didn't feel guilty for riding 'when I wasn't supposed to.' It was a rather arbitrary deviation from what is admittedly a rather arbitrary plan. But then again, I'd been off Aleve for four entire days and I felt compelled to pop a couple of blue pills this evening. I still can't help but wonder how much of this is all in my head.

On a completely unrelated side note, if anyone has dropped by looking for little tidbits of good ol' Alaskana, the Anchorage Daily News has an interesting collection of homemade short films by Alaskans about Alaska. Some friends of mine are trying to win a plasma TV or some other equally obnoxious prize. I think you have to fill out a form to vote, but if you did take two minutes to do so, and did feel compelled to vote for them, and they did in fact win an obnoxiously large TV, you would make their day - and vicariously, my day. I recommend viewing and voting for "Chugach Energy Drink" and "The Latest in Bear Behavior Research" (Grizzly charge! Scary! Oooo!) Either way, it's yet another way to avoid actual work. Click here.
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Moving on up

Date: May 20
Mileage: 14.4
May Mileage: 75.6
Temperature upon departure: 58

I going to start keeping track of my cycling mileage again. Why would I bother? Well, after three months of flailing defiance, mistake after mistake after mistake interrupted by short periods of indifference, I think I may finally be poised for a comeback.

My recent numbers tell most of the story themselves:
December, 476.1 miles
January, 893.4 miles
February, 361.1 miles
March, 14 miles
April, 25.3 miles
May, 75.6 miles

Somewhere in there, I went very, very wrong. Maybe now I have finally learned my lesson about the perils of overuse, and the virtues of steady increments. But probably not.

I managed to whittle myself back to the bottom; now there's nowhere to go but up. Because I'm facing the slow climb as an alternative to the depths of inactivity, I feel like I have nothing to lose. And so I amble.

I tried out my clipless pedals for the first time today. I was a ball of nervous energy; suddenly thrown back into traffic with a loose rear hub and a sagging chain and a touring bike I definitely did not like being attached to. Even worse than the cars were the tourists, who treat downtown Juneau like it’s Main Street Disneyland; every move they make is unpredictable, and every pedestrian law goes out the window. Today Geoff yelled out, "Hey, did you know that this is a road, not a sidewalk?" But it's true. Maneuvering around tourists takes more skillz than singletrack, and I am not known for my roadie skillz.

Geoff and I rode out to Thane. He lectured me on the decrepitness of my road bike and my unwillingness to master the clipless, but we had a good ride. At the turnaround, he took off for a run on the coastal trail and I ambled some more, covering about three more miles on foot (For which I had to bring an extra pair of shoes. How annoying is that?). Someday I will appreciate clipless pedals. And someday I will be able to ride more than I would ever want to. Someday.

But for now, I wanted to say congrats to all who rode the Kokopelli Trail this weekend. I've been thinking about you and your 142-mile desert epic as I chart my next planned ride. Tuesday, 18 miles. We all have our thresholds, and my goal is to not find mine anytime soon.

I pretend I'm a tourist

I figured out a way to hike up a mountain without actually having to walk back down. The Mount Roberts trail wends through the rainforst, switchbacks up a steep slope and, in the last half mile, disappears beneath neck-high layer of crusty snow. Then, right at treeline, and just when you think you can climb no further lest you risk being swept away in an avalanche, you reach the Mount Roberts Tramway. You can purchase some useless trinkets, gawk at caged bald eagle with a bullet hole through its beak, buy a $5 cup of coffee and coast effortlessly back to sea level via the Mount Roberts Tram.

I arrived at the platform just in time to catch the 5:45. A rush of tourists, nearly every single one clutching a red bag from the $5 T-shirt shop, wedged me in next to the driver. He rattled off the safety spiel and we shot downward.

“How are you liking Juneau?" the driver asked me.

I paused for a second, considering the part of a tourist. “It’s pretty cool,” I said. I couldn’t think of what to add to that, so I said, “I saw your bald eagle.”

“Pretty sad, huh?” he said. “But it’s OK. Eagles are like rats here. They’re more of a pest than anything.”

“Sad about that one, though,” I said.

“So have you checked out the glacier yet?” he asked me. I realized he must be feeding me the standard tourist questions. It’s probably part of his job, part of a quota he has charted somewhere on his employee mission statement.

“Yeah ... you guys should wash that thing once in a while,” I said and flashed him my most earnest smile. He didn’t even flinch.

“At least you got a nice day today,” he said. “Usually I have to explain to people why it’s raining all the time.”

“Oh really? You have an explanation for that?”

Again, he didn’t even flinch. I considered my next dumb tourist question, but before I could say anything, someone from the back of the tram shouted, “Look! A bear!” I turned my head to look out the window. Sure enough, a yearling black bear was ambling up the hillside no more than 100 feet above town.

“We’ve spotted him a couple of times,” the tram driver said, more loudly so everyone could hear him. “His mom’s around here somewhere. She’s a much bigger bear.”

As my fellow tourists murmured and cooed, I said to the driver, “Wow. That’s really cool that you can see bears from here.”

“There are bears everywhere,” he said. “We see them all the time. They’re like dogs here.”

“Really,” I said as the tram lurched to a stop. “I would have never guessed.”
Friday, May 18, 2007

Making 10 miles count

Today I got to ride 10 miles. I like my new incremental cycling plan, because it keeps me happy without feeling too reckless. I self-impose mileage maximums, and as long as I force myself to stick to them, I can convince myself that no harm has been done (whether or not actual harm has been done is, I think, secondary to perceived success.)

This morning, however, I looked outside and knew that keeping to my maximum was going to prove a huge challenge ... not a cloud in the sky, sunlight pouring down and a thermometer that had climbed above 60 degrees. These warm, sunny days are so rare that I can't say I've seen a second one in all of the nine months I've lived in Juneau. It was not the kind of day to spend spinning on a road bike for a half hour. So I thought ... how can I turn eight miles into an excursion that would fill up an entire morning? I came up with a four-part plan:

1. Pick a technical trail that I know will keep me slow and honest, like Dredge Lake.

2. Stick to the tightly-wound singletrack. While squeezing between tree trunks, I almost crushed my fingers more than once. I am so out of practice.

3. Take a lot of extended sightseeing breaks. I rode this trail system often in December and January, but everything looks completely different now. It was like discovering a new place.

4. Actively seek out anything that will make me slower. The trails traverse a swampy glacial moraine, so I hit a lot of stretches that looked like this.

I love this kind of stuff. My bike's drivetrain does not love me.

I had planned to ride only eight miles, and technically I did ride only eight miles on my bad knee. I bailed off the trail at mile 8.2 and took the road back to the trailhead. For good measure, I unipedalled the entire last two miles. I pushed hard with one leg and kept my speed above 13 mph. It was the best lung workout I've had in months.

I bought a new camera yesterday, so more than anything, the ride was an excuse to try out my new toy. I went to Costco and drooled for a while over the 10 megapixel Canons with 10X zoom and detachable lenses. I wanted to get something nice that would take great pictures. In the end, I bought the bombproof compact model. It's an Olympus Stylus 725 SW, waterproof to 15 feet under and shockproof up to a 5-foot freefall. Today, after spontaneously whipping it out of my pocket while swiveling my handlebars through knee-deep swamp water, I knew I had made the right decision.

Depending on how this ride goes over, I think I will bicycle 12-15 miles on Sunday. It's arguable that eight miles of singletrack and two miles of unipedalling does not exactly equal a chill 10-mile ride, and I was not exhibiting as much self-control as I'd like to think ... but I'll leave that verdict up to the jury of perceived success.

Now ... off to enjoy a picnic, a short walk and the rest of this beautiful day.

Desperatly seeking fitness

I had a talk with my doctor the Ironman triathlete today. He strongly discouraged complete inactivity as a healing option. His advice was exactly what common sense would dictate, but for some reason we pay professionals to tell us so ... if it hurts, don't do it. "But it's important to keep up with your fitness," he said. He told me the story of a patient of his in Ketchikan who has a similar injury. Our MRIs were nearly identical, he told me. The only difference - she contracted runner's knee while hiking on a steep mountain trail. I earned mine in a long, slow bike race. Now, she can ride a bike without even feeling that burning pain. I could hike up steep stuff all day as long as I was never required to come down. But neither of us can do the thing we love.

Despite this, I am actually still considering inactivity. From everything I've learned, it is probably the quickest path back. My current path of small cycling increments is mostly just an experiment in seeing how much pain I can deal with, now that I don't seem to be stiffening up as much as I used to. I know it's not the smart path. No one needs to tell me that. I don't see it lasting for more than a week, either. But I am curious to learn whether cycling is still an option, should my current condition persist indefinitely (there's no guarantee it won't. Even inactivity isn't sure-fire insurance against that.)

But the big question, the question I hear sometimes and ask myself often, is what is the big &%*#@ deal anyway? What is so bad about losing fitness? What is so great about cycling that I can't give it up for a few weeks or months, when that's all it might take at this point? All very valid questions. After all, there are so many worse things that could have happened. I am definitely both a lucky and selfish person, and the view from my front window reminds me of it every day.

Fitness is interesting in that it is a different thing to different people. I read about it in the magazines at my gym. To some, fitness is duty, with obsessive calorie counting and a daily slog through 30 minutes of cardio. To others, fitness is fine-tuned precision, with plastic balls and free weights and index cards. Fitness is routine. It is expectation. It is preparation. It is well-toned arms and that perfect snapshot once a year on a beach in Maui. It is an ego boost after beating co-workers in racquetball. It is hope against hope that life can be prolonged. It is a lot of things. And I respect and appreciate each and every one. But they are not my fitness.

My fitness is the drug that keeps me away from dark places. I may be lucky and selfish, but I'm not immune to depression. Maybe it was a questionable path to self-medicate with endorphins. I know they were tough to quit, sitting immobile on the couch as the darkness closed in. Addiction is one theory; coping is another. Humans were not meant to sit in little cubicles and spend sedentary days learning everything they can about all the meanness in the world. But that's how I chose to put food in my belly and shelter over my head. I love it, the news cycle, but sometimes I find myself lost inside of it. Fitness was my escape.

But it wasn't just that. It wasn't just about pedaling myself into an endorphin-pumping bag of chemicals, until all the images of war and famine faded into the background of my most immediate physical needs. Otherwise, it would be easy to take doctor's orders and just swim until my skin took on a translucent film and my thoughts projected nothing but calm fatigue. Fitness may be a good mental escape, but cycling was my literal escape. I couldn't help but feel wistful today when talking to my doctor about the places he rides. They were the places I used to go. I can only picture what they were like in the winter, because I haven't been back in a while. Berner's Bay. North Douglas. Even the Mendenhall Valley. My memories of the scenery, blanketed in snow and encased in silence, become more muted every day. And what I have left are blurring glimpses of a sunset or the shimmering reflection of sky on water. In my biking days, I would linger for a while and take a few photos. Now I just blaze by in my car, if I get outside at all, and I miss the way the landscape used to lock me in wonder.

It can be a destructive combo - an unfilled inclination to explore, a typically stressful job and pent-up energy. Losing fitness is not the end of the world. It never was. But the fact that I've let a simple, minor injury consume me says a lot about how much fitness meant to me.

"It's not like you're a professional athlete, not like this is your paycheck, your livelihood," my doctor said. (He was just joking. He's a nice guy. Really.)

But still ... who says it's not my livelihood?
Thursday, May 17, 2007

5.98 miles

I said I was only going to ride five miles today and I only rode five miles ... give or take a mile. I won’t lie and say I’ve never felt better, but it went about as well as expected. The weather was terrible but I didn't care. These things just don't matter.

I made the odd choice of riding my snow bike. Of all my bikes, that one required the least maintenance to be road ready. Plus, I reasoned, anything that forced me to ride slower was probably a good thing. But deep down, I knew that it was about time my snow bike, "Snaux Bike," and I made amends. Snaux Bike and I have a typical relationship. He hurts me, and I neglect him, but still, I feel like we could have a bright future together if we only we could work through our differences.

We rode out toward Douglas because the road dead-ends there exactly 2.5 miles from my house. Even if I felt great, I knew there wouldn’t be any temptation to ride further once I hit end of the road. Twelve minutes later, I was at Sandy Beach, watching the tide come in as an evenly-spaced line of cruise ships puttered toward the harbor. And I thought ... since I had Snaux bike with me anyway ... and extra half mile or so across the sand wouldn’t be all that bad of an idea. A little beach riding never killed anyone.

It was 45 degrees with steady rain and a 25 mph south wind. The ride was showered in road goo and bogged down in wet sand. But look how happy I seem. I bet I was having a better time than at least 1,847 of the 2,808 passengers on the Sun Princess. It was only 11 a.m., so at least half that number were nursing hangovers. (The other half were probably trying to choose between the Eggs Benedict and Apricot Crepes, and I don't envy indecision, either.)

Anyway, I hope the weather is bad again tomorrow because I plan to go swimming and only swimming. I also have a doctor's appointment, where I expect to be told to give up on the cycling dream. Then I hope to ride eight miles on Friday. When I am ambling down the road at 12 mph, it feels like the quiet moments before a sonic boom. I can’t wait.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thinking about defiance

"As life gets longer, awful feels softer ... well, it feels pretty soft to me."
- Modest Mouse, "The View"

Today I walked out the front door with my snowshoes in my hands. I passed the row of pansies in my front yard, crossed a dry street strewn with Barbies and tricycles, and brushed a row of bushes now spiny with spring buds. Signs of summer are emerging everywhere ... cruise ships in the harbor; sightseeing buses streaming down the road; dogs prowling the yards; children's voices in the distance. I fought through a tangle of broken branches, wet roots and mud for a quarter mile. Then I strapped my snowshoes on. It may be the middle of May, but there is still enough snowpack for me to move freely across the soft surface of Douglas Island. I hiked for four hours, and then I went to work. I am happy to be back in Alaska.

I went a little higher, and a little longer, than I intended too. On the way home, I started to feel the usual downhill pangs in my knee. So I focused in, taking each step consciously and asking myself a question that has become almost a mantra - "How much does this really bother me?"

It's a valid question. How can I tell the difference between pain and what may be just a gut reaction to habit and precedence? My mom and I talked about my history of injury last week. Every time I bashed or bruised my knee as a kid, I was prone to hobbling around stiff-legged for days. She would eventually tell me to "just walk normal," and I'd usually protest. "But it hurts," I'd whine. "If you don't start using it, you won't know when it doesn't hurt," she'd say.

I decided before I went to Utah that if I had problems, or if any physical aspect of my vacation didn't go well in any way, that would be the reality check I'd need to turn to desperate measures - complete inactivity. No elliptical machine. No snowshoeing. Maybe I wouldn't even go swimming. Because, obviously, after three months, if those things hadn't worked, they weren't going to.

Well, the vacation didn't go well ... at least, not nearly as well as I hoped. I turned to face the reality of my decision, and met my own inevitable, whining protests ...

"At what point do you accept something as chronic and try to work around, rather than away, from it?"

"What if inactivity doesn't work? Better to be moving at 50 percent than not moving at all."

"How much does this really bother me?"

Maybe I can just decide that it doesn't. I'll just tell myself the little pangs and jolts don't bother me enough to stop. Cowboy up, so to speak, and get back on the bike where I'd like to be. I know I'm still prone to stiffening up after cycling, but that's really my biggest struggle. I made a mistake in Utah of the swift introduction of a 45-mile day after months of 0-mile days. But if I took it in slow doses - one 5-mile day, one day off, one 8-mile day, one day off, etc. ... Maybe that would work better than complete inactivity.

Because my alternative, truthfully, is returning to the binge cycle ... last week, several days of rest followed by a deluge of biking and backpacking; this week, several days of rest followed by a four-hour hike with way too much downhill. I'm like a dieter with boxes of brownies in the cupboard. And since I already know I can't resist, I might as well eat them one at a time.
Monday, May 14, 2007

Yet more Utah pics

These are a few of Geoff's pictures. I'm sure they'll turn up on his blog. But I'm posting them here, because this is my Web site and I'll do what I want.

I went swimming in a White Canyon pool. It wasn't the Colorado River, but it was cold enough. If only there was enough water for me to travel the entire canyon that way, I would have been set.

Dave Nice and I build fire because Utah is cold place.

Pete rides up what I assume is Murphy's Hogback, along the White Rim trail.

I love this picture. I'm not quite sure why. I just do.

Anna in Fry Canyon, shortly before the group hit a dead end that no one was expecting on exit day.

The group gathers in White Canyon. I'm the gimp on the left.

The backpack trip

I never got around to blogging about my backpack trip in Southern Utah. A fairly large group and I - there were 11 of us, total - trekked through White Canyon from National Bridges National Monument to Fry Canyon. It was about 20 miles, three days, two nights, a chill downhill slope, some mild scrambling, and could have been one of the toughest backpack trips I ever participated in ... if it wasn't for my friends.

I had fairly well cooked my right knee during the couple of easy bike rides I did in Moab over the weekend. It had seized stiff by Monday morning. I was more frustrated with my physical state and my inability to participate in the simplest activities than I have been yet in this injury cycle, now going on three months. But I made it through ... mostly on the backs of people who were willing to lighten my load, hoist my pack, lend me hobble sticks, and offer a hand over the boulders. These are the people who essentially carried me through White Canyon:

This is my friend, Anna, and her husband, Nate. They live in St. George, Utah. Anna and I met during Spring Break '99, when she was a freshmen in college, I was a sophomore, and we both harbored the grand dream that we could change the world by testing the turbidity of the Tualitin River. I have since become an adopted daughter-in-law of sorts for her whole family, but Nate and I just met. That didn't stop him from carrying my pack, along with his, over a couple of miles on the first day and the tough scramble up and out of the canyon on the last. He had to wrestle it away from me the first time, when I was still unwilling to face the shame. Thankfully, he overpowered me pretty quickly, because he's Superman.

On the left is my friend, Dane, a former Utahn exiled to grad school in Vancouver, B.C., and Chris, a therapist in Salt Lake City who clocks a minimum of 70 hours each workweek. In 2004, Dane took a 40-foot fall in Little Cottonwood Canyon when a rock he was scrambling up broke off the mountain. He endured a six-hour search and rescue effort and a shattered wrist that had for all practical purposes been severed clean. But he's back in action, and as healthy as ever. Chris works so much he hardly gets outside anymore, which is strange to me, because in college he was as close a personality to Edward Abbey's Hayduke as anyone I have ever met. Now he's monstrously out of shape, and he'll admit as much, but he never complained out it, even when what was supposed to be an easy five-mile last day turned into more of a 12-mile scramble epic. These guys were my inspiration.

Paul and Monika, standing on the left, drove all the way from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to hang with us. They're both grad students, Paul in law school and Monika studying social work, and both were on their way west for summer internships. I met Paul and Monika during Spring Break '00, back when we still harbored the grand dream that we could change the world by ripping up lupin plants on the sand dunes of Arcata, California. Now they just study all the time. The seems to be a reoccurring theme with my old friends. College environmentalists with a talent for endurance - of all kinds.

Geoff, left, took away all of our shared food after the first day and carried it the rest of the trip. I went really light on the water - it's not like I was hobbling hard enough to work up a sweat, anyway - and ended up carrying a pack that only weighed about 15 pounds. Mike, right, and I literally just met during the trip. He caught some wicked stomach flu the day before we left and still backpacked with us. Then he had to help pull his girlfriend, Jen, through the hike after she caught that same bug during our first night in the canyon. These people are troopers. I felt like such a wimp.

Jen, right, and I met way back during the beginning of college, sometime in 1998. She's the reason I met Geoff. She grew up with him in central New York, and now varies her time between ski season at Alta, Utah, and working some tourism job in northern Idaho. It was great to see my old friends descend from all corners of the United States (and Canada) to come together in a remote but all-encompassing spot. Our lives are very different now. As a result, we're all very different. We were once a small tribe. Many of us lived together in a commune-type house for years. We understood the nuances and each others' lives. We cleaned together, shopped together, ate together and travelled together. We were inseparable, once. But now our combined stories comprise only of e-mails, rumors and the random phone call.

Some of my old friends read my blog. I thought because of it, they would know more about me than ever before, but that didn't seem to be the case. They think I'm all hardcore now, some kind of an endurance junkie with a competitive streak. I think they were surprised to discover I was actually the weakest link, humbled by the ever-widening scope of their lives versus the scope of my own life, leaning on people who owe me nothing and yet were willing to give me anything.

I am not always as strong as I'd like to be. Sometimes, I'm weaker than I ever thought possible. But it's in these places, these situations, where I find my friends.
Saturday, May 12, 2007

Santa Barbara

If you are a person of an impatient persuasion, you probably hate commercial flying. If you are a person of an irrational phobia persuasion, you probably hate commercial flying. And if you are a person of an "I am not livestock" persuasion, you probably hate commercial flying. But if you are a little of all three, you would probably let a day-long, three-legged flight with a four-hour layover in Santa Barbara make you really grumpy.

I completely forgot about that first leg, and told my mom I wasn't flying out until 4:50 p.m. We were planning the day together and everything. But when I actually checked my itinerary, I realized I was flying at 11 a.m. After we rushed to the airport, I wandered around the Salt Lake terminal for a little while looking for a map of the states. I get all of the San's and Santa's in California confused. I thought Santa Barbara was in the Central California/Sacramento/Purgatory area. But I was wrong. It's right on the southern coast.

The Santa Barbara airport is small. Smaller than Juneau's. And judging by the reaction from the TSA people, I don't think anyone in the history of the world has ever caught a connecting flight there. When I showed one Horizon Airlines employee my Delta boarding pass, she just kept telling me I was at the wrong airport. "But you flew me in here," I kept insisting. It was like arguing with an automated teller. It took a while to square all the confusion away, but afterward I still had nearly four hours to kill at a six-gate airport that had one snack bar and essentially no waiting space. Outside was a blaze of sunlight at 65-degree dry air. It seemed a good opportunity to go for a walk.

Airports are usually tough places to walk away from, but I am wary of hopping on public transportation when I'm whittling away a layover. Luckily, I discovered a bike path almost immediately. I crossed the Goleta Slough and quickly found my way to the beach, where I kicked off my shoes and socks and laid tracks across the warm sand like the little lost bear I followed earlier this week. I felt comfortably out of place among the baking beautiful people, with the sun scorching my pasty Alaskan skin and my SPF 45 stowed somewhere far away in my checked baggage, hauling a Camelbak carry-on and a Gap bag full of Goldfish, likely illegal fruit and my ancient camera. I was really tempted to go for a swim in the surf, but I unfortunately chose to wear white underwear that morning. Dang.

I made my way up to UCSB to find an Internet connection and lunch. Both searches turned out to be fruitless (I forgot how bad college food is.) I was eating my Goldfish and a grapefruit, drinking a jug-o'Diet Pepsi and reading a section of The Salt Lake Tribune in the campus courtyard when a guy that couldn't have been older than 19 or 20 approached me to ask if I was in his Cultural Anthropology class. "No," I said, "I'm not a student here."

"Oh, too bad," he said, then smiled and walked away. I think he intended to hit on me. It's hard to tell with the kids these days. Either way, I don't think that happened to me before, even when I was actually in college. I chose to feel flattered.

After lunch, I ditched the Gap bag and worked my way further down the beach, away from the groomed lawns and beach umbrellas, to the seedier part of the coast. With sand bluffs towering overhead and wind whipping up the beach, it reminded me of Homer, Alaska ... with palm trees. Without a watch or any real clue of my timeline for finding my way back to the tiny airport, I sat on the rocks and looked north up the coastline, even further away from home than I was this morning, guiltlessly enjoying a vacation from my vacation.

I think they call this kind of thing Serendipity.