Monday, July 30, 2007

Pugsley is here

Date: July 30
Mileage: 25.1
July mileage: 832.1
Temperature upon departure: 53
Inches of rain today: 0.30"

This frame actually arrived a few days ago. I originally thought I was going to mull it over a while before deciding whether I really wanted a Pugsley or a Wildfire or another beefy bike. But then I found a good deal on a 16" gray model, and I snatched it up quickly because I am not interested in riding anything that's the color of fermented grape Koolaid. However, since it showed up, I seem to be having delayed onset of joy.

There may be two reasons for that. First, a bit of knee relapse has me questioning the wisdom of training all winter long. Second, I started dismantling Snaux Bike to cannibalize some parts and unload others. Yesterday I wrapped up the SnowCat wheels in a box bound for Colorado. Now Snaux Bike is no longer a snow bike. He's just something useless ... broken ... and there's sadness in that. Bringing Pugsley into the house is a bit like having a new boyfriend move in while the old one is still gathering up the pieces of a shattered relationship in hopes of reconciliation. "I'll always love you, but, you know ..."

Still, it's better to move on than always wonder what could have been. I, for one, can't wait to figure out what kind of bottom bracket I should buy so I can slap Pugsley together and take him out for some joyriding on the rocky beaches of Douglas Island. And winter ... don't even get me started on how excited I am for winter.

Urban trailriding

Date: July 29
Mileage: 14.1
July mileage: 807.0
Temperature upon departure: 65
Inches of rain today: 0.04"

Living in Juneau has not done wonders for my progression as a mountain biker. I have finally come to terms with the reality that the best option for workweek trailriding is to tootle around on the Mendenhall Valley trail system. I am the first to admit that I don't mind riding loops, but there is something about weaving a tight grid in a small area that is vaguely ... suffocating. As such, I don't feel compelled to take out the mountain bike nearly as often as I should. So my technical skill-building suffers, therefore my handling suffers, therefore my confidence suffers. Plus, the combination of fairly little elevation gain with root-choked trail means it's nearly impossible to get a good workout on a mountain bike.

But it is fun, just the same. It reminds me of motorcycling with my dad as a small child. He would sling me over the seat of his dirt bike and I would clasp the front of the handlebars, stretching my legs as far as I could away from the searing engine. We took off from our driveway for some nearby subdivision, still lingering that silent, semi-natural state always present before a tsunami of construction blasts through. The open fields were criss-crossed with a tight network of sandy trails, washboarded to teeth-chattering perfection by heavy ATV and BMX use. It was endlessly fun, and right in our backyard, and exhilarating to believe that adventure hovered so close to the mundane. That is a bit what biking in the Mendenhall Valley feels like - I could be tearing into the gut of some mud-soaked root maze, completely unaware of the movie theater that lies a half mile away.

Nearly every time Geoff and I ride here, I come home soaked in mud splatters and a few drops of blood, patches of Devil's Club rash and new insect bites, and a big stupid grin stuck to my face. I really should run the grid more often.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Savoring sunset

What to do with a gimpy knee day? A friend of a friend is in town from D.C., and we have been trying to help her along the fast track tour of everything Juneau. Wednesday night it was dancing at The Alaskan with the rockabilly sounds and Janet Jackson costumes of the Glorious Youth Parade. After the show, several dozen spectators poured into the street with donated hula-hoops, swiveling the after hours away in some kind of strange Alaska-flavored luau. Today we promised her a good hike, but she is too gimpy herself (with a sprained ankle) to do much walking. She stayed in town, but the two Geoffs and I still went. Today we hit Sheep Creek trail, another new one for me.

I discovered the trail is actually a delicious stretch of grass-covered singletrack, hidden deep in a beautiful highland meadow. The only catch? Getting a bike up there would require a gruelling 3/4-mile hike-a-bike that really redefines hike-a-bike (meaning, you'd probably have to put the bike on your back as you scrambled up near-vertical stretches of root-covered trail.) But for the dearth of smooth trail in Juneau, it may actually be worth it. I pondered the effort as we walked, slowly, without time limits, fitness goals or even a destination.

We took our D.C. visitor out to North Douglas tonight to roast up the salmon she caught in Ketchikan, accompanied by feta-and-olive pasta salad, blueberry-and-melon fruit salad, veggie burgers, basil-roasted peppers and onions, cous cous and apple pie (what could be more American then apple pie on the beach in July?) As the sun began to slip behind the horizon, a bald eagle coasted by, clasping a large, still-flopping salmon in its talons. We explained to our guest how rare her particular Juneau experience really was, with its nearly-dry weather, quirky bar music, crazy hula hoopers and quiet sunsets that bathed the beach in pink light. "It really doesn't get much better than this," we said.

It just kept getting better.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cut my ride short

Date: July 26
Mileage: 99.4
July mileage: 792.9
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.01"

I'm feeling a little bummed right now. It's the kind of creeping guilt I usually feel when I intend to get up and do something active first thing in the morning, but instead muddle around for several hours with back issues of the New Yorker and handfuls of Honey Nut Cheerios. It's the kind of remorse I feel when I realize I just watched an entire sunset from the narrow screen of a digital camera viewfinder. It curls the edges of my memory until the only image I see are the bold-type words, "Could Have." It's regret. Not the way I usually feel after bashing out nearly 100 miles.

I had big plans today. Twelve hours of big plans, and lasted through about half that. The regret comes from the fact that I had everything in line. I was feeling strong, and eating well, and finding plenty of water despite having only one water bottle - meaning I wasn't wearing a pack, which meant I wasn't having shoulder issues, which meant I shouldn't have had any excuse not to hit every dead end in Juneau. Except ... except for those pangs. I knew them well once, but then I mastered them. I mastered them and then I ignored them. But as the miles wore on, they began to slice deeper. I was rounding an arbitrary point near mile 80 when I finally decided that there was no longer reason to ignore. There is sometimes much to be gained by being stubborn, but rarely anything to gain by being stupid.

So I am back to second-guessing my knee again. It makes sense that the inflammation would creep back. My saddle time has skyrocketed. I am basically reliving January. I was never under the delusion that I was a healed person, but I did believe I was finally in a position to ride it out. And I probably am in a good position to ride it out ... under a more conservative set of limitations. But that's what has me bummed out right now ... not the idea of longterm or possibly permanent injury, but the reality of limitations.

I did lots of icing tonight, and Aleve, and actually feel quite healthy right now. The rest of my fitness is falling together pretty well, but I can't really ignore the return of angry knee. It was very minor today compared to past bouts, but the fact that it's the first in a while has me suddenly rethinking, well, everything. Not a real fun place to be.

A need a day or so of rest and a couple of good rides before I do anything drastic. There may just be an element of having had a bad day rather than a full-on regression. Still, I don't want to go back. To injury, or to moderation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Seriously, why?

Date: July 25
Mileage: 15.1
July mileage: 693.5
Temperature upon departure: 65
Inches of rain today: 0.01"

Despite the cycling nature of this blog, I was not going to post about the Tour de France because well, I don’t watch the Tour de France. But I do read newspapers. And after yet another day of being inundated by dopers in the headlines, I have to say ... sad. Just sad.

As a member of the nonviewing general public, I am probably not qualified to comment. I've actually never followed the tour because I don’t find much personal entertainment in it. I tend to identify more closely with dog mushers and adventure racers than I do with skinny Europeans all hopped up on other peoples’ blood. I do admire fast pedaling as much as the next cyclist. But ... if the pros are all dirty, if they’re really all dirty (and why would I, a member of the nonviewing general public, have any reason to believe they’re not?) ... then what’s the point? Why not build a bunch of cycling robots and watch them do their thing? Since cycling is a competition of humans, doesn't it make more sense to watch humans?

That’s actually one of my favorite things about riding in the summer ... the cyclist watching is so much richer and more diverse. I wasn’t going to ride today because I wanted to rest up my knee as much as possible before the weekend. But a rare sunny morning demanded I at least make an appearance outside. I went for a quick ride out to Thane - just an hour out and back. As I coasted to a stop at the turnaround, I met an older man - maybe 70-ish - who was standing next to a rusty contraption of a road bike and snacking on a miniature bag of Doritos. He was wearing a pair of Docker-type shorts and I noticed he had knee braces, just like me. I asked him if he lived in Juneau. “No,” he said. “I’m from Seattle. My daughter lives here, in Auke Bay.”

“Really?” I said. “Auke Bay?” (Auke Bay is about 17 miles from where we were standing.)

“Yup,” he said. “When she needs me out of her hair, I go for a little ride.”

With that, he dug back into his bag of Doritios, and I turned around to make the half-hour trip home, thinking how lucky I am to be involved in a sport with no shortage of heroes.

Happy Pioneer Day

Date: July 24
Mileage: 35.4
July mileage: 678.4
Temperature upon departure: 58
Inches of rain today: 0.02"

That's right. Pioneer Day. In most states, people couldn't even tell you the specific dates on which their respective state holidays fall (isn't Alaska Day in October sometime?) But in Utah, July 24 is second only to Christmas.

Everyone comes out of the woodwork to celebrate the day, 160 years ago today, that Brigham Young and his motley band of American dissidents trudged over a mountain pass, looked out across the cracked-mud valley surrounding a giant dead lake, and said, "Well, I'm sure no one's going to kick us out of this place." (A quote later aesthetically revised to "This is the place," which looked better on T-shirts.) Thus, Salt Lake City was born.

Among that crew were my great-great-and-so-forth-grandparents. I've always been proud of my Mormon pioneer heritage. I like to believe that the same adventuring spirit and irrational zeal that would drive someone to schlep a handcart across the Great Plains lives on in me. So I thought about them today as I was churning the pedals up to Eaglecrest ... about how painful it would be to ride on wooden wheels ... about the insane audacity of carrying things like furniture and pianos across the wilderness ... about how the pioneer children sang as they walked ... and walked ... and walked.

I like that no matter how artificially hard I make my life, I will never live up to their standard. They shredded everything they had in their lives to hit a dusty trail to nowhere. There, in an America before pavement, they experienced a world of extreme suffering and extreme beauty that I will never know. But I like to think that they passed the torch on to me, and that here, on the relatively-well-traveled Alaska frontier, I can blaze my own path to the future.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Is there enough?

Date: July 22
Mileage: 43.3
July mileage: 643.0
Temperature upon departure: 61
Inches of rain today: .87"

I had a good session at the gym today - some heavy lifting and hard maximum-heart-rate intervals on the elliptical machine. Just 90 minutes and I feel sore. Always a good sign.

I am trying to weigh some knee fears against a desire to "peak" this week. What am a trying to peak for? Nothing, really. A long weekend. A vacation. A road ride in August. It will probably be the hardest single ride I've attempted to date.

I want to be in good shape for this thing because I don't think I'll be able to fake it. I want to ride the broken loop between Haines and Skagway in a 48-hour "overnight" ride. It's about 360 miles of rough pavement and stretches of gravel, mostly in northern Canada. I believe that the sketchy road conditions, remoteness of the area and climbing will make it more akin to a smooth mountain bike ride - sorta like parts of the Great Divide route.

Bicycle tourists usually take the better part of seven days to ride this route. What makes me think I can ride it in 48 hours, including an overnight bivy? I have no idea. I don't even have a convincing explaination. But I do know that my entry in multiday endurance riding is going to require a quick and painful baptism by fire. And I can't think of a better place to dive in. The route is close enough that I can travel there fairly inexpensively, remote enough that I can get a small taste of that extreme, helpless solitude, but traveled enough that I will be able to find help should I have a catastrophic mechanical issue or injury.

Meanwhile, the nature of the broken loop means I have no choice but to pedal myself to point B. There won't be any easy bailouts, and it's always good to beat temptation before it strikes. I will have a chance to test out some of my overnight gear - although I'm not planning on carrying anything too wintry - and I'll also experience finding my own water often in an effort to go as light as possible. I'll experience sleeping in a bivy sack. I'll experience trying to live on Power Bars and gas station food. I think it's going to be fun in that relentless boot camp sense of fun. As Geoff calls it, "teaching yourself things through suffering."

Which doesn't make any sense, when you think about it. What do I possibly have to gain from a recreational hobby that is more difficult and stressful than my "real" life? It's a good question. And I could go into a long spiel about the modern state of humans living in the industrialized world, how the layers of comfort we have added to our life have slowly shielded us from natural joy ... but that's not the real reason. The real reason is that I am always on the lookout for reasons to believe in myself. And after a while, lounging away a weekend in a hot tub stopped doing it for me.

So I scheme and train for this ride that is little more than a "dry run" for the real stuff. Pscychological training. For what? I'm almost frightened to find out.

The fireweed blooms are really starting to come out in full force now. I love fireweed and can't help but stop at nearly every large patch I see to take pictures. Longtime Alaskans say that when the last bloom opens up at the very top of the stock, the end of summer has arrived. I can't help but wonder if that's one of the reasons I'm so enamoured with the flower.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

BIG Wheels!

From left to right are my oldest set of wheels to my newest. Notice the progression of girth over time. I am now about as fat as you can get. And I gotta say, it's a lot more fun to gain fat than it is to lose it.

Date:
July 21
Mileage:
25.1
July mileage: 599.7
Temperature upon departure: 56
Inches of rain today: .17"

Shortly after I hung up the phone upon learning that Geoff had won his big race this morning, I hauled my touring bike up the stairs only to see a big cardboard box waiting at the top. It had my name on it! I tossed my bike aside and raced down the steps with the package, tearing the tape to shreds with the first knife I found. When I looked inside, I squealed. Out loud. Like a 4-year-old girl at a princess party.

The box held the wheels that I impulse-bought on eBay on the Fourth of July. On July 3, I received an unexpected federal tax return in the mail. The next day, I won the bid for wheels that I had been drooling over for seven days. The final price - exactly 63 cents less than the amount of that check. Large Marge rims with Endomorph tires - the kind they put on Surly Pugsleys and other fat bikes. New snow bike project! Yeah!

They're so cute. Look how small they make Geoff's new 29" rims seem.

Afterward, I took my woefully anorexic road bike out for the planned ride. I was having such a good morning, I pedaled the 25 miles out to North Douglas and back with an average speed of 18.7 miles per hour. By far my best ... and I didn't even have to enter the pain cave once. It was probably the fact that there was almost no wind ... but I like to think it was the big big wheels waiting for me at home.

Now I just need a frame ... a bottom bracket ... a new seat and stem ... Hmmm. I have things to buy, money to make. To eBay!

Geoff won Crow Pass!

Geoff just called me from Eagle River, letting me know that he took first in the Crow Pass Crossing (26-mile wilderness marathon with sketchy technical trail, a climb over a 3,800-foot pass, and a glacier river crossing) with a time of three hours and seven minutes. This is Geoff's demon race, the one he wanted the most, so his winning it is very exciting. He said he lost several minutes during the race when he crossed the path of a mother bear and cub. The cub scurried away while the mother stood just off the trail huffing and grunting. He couldn't pass so he said he took advantage of the situation to "take a quick break and eat a Gu." I think eating a Gu is the last thing I'd do if an angry mama bear was huffing at me, but it's a good illustration of just how focused Geoff gets in these races.

He's taking a quick break and the Eagle River visitor's center, and then he's going to drive back to Hope with Pete and hang out and ride with other mountain bikers from Anchorage during the Bon Ton Roulet. It sounds like a lot of fun. I'm filled with jealousy that I need to channel. I've been waiting around all morning for news. Time to go for a ride.

All to myself

Date: July 20
Mileage: 13.5
July mileage: 574.6
Temperature upon departure: 51
Inches of rain today: .63"

Geoff is out of town for the weekend, which means I get to watch trashy movies like "Smokin' Aces" and eat cereal right out of the box - as a meal! It also means that after a few hours, I am going to feel like a brain-dead blob in need of some sort of nourishment.

But I definitely picked the right day of the weekend for a long ride. It rained pretty much nonstop today and the temperature I think dropped into the 40s at one point. Brrr. But then I got to thinking - if I don't really want to be out in that, probably nobody wants to be out in that.

So I set out for an evening recovery ride on the most popular trail in town - the Perseverance Trail. The trail can be a mob scene on sunny days and lined with iPod-wearing oblivious joggers even on wet days. But for some reason, it was completely deserted this evening. I guess it's because, even though I think of Friday as "Sunday," most people still think it's Friday. Good. More room for me.

A picture of me and Sugar before the hose-down, looking like we've earned it. I was thinking today about what a great mud bike Sugar has become. The tires grip in like crampons and the moving parts have held up pretty well against water and rust. What's interesting to me is that this bike is the same as it's always been. It's the same bike that I hoped would make me less timid on desert slickrock back when I was an Idahoan and a very different mountain biker than I am today. It's the same bike that I decided would make a great snowbike when I was a new Alaskan and a little more naive than I am today. Now I use it to go muddin' in Juneau. I change, but Sugar keeps soldiering on - stock tires, stock drivetrain, stock almost everything.

I guess that's my confession today. I am not a bike snob. I will probably never be a bike snob, although I have no problem with those who choose that lifestyle. The fact that I think Sugar is a great mudbike doesn't mean he is. There are probably a million little things I could do to make him better. There are probably a million other bikes out there more suited to the job. But I know Sugar. I trust Sugar. I love him just the way he is.

Sometimes, when I am tempted to upgrade, I think of a photograph I saw in a newspaper once. It showed a grocery-store type shelf stocked top to bottom, dozens of feet wide, with colorful cans. The caption said, simply, "Cat Food." And I think ... do we really need all these choices? Do we really?

And I ask myself ... why would I want to upgrade Sugar? Because it would make me faster? I'm not fast to begin with; what kind of miracle bike would change that? Because it would be more comfortable? I've already ridden Sugar for 24 hours straight in a cold sleetstorm. Where am I going to find a better test of comfort than that? Because it would make me cooler? I ride a full-suspension, 26"-wheeled, fully-geared aluminum bicycle with stock parts. In the eyes of most of the endurance biking world, I might as well put some Barbie stickers on a Schwinn, that's how cool I am.

No, Sugar and I share something that no one can ever take away. Complacency.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fire it up

Date: July 19
Mileage: 108.7
July mileage: 561.1
Temperature upon departure: 68
Inches of rain today: .11"

The weather started out beautiful today and tiptoed toward crappy - so slowly that I didn't even notice until the headwind I was plowing into finally reached that breath-stealing threshold and the rain drops arched into horizontal daggers. But, surprisingly, my long ride today followed nearly the opposite progression.

Not that the ride wasn't chock full of suffering. There was plenty of that. I felt like I spent the entire day perpetually on the front end of a bonk. It reminded me of the month I continued to drive my '89 Tercel after one of its cylinders burned out. The car began to guzzle gas at the rate of a monster truck, but no matter how much I floored it, I could barely coax it up the babiest of baby hills. That was me today. I was the three-cylinder Toyota.

Twice today I was determined to quit. And each time I would stop, take a long break, and stuff food down my throat. I cleaned out my Camelbak. I was banking on that old cliche about never quitting until you've had some pie (And I didn't have any pie, so I had to settle for mushed up Power Bars.) Then I'd lay on the gas again, giving everything I had to my three remaining cylinders. But there just wasn't enough in there to power up.

But I think what made the ride incrementally more enjoyable - before I even noticed that I was enjoying myself - was that I did have enough in there to power through. I started the morning knowing I was worn out. I had a tough week of intensity workouts I don't normally do ... followed by a four-hour hike just yesterday that really laid into my joints. I woke up with muscle fatigue, and that is never a good sign. But I know enough about my limits to realize that I wasn't completely spent.

All of this "training" I'm doing right now - amping up for an August crescendo that is purely psychological training for a race that is seven months away - is about understanding my limits. And I didn't meet them today. In fact, my performance and mood improved noticeably when I came to terms with the idea that I was required to stay on that bike until it came time to meet Geoff at the airport. And I did meet him there. I actually beat him there, but just barely - meaning that I met my goal of spending a full eight hours fighting my demons. And despite my two 25-minute breaks, a flat tire, and several bathroom/photo breaks, I still worked my way over 108 miles. Eight hours total time; about 6:30 saddle time.

Now Geoff is on his way to Anchorage to race in the Crow Pass Crossing. I thought I was going to come home and die for a while, but that didn't happen. In fact, I feel pretty good right now. I especially feel good about the part where that bike ride is over.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gastineau Peak

Date: July 18
Mileage: 5.1
July mileage: 452.4
Temperature upon departure: 65
Inches of rain today: o"

Today I hiked to Gastineau Peak, elevation 3,666 feet. I was gunning for Mount Roberts, but I had no idea that the trek to Gastineau and back was a 9-mile endeavour in itself. The extra two miles to Roberts was a little too much to ask of my Wednesday-morning window.

I would like to make it to both peaks one of these days, but it may be a while before I attempt this trail again. It was a beautiful day with stunning views, but I was just not feeling the Mount Roberts trail love. The lower stretch of the Basin Road access trail was lined with sketchy homeless camps - syringes, used condoms, everything. I had to sidestep a sleeping body when I accidentally wandered off trail on one of the footpaths, and that is never fun.

After that unpleasant stretch, all was quiet until mid-mountain, which was mobbed with all manner of tourists fresh off the tram. Huge, denim-clad groups clogged up the trails with their numbered flora and fauna guides and posed group photos as their children trammeled the alpine tundra in their Crocs. I became less polite about shouldering my way through them until some began to stop me with all manner of requests and time-consuming questions (I guess with my sweat-streaked face and backpack, I looked like some sort of expert.)

One man asked me to describe a ptarmigan in detail. (Um ... sort of looks like a speckled brown chicken.)

Another asked if he could reach Mount Roberts in a half hour. (Um, as your guide says, it's three miles and more than 2,000 feet of climbing from here. Walk fast!)

Another pointed across the canyon and asked me the name of the mountain and how he could access it. I began to explain that it was Mount Juneau, that he could reach it by driving from the base of the tram to Basin Road and parking at the Perseverance trailhead. "Oh?" he said. "You mean you can't get there from this trail?"

"Um ... not anytime soon," I said. (But what I was thinking was, by what ridiculous stretch of logic can you imagine this trail crossing a ravine that's 3,000 feet deep and magically appearing on a completely different ridgeline?)

I understand that most cruise ship tourists are probably intelligent people. (I also understand there are some former cruise ship tourists who read this blog.) But still, I am starting to understand why longtime residents avoid them like the plague.

Still ... all bad hikes have their silver lining:

Baby steps across the precarious snowfield. Baby steps across the precarious snowfield.

Hiking in Juneau has been a nostalgic experience for me. Above treeline, nearly everything about the trails and mountains resembles the Wasatch peaks I summitted in my youth ... the scrubby groundcover, the wildflowers, the heart-dropping knife ridges. As I hoist myself over another boulder field, I almost feel like I should be gasping in the thin air - until I remember that I'm only at 3,500 feet. Alaska definitely makes you earn your elevation.

Another reminder that I am not in Utah anymore ... all of that intense green.

This hike really took a lot out of me. I forget that four hours on your feet is much more punishing than four hours on a bike. It makes me appreciate that much more what Geoff does to stay in shape - running up mountains like this on a regular basis. Makes my biking look pretty tame. But we all have our weaknesses. And there is no shame in wearing yourself out on a little walk.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Climbing priorities

Date: July 17
Mileage: 35.5
July mileage: 447.3
Temperature upon departure: 62
Inches of rain yesterday and today: 1.09"

My aim for the past two weeks has been to trust my knee and attempt more strenuous, lung-burning workouts. Today my plan was to climb up to Eaglecrest Ski Resort at the tail-end of a 35-mile ride. I shed my usual "As Fast As I Can" goal for something more tangible - keeping the odometer above 7.5 mph at all times. Sounds slow, right? It was an all-out, red-zone effort on some of the pitches.

But what struck me most about the ride was how anticlimactic the descent was. I was coasting at 40 mph, on constant lookout for gravel patches, porcupine and deer, with instant death lurking around every corner ... and I was feeling involuntarily relaxed, and a bit dazed, like one might before laying down for a nap. In short, I was coming down.

When I was 7 years old, bicycling was all about the descents. One of my best friends lived at the bottom of a steep cul-de-sac. I remember cresting by the stop sign on my yellow banana-seat Huffy and staring wide-eyed into that abyss, lined with minvans and lurking cats. It was a moment of pure fear, like I always felt on a roller coaster when it hesitated at the crest of its first big drop. I'd watch my front wheel dip into the hole, scream as gravity yanked me into involuntary acceleration, and lift my legs skyward as the pedals spun wildly out of control, praying I could get my feet back on them in time to back-pedal to a screeching stop.

My friend and I perfected that hill one summer, enduring the inevitable climb with the trudging sense of duty that only kids can muster. I remember in the hot August sun, there was absolutely nothing rewarding about that sweaty, hunched-over-the-handlebars, pedal-mashing ascent. Our reward waited patiently for us to catch our breath in a dust cloud at the bottom of the hill.

Now 20 years have passed, and somehow, downhill doesn't capture my imagination the way it used to. It has its benefits - fun coasting, quick shots of adrenaline, easy distance. But these days, my rewards meet me at the top of the climb, just as I'm beginning to chase imaginary shadows, and dripping full streams of sweat, and pumping so many endorphins I can almost taste them. The cold wind meets my drenched body and I turned to face it, filled with a kind of satisfaction that borders on joy.

Maybe it is possible to relive those simple childhood pleasures. Even though my methods have changed, the reward remains the same.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Gasping for breath

Date: July 15
Mileage: 10.5
July mileage: 411.8
Temperature upon departure: 66
Inches of rain today: Trace

I completely blew up on a climb today. Imploded. I was following Geoff up the Salmon Creek trail, the first part where you really have to take the full brunt of an average Juneau slope, mashing my pedals and promising myself that I would ride the entire climb. The dark shadows crept along my peripheral vision, and that was OK; the red dots starting shooting across my line of sight, and that was OK; the gasps and whimpers started to come out involuntarily, and even that was OK - until breathing ceased to be an option. I nearly tipped over sideways before I slammed by foot down.

That was probably the furthest I've ever fought before giving into inevitable defeat. It was also a good reality check about my fitness level. I thought I'd gotten into pretty good shape since spring, but it's obvious that my lungs are nowhere near peak performance. My fear of injury continues pressuring me to hold back. I've put in a few long slogs this summer, but I still haven't done anything hard.

A quick solution? More hiking! All of the good trails involve at least a short, bikeable stretch where I'm required to put in 100-percent pedal effort. After the trails become unbikeable, they're wickedly nearly unhikeable. Good, steep stuff that prevents me from faking anything. Today was my first time on the upper stretch of Salmon Creek. There's a reservoir up there, which means lots of weird infrastructure on the trail - rickety stairs, pipes and a giant holding tank. You'd think the stairs would make the hiking easier, but the wasn't really the case with me. I still struggle when walking down stairs - seems stairs are my bad knee's last bastion of pain. Plus, wet wood has never quite agreed with the bottoms of my shoes. After I slipped out a third time, I started thinking up headlines - "Graceless hiker tumbles to death on backcountry staircase." "Mountaineering experience no match for stairs."

The downward hike was strenuous, but the return ride was effortless and fun. I need to combine these ride/hikes more often. They involve more of a time sacrifice than I'm usually able to make during the workweek, but I expect the dividend will be a nice spike in fitness.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Maybe I will always be a tourist here

Date: July 14
Mileage: 30.2
July mileage: 401.3
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.08"

Saturdays are like Mondays to me, and this morning felt particularly bleak. I had planned to do a mountain bike ride regardless of the weather, but I wasn't feeling adventurous at all. I felt particularly unadventurous about the inevitable mud bath and the prospect of having to hose myself down before walking in the house to take a shower. I wanted to do something safe and mindless, something to accentuate the Monday-ness of the day. I wanted to do a two-hour ride out to the valley, a ride I have so permanently drilled into my routine that I don't even have to think out there any more.

I always take a short break at the Glacier Visitors Center, which has a real bathroom and an outdoor drinking fountain - a dream pit stop. It also has hordes of cruise ship tourists who are bused there in steady streams on any given day. The crowds used to bother me, but I have learned to move among them - clack clack clacking in my bike shoes as I shoulder for a spot at the glacier overlook, so I can take my requisite photo-of-the-day.

As I raised my camera to frame a shot I've captured dozens of times before, a lady in a plastic bag poncho walked up next to me and held up her camera.

"You don't see that every day," she said.

"No," I replied. "You really don't"

Fish Friday

Two tasty silvers today. We landed them and a pink salmon in a flurry of activity that lasted less than an hour. Brian let me fight them all into the boat. The big guy wrapped the line around the engine, which Brian untangled in an impossibly quick feat of logic while I clutched the reel to prevent the fish from gaining any more leverage. The next two hit right away, bam bam, as a half dozen boats swarmed closer to what everyone hoped was a huge school of salmon. I reeled and danced around Brian who was juggling the net and the fish skull basher and at one point knives, as the boats closed in and wake kicked up and the sea swirled in a vortex of incongruous activity.

Then, just like that, all was quiet again. My heart was pounding, and I sat back down in a bit of a stupor, not really knowing what to do with myself or what would come next. Fishing is really nothing like cycling, which has a fluidity to it ... a continuous movement that ebbs and flows and eventually finds its even pace. Cycling is strenuous until it's not. Fishing is relaxing until it's not.

Fishing also makes me voraciously hungry - much moreso then cycling. Longer rides usually rob me of my full appetite for more than a day. But fishing ... I spend an afternoon sitting and gazing out at the water only to come home with an urge to take little bites out of every single piece of food in the fridge. I'll admit I have only a passing interest in fishing ... but there is something undeniably primal about the sport that makes it really rewarding. When I spend an afternoon gazing out at the water and looking for whales, what I am really doing is spending an afternoon fixated on the violent notion of winning food. And when I come home with a carcass in a bag, I want to devour my reward. Geoff and I pan fried some fillets with chili peppers, creating two big hunks of blackened salmon. Then we used the head and carcass to make a big pot of salmon chowder. Oh, and we had a little salad too.

Worth it? Yes.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Soggy century

Date: July 12
Mileage: 101.8
July mileage: 371.1
Temperature upon departure: 57
Inches of rain today: 0.47"

Sometimes I look at the weather forecast and think, "Might as well go for a ride now, because it's probably not going to get any better," without taking into account the fact that it couldn't get a whole lot worse, either. But I am Jill in Juneau and I need to learn to ride in the rain and like it. So I set out in a storm precipitating at a rate of about .25" per hour, wearing my most non-breathable plastic clothing, knowing full well that I could be asking for a 100-mile-long cold shower.

The rain tapered off for most of the first half of the ride, and I thought I was in the clear. I even took off my body tarp. But all the fog north of the city set the stage for the kind of solid downpour I imagine is only possible in a rain forest. Sheets of rain pounded my back. I could only look straight down because raindrops would blind me every time I looked up. I could feel my Camelback taking on extra water. And today would have been the day to ride a century with just one water bottle. I only needed to open my mouth for a few seconds to receive all the hydration I needed. Where I come from, downpours are tolerable because they let up pretty quickly ... but that storm continued at that intensity for more than two hours nonstop. I stuck with the ride because I wanted those 100 miles, dang it, and I am Jill in Juneau and I can handle a little rain, dang it, and anyway, it wasn't bad enough to give up ... dang it. Regardless, the annoyance creeps in ... the frustrations ... the doubts.

The .47" of rain recorded is for Juneau, not where I was riding - the precipitation where I was, I'm positive, would have to be measured in full inches. But sure enough, back near city limits, the storm began to dry up. The sun even made a brief appearance. I amped up quite a bit those last 20 miles. I was stoked to be able to look ahead again, and noticed that my legs felt much stronger than I gave them credit for when I was wet and grumpy. Plus, I was pressed to get home in time to go see "Ratatouille" with my friend Brian. It closes at the theater in my tiny city soon, and today was to be my last chance. I arrived home at 5:30 p.m. sharp to this message:

"Hey Jill, this is Brian calling. I know we were talking about seeing Ratatouille tonight, but the weather got real nice and I'd rather be riding my bike. I hope you can get out tonight and enjoy some of this nice weather. Have fun. Talk to you later. Bye."

Dang.

I actually considered it, briefly, but the weather isn't that nice.

I think I may actually be able to talk Geoff into going to see a children's movie with me. He normally is only interested in going to see gut-wrenching foreign dramas, but this is one summer popcorn movie that received a sparkling review from the critic for the New York Times. Geoff won't be able to go until 9:30 p.m. (so here I sit, blogging and waiting.) Tomorrow, I have to be up at 4:30 a.m. to make the early tide if I want to (attempt to) catch some silver salmon. Then I'm supposedly seeing the 10 p.m. screening of Harry Potter tomorrow night. You know what I love best about weekends? Biking in the rain and not sleeping.

Searching for the cave

Date: July 11
Mileage: 25.1
July mileage: 269.3
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.61"

I didn't have much time to ride today. But my knee felt stronger than usual, my legs felt fresh, and I thought it was about time I go out in search of the pain cave.

When I lived in Homer, the pain cave was not a hard place to find. With a 1,200-foot monster to tackle just to commute home from work, I was practically guaranteed a daily visit. Big climbs in Juneau are further from home, and I haven't been strong enough lately to take them with any sort of gusto. Reaching the pain cave on flats is even harder. Without resistance, riding at sea level, my lungs can outlast my legs almost any day, until I'm pumping deadly levels of lactic acid but still breathing with relative ease.

But today had the perfect combination of fresh legs, strong knee and decently fierce headwinds out on North Douglas Highway. I notched up the shifters, amped up the RPMs, and shot across the slick street. Tiny raindrops pierced like needles as my heart rate went from noticeable to inexorable. Then I mashed. I mashed faster. I mashed until I could mash no faster. And then ...

Encompassed.

It is deadly dark in the pain cave, and quiet. The pain cave swallows all the sound of even your most motivating mP3 mix and replaces it with the drip, drip, drip of labored breaths. When I go inside there, I can almost understand what it must be like to shoot into the vacuum of space - to see nothing, to feel nothing, to know nothing. The taste is increasingly metallic, like grinding your own teeth until your jaw snaps - but instead you are spinning and spinning your legs toward oblivion.

If that doesn't sound like a pleasant place, that's because it's not. But there is definitely something rewarding about drilling myself deep into the pain cave. Because eventually, I will see light flickering at the end of the tunnel. The colors outside will have never seemed so bright. Even a solid slate of rain-cloud gray will shimmer with flecks of silver and blue. There's a chance that an occasional trip through the pain cave makes me a better cyclist. I have no idea (my guess is probably not.) But I do know the feeling of seeing the world as a friendlier, warmer, more beautiful place on the other side. That's why I go inside.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Rain days are here to stay

I was hoping to hit another mountain top today or tomorrow, but the weather forecast is not looking good. It's true when they say Juneau only has two seasons ... Rainy and June. Now that June is over, I have a long season of tolerance-building ahead.

Today was a day for the gym, which I like to speak of disdainfully, but I really get a lot of benefit out of it. There's really no better way to train with weight resistance and build specific muscles that ideally will keep injury at bay. I plan to keep going at least once a week - if nothing else, to recoup some of that membership I bought during a panic attack back in April.

Rainy Season also is a good time for retail therapy. I turned to retail therapy back when I was injured and not cycling, and bought a lot of dumb stuff - like clipless pedals and short-sleeved bicycle jerseys. But my new string of purchases may prove to be a lot more rewarding. I recently received a check from the federal government that I wasn't expecting (who knew I was my own tax deduction?) This also will be my first year for the PFD check, the infamous "paid to exist" fund bestowed on every man, woman and child in the state of Alaska. A windfall of free money, and I have big plans ... including, but not limited to, a brand new bike building project!

Plans also include essential bike gear that has nothing to do with the bike, and everything to do with making it possible to ride my bike whenever and wherever I feel so inclined. My most immediate needs include neoprene socks (how oh how did I ever live without these?), a rear bike rack and a bivy sack. I'm torn on the bivy, and was wondering if there were some ultralight backpackers out there with good advice. Should I go with a warmer-but-heavier winter-specific sack, or the lightweight waterproof sack that would be tolerable where I live and terrible everywhere else?

If the forecast holds true, I'll probably spend way too much time surfing eBay for all the different options. Isn't it interesting how the act of not biking instigates a sudden and insatiable need to buy bike goodies? The wheels of the cycling economy must turn on working people whose income is inversely proportional to the time they have to ride. If all I did was ride my bike, I would probably just stick to my old and busted stuff and be happy all of my days.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Not pretty

Date: July 9
Mileage: 38.2
July mileage: 244.2
Temperature upon departure: 51

The day started out so well. Drizzling rain tapered off early. I rode a light tailwind out to the valley and managed some strong intervals on the Glacier spur road. Mileage increased rapidly, and just as I was thinking “this whole summer cycling thing is way too easy,” the brunt of the storm blew in.

It was the kind of storm that earns its own regional designation. I think in Juneau they’re called "Taku Blasts" or something equally ominous. But no matter where you are, these storms always feel the same to a cyclist - headwinds that suck the air out of your lungs, sideways rain that could pierce a helmet, and an unexpected drop in temperature. I fought the storm like an outnumbered conquistador all the way home, knowing defeat was imminent because I was going to have to maintain my early pace just to make it to work on time.

Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror after a ride like this? I try not to, but it’s like trying to look away when you pass a particularly disgusting lump of road kill. The bloodshot eyes caught my attention first - swollen and framed by dark shadows. My entire face was checkered with blotchy red patches and spatters of mud; wet hair clung to my forehead and dangled in snarled strands over my neck. To top it all off, I had a stream of snot oozing down my upper lip. I didn’t even notice it before because my entire face was numb, like my hands, but I still know attractive when I see it.

I always wonder how much of this image lingers even after I’m showered and blow-dried and sitting at my desk in my khaki pants and turtleneck. Can my co-workers tell how I’ve spent my morning? Is it obvious to anyone that just an hour earlier, my face looked like a half-rotten salmon laboring for breath in the shallow end of a creek? I may never know.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Baby fireweed

Date: July 8
Mileage: 25.1
July mileage: 206.0
Temperature upon departure: 54

The Fireweed 400 wrapped up this weekend. Geoff crinkled his face as I read him the results. "Who would want to ride on a road for 400 miles?" he asked. I would! I'm pretty bummed I couldn't get healthy in time to train and plan for this ride. I thought in passing a week ago about buying a plane ticket just so I could go out there and try to survive it, but I shed the thought pretty quickly. Luckily. But still I wonder ... how would it feel to be completely wrecked right now? Even if I ended up sprawled on the finish line, drooling and moaning, it would still feel so great to go full-bore into something and not worry about long-term consequences. Of course I would, though. That's why I'm not there.

As it is, I'm still trying to limit my recreational riding to four days a week, tops. It helps me avoid repetitive-motion flare-ups, and also build strength through other activities. I'd like to get out more often on my mountain bike, but the trails are starting to become icky. The rainy season approaches. And as fun as they are, I'm going to have to limit Sugar's BikeSwim outings if I want him to last another season. But the touring bike just keeps on plugging and plugging away, even as rust creeps across the bolts and bearings. It would have performed brilliantly in the Fireweed 400.

As for the rest of my "season," I'm shooting for a full-12-hour ride by the end of July, the 350-mile Canada loop in mid-August, and then more hiking to prepare for the Grand Canyon in September. None of that is racing, so I guess it's not very interesting. But it gives me enough goals to keep the edge on while I think about taking up Ultrasport training in October. Scary.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Return to cripple valley

I did a great hike today with friends on the Dan Moller trail. As we ambled up the long and narrow strip of wooden planks, the seasons changed with each mile. The full bloom of summer faded into the stunted grass of late spring, which regressed into the skunk cabbage and mud of early spring. By the time we reached the cabin, we were clawing through petrified snow drifts. Somewhere beyond there, winter still lingers. But no matter where I am on the Dan Moller trail, winter is all I see.

The Dan Moller trail is one of those places that represents an abrupt hiccup in my life. For some reason, the remnants of emotions and memories from most of my personal upheavals come to rest on very specific places. There's a park in Salt Lake City that I couldn't bear to walk through for years after one of my first boyfriends broke up with me. My early frustrations with Juneau always come flooding back when I pass Mendenhall Lake campsite No. 5. And now, I can't walk up the Dan Moller trail without thinking about all the painful steps I took through the packed snow earlier this year.

It feels strange, because I didn't think this trail ... this experience ... would haunt me. It probably shouldn't. But it does. There was a time in March and April when I hobbled up the Dan Moller trail two or three days a week, just to get out, because I went so stir crazy sitting inside. Now, I look over my shoulder to a faintly familiar valley shrouded in heavy clouds, and I think about how far I've come. I think about how far I have left to go. I think about how everything's changed. I think about how the landscape looks the same. I think about never having to go back to last winter. I think about the ways it still blocks my path. I tromp through yet another snowfield, and I think about never completely escaping.

As I was leaving work this evening, I caught a rare glimpse of the sunset. People were stopped on the bridge, just standing there, watching it. What makes sunset so stunning some evenings, so mundane others? Maybe it's because an experience can never be defined by its place in time and space. Experience doesn't have to be attached to anything. Experience just ... is.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Thinking about heat

Date: July 6
Mileage: 89.2
July mileage: 91.7
Temperature upon departure: 57

Before leaving for my ride this morning, I put all of my handlebar bag gear in a little pile ... Nutrigrain Bar, Clif Bar, camera, extra wool socks and mittens. "Mittens," Geoff said. "It's July! You don't need mittens."

I pointed out that it was raining from the large bucket outside. "Once I get wet," I said, "my hands and feet are going to be cold. I don't care if its nearly 60."

As I set out into the downpour, I did have to pedal hard early on to generate heat. As I was doing this, I thought about Utah. Geoff told me that the state hit its all-time high yesterday, in St. George, with a 117-degree scorcher. It took me back to a ride I did in July 2002, when Salt Lake hit what was at that time its all-time high, 107. I decided to pedal to my parents' house in Sandy, which was less than 20 miles from my college commune. I set out with what I though was a reasonable amount of water - 64 ounces - and took my normal route along the pavement of 700 East. With visible heat waves wafting off the blacktop, it only took five miles before the soles of my shoes felt like they were resting on hot coals. By seven miles, my legs felt like they were twirling around a rotisserie. By 12 miles, I had sucked down every ounce of the water I was carrying. By 15 miles, I felt like I was about to pass out. By 17 miles, I was fairly sure I had cooked the protein in my brain beyond recovery. I was probably near heat stroke by mile 20. But the feeling was closer to a very toasty grave. I think about that ride sometimes when I am especially cold or soggy. I'm convinced that there are few situations worse than riding a bicycle in Salt Lake City in July. Give me below-0 temperatures any day.

Still, it is funny to go for a July ride and worry about hypothermia. Last summer, when the temperatures warmed up a bit and I let my guard down, I had a few seriously shivery rides. So I am much more cautious this year. It turned out to be all for naught. The sun came out at mile 20, and I found I couldn't stuff enough of my extra layers into my handlebar bag. I actually had my rain pants wrapped around my waist at one point.

I cycled out to the end of the road. It was much harder than the same ride three weeks ago. A front moved in and bumped up the south wind to 15 mph - a headwind I had to fight the entire 45 miles home that was definitely not there as a tailwind for most of the 45 miles out. Also, I think my recovery renaissance has ended. Now that I'm convinced my bad knee can handle these rides, the rest of my body feels comfortable rebelling again. Plus I (ironically) ran out of water. I left with a 24-ounce bottle thinking I would be able to refill it somewhere along the road, but beyond mile 17, there was nothing - no spigots, no stores, no parked trucks with five-gallon jugs in the back. Geoff tells me I should just drink out of one of the hundreds of waterfalls that line the road, but I am not brave enough to do that. At least, not when it's 60 degrees out and I have only 30 miles to ride before a known source of treated water.

Beyond that, though, I had a great ride. I was thrilled to pedal far enough north to hit some sunshine. Although ... I really hate wearing my bike shoes on longer rides. I think if I had any early-warning sharp pains in my knee I'd never notice, because I'm too heavily focused on my throbbing toes. In the future, for 5-hour+ rides, I'll probably just switch over my clipless pedals to the platforms. Good ol' platforms. Then I'd actually be able to do some hiking.

It is beautiful out the road, regardless of weather or other misadventures. I definitely need to toss the clipless pedals, buy another water bottle cage, and spend as much time out there as I can.

My favorite island, with some cool cloud formations in the background. Seriously, how will I ever be able to endure a non-Alaska summer again?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

No fish

Today I spent seven hours in a boat with a fishing line dangling in the water, but I only caught one fish. People in Alaska would call it a "baby halibut." People in Utah would call it a "big, ugly fish." We threw him back. Then, even with a cyclical catalog of boppin' 60s hits blasting over the satellite radio, the ocean gods never smiled on us again.

My co-worker Brian was nice enough to invite me on his day out on the boat. He spends his summers stocking and restocking the freezers of his entire extended family, and he was flabbergasted at the idea of no fish, no fish at all. I always bought into the idea that just by showing up in Alaska and making some attempt to tie a herring to a line and then place it in the water, you were all but guaranteed to catch a fish. If that is true, it must be more of a Homer thing, because I've never had any luck in Juneau. And as the afternoon wore on and my dream of gorging myself with halibut meat for dinner quickly faded to thoughts of yet another freezer-burned veggie burger, I tried to console myself with other perks. Eagle Glacier looming over the rain-pocked harbor. The sun nearly breaking through ribbons of clouds. Humpback whales spouting in the distance. But I couldn't shake the thought that I was the bad luck, and that Geoff was going to be so disappointed when I came home empty-handed. Also, I was thirsty and hungry, I was sharing a small boat with a male co-worker, and I had no hope of a bathroom for seven full hours. The day was all about biological abstinence and false hope. And Steppenwolf.

At least Brian let me drive the boat as we headed in, at least until we hit four-foot swells. Then, just as I was joking about being the only person with the ability to capsize a boat that size in four-foot swells, he nervously offered to take back the captain's chair.

It's all in a day's work. But in the end, I'm probably better off sticking to the bike. And veggie burgers. And no more Steppenwolf.

Everyone loves a parade

Date: July 4
Mileage: 30.1
July mileage: 91.7
Temperature upon departure: 61

As the parade moved south, I pedalled north. A congestion of cars spilled out across the bridge and oozed ever so slowly beside me. Blanket and umbrella-wielding pedestrians poured over the pavement for festivities being held more than two miles away. I could still smell bonfire in my hair and I was having a hard time blinking the steady drizzle from my sleep-crusted eyes ... but I pitied them more. No one likes to be lost in a crowd.

I rode out here, north Douglas Island, into the eerily quiet afternoon. It seems Juneau is never silent in the summer, but July 4 must be the all-consuming holiday in this town. Traffic disappeared, people vanished, and even the bridge across Fish Creek - which is now choked with king salmon - was devoid of anglers tromping along the street in their waders. It was empty ... winterlike ... lonely. After I turned to head south again, I couldn't resist the pull.

The line of cars had given up moving by the time I reached the bridge. I slipped through the narrow opening between equally impenetrable walls of stopped vehicles and stroller-pushing parade-goers. I felt like I was chasing a distant exit from a tunnel that was closing in. But there were bagpipes playing softly in the distance, and growing piles of candy and confetti on the pavement, and I knew I was nearly there. I came to a flatbed truck filled with women singing traditional Tlingit songs, slipped around its side and joined the heart of the parade. Bags of Pop Rocks whizzed past my ears as dozens of children darted into the street ... in front of me, beside me, behind me. I swerved and wobbled and craned my neck in hopes of finding an opening to the sidewalk, but I was trapped. Faces lined the streets seven deep. My only hope was to make it to the next intersection, so I tucked in and hoped that the woman throwing Pop Rocks would show me a little mercy.

She did. I finally found a spot to turn, and used side streets to get ahead of the parade. I coasted back to Main Street just in time to see the Shriners, hamming up their roles as the people in miniature cars and hats. Behind them were the Rough Riders, trail-tough children glowering from a truck as their parents popped wheelies on cute little four-wheeled vehicles behind them. One boy in shades leaned against the cab and shot me a look of Supreme Coolness - the kind of look that crossed the face of every boy on every float on every Main Street in America today. All around me was the overwhelming aroma of charcoal and kettle corn, the smoky sweet smell that wafted over every park in every neighborhood in every state today. I took a deep breath, and realized that I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

After midnight

Date: July 3
Mileage: 23.4
July mileage: 61.6
Temperature upon departure: 70

In Juneau, the July 4 fireworks are dark-permitting, not weather-permitting.

So we get our kicks real early.

Happy New Year ... er ... Independence Day, everyone.