Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Waiting for the fog to lift

Date: Jan. 30
Mileage: 27.4
January mileage: 856.1
Temperature upon departure: 35

Rough day at work. I fried my brain, so today is a picture post. I thought about gunning for 900 miles this month, but I probably won't have the time. Either way, it's been a good run and I wouldn't give it up even if fitness came free.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Liquid gray infinity

Date: Jan. 29
Mileage: 19.2
January mileage: 828.7
Temperature upon departure: 33

When the subject of how much cycling I do comes up in conversations with acquaintances, I usually try to downplay it as much as possible. Part of it has to do with my delusion of normalcy and my fear of being judged. “You do what? Every day? Out in the weather? Here?” After all, they know where I live.

But the main reason I don’t talk about cycling obsession with anyone but the best of friends is my fear of the best question of all, the question I don’t know how to answer — “Why?”

“You spend all of your free time biking?” For the most part. “As a hobby?” Yes. “Do you get paid at all to ride your bike?” Of course not. “Do you ever plan to make any money riding a bike?” Well, no. “Are you trying to lose weight?” Not really.

“Then ... Why?”

Sometimes I feel like rebutting by asking them why they spend their free time playing World of Warcraft or TiVo-ing whatever reality train wrecks they’re showing on TV these days, but I know it’s not really a fair comparison. Their hobbies don’t send them out into the slush and biting cold, splattered in grit and varying shades of bruises. Their hobbies don’t require wearing soggy clothing made of unnatural fabrics and coping with equipment that seems to be in a constant state of disrepair. My hobby defines me as quirky and a little bit crazy, and I find it impossible to explain my way out of that.

There are times, though, that I ask myself the same question. It usually crosses my mind in the midst of a rough ride or the conditions I dislike the most - the watered-down slush, the wind. The rain.

Today I stopped at the North Douglas boat launch to pour the water out of my shoes and wipe my Camelbak nozzle free of a solid layer of grit. Nobody was out in the monotone drizzle of a Monday afternoon, and the calm water reflected the silence. Luxurious, billowing clouds draped over tree tops and tumbled down the mountainside like stain fabric.

I sat down for a moment on the beach, littered with broken mussel shells that sparkled in the dull light. I thought about my routine and its strange motions, and I thought a little about “Why.”

I live in a liquid world where everything is fleeting and nothing stays the same. The only thing I’m really certain of is the passing of time, the waves of good and bad that carry me forward. And the details - the possessions I acquire, the way that I look, the places I go, the people I meet, the people I love - are too often little more than glimmers of the present in a sea of memories. It's all too easy for me to drift away with the tide, become lost in that ocean, and forget that life is something that happens, not something I have.

What I really want is to live at the crest of every moment - every frightening, joyful, exhausting, brilliant, mundane moment - as they pass me by. And bicycling, in a way, is my means of staying afloat.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back in the Saddle


Date: Jan. 28
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 809.5
Temperature upon departure: 30

Tough ride today. I blame the ill-fated bald eagle who found a decapitated deer head in the local landfill. Probably thinking it would be the envy of all eagles, it wrapped its talons around the trophy and took off. What it didn't put much thought into is how much more difficult flying can be when you're hoisting a head that weighs roughly what you do. The eagle banked right into the path of a live power line and bzzzzt ... 10,000 customers in Juneau lost power. (This is a true story. I work for the local newspaper.) And the end result ... I wasn't able to check the weather radar before I went outside.

I've been riding my regular mountain bike with studded tires since Thursday because I'm terrified about taking another dive. It does fine on ice, but is spectacularly inefficient in any sort of loose snow (I can't believe I spent an entire winter riding this thing last year. Swapping out Sugar for Snaux Bike has been like upgrading a low-geared beach cruiser to a road bike and discovering that it is in fact possible to go faster than 9 mph on a bicycle.) But that was fine because there wasn't any new snow this morning ... when I left.

I did a real quick jaunt out to the end of North Douglas Highway (50 minutes! Them's summer times!) Light flurries began falling at about mile 4 and had grown steadily heavier. But it was just after I turned around that I hit the full scope of the storm. I didn't even know snow downpours were possible. The white fury rained down like static on a TV screen. There was no visibility and no distinction between road and shoulder and ocean and sky. Snow like that piles up fast - nearly three inches in the space of an hour. I had to stay as far off the road as possible to avoid the ski-resort traffic. My mountain bike was swerving and banking and bouncing off chunks of ice left and right. I slowed to a crawl, locked in concentration mode and a kind of lightheaded calm that comes of unperceived effort. I didn't understand why I was working harder, but I was. Sweat condensation was building up on the inside of my transparent PVC jacket. Total ride time - 2 hours, 20 minutes. I only had enough time left over to take a shower and slap together a tuna sandwich, but at least I wasn't late for work.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Recovery bliss

I was standing in the Costco parking lot in my T-shirt and jeans, absent-mindedly sipping on a generously iced Diet Coke, when my type-A alter-ego - that little voice that is always trying to nudge me into action - came waddling up beside me.

"What a waste," it said to me. "Look at the bright sun! The clear sky! The windsock hanging limp and motionless! Why aren't you out there taking advantage of that?"

"I promised my health-nut alter-ego that I wouldn't ride my bike today," I said. "My neck's still sore. I think I got whiplash when I crashed Thursday. See, I can't turn it to the left very far."

"Like taking a neck recovery day is a good excuse," it hissed. "You're only going to get a day like this once in an entire training cycle! You have to seize the day when it comes! It doesn't matter what you did yesterday or the day before for that matter!"

"You know, you're the reason my co-workers used to call me Gimpy McStiff," I said.

"But you'll finally be able to soak up some sun," it coaxed. "You're skin's looking pretty pasty these days. Although you should probably do something about those wind burnt cheeks. Haven't you ever heard of moisturizer?"

"If I actually take rest days," I said, "maybe someday I will look like a normal person again."

"I'm telling you, you're making a huge mistake," it said.

I took another sip of my Diet Coke. The cool liquid trickled beneath my strained neck muscles, releasing sweet shots of caffeine into my bloodstream, where it carried into the knots in my shoulders, the static numbness in the tips of my fingers, the fatigue in my quads, my calves, my toes. And we settled, relaxed, melted in the rare January sun.

"I could get used to this," I said.

...

So now I'm officially tapering. What will I do with my extra time?

I received this e-mail from my grandma today. She always has good ideas.

"I would make you eat whipped potatoes and plenty of gravy. Then an hour later I would make you eat chicken noodle soup with homemade noodles, topped off with I believe you like tin-roof sundae ice cream. Then an hour later, I would get you some pizza and milk. Not pepsi, MILK!"

I love my grandma.

...

So the ever-popular Fat Cyclist and I are both up for Bloggies. Good thing were are not up against each other. Still, it does seem like several bloggers in the cycling community are rallying for us, and that's nice to see. I have to admit, I would be fairly exuberant (like Fatty) if I won, but it's not very likely. I'm up against Sports blogs, some of which receive more hits per week than my blog has in its entire existence. But I figure it doesn't hurt to do an extra plug, because, unlike Fatty, I don't know how to put a big flashing banner ad in my sidebar. But just think, wouldn't it be cool if a wannabe-endurance-cycle-racing blog run by a woman whose only high school team was the debate team, and who - despite several attempts to educate herself - doesn't understand how the game of football is really played ... wouldn't it be cool if that blog was named "Best Sports Weblog 2007"? Just a thought. Vote early and vote often. Thank you.

...

Oh yeah ... Go Colts!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Big century

This is one end of the Juneau road: Berner's Bay, North mile 40.

This is the other end: Thane, South mile 6.

Of course I rode past this point.

It's beautiful out there.

Then again, it's beautiful everywhere.

It was my new odometer's first day.

Date: Jan. 26
Mileage: 100.3
January mileage: 784.4
Temperature upon departure: 29

Today was my "long" training ride before the Susitna 100, and it went really well. I planned to stay out for 10 hours, but after 9:08 I had pretty much run out of road, and I felt pretty good about having 100 miles in the base anyway. I didn't do an extra spur to push my mileage over 100. Riding from my house to one end of the road and then back to the other is really exactly 100 miles.

The best part about today's ride is that any given hour was not any more or less arduous than the next. That's when I know I'm in a good endurance state of mind. During my 80-mile ride last week, I pretty much crashed and had to limp the last 10 miles. But today I ate much better (about 1,200 calories. Huge for me during a ride, and a good amount, too, I think.) And I felt strong the whole time. As I was riding back from Thane, I thought about how I felt fairly similar to the way I feel when I ride that road from my house - when it's just a 15-mile ride. Today I felt just as upbeat and excited about the setting - a calm, moonlit evening with the lights of Douglas sparkling across the channel - as I would on any good day, despite the fact that I already had more than 90 miles behind me. Like I said - a great endurance state of mind. I'm not always blessed with it, but when it settles in, I feel like I can turn the pedals indefinitely.

Today I also eclipsed my highest-mileage month of 2006 - it was July, at 710 miles. January 2007 would be my highest mileage month ever, except for I did that cross-country bike tour in 2003, and it's going to be pretty hard for me to ever beat 1,600 miles. I guess it doesn't hurt to dream, though.

I'd like to thank the academy ...

Date: Jan. 25
Mileage: 32.0
January mileage: 684.1
Temperature upon departure: 31

So I was all set to log on this evening and write a quick post about what an idiot I am, when I checked the Web stats like a do all the time occasionally, and discovered that this humble little blog made it as a finalist of one of the categories of the 2007 Bloggies!

I bet you'll never guess the category.

Seriously. It would have never occured to me. But I'll keep you in suspense until the end of this post, because my story today adds a few sprinkles of irony.

For all of the cycling I've done, and for all of my cold-weather cycling experience, I still occasionally make some spectacularly stupid mistakes. Today I hoped to do a little trail riding, so I hauled my fat-tired-but-studless snowbike up the stairs to find our front driveway coated in a solid sheet of glare ice. If this wasn't an obvious enough warning sign, I should have also taken into account the heavy rainfall that literally flooded most of the side streets yesterday, and the fact that the temperatures dropped below freezing shortly after the storm and stayed there. But I didn't. Snaux bike has been so burly in so many winter cycling situations that it's made me a little complacent. Studded tires? Who needs them? I headed down the road.

The streets were fairly trecherous, but I figured riding a few solid trails up north would more than make up for a little tentitive road riding. I remembered to keep my butt on the seat and never hit the brake. I rode slowly and methodically. When I hit the bike path, the surface changed to a smooth, translucent, 1/2"-thick sheet of ice. I was going along at a pretty good clip when I saw one of my co-workers, Korry, walking ahead. I'd recognize his hat anywhere. So I thought - hey, I'll stop and say hi to Korry. Without even really assessing the situation, I turned the wheel a little to the left and pressed lightly on the brake. I saw Korry's face as he stopped to turn toward that sound he heard, that horrible scraping sound, and the suddenly, the landscape lurched sideways. I felt both wheels kick violently to the left and launch skyward. For that split-second we were airborn, that quiet moment that carries the calm acceptence of impending disaster, so focused in a tunnel of silence that I'm certain I actually heard Korry gasp, so calm that my body went limp. Then I slammed like a lead-weighted rag doll on the ice, right shoulder first, then hip, then head. I could hear Korry yelling. And then I heard him say, "Jill?"

So embarrassing. One of those moments in which it didn't matter if I was physically hurt or not. My ego was crushed. I jumped back up, dragging my bike beside me. "No worries," I called out. "I'm a complete clutz. Happens all the time!"

I later spent several minutes in the bathroom of a Safeway examining my shoulder to make sure it wasn't mildly dislocated or otherwise injured. It's just bruised, but it did hurt. I still finished my ride, because I wasn't actually injured. But I finished it with focus, and with respect. And I know, I know. "Jill, BE CAREFUL." It's not really the kind of mistake you need to make twice. Even though it's a much slower and less snow-worthy machine, my studded-tire mountain bike is probably going to start seeing a lot more use. Starting tomorrow, which I have slated to be my longest training ride before the Susitna 100. I know. I'm bummed Snaux bike won't be there, too.

Oh ... and the category I've been nominated for? Best Sports Blog! Up in Alaska ... Sports Blog. It's the one-stop-blog where you can get all of your World Series of Superbowl Finals information from those in the know. It think that means I have a pretty good chance of winning, but maybe you could drop into the Bloggies and cast your vote anyway. Vote early and vote often. You guys are the greatest.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Cold and wet

Date: Jan. 24
Mileage: 50.5
January mileage: 652.1
Temperature upon departure: 35

Today I had the perfect shot lined up. A small window of sunlight had broken through the clouds and cast filtered sunlight directly on the Mendenhall Glacier. The result was a blaze of blue so brilliant that it looked like it had been painted on by some overzealous Technicolor artist, flowing indiscriminately from ice to sky. I rode my bike a ways down the trail where bikes weren't allowed, pulled up next to the lake, and unpacked my Camelbak. I removed my camera from its four ziplock bags, pointed the viewfinder at that idealistic Antarctic scene, and click ... nothing. I had left my camera battery at home. I was pretty upset about it. Really. I had a pretty serious sulk going on. I nearly just turned around and went home right there. But then I thought better of it. And I rode for three more hours. And all was right with the world.

Today was a wet day. A wet day. If it were actually scientifically possible to make water any wetter than it already is, that was today. Last year, I dealt more often with very cold temperatures - down to negative-double-digits with wind chills down to negative-kill-me-now. But I have to say, mild cold and wet is a very different problem. A more vexing problem, in many ways. Anyone can eventually figure out how to stay warm in the dry cold - wearing a lot of layers can often be enough. But once you're wet, even 10 layers of polar fleece aren't going to change that fact.

I think I have finally come to a decent solution. It's not about staying dry, because that's impossible. It may be possible for 30 minutes. It may even be possible for an hour, if you have a good rubber suit. But for 4-5 hours, no way. That water is coming in and up and back out from every direction, complete inundation, for hours on end. So, I ask myself, how do people stay warm when they go swimming in cold water? Therein, I'm much closer to a solution.

One of the best things I've done is minimize the layers. The less soggy layers you can get away with, the better. I bought these polar tights from Nashbar, and they're all I wear beneath my 'waterproof' rain pants, which really just serve as wind blockers. For my feet, I finally purchased a good pair of Neoprene socks - NRS Titanium .3mm socks. I wear those with a thin pair of liner socks, a small pair of track running shoes and my Neoprene booties. The double Neoprene layer is toasty. I could swim all day in that. On my torso I only wear a thin liner shirt, one fleece layer and a plastic shell. It's entirely plastic but has vents under the arms, which, of course, just let tons of water in. But it also seems to do a good job of keeping heat it, and blocking wind. Then I wear a thin fleece balaclava ... they're as warm wet as dry, I think. Today, I tried those "handlebar mitt" pogies. I started with thin gloves but had to go down to bare hands because they were so warm. I actually hadn't been able to keep my hands warm in the wet weather yet, even with Neoprene kayak gloves, but the pogies work like a dream. I rode for a little more than four hours today, and they managed to stave off nearly all of the water. The fabric works like tent fabric, I think - it won't leak through until you touch it, and they're so big and loose that they make a little tent over my hands.

In short, after five months, I think I have found my wet weather solution. And it's a little closer to a wetsuit than I'd like to admit.

Nice surprise

Date: Jan. 23
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 601.6
Temperature upon departure: 31

Today I received a couple of crucial packages. The first was from Dave Nice in Denver, who donated a Thermarest Z-Lite sleeping pad and dry bag to my Susitna 100 cause. As an added bonus, he also sent me the December issue of Modern Drunkard magazine and a bicycle patch. Now I have nearly everything I need - just waiting on a bivy and a couple more random things. Thanks Dave!

I also received my order from Cabela's. I finally bought a pair of pogies, or actually "handlebar mitts." I learned about these from another Dave. They're made for ATVs and snowmobiles, but a handlebar is a handlebar. These have built-in chemical handwarmer holders, and even come with a free pair! It's always fun to find a low-price version of some esoteric piece of gear. It's the John Stamstad school of thought - buy from K-mart, eat twinkies, and ride your ass off. These particular handlebar mitts actually come in "Advantage Timber" color as well as the black. I was very tempted to get the camo, but I don't think I really have the personality to pull off chic tacky. I think I would just come across as tacky tacky.

With these and the new pair of expedition-weight neoprene kayak socks I just found at a Juneau mall outdoor store, I think I may have finally found the best solution I'm going to for the wet-and-cold hands and feet problems I've been having. I'm excited to try them out. I have another long weekend coming up and I'm hoping for dry weather and long mileage, though I'd settle for one.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Blue Monday

Date: Jan. 22
Mileage: 33.0
January mileage: 576.5
Temperature upon departure: 29

Lots of visitors stopped by the blog today. I looked into it, and it turns out if you do a Google search for ‘depressing Blue Monday,’ this blog is second on the list.

I’m happy to have this distinction, because otherwise I would have forgotten that today was, in fact, “Blue Monday,” officially the most depressing day of the year. It’s the day when miserable weather, mounting debt, loss of the holidays, lack of motivation and stunted New Year’s resolutions finally catch up to people. So a British psychologist took all of these factors and actually created a mathematical formula to determine that yes, the third Monday in January is in fact as bad as it gets.

I like to mark Blue Monday because, regardless of what you think about randomly-well-publicized-but-otherwise-arbitrary scientific studies, it doesn’t hurt to believe that the year’s only going to look up from here. And what better way to celebrate a sad winter day than to go out for a bike ride?

I actually convinced Geoff to ride with me this morning. We stepped outside into weather that was completely unbelievable. You’d really have to live where I live to find it unbelievable. The temperature was perfect - 29 degrees - warm enough to shed a layer but not so warm it makes everything melty and sloppy. The sky was mostly cloudy, which in Juneau means “almost sunny.” And, most astonishingly, there was no wind. No wind at all. Geoff and I both agree that this was the first day since October free of all the typical factors, of which we nearly always have at least two: precipitation, wind and cold.

We set out south along a corridor lined with fresh snow piles that tumbled down the other day when the city set off a series of avalanche-control rockets. The road was so dry that we could hear our studded tires crackling on the pavement. Subdued sunlight sparkled on the water, so smooth I could see reflections of blue-hued clouds as they shifted across the sky. Geoff and I talked for a while about what the Sustina 100 will be like - the crushing pain, the endless night-lapsed day. Nothing could be further from reality on Blue Monday, when legs spin so easy its almost as if our wheels are alive.

Some cyclists call these “no chain” days - days so fast and effortless that pedaling is like spinning a crank cut loose of all resistance. I decided to head north after Geoff turned homeward. I ended up riding almost 20 more miles, despite intending to only put in a 15-mile day. Sugar coasted over the dry ice and crackling snow. It’s been a while since my mountain bike and I spent a morning together, and it seemed a good day to let him fly. I turned around when my watch told me I had to, looking back wistfully as the smokey reflection of the sun rolled lazily to the southwest. It’s days like Blue Monday that I could ride forever, and would if given the chance.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Eating disorder

Date: Jan. 21
Mileage: 29.0
January mileage: 543.5
Temperature upon departure: 35

One thing I have never figured out how to do is eat well while bicycling. It sounds so simple. Even sitting here tonight, contemplating turning the pedals and munching down some Power Bars, I think "that sounds simple enough." For some reason, it never works as well in practice. It's not that I don't want to eat. It's not that I am trying to lose a pound a day by completing 8-hour rides on a couple hundred calories (although wouldn't it be nice if it were that simple?). No ... I don't eat because my body tells me I can't.

It does this in several ways. When I'm cycling, most of my normal triggers turn off. I can ride and ride and ride, and as long as I keep riding, I will never feel hungry. My blood sugar will crash. My hands will start shaking. But I'll never feel hungry. However, I do eat, to ward off the hand shakes. In these situations, eating anything is about as much fun as chugging down Alka Seltzer. So I stick with things that are fast and easy and pack a lot of calories in small bites. I like to eat things with lots of sugar, because it digests so quickly. I stick pretty much exclusively to peanut butter sandwiches, granola/Power bars, and fruit leather/fruit snacks. I also like Gatorade, but drinking it exclusively makes me sick to my stomach. So if I only have one bottle/bladder, water it is.

All of this eating usually has the short-term positive effect of an energy surge followed by a long, debilitating stretch of nausea. I've tried some remedies to ward this off. Pepto Bismal pills; antacid pills; drinking more water after eating; drinking less water after eating; experimenting with different foods (I keep giving Gu and other gels second chances, but they usually only serve to worsen the situation because I find the texture so repulsive.) And you know what's worked best for me? PB&J, Power Bars and fruit snacks (and sometimes turkey jerky) ... the longer between doses, the better.

I have been interested in giving liquid nutrition a try. But Hammer Heed and other products are pretty expensive. I can't really afford to use them throughout my training, and it would be idiotic to pull a complete switch during a race. My attempts with Gatorade haven't been so successful. The caloric intake is still pretty small, and drinking exclusively Gatorade only seems to prolong the nauseated feeling once it hits. So I usually go for the tried and true method of avoiding food while on the bicycle. I'm sure it affects my performance, but so far, it hasn't affected my health.

One thing I've learned about eating and riding is that everyone has their own methods and foods that work for them. I'm wondering if anyone out there also has to deal with what seems to be an unfair amount of gastrointestinal stress while riding, and, if so, what do you do to get around it? I just have a sensitive tummy that was raised on a fairly sugary diet, doesn't take too kindly to digesting large amounts of fat during workouts (really ... cheese and nuts are out), and doesn't seem to know what to do with technology food with ingredients like leucine and maltodextrin (but loves loves loves caffeine.) It seems all of these traits fall outside the "normal" range, so I've never found a catch-all solution. But I keep looking.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Clipless-less

Date: Jan. 20
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 514.5
Temperature upon departure: 35

In a post a couple of days ago, I thought I was admitting to a fleece fetish, but instead I was confessing a woeful lack of what some consider a basic piece of essential bike gear - the clipless pedal. It must have been quite the confession, because I have since been a peripheral part of at least a couple debates.

I own three bikes - a "Roadie" that is really more of a light touring bike, a full-suspension mountain bike and a rigid big-tired mountain bike built for the main purpose of riding on snow. The first two have platform pedals with plastic cages. The "Snaux Bike" has only an oversized set of studded platform pedals and no grips. Of the three, the Snaux Bike has my favorite set-up. I find the total lack of pedal barriers freeing, especially on a bicycle where my day-to-day foot gear ranges from a small pair of indoor track shoes to a triple-sock stuffed pair of Northface winter boots buried in N.E.O.S. overboots. And the pedals are so sticky that I don't even notice a real difference in the grip-ability between those and my cage-covered pedals. Call me an idiot. If I can't find much advantage to cages, am I really going to be blown away by clipless?

But I'll concur. I've only tried clipless a couple of times, and any initial feelings of positive connectedness were quickly buried in the embarrassment and frustration of tumbling sideways when I simply wanted to stop. It was about three years ago, when I swapped bikes with a friend during a short ride. She told me I'd love it and I believed her. I fell once and she laughed at me. The second time, she seemed annoyed. The third and times thereafter, I managed to yank my feet out of the bindings. But the prospect of falling again stressed me so badly that I couldn't even focus. I spent much of the time riding unclipped, pressing down on those obnoxiously small pedals with my toes. I was still pretty new to biking, but that experience cemented a rigid aversion to clipless.

Now that three years have passed, and I have more than a passing interest in going faster, I probably should revisit the clipless pedal. But I still have a pretty limited frame in which I'm even interested in using them - only during the summer months, and only on my road bike. I can't even imagine trying to integrate them into winter cycling. First of all, I can't even clip into my cross-country ski bindings when they're really packed with icy snow. Secondly, I'd have to buy at least two different sizes of shoes to compensate for my varying thicknesses of neoprene and wool sock layers. Third, some snowy trail riding involves as much walking as cycling, and I have doubts that those skinny shoes can double as comfortable hikers. Fourth, some snowy trail riding involves as much falling as walking, and I need the confidence in my ability to bail. Fifth - in a word, overflow. I still haven't figured out a system to keep my feet completely dry in all situations. But if I was wearing clipless pedal shoes, I never would.

I know there are winter cyclists out there who use clipless pedals exclusively. Those cyclists are more hardcore than I am, and I would wager that they've had more brushes with frostbite. Besides, I like the flexibility of moving my legs and feet independently of the machine they're operating, of choosing my foot gear based on whatever suits me, of lifting both legs high in the air when I'm happy and coasting. Someday, I will make an effort to go fast. But for now, I just want to make an effort to go everywhere.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lonely out here


Date: Jan. 18
Mileage: 79.0
January mileage: 489.4
Temperature upon departure: 33

Here in Juneau, we have a long, dead-end road that shoots out about 30 miles north of the last outpost of the population center and doesn't really go anywhere. We call it "Out the Road." I have personally spoken to residents who have lived here ten or more years and have never been to the end of it. And I'm guessing that there are very, very few who have ever ventured out that way on a random Thursday in January.

Today I rode "Out the Road." The last vehicle I saw turned off near mile marker 22. Beyond there, I went 15 more miles one way through a heavy snowstorm without seeing a single sign of life. Not a car. Not a snowmobile. Not a barking dog. Not even a raven. All I had was the increasingly snow-choked road and miles and miles of white silence. I loved it.

I had plans to ride all the way out to the end and take a triumphant self-portrait in front of the "END" sign. That sign stands near mile marker 40. But between miles 36 and 37, I noticed the snow depth on the road had exceeded five inches and snow was still coming down hard. Even atop a paved road, five inches of snow means you have to earn every mile and earn it well. I was riding at about 8 mph at that point and working extra hard for less and less distance. Riding to the end of the road would have meant an extra hour back to the point where I was, and I was becoming concerned that the snow would become so deep it may not even be rideable soon. And 40 miles is a long, long way to walk. (Unpacked snow depth would probably have to be in excess of 9 inches to become unrideable on a road, but it was coming down hard. In retrospect, I still feel it was a valid concern.)

So I turned around, just over 3 miles shy of my goal. I have still never ridden all the way out to the end of the road from my home. Someday. Some other, 85-mile day. When the miles aren't quite as hard-earned.

Overall, it was a pretty tough ride and of course I didn't eat enough. The last 10 miles, when I was back in the city, there was a 25-mph headwind whipping up the road, dark had descended and the temperature had bumped up to an extremely soggy 35, were especially difficult. For a while, I was having that full-body nauseated sensation where it feels as though my body is trying to reject itself. I saw an open, half-filled cup of ranch sauce on the road and had a more-than-fleeting urge to eat it, even though I still had a granola bar in my pack. (I think this is the reaction of long physical exertion. Our minds start to reject reason and react solely on instinct.) When Geoff did his 30-mile run, he tore open a pack of sport beans and dropped most of them on the road, then actually stopped to pick them up before thinking better of it. These reactions sound so repulsive now, but they seem perfectly normal when you're in the depths of your tunnel, mind completely closed to everything but the faint light at the end.

Now that I'm at home with plenty of ice cream and veggie lasagna in me, I'm feeling much more normal. I'm a little disappointed. I was kind of looking forward to floating around in that cloud for the rest of the evening. In all, my ride was just less than 80 miles. It took me a hair over eight hours. I dressed well, but wet is wet. I was never able to stop for longer than two minutes. I ate three granola bars and three fruit leathers, for a total of about 600 calories. I'm pretty proud that I actually made myself eat that much - but it wasn't nearly enough, especially considering that lunch was supposed to fall somewhere in there. One of these days I will learn how to eat while bicycling. And one of these days I will return from a ride without pruney toes, but neither is likely to happen very soon.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just like Christmas

Date: Jan. 17
Mileage: 38.0
January mileage: 410.4
Temperature upon departure: 32

I don't really mind being a job hopper, most of the time. Sure, I always misplace a lot of my possessions in the annual uprooting. And sure, I've been working for entry-level pay since I was 15. But the worst part about my constant freshman employee status is the way I get every single holiday dumped on me. I was the only one in my entire department to work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. And what do I get in return? Random days off, three weeks later. I didn't get to choose them. So today, Jan. 17, was Christmas Day to me. Hooray.

I predictably used my extra day off to go for a bike ride. I told Geoff I was going to do my regular two-hour ride, but then I stayed out for three and a half hours. I didn't have a great reason. I'm going to try and ride 7-8 hours tomorrow, so I probably would have been better off keeping it short. Most of the paths and shoulders were buried so the going was slow. And the weather wasn't particularly great. Not even particularly tolerable, really ... it snowed about three inches while I was out, wet snowflakes roughly the size of maple leaves. I wore my goggles until the moisture froze in vision-obscuring droplets. Then I just had to take those flake daggers right in the eyes. And I wasn't even feeling particularly strong. Just sort of ... normal. Biking is just want I do now, when I'm not sleeping or working. And since I had neither waiting for me when I got home, I just ... biked.

I am still making attempts at having a life, though. Geoff and I went with friends tonight to see "Raven Odyssey," the local theater production - the legend of "Raven" as told through a multitude of Native Alaskan and Siberian anecdotes. It was entertaining and culturally enlightening. So there. So it's not all bikes all the time ... except for when I came straight home and spent 30 minutes thoughtfully putting together clothing and a care package for tomorrow. Who am I really kidding? And what of Jan. 18? Boxing Day, I guess. I hope to kick some ***.

Downhill's the hard part

Date: Jan. 16
Mileage: 8.0
January mileage: 372.4
Temperature upon departure: 32

I did some trail riding today. Three inches of new power. Soft-packed stuff underneath. Snow coming down hard. Decent elevation gain. Lotsa walking. Eight miles in two hours. It's been a while since I've done such a physically demanding, technically challenging ride. My calves are still burning. Good stuff, those mountain snowmobile trails.

This one was dramatically rutted. Some of the moguls were taller than my wheels. Geoff explained to me how snowmobilers make these bumps - by intermittently gunning and then releasing their throttle rather than just giving it even gas like normal drivers. It seems a little selfish to me, especially on a multiuse trail - but what can you do? Interestingly, they were a little easier to ride up and over on moderate inclines than they were on flat stretches. I think forced momentum makes all the difference.

Eventually, the trail became too steep to ride at all uphill. Wearing only my winter boots and no snowshoes, I was postholing up to my shins with nearly every step. I believed there was no way Snaux Bike would be able to handle anything that soft. But when it came time to turn around, it seemed worth a try.

Snaux Bike not only handled it, it left me in its powder-blasted wake. We dipped and swerved down the slope, shooting off the trail here, placing a foot down there, never letting up the forward momentum. It was amazingly fun, and terrifying, and a little bit painful. I made one big mistake - after noticing a singletrack snowshoe trail out of the corner of my eye, I shot right off the main trail without even stopping to scout it. I made it about 50 yards down before planting my front wheel to its hubs in the soft snow. I lurched forward and tumbled over the handlebars, but not before taking a blunt blow of the stem right to the crotch. The pain was metallic, enough to send me into a fetal position on top of the trail before I even processed what had happened. I can't even imagine what that would feel like if I were male. I guess I'd probably still be on that trail, writhing in pain, mourning for the children I'd never have.

Despite a few setbacks, snowmobile biking is great and I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys challenging, but not impossible, technical downhill. The consistency and depth of snow varies from inch to inch, making that kind of trailriding a lot like coasting down a muddy doubletrack littered with invisible rocks and roots. The joy is in getting the guesswork right. And the soft, snowy landings numb the pain of poor choices. Unless you get a little too intimate with your stem. Then I don't know what can save you.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Racing tug

Date: Jan. 15
Mileage: 21.5
January mileage: 364.4
Temperature upon departure: 38

The wind advisory was extended to 3 p.m. Gusts to 50 mph, it warned. Warned of wind - but it but it felt more like taking a blunt hit to the chest. It's headwind like this that forces me to duck as low as I can on the handlebars, let my helmet take the brunt of the blast, and hope against hope that I'm still moving forward.

The highway south snakes along the narrow passage between the mountains and the channel. In high-wind high tides, the waves practically crash up on the road. Seagulls drift in with the surf. I watch them jump and flutter erratically over surging whitecaps. That's when I notice - churning several hundred yards distant over a parallel path - a barge-towing tug boat.

I mash the front shock over loose blocks of ice and notice that tug is moving the same, nodding through a surge of waves. As we heave forward, tug stays right with me, practically mimicking my every movement as we struggle together for distance. I am not about to be beaten by a ploddy tug boat. So I mash harder.

Tug falls slowly behind as I swerve around waterfall-gushing cliffs and set into a series of short climbs. As I round one bend, another unexpected gust blasts me backward. I squint into the pounding rain and hold my breath against the oxygen vacuum. And as I tilt my head against my shoulder, I see tug is right back with me again, bouncing indifferently across our parallel line.

I surge down the hill and emerge in an open river crossing. It's here that I'm exposed entirely to the full blast of wind. Through eyelids clamped shut and gasps of shortened breath, I begin to appreciate exactly what tug is fighting. Side by side we move south, buffeted by waves and wind. I no longer feel like racing ahead of tug. I take comfort in the fact tug's there.

The miles plod by as only miles can plod by. We both take a wind beating and get soaked in the process. In the end, a long downhill forces my breakaway from tug. I stop at the dead end of the road and wait on a snow berm for tug to float by. I watch it churn south, toward places I've never been; toward places I'd love to go. Someday. But right now, I have a 50 mph tailwind to race me home.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Remind me why biking is fun

Date: Jan. 14
Mileage: 23.0
January mileage: 342.9
Temperature upon departure: 35

I had a terrible ride today. Just awful. It was like a really bad B-movie, almost comical in the way that all of the wrong elements fit perfectly together. It may even qualify for the over-the-top rating of “Worst ... Ride ... Ever.”

Not really. But by the time I set out today, all of the freezing rain had turned into plain ol’ regular rain, which streamed in torrents down the glare-ice-covered roads. I took my studless snow bike because I assumed I’d just ride in the snowy shoulder. But the rain-stewed slop that remained from Friday’s snowfall was nearly impossible to negotiate. The conditions were a sourdough starter for mushy disaster. On days like this, I should learn when to cash in my chips and hit the gym. But I can be pretty stubborn when I want to be. After all, I had just spent a half hour designing a new wet-weather ensemble, and I wanted to test it for butt-cheek-warming and dry-feet capabilities. (Addendum: After two hours, I still came home with a cold butt and wet feet.)

You know a ride is bad when three miles in, you’re already cursing cars just for being there. I wove through the slick slop in the shoulder, spinning at skin-freezing slowness just to stay in control. I wanted so badly just to ride on the smooth, icy road, but it was too risky with the vehicles. It was too risky period, without studded tires. But I ventured on to the road once I passed the Eaglecrest access road, where about 99 percent of the traffic turns off. It was slick but manageable - as long as I kept my butt planted on the saddle. It was good practice for steering Snaux Bike on ice, anyway.

But then I hit the boat launch. There, the forest canopy gives way to a narrow cliffside that is fiercely exposed to the sea. Intense wind gushed up the channel. I hadn’t noticed the tailwind before, riding as slow as I was, but there it was beyond ignoring. It pushed me faster than I cared to go. Since braking wasn’t really an option, I decided to test how far I could ride without pedaling. It turned out to be far. Really far. Almost two miles far. (OK, I pedaled a little in there.) At the turnaround point, I managed to finally stop the bike and dismount. But as soon as I had both of my N.E.O.S. overboots planted firmly on the wet ice, a huge gust tore the bike right out of my hands and blasted me several more feet up the road. That’s right. I was standing on my two legs on the road, continuing to be pushed forward by that tailwind.

I couldn’t even keep the bike rubber-side down just standing there. It was clear that riding back was not an option. Walking on the road wasn’t even an option. I had to climb over the guardrail so I could trudge through the sometimes knee-deep snow. I definitely built some good bike-pushing muscles doing that.

As soon as I hiked back to the relative shelter of the tree canopy, the rest of the ride was a fairly predictable slushy slog into a headwind. It lacked the drama of the wind-blasted ice road, but there was enough stinging rain to make it miserable enough.

And the best part? I went to bed last night thinking I would wake up to a fun, tasty trail ride today. That won’t really be an viable option until it cools down again. Until then, I’m back to remembering why December nearly drove me to register for a season of indoor spinning classes.

Freezing rain


Date: Jan. 13
Mileage: 36.1
January mileage: 319.9
Temperature upon departure: 29

I have heard about these storms hitting the Midwest, but I have never actually seen freezing rain. The concept doesn't even make sense to me. If temperatures are below freezing, and it's precipitating, why wouldn't it just snow? But I set out today in a cold drizzle that settled as droplets of clear ice on everything. Soon enough, the front end of my bike was covered in a frozen shell, and my coat and pants looked like I had been blasted with shaved ice. The rain made quick work of the snow-packed roads, too. Nine inches of new powder fell yesterday, so the shoulders were soft and deep. But the plow-scraped areas became as slick as hockey rinks. I made a solid effort to stay out of the path of traffic, even though it meant plowing my own path through several inches of ice-crusted snow. Such an interesting weather phenomenon, this freezing rain.

I have been feeling a little on edge lately. I think it's because this month I've increased my daily exercise routines from 1-2 hours to 2-4 hours. This has cut noticeably into my free time, but since I'm as yet unwilling to give up my other habits - you know, like blogging and sleeping - I feel like I'm constantly rushing around.

Also, my appetite's gone nutty. There doesn't seem to be enough carbs in all the land to fill me up. I'm trying to be conscientious about my food intake (after all, I'm not burning that many more calories) but the sugar cravings have broken me down more than once. Maybe SAD has returned, or maybe my body's just trying to figure out what it needs. I try to cover up the constant hungry feeling with caffeine, but that just makes me more edgy. I've actually snapped at people at work. Those kind of uncontrolled outbursts are rare for me.

Anyway, I'm off to bed to squeeze in the eight hours of unconsciousness. I noticed that my knees are pretty sore after the weekend's hike. I think sometime soon I need to take the bike out on some deep trails for a push-fest, build up the hike-a-bike muscles that will likely come in handy. But tomorrow, with a fresh coat of new snow expected, I hope to find some freezing rain-coated goodness.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I'm learning

Date: Jan. 11
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 283.8
Temperature upon departure: 17

Geoff and I spent the weekend at the John Muir Cabin, one of a handful of wilderness cabins that pepper the Tongass National Forest. This one is a pretty quick jaunt up ... about 3.5 miles, 1,550 feet of climbing, all of the clean, dry snow and open bags of marshmallows you could ever hope for. We cranked up the wood stove as outside temperatures dipped below 0, ate some kind of terrible reconstituted Indian lentil mush by candlelight, and watched the city lights of Juneau twinkle beneath thin strips of clouds. I slept for 11 hours last night, curled up in a -20 degree bag even though inside temps couldn't have been much below 60. I don't know what it is about wilderness cabins ... they always lull me into happy hibernation.

So I was even feeling a little reluctant to go out hiking this morning, but Geoff was excited to do some backcountry skiing, so I strapped on the snowshoes and waddled behind him as he scooted further and further away. The cabin sits on a high plateau, a thinly-forested meadow smothered in snow. Light snow was falling and the effect was flat lighting to the point of blindness. It was a sea of white.

I stayed to the right of his track and broke my own trail, cognizant of little else than those ski tracks and the slow movement forward. I could have continued that way into oblivion, but instead suddenly and unexpectedly plunged six feet into a sinkhole. My body instinctively lurched forward - I realize now that such an action could save one's life in thin-ice situations - because the tips of my toes were dangling in icy water with no bottom ground to speak of. I managed to pull myself out with an uncharacteristic surge of upper-body strength. I do not know how deep the creek was at that spot. I couldn't find the bottom by probing it with my outstretched arm and a ski pole.

I was fine and my feet weren't even all that wet, but the experience shook me up. I sat on the trail for quite a while, staring bewildered at the indiscriminate blanket of snow and thinking that any minute, at any step, there were sinkholes waiting to pull me toward icy depths. I was paralyzed by the uncertainty, unwilling to move. But after several minutes, the common-sense synapses started to fire. I became aware of myself, sitting helpless on the snow. That wasn't good for the kind of cyclist I wanted to be. It wasn't good for the person I wanted to be. So I examined the sinkhole a little closer. It was completely obvious what it was - the whole area sloped down pretty dramatically, indicating a gully where moving water would likely congregate. Geoff had purposely walked uphill of it. I just blindly plunged right into the depths. It was my fault, I realized, and I had the power to prevent it.

So instead of crawling back to the cabin in tears, I got up and continued down the trail, eyes wide open and watching for signs of the danger. Suddenly the landscape wasn't flat white. It was contoured with the subtle shapes of rolling hills and shallow depressions. I tried to picture where the water would flow, and made a conscious decision to stay high.

Environmental awareness. It's an invaluable lesson.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Degrees of separation

Date: Jan. 10
Mileage: 27.0
January mileage: 258.7
Temperature upon departure: 11

I think everyone has some type of clothing that no matter how many different ensembles they own, it will never be enough. Take shoes for example. Geoff owns several dozen different pairs of shoes. He used to own two pair of the exact same Montrails, for what reasons - I don't know. Maybe he carried them on runs as spares in case he was attacked by a shoe-eating pit bull. I, on the other hand, could care less about shoes. I own what is basically the minimum for the number of activities I do - about 10, including my cross-country ski and snowboarding boots. I do not own a cycling-specific pair of shoes. No one's ever managed to sell me on clipless pedals and I doubt they ever will.

I do, however, own a few jackets.

The number of those does approach the several dozen range. It may even be in the 40s, if you count sweaters and hoodies. Geoff will chastise me for stuffing the front closet with no less than five red fleece jackets. But they each have their specific place and purpose, which he just doesn't seem to understand.

I have thin fleece base layers and fluffy fleece outer layers and waterproof shells and cotton hoodies for going to the movies and dress coats to wear to work and more-stylish rain jackets that can double as dress coats and down vests to wear over my fleece pullovers and wool sweaters to wear beneath fleece vests which I can then cover with a plastic raincoat. I have orange fleece and black fleece and red fleece and blue fleece, which I can mix and match in anywhere from one to four layers, depending on the temperature and length of activity.

And the best part about all of my jackets: When I go out for a ride - which I seem to be doing daily, lately - I can come home and just throw the sweaty pile in the laundry basket. And I don't even have to think about it again for two weeks, in which time I gaze at the dozens of empty hangers in the closet and decide that the lone light orange fleece jacket and gold shell just won't match the brown pants I was planning to wear. Then it's time to do the laundry.

Empty hangers and a laundry basket full of jackets ... that's when I know I've had a good week.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

5.7 Earthquake

Date: Jan. 9
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 231.7
Temperature upon departure: 18

This is the second time this has happened to me. During the darkest part of the morning, right before dawn, the bed lurches forward and jolts me awake. My initial reaction is to squint at the alarm clock, 6:49. But the creeks and groans grow louder and the mattress continues to rumble beneath me. So I freeze in position and hold my eyes shut, hoping against a frightened child's hope that if I just pretend I'm not here, it will go away.

But then the tremors subside and the semi-conscious disorientation fades, and I can drift back to sleep with the comfortable assurance that it was only an earthquake.

This was the largest one I've experienced yet: 5.7, but its epicenter was 120 miles north of here. A lot of my coworkers didn't even feel it. My neighbor thought it was a gust of wind ... a 5.7 earthquake ... which I think is a good indicator of how bad the wind really gets here.

Any time Juneau skies clear up a bit, strong wind is pretty much a given. Some of the gusts create chills I don't even know how to describe ... they burn in their intensity. They burn in such a way that when I take off my outer shell, my top-most base layer is coated in ice ... frozen sweat. But I need the shell to block the wind. And so we dance.

Nearly every time I ride out Douglas Island around noon, I see the same pedestrian on the side of the road that I call "Backpack Guy." He saunters down the road with a walking stick and an external frame backpack bursting at the seams with all kinds of gear ... clothing and shoes and canvas stuff that looks really heavy. He walks against traffic and so we cross paths windburnt face to windburnt face, squinting against the icy sting of errant ocean spray. He always just smiles and I nod. I like to think that he's out here training to climb Rainier or Denali or some far-off, scarcely-charted ridge in the Himalayas. That while he's building his shoulder muscles, he's steeling himself against the unforgivable ravages of exposure and elements and cold.

And I can't help but wonder what Backpack Guy imagines I'm doing out here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

200

Date: Jan. 8
Mileage: 23.0
January mileage: 206.6
Temperature upon departure: 28

I don't have much time to post tonight because I read somewhere that the weather is supposed to be mostly sunny, and I'd like to wake up (mostly) early. But I'm indulging myself because I'm feeling good about hitting my mileage goal this week (Tuesday through Monday is a week.) Despite my illusions of being an endurance biker, that would have been one of my better weeks last year - and these were mostly snow-covered miles. And I don't care what they say in Anchorage ... snow miles are hard.

Today's ride was a quick (um ... two-hour) out and back to the end of North Douglas. It snowed hard the whole way out, dumping about an inch and a half of new powder in the hour I was riding north. Then it cleared up a little, and I did some beach riding. According to the local weather observer, there has been 22" of new snow since Jan. 4.

While I'm self-indulging, I might as well throw in a shameless plug for the 2007 Bloggies. These awards mean nothing. They pay nothing. There are about 74.5 million blogs on the Web, and at least 38.6 million of them are better then mine. Still, if you feel so inclined, you could take a minute to nominate your favorite Juneau-based bicycle blogger. Even if it's not me ... at least one of us deserve a Bloggie.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Like a virgin

Date: Jan. 7
Mileage: 34.0
January mileage: 183.6
Temperature upon departure: 29

As far as bicycle riding goes, 2007 is going really well so far. I figure I put in 14-15 hours this week, just on the bike. Since I'm not counting New Year's Day (and who has the energy to do anything on New Years Day?), I'm on pace to have a 200-mile first week. This morning, we had about 3 inches of new snow and patches of actual sunlight. My ride took me through five miles of deliciously difficult trails around Dredge Lake.

The best part about this first week of January is how diverse all of my rides have been. I started the week on the road bike and moved to dirt singletrack with Sugar. The past three have been snowy bike path jaunts with snippets of trail riding. Despite a parking lot full of cars, I just couldn't stay away from Dredge Lake today. The area is a tight network of trails cutting through a glacial moraine. I've been dying to try it all winter, but I'm afraid of receiving dirty looks from skiers (the trails are not groomed, but that doesn't make cyclists any less evil. Never mind that the skiers' unleashed 150-pound dogs make a lot more postholes than I could even if I tried.) Today I threw caution to the wind, looked both ways to make sure nobody saw me, and slunk toward a low-traffic side trail. Snowshoers had set up the surface nicely, and after about 20 minutes of steady cruising, I was hopelessly lost in a snow-drenched maze.

Another great part of this first week of January is the unexpected bursts of joy. They hit in subtle moments, moments when I am shimmying my handlebars away from the powder pull, when my thoughts are stripped of miles ridden and morning headlines and uncompleted projects, and my senses are engaged in nothing but the intense focus of flotation. With a mind bleached white and a perspective to match, a snowdrift throws me sideways and I narrowly miss hitting a sheet of thin ice. I slip off the bike as though waking from a dream. Where am I? How did I get here? Raising my head toward the river, I suddenly see Alaska as I did the first time I woke up in this state - stepping out of a tent into the loneliest wilderness, muskeg flecked in the soft gold of 4 a.m. sunlight, a jagged black-spruce treeline slicing through eternity.

It takes a minute to come back to frozen, winter, Southeastern reality. The trail continues forward and I am not lost. I am right where I have always been.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Goal driven

Date: Jan. 6
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 149.6
Temperature upon departure: 31

I am slowly amassing my Susitna 100 gear collection. I had all the gear last year, but because Geoff signed up for this year's race, and all of that gear belongs to him, I pretty much had to start from scratch. Yesterday, I ordered a -20 degree-rated sleeping bag. I'm not going to admit what brand it is or how much I paid for it, because it's embarrassingly low (yes, I know this bag could save my life. It's not cheap because it's ineffective. It's cheap because it's heavy :-) 6.1 pounds, actually. But I figured since I barely made the 15-pound weight cutoff last year, an extra pound or two won't be too hard to shave off elsewhere. As for the rest of my gear, I still need a bivy sack, a small closed-cell sleeping pad and some kind of lightweight mid-sized drybag that I can strap to the top of a bike rack. If anyone out there has this kind of gear lying around and doesn't need it before early March, maybe we could work out a lending deal. I'll pay all the shipping costs and ... I'll send it back with a delicious batch of energy-packed pumpkin cookies. I'm actually serious. Let me know.

I've been thinking about setting some goals for this year's race. Last year, my goal was to survive, to keep all of my fingers and toes, and if all that happened, to finish ... maybe. I'd like to set the bar a little higher this year. Actually, a lot higher. I'd like to shave 8 hours off my time. For a 100-mile race, this probably seems pretty extreme. What's even more extreme is how little control I actually have over my finishing time. I figure that, of the variables that will determine my final time, my physical fitness counts for about 10 percent. Mental condition is another 10 percent. How well my gear and bike holds up matters to the tune of 20 percent, and the overall trail conditions make up the final 60 percent. I base this equation on last year's race, which took me 25 hours to finish. The first 50 miles were a very comfortable, very leisurely 8 hours. The last 50, in which I essentially returned on the exact same trail I came out on, were a 17-hour slog through the colder levels of Hell. What changed? The trail conditions. That's all. The trail is All.

Given that Great Unknown, I still think I can do the race in 16 hours, and I'd really like to try. I have six weeks to prepare. I'm going to try to put in more trail time during the coming weeks, more high-heart-rate intervals (probably indoors), longer distance days and more weight training (I will be strong. Carry loaded bicycle like ox.) It's probably going to be a huge time suck. But oh well. It's January. What else am I going to do? Go snowboarding? And Geoff is so busy training to be ultramarathon man, he won't even notice that I'm gone all the time. It might even be fun.

Alas, all this counts for is 10 percent. But it's the 10 percent I can control. Now where do I begin?

Snow's back

Date: Jan. 5
Mileage: 28.0
January mileage: 124.5
Temperature upon departure: 32

New snow today ... About nine inches of fresh, cement-thick Juneau powder when I woke up this morning. It was a friendly sight - after the successful castration last night of the Timberwolf tire, it was time to really see how deep this snowbike could go (sans knobbies, of course.)

I'm glad to report that the first experiment was a raging success. I was bummed to see that by the early hour of 11 a.m., the city had already plowed most of the bike paths. But the road shoulders, sidewalks and dirt trails were beautifully buried. Even at 20 psi (pretty high, really), I was able to plow straight lines through nearly all of it, from two-inch deep sections all the way up to nearly a foot. The sanded, slushy shoulders threw me a couple of times. I can't even imagine what life would be like on a truly big-wheeled bike. I probably should have just dropped for the Pugsley before I got entangled in Snaux bike. But he holds his own. And he leaves a decent footprint.

The air was pretty warm ... right around freezing, and every once in a while a pile of snow the size of my couch would come shooting down from the forested unknown. The sound was pretty spectacular. Almost enough to hear over my iPod. Almost. (OK. I admit it. Sometimes I turn it up pretty loud when I'm alone on a low-traffic trail.) Today, I actually turned it off for a while. Pillows of powder muffled the squeak of my tires enough to listen the snow melt in a symphony of drips. I had promised Geoff I'd meet him for skiing, and after about 2 1/2 hours, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to put that off any longer. By the time I switched over all my gear and staggered over to the trail, he had already skied a loop and decided the conditions were bad. But he skied another loop for my sake. We met a friend and looped the trail in a mildly indifferent shuffle combined with engaging conversation.

Skiing ... eh. I don't know. The trail was ungroomed and none of the skiers seemed to think it was a great day for the activity. Too warm ... too slippy ... still snowing but not sticking. And I thought biking was a picky activity ... that whole thing about needing something resembling a trail slanted at preferably less than a 45-degree angle. But give me that and a bike, and I'm going to at least make an effort to rip it up. Give me this and skis, and I am a timid puppy on a leash, restlessly toeing the line.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I blame the sun

Date: Jan. 4
Mileage: 47.0
January mileage: 96.5
Temperature upon departure: 28

I love this picture because its timing is uncanny. Geoff and I hit this frozen, snowless trail in the only window of clear sky that slid over Juneau all week. It was only about 45 minutes, but it gave us our first shot of direct sunlight in the New Year, and Geoff his first shot of direct sunlight in Juneau since Nov. 22. Shielded from the wind by the thick forest canopy, we broke through bars of sunlight and relished our own little piece of July. I could taste it and see it and even feel it, despite temperatures that hovered in the 20s (which, in direct sunlight, feel more like 75). By the time we made it back to the snow-dusted road, the clouds had closed in and the sun was gone. By the time Geoff cut off and I continued north, the wind picked up something fierce. For the last six miles of my ride, the city was engulfed in a whiteout blizzard. In my own unique way, I loved it all.

But the sun is a little like caffeine. Too much, and it you only get a flash-flare of energy followed by hours of sluggishness. But deny yourself sun, for weeks at a time, and even the smallest taste is like cocaine. I had a great, high-energy ride. A little less than 50 miles took four hours (The snow drifts are back, I'm riding Sugar for now and I'm slow again.)I basically bonked toward the end because I neglected to eat anything after breakfast, but for the most part I felt unfazed by the ride. When Geoff announced he was going to the gym after my 4 p.m. lunch, I decided to follow him there. I did a typical session - 90 minutes, with 45 minutes moderate-to-high-intensity cardio and 45 minutes of lifting. I was going for wearing myself down, really good and down ... which at my current level of fitness, it seems like 5 or 6 hours would be a good threshold. But I'm a little disappointed. Just not really feeling it. So I have to feel regret for not pushing myself hard enough. I could try again tomorrow, but we're supposed to receive 8 to 12 inches of snow in this storm, and with all of that new powder, it seems like I should give skiing another try. I guess I'll just wait and see.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Brand new treads

Date: Jan. 3
Mileage: 21.2
January mileage: 49.5
Temperature upon departure: 36

The latest piece of Snaux bike arrived this week, via USPS parcel post (every single purchase I make on eBay, I beg the sellers not to ship parcel post. I tell them I will pay them the 38 cents they'll save. I tell them I live in Juneau %@$#! Alaska, the end of the line, the black hole of post-office shipping. And every time, they send parcel post and I have to wait six weeks for packages.) This package had the WTB Timberwolf tires I bought in early December. I got a little greedy and went for the 2.7" tires. It's finally starting to look just a little like those big-wheeled bikes I dream about. Unfortunately, the rear tire doesn't fit the rim ... but it could, if I shaved down the outer knobs a little. Has anyone ever tried doing that? If so, what kind of results have you had? And what do you use to cut away the rubber?

Today I rode alongside the beach I biked across the other day. An unusually high tide had devoured nearly all of the sand, and I noticed that several of the shipwrecked boats were missing. They were just gone. Floated away, I imagine. But there was something disheartening about the scene. I find comfort in the rotting permanence of junkyards. They're almost like graveyards - places where you can go to mourn the remnants of forgotten histories. I liked to believe that those boats had washed up after long, fulfilling lives as sportfishing rigs full of shooters and salmon nets and wide-eyed tourists, but in old age and neglect had broken loose of their mooring and washed up on the shore to die. It seemed fitting to me to imagine that they had been there for years ... decades even. Now I realize that these scenes change in a matter of days.

I need to start putting in some longer hours on the bike. What I do now doesn't even really register on the training scale. It's been a while since I've done a ride that really floored me. I need to do one of those. But, man, it's going to be a psychological miracle of I succeed.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Liquidation

Date: Jan. 2
Mileage: 28.3
January mileage: 28.3
Temperature upon departure: 40
iPod cycled through: "Reach for the Sun" by The Polyphonic Spree

The New Year is here and I am through mourning the snow. Inches and inches and inches of rain corroded all of the packed snow, seeped into the glare ice layer and finally stripped the road of all but loose gravel and wet pavement. So I wrestled Roadie out of the closet, brushed off a thick layer of October grit, pumped up the tires and tentatively limped across the street.

I did not want to ride like it was summer. I wanted to believe that streaks of ice threatened to yank my tires out from under me at any moment. I needed the fight and kick of snow to lift me out of the dripping gray monotony. But as the pedals spun almost effortlessly over hard pavement, I watched the odometer spin upward ... 16mph ... 17 mph ... 18mph.

I had been off the bike three days but it suddenly seemed like three months. We tore through needles of rain toward a strip of sunlight slicing through the clouds. I watched streaks of yellow light drift over distant glaciers and leaned into Roadie and our iceless, winterless road. I trained my muscles for reaction and endurance; they know nothing of speed. But Roadie knows nothing of winter, and the miles melted beneath us. And in the subtle transition of moments, iPod chose a good song.

..... "light and day is more than you'll say"
This hurricane pattern's got me down.
..... "cause all my feelings are more"
It's not just the biking.
..... "than I can let by ... or not"
Riding Roadie in January.
..... "more than you've got"
Getting soaked.
..... "just follow the day"
Motoring past 20 mph.
..... "follow the day and reach for the sun"

21 mph ...
..... "you don't see me fly into red"
What of the dead snow and sunless December?
..... "one more you're done"
The sting of sleet on cheeks and eyes.
..... "just follow the seasons and find the time"
Do you know what 70 mph winds taste like?
..... "reach for the bright side"
But I hardly remembered what 23 mph felt like.
..... "you don't see me fly into red"
I can't keep it up but I'll try.
..... "one more you're nuts"
Unending rain is a definite possibility.
....."just follow the day"
But that doesn't even matter, does it?
..... "follow the day and reach for the sun."

Monday, January 01, 2007

All is quiet on New Year's Day

I think New Year's is a good day to feel subdued. A good day to feel contrite. A good day to pause at the "2007" scrawled across the front page and feel a little despondent about the passing of time.

New Year's Eve is all about the hunt. What do we keep searching for? I never find out. But I join the masses clawing through the wind-whipped streets, smoky bars and 2 a.m. Samosa stops. I want to believe we're looking for the defined moment, the sharp clarity that cuts a straight line between past and future, that carves away the bad and smoothes out the good. But all I see are the faces, hidden behind lipstick and glitter and cardboard hats. I hear the muddled voices, lost in the white noise. I hear them and see them again.

In 2006 in the fog of Alaska edible-art-induced food poisoning.
In 2005 in the deep snow drifts of the Uinta Mountains.
In 2004 echoed in the distant fireworks over City Creek Canyon.
In 2003 in the company of friends who were about to disperse forever.
In 2002 in the quiet calm surrounding Oneida Lake, New York.
In 2001 in fiery exchanges between week-old friends and lifelong strangers.
In 2000 in a wave of bodies streaming down the Las Vegas Strip.
In 1999 lost and longing in the streets of First Night, Salt Lake City.
In 1998 gasping for air in Portland, Oregon.
In 1997 screeching down I-15 packed 10-high in a 1960s Mercury Monterey.

It's fun to think back to those "Happy New Year" moments and remember every single one at that eruptive minute, remember all of the events that came after and all of the people that slipped away. That as I watched those bleary-eyed faces count down the final seconds, all I wanted to see was time holding still.