Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Choices

Sometimes I wonder about the fundamentals of life. There is food, water, air, shelter; these things are absolute. Then there is human contact, required by all but a few. After that, in deciding what I, as a human, "need," there is a lot of gray area. I have my job, my source of income, which my lifestyle demands I make an effort to keep. But my lifestyle goes way beyond food, water, air and shelter. I have my family, who provides love and support when I need it. But at the same time, I don't feel a strong drive to start a family of my own. What I have left are the optional things I "do:" socializing, reading, writing, studying, and of course, somewhere near the top is the cycling. These things consume enormous amounts of time and I wonder to what end. Certainly they are the choices I've made, but how much do they reflect my needs?

Of course the complexities of human emotions obscure any simple explanation about our needs. If everything a human needed was food, water, air, shelter and human companionship, we would all conduct our lives very differently, and would probably not have evolved into the intelligent but befuddled creatures we are. Some philosophers have hypothesized the humans are motivated by a need for meaning; those who fail to find satisfactory meaning are driven to further extremes. There is a lot of room for religion in this theory. But it also includes the drive of the explorer, who in modern times has few places to go but within.

A couple of autobiographies I have been reading both draw interesting conclusions about the need for exploration in their prologues. As both men prepare to launch into their own amazing tales of misery and triumph, they make simple statements that in essence express a belief that they are not crazy, and they are not brave. They simply did what they had to do. It's not unlike the Buddhist monk who, when asked why he made a walking journey of 3,000 miles by dropping to his knees, hands and face with every step, simply looked away in silence, completely serene.

In "Minus 148," Art Davidson's enthralling account of the first winter ascent of Denali, Davidson writes: "During that summer expedition, Shiro and I caught only a few glimpses of what the McKinley winter would be like, but they were enough to infect us with what many explorers have described as a fever to go back to a region or landscape that has a grip on you. Not really understanding why they go, men have returned to the sea or to deserts, to jungles or to frozen wastes in the Arctic, knowing they will be miserable and frequently in danger."

Gary Paulsen closes his prologue in "Winterdance," his account of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, by concluding, "I thought any sane man who was in his forties and had a good career going would quit now, would leave the dogs, end it now and go back to the world and sanity. I knew what scared me wasn't the canyon and wasn't the hook hanging by one prong, but the knowledge, the absolute fundamental knowledge that I could not stop, would not stop, would never be able to stop running dogs of my own free will."

It makes one wonder where the line between need and choice truly begins and ends.

In the spirit of giving in

Date: Oct. 29
Mileage: 25.1
October mileage: 634.9
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: .51"

I had decided to finish out the rest of my week's workouts at the gym; give myself a mental vacation, where I could just lift weights and read books and not worry about my disintegrating rain jacket or the wind cutting through my neoprene gloves. Then I thought, why should I let the weather beat me? I only have a few days left in this training block anyway.

Today: Intervals. Two miles on, two miles off. They're part of my month of "speed" training. Sometimes I think I really do feel stronger, and sometimes I think I'm fooling myself no matter what I do. But since I'm only playing this game against myself, I have to decide whether I win or lose. Sticking to a plan is only fleetingly satisfying, but movement through the landscape always feels like a win.

In the driving rain I look directly at the ground. The scattered leaves on the pavement blur into color bars. The debris - bits of shattered ceramic, an old boot, a quarter I never stop to pick up and neither does anyone else - give me an idea about where I am. I watch my odometer tick away, but wind gusts make it hard to measure my progress by speed alone. So I usually turn up my iPod. If I care too much about the song that's playing, I'm not pedaling hard enough.

I was doing well enough today that I didn't even notice when the shuffle switched over to a song I downloaded a while back, for nostalgia's sake, and promptly forgot I did so - an old song by Buck O'Nine, pop ska music circa mid-90s. Sometime within those two miles of wheezing and streaming and seeing nothing but abstract leaf patterns, I started to huff along with the rhythm ...

"All the water, all the water in my head (Oi! Oi! Oi!); All the water, all the water in my head (Oi! Oi! Oi!)"

Fragments of memories flooded in ... brick walls and red sneakers, cold lips and snow. They meant nothing in the moment, but they carried a vicarious feeling of distant warmth. It was a strange mosaic, beauty without meaning. As I slowed down for my recovery, I started to piece the images together.

And then I remembered ... Basement of Club DV8, Salt Lake City, November or maybe December 1996. Two friends and I went to see an all-ages show headlined by Buck 'O Nine. After the concert, the boy we were with, chivalrous as he was, offered to run and get the car from the many, many blocks it was parked away as we waited outside the building. Being teenage girls, we had worn no winter clothing of any kind. I was probably wearing thrift store cords and a baby T-shirt, or something equally ridiculous. All I remember are the red shoes. And the dry snow swirling around us. My feet were so cold that they burned.

I was dancing around to stave off the numbness when the club's front door swung open, and members of the band filed out. Last was the trumpet player, a tall, chiseled man with black dreadlocks. He was the "cute" one.

"'Sup girls, show's over," he said to us. We smiled. Probably giggled. A little awestruck to be caught in this unlikely position. "Damn," he continued. "You mountain locals are crazy. Don't even wear coats in the winter. If it ever got this cold in San Diego, half the city would probably die." We giggled again. I rifled around in my pocket until I found my ticket stub. "Um," I said, trying to muster my best "I'm-not-really-this-lame" tone. "Could you sign this?" He smiled and nudged someone who was carrying equipment out of the building to ask for a pen.

He handed the stub back to me and I promptly stuck it back in my pocket without looking at it. Our friend pulled up in his beater car and we crawled inside, teeth chattering, feet burning, squealing and slightly starstruck. "What's that guy's name anyway?" my girlfriend asked me. I pulled the ticket out of my pocket. In tiny cursive in the corner, the trumpet player had written, "You're hot. Anthony."

I remember clearly now the flush of blood to my head. I thought I'd never forget the way I felt so cold and warm at the same time. But eventually I did forget, essentially, until today...

I laughed at the randomness of the memory, the way time sometimes seems to slosh back and forth without continuity, like the tide. Or intervals. With my two-mile recovery nearly finished, I tried to zero back in for the sprint, but it was hard to focus. They're always funny, these games my mind plays to get through the hard times, to get through the hard rides, to get through the day.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gone 'til November

My weekend ride:


Geoff's weekend ride: (photo by KanyonKris)

Date: Oct. 28
Mileage: 36.4
October mileage: 609.8
Temperature upon departure: 42
Rainfall: .29"

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff was eating breakfast and staring at a slate of gray outside the window as I rattled off the day's weather report. I don't remember the weather report. It probably contained rain and wind and a whole lot of windy rain. Then I began the half-hour-long process of suiting up for the day's ride as Geoff calmly walked over to the computer, called up his Delta Airlines account, and spent every last one of his airline miles to reserve a plane ticket to Las Vegas. "If I don't get out of here soon," he said in his calmest voice, "I'm going to snap."

On Thursday, Geoff left for his I-can-no-longer-tolerate-Juneau-in-the-fall vacation to the Mountain West. The premise of the trip was a bit shaky - a chance to visit friends in St. George, a White Rim ride with strangers he's been communicating with on an Internet forum, a Halloween party in Springville. He tried to talk me into coming. "I can't afford that," I said. "I was just there." Then later, in that eerie calm voice, he wondered aloud: "So what would you do if I didn't come back?"

"I don't know ... move to Anchorage, find an Alaskan sugar daddy to buy me blinged-out bikes and plane tickets."

"No, seriously."

Fall in Juneau is enough to make anyone snap, especially as the temperatures keep notching up a degree and the mountain snowline retreats into the monotone sky. Every day is Groundhog Day, except for it's windy, and rainy, and chock-full of rainy wind, and you know there's a whole lot more than six weeks of winter ahead. So I don't blame Geoff for escaping to the White Rim, to watch the October sunrise stretch across a limitless horizon. I would do the same, and have, with the Grand Canyon, a month ago.

But to go as far as to seriously consider leaving Alaska forever? I can hardly bear the blasphemy. But I can, and do, as raindrops patter on my PVC jacket and the duct-tape patches on my rain pants rub against my cold skin. I think of the desert, and I wonder, what if?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Eating and hypothermia

Date: Oct. 26
Mileage: 32.5
October mileage: 573.4
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: 1.36"

I had a cold-weather epiphany today: The secret to staying warm is staying fed.

It seems pretty simple, but it hadn't really occurred to me how important fuel is to the whole equation. I've been reading different accounts of people who contracted hypothermia while mountain climbing. In many cases, they were bundled up and climbing fairly strong. The temperature didn't change. The weather didn't change. One minute they were fine, and the next minute they were hypothermic. What happened? Does hypothermia really strike at random? Without warning? The whole idea was very scary.

Here in Juneau, during the fall monsoon, the temperature drops very slowly over time as the wind gradually picks up strength. It gives off the illusion of consistency, but there is change. By late October, the tail-end of the monsoon, the daily high temperatures have dropped from low-50s to high-30s. The 15 mph south winds gusting to 25 are now 25 mph south winds gusting to 50. If I was transported through time from early September to late October, I would likely change my habits drastically to match the change in weather. But when the cold weather settles in over weeks of barely-detectable increments, I may add a layer here and there, but I do little else differently.

However, the 30-mile rides of early September were not the same as the 30-mile rides of today. I set out with the same goals and the same destinations, forgetting that now the same distance takes longer, seems harder, and generally consumes more energy. What I feel at the end of these rides is cold. Sometimes it's a barely noticeable drop in my core temperature. Sometimes it's enough to spur shivering ... mild hypothermia. I thought the causes were failures in my clothing system. The next day I would add layers that I usually ended up getting rid of because I would overheat early in the ride. But today I tried something different ... something I don't usually do ... I set out on a 30-mile road ride with an Clif Bar in my pocket.

Chugging straight into a headwind at a screaming pace of 9 mph during my return ride, I caught the full force of a monster gust that nearly stopped me completely. I had to click out of my pedals to keep from tipping over. An amazing gust - the kind that sucks the oxygen right out of my lungs and leaves me gasping and sputtering. I could feel the wind tearing through my layers, prickling my skin and chilling my torso. The cold was already setting in, and I still had seven slow-moving miles before I would be home. It seemed a good time to eat the Clif Bar.

After that, I perked up considerably. My pace picked up; my body started to produce heat again; I could feel the core fires flare and beads of sweat began to form on the back of my neck. A few more monster gusts slowed my pace to 5 mph at times, but they didn't stop me. It finally made sense - it's been true all this time. I hadn't become overly susceptible to the mild cold of the fall monsoon. I had bonked.

When I came home, I finally began to leaf through the promisingly thorough but deathly boring medical booklet I recently picked up, "Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries."

"In wilderness environments, hypothermia results from:
1. Inadequate protection from the cold.
2. Inadequate fluid intake resulting in dehydration.
3. Inadequate food for metabolic fuel to be burned during exercise."

Without caloric replacement, the body becomes much less efficient at regulating its own heat. It begins to tap fat stores to keep organs and muscles functioning, but these sources of fuel are too slow-burning to be efficiently used to produce heat. So even the early stages of a bonk can be dangerous at low temperatures. One of the first remedies the medical book recommends for a mildly hypothermic person: Sugar drink (one of the most quickly metabolized sources of fuel. Interestingly, the book said it doesn't matter if it's hot or cold. Hot drinks do little in the longterm to warm the body's core temperature. They just feel good.) Once you've had the sugar, embrace the urge to shiver violently. And try to commence exercising. The body can bring itself back from hypothermia, as long as it has something in the tank to burn.

Interesting. It seems so simple, but this is a real breakthrough for me. It's inspired me to take more stock of my energy level and food intake while riding. Bonking is annoying in the summer; it can be deadly in the winter.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thursday Pugsley expedition

Date: Oct. 25
Mileage: 9.4
October mileage: 540.9
Temperature upon departure: 41
Rainfall: 0.25"

Another Thursday, another low-mileage, time-consuming, mud-slinging, shin-bashing exploration ride on the Pugsley.

Another ode to the big wheels, great conquerors of mud.

Geoff told me I should try to ride the Treadwell Ditch Trail, the closest trail to our house. It's a cross-country ski trail that's marginally bikeable in the winter, when the snow conditions are good (which is to say, terrible for cross-country skiing.) But in the off-season, the trail is so crappy muddy that even hikers rarely use it. An endless web of wet roots makes it completely unrideable (wet roots are, after all, the slipperiest substance known to mountain bikers. You could run an oil slick across a patch of glare ice, and it still wouldn't be as slippery as a string of wet roots.) But Pugsley is such a tank that you don't even have to pick the perfect line through the roots. You just point the bike forward and go. (Which is good, because I still think the Pugsley steers like a bus with a flat tire.)

I know that riding muddy trails is generally a violation of mountain biking ethics. But the reasons for that ethical code don't really hold up here in the rainforest: The trail won't dry with deep tracks through the center, because the trail never dries. Rain works faster than even the best intentions. It won't take more than a couple of days for all evidence that I came through here to be wiped away. So yes, I do ride in the mud without guilt. I ride in the mud at 4 mph. I ride in the mud with a big mud-eating grin on my face, because my teeth are full of mud, and my torso is covered in mud, and my wheels are sinking to the hubs in mud, but I'm still riding ... in the mud. And I've never been able to do that before.

It's a ton of fun ... but not exactly efficient. It took two hours to cover less than 10 miles today - only seven of which was actual trail. Ever since I finished this bike, I have only used it as a toy. On the beach ... in the mud ... weaving through abandoned army infrastructure. It's all been about having fun. Someday, not too far into the future, I plan to use this bike for serious training. And right now, it's hard for me to even imagine it. Hill intervals? Nordic trail laps? Day-long endurance rides? Overnighters?

For now, we will splash in the mud and enjoy the last days of our innocence.

Into the Wild

Date: Oct. 24
Mileage: 31.3
October mileage: 531.5
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: 0.30"

Last weekend, Geoff and I went to see “Into the Wild” with several friends. As we were walking out of the theater, I was just about to rave about the movie when my friends lit into the film’s subject, Chris McCandless. The conclusion they drew was that Chris was a “total douche” and the actor who played him was “not believable” but the movie was “OK.”

We didn’t have a chance to discuss it much further, but I wish we had. Of all of the books I’ve read, Chris McCandless is one of those literary figures that stuck with me, like Edward Abbey or the pseudonyms of Thomas Wolfe (because I’m drawn to creative nonfiction and biographies, most of my favorite literary characters were living, breathing people.) Like any favorite literary character, I saw pieces of myself in Chris McCandless and empathized with his pain and his joy. I read Jon Krakauer’s book long after it dropped off the best-seller list. I missed most of the fallout and didn’t follow the pre-release movie chatter. So I had no idea McCandless’ life evoked so much widespread disdain. But it seems, if my friends' and coworkers' opinions are any indication, my view that Chris McCandless is “not a douche” puts me in a minority of Alaskans.

It makes sense to me that person is either going to identify with Chris McCandless, or they’re not. What catches me off guard is the venom. Why hate him? Because he was stupid? (Given his success in his education, I think it would be hard to argue that he was stupid.) Because he was selfish? (Selfishness is such an omnipresent personality trait. I think it’s arguable that everybody is selfish in their own way.) Because he was naive? (Also such a common and life-shaping quality that it’s practically a virtue.) Because of the cruel way in which he cut off his family? (I think this is the great tragedy of the story, but I can step outside myself and recognize how a person could feel so alienated, and so trespassed against, that they felt they had no choice.)

Maybe people simply dislike him because he died, needlessly. People die of self-destructive means every day. People die from alcoholism and drug abuse; they drive recklessly and take dangerous chances. People make bad choices. People make fatal mistakes. But rarely do they draw so much ire ... or so much fame.

I wonder if that may be the anger's source ... the fame. What makes Chris McCandless so special? He certainly didn’t do anything new or original, especially in the eyes of many Alaska settlers, who have been tromping off into the subarctic wilderness and making their own way for more than a century. The fact that McCandless was an outsider, and completely unprepared, makes his canonization all the more infuriating. So many Alaskans were successful in their own “into the wild” endeavors, and remained anonymous their entire lives. When Chris died, he lost his anonymity. And with that, he evolved into something like a patron saint to the vagabonds and vagrants at heart, the people who are disillusioned with society and curious about what it would be like to give up on it completely - but don’t have the courage to do so.

I neither resent Chris McCandless’s fame, nor do I think he’s a “saint" or a “hero.” I think he was a really compelling person who espoused some of the ideals I cherish (not unlike Edward Abbey) but took an extreme path I would never take. Extreme actions tend to evoke extreme reactions. Chris McCandless has a volatile place in American history because his simple but stark story causes us, whether consciously or subconsciously, to ask some unsettling questions of ourselves. His extreme convictions cause us to question our own faith. His extreme passion causes us to ask where our own passion lies. His extreme solitude causes us to take stock of our own relationships. His extreme death causes us to consider our own mortality. I think Chris angers us not because he failed in his quest to live what was, at least in his mind, a true existence. It’s because he succeeded.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

And so it begins

Date: Oct. 23
Mileage: 23.2
October mileage: 500.2
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: 0.15"

Earlier this afternoon, probably shortly after reading my Iditarod Invitational announcement, a friend e-mailed me a link to a blog entry, posted today. The title of her e-mail was, "So is this what it's like?"

And the answer, I sincerely hope, is "Yes, that's what it's like."

Then this evening, rather randomly, I received another e-mail from the author of that blog entry, a gesture of support from a person who actually knows what it's like:

"I'm a bit envious of your position — learning how to train and prepare for that race is also a great way to learn about life. It’s an ongoing process that I don’t ever seem to be able to get enough of, and each year as I find myself approaching Knik I’m forced to answer a lot of scary questions about where I've been, what I've done, and what I’m about to do. Not just with the race, but with my life."

To the stranger who understands: Thank you.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pulling the trigger

Date: Oct. 22
Mileage: 25.9
October mileage: 477.0
Temperature upon departure: 42
Rainfall: 0.49"

I entered the 2008 Iditarod Invitational.

I was hoping to wait until the end of the year to do so, after my bad knee had at least two months of cold-weather training behind it. But this race is becoming irritatingly popular, and a nearly full roster forced my hand. It's a big commitment ... securing a lot of time off work, sending in the entry fee. Backing out now would be like giving up on Everest. Backing out now would only happen in an unforeseen emergency, or if I decide I am truly incapable of attempting this race. It's a big commitment.

Geoff recently entered the race, too, so we are in it together. He entered the "foot" division as a runner. I entered the "bike" race. We're both likely in for a lot of walking, but at least I'll have the option of riding a big-wheeled bicycle when the going is good. But Geoff, as crazy fast as he is, will still probably finish the race before I do.

As far as I can tell, there are no other women entered in the bike-to-McGrath division, yet. A couple are slated to ride to Nome. No woman has ever taken a bicycle the entire distance to Nome during the race, so this could be a historic year. In my opinion, the 1,100-mile race to Nome is probably the hardest competitive mountain biking event in North America, if not the world. I do not think the Great Divide Race would be harder, even though it covers more than twice the distance. The natures and challenges of these routes are so different, though, that they're hard to compare. Either way, I'm rooting for these women, even if they beat me to McGrath.

The race to McGrath is 350 miles of fairly well-traveled Iditarod Trail. But because it is two weeks before the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, it's possible the trail won't be broken yet, or will be blown over from recent storms. In 350 miles, it crosses no roads. It's true wilderness. Route-finding is a skill I need to work on as much as I can this winter. Cold-weather survival knowledge also is crucial. Because I won't have many chances to test my gear in below-zero temperatures, I'm going to have to rely on learning as much as I can about it. I also have to learn all I can about the symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia, and how to avoid and treat them. The reason I am reading so many books about dog mushing and winter mountaineering is because these people experienced some of the conditions I might experience. I retain anecdotal knowledge much better than I retain textbook ramblings.

The race itself is a bit of a vacation, with (very) rustic lodge stays, warm meals and a couple of food drops. Adventure travel at its finest. I'm really looking forward to it, with an edge of unhealthy obsession that is quickly pushing into the forefront of my thoughts and dreams. I may never sleep again. But it will be fun to approach the winter with an goal that's both ridiculous and overwhelming, and see if I can whittle it down to something manageable. It's not unlike the leap I took in 2006 with the Susitna 100. The Iditarod Invitational race director, Bill Merchant, has been quoted many times for saying this, but it's fitting:

"We go into the Alaska backcountry to find cracks in ourselves. We go back a year later to see if we've done anything about them."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The difference between exercise and cycling

Date: Oct. 20
Mileage: 32.1
October mileage: 451.1
Temperature upon departure: 34
Rainfall: 0.57" (yesterday and today)

Back in 2005, beneath the warm blue skies of Idaho Falls, I was a complete gym rat. A little hard to believe, right? I received a free membership to the Apple Fitness through my employer. My tight-knit group of copy editor co-workers talked me into attending exercise classes with them. Pretty soon, I was at Body Pump every Wednesday and Friday, followed by a rigid ritual of cardio. Tuesdays and Thursdays held spin classes; Tiffany and I would set up on the stationary cycles in the back and mash away our work-related stress in a cloud of techno-pumping, fitness guru-screaming, black-light-enhanced white noise. It was my routine. I cherished it. My bicycle - the Ibex touring bike that I still ride today - sat stashed in a corner of my apartment while the farm roads of Idaho Falls stretched out for hundreds of scenic miles, all unridden and unloved.

It was a strange sort of hiccup in my development as a cyclist, my "year of fitness." I had muscle definition in my arms and knees that didn't buckle under the slightest addition of weight. I had friends who swapped tips about protein powders, a vague sense of what I could "bench" and a spin class instructor who hopped off her own bike just to scream in each person's face. And yet, somehow, I thought I was happy.

I think about that year sometimes, when I am holed up in my Juneau gym, clutching 15-pound barbells as Court TV and 50 Cent fight for dominance of the already overbearing volume in the room. I am back where I started, trying to reclaim the ideal of overall fitness, trying to coax every part of my body to its top working condition. I always become lost in the repetition and do way more reps than I planned. A woman nearby talks to her friend about the necessity of a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet ... "I used to run for an hour, two hours a day, but I realized you have to cut back your food. Nothing else works." Men grunt and groan in the back room. The cardio machine users stare off into space. The scene is so reminiscent of the Apple Fitness that I can't help but wonder if I am where I was, traveling quickly, going nowhere.

So I close my eyes and think of the less distant past, moments that slipped by just yesterday. Geoff and I rode our mountain bikes across the icy veneer of puddles on the Dredge Lake trail, skirting some and shattering others in a geyser of cold water. Black ice on rocks and roots acted as an unbeatable wheel-repellent. I approached every obstacle slowly and deliberately, sweating only from fear and focused only on my safety. Those seven miles ate up nearly an hour of stressful, if not strenuous work. "Obviously, trail riding was not the way to go today," said Geoff, who was aiming for a long day and a good workout. We squished over carpets of spongy leaves as frost shimmered on the stems they left bare, so white they seemed skeletal. We passed an open view of the glacier just as the sun slipped behind a mountain of clouds. I watched its orange glow retreat over the electric blue crevasses, and then everything was gray. It was a simple moment, but I can never repeat it, no matter how many reps I do, or how big my arm muscles become, or how much protein I injest, or how well my knees work.

I once strived for perfect fitness. Now I am a cyclist. Both renew the body, but only one renews the soul.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Day 1 of no rain

Date: Oct. 19
Mileage: 63.4
October mileage: 419.0
Temperature upon departure: 37
Rainfall: 0.00"

The reason I started keeping statistics at the top of each blog post is because I saw it as the best way to quantify my "training" for future reference. Since this whole blog is the story of how my bikes make me feel ad nauseum, I figured tracking my mileage, monthly mileage, temperature and rainfall would help me draw patterns and answer questions: So why did I feel that way? How can I avoid it (or recreate it)? Ect.

But my system is I'm afraid fundamentally flawed. As impossible as it it to truly track a ride, the spartan way in which I'm going about it is a travesty of misinformation. Take today and yesterday, for example. Compared to yesterday's 37 degrees, today's 37 degrees felt like a subtropical sunbake on a summer afternoon. Compared to yesterday's 17.9 miles, today's 63.4 miles felt like an after-dinner spin around a suburban park. Compared to yesterday's 1.4 inches of rain, today's 0" of rain felt like the literal hand of mercy punched a hole in the sky and released a blast of goodness and light.

As reluctant as I am to stop tracking my mileage, there's just no way for me to display to true night and day, the yin and yang, the evil and good of yesterday and today. There are no words, no symbols, no numbers to depict the truth. So I will accept the fact that I have no real record to look back on, and I will ride my bike as I did today, without agenda or struggle, knowing that the pattern is bound to smile at me, once in a while.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hardship

Date: Oct. 18
Mileage: 17.9
October mileage: 355.6
Temperature upon departure: 38
Rainfall: 1.04"

I was nearly there, nearly to the southern tip of Douglas Island; even with the dismal visibility through swirling rain, it was nearly in sight. I mashed the pedals ... 9 mph, 10 mph - the fastest I had moved all morning. A long walk through a minefield of sharp rocks had yielded this thin gravel bar where I could ride, actually ride, like a delirious bird fighting the wind. The chill needled through every layer of wet clothing and gripped my skin like icy fingers. My own fingers had deteriorated from clammy to numb, and I was on my third set of gloves - my last - because I tried everything I could think of, and nothing really works in this weather. Nothing, nothing, nothing. (Edit: My bike pogies would work. I can't believe I didn't think of it earlier.)

I rounded a cliff and followed the gravel bar as it jutted out toward the open channel. After an entire morning of bouncing and skidding along a bumpy shoreline as slippery as ice, that simple left turn proved to be the ride's fatal move. I was scarcely out in the open when I was suddenly hit from the side by a blast of wind so strong that I felt like I had been punched in the lungs. The bike skidded sideways and I lost control, launching skyward like a sail behind ripped from a flimsy boat. I landed on the rocks several feet away from the bike, wrenching my (good) knee sideways with a sharp shot of pain, and then I crumpled like a broken kite. I had so, so had it with this ride. Had it, had it, had it.

I sat up and began to gnaw on the one Luna Bar I brought with me. I could see a definitive point in the beach less than a half mile in front of me. GPS showed me rounding the sharp curve of the island. That could be my destination - the end of Douglas - but I'd never know and I no longer cared. I decided the Luna Bar might just stoke my core temperature long enough to get me home before my fingers froze. I drank a bunch of water, too, because I hadn't bothered to sip anything in two hours, and hypothermia brought on by dehydration is a real concern. I no longer felt like I was a recreational rider dawdling around on a beach only nine miles from my home. I was on a real epic, and every mile from here on out was going to be a struggle. The thought of that fueled my fury - because I am always eager to overcome hardship.

With the wind I was flying, but I could still feel the chill ripping through. Snow accumulation crept down to an elevation only a few hundred feet above my head. If I wasn't at sea level, I'd likely be fighting a blizzard. The temperature was mid-30s at best, with a steady 25 mph wind gusting to 50. Even as I skirted the edge of dry land, I couldn't shake the image of a crab fisherman clinging to a boat in the brunt of a Bering Sea storm. I wanted to persevere, but I could feel indifference creeping in. My mind always seems to shut off when I'm struggling. It's almost as though my body decides that it can't expend any energy on frivolous things such as emotions and thoughts. Having experienced this state before, I've learned I can trust my instinct more than my mind. The miles flew by in this white fog of apathy, somehow completely free of the many near-misses and actual crashes I experienced on the way out.

By the time I reached the last big stream crossing, I had warmed up enough that doubt was beginning to creep back into my consciousness. I could feel the acute pain of warm circulation stabbing at my fingers. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Since I was soaked to the bone anyway, I decided to ford the river rather than hoisting my heavy bike up a cliff so I could thread it across the narrow, rickety wooden bridge that spanned an upstream waterfall. I lifted my bike on my shoulders and began to step gingerly into the creek ... up to my knees, up to my thighs, up to my waist. The swift water began to sweep the bottom of the wheels before I even reached the center channel. I looked downstream and visualized the river ripping my bike from my hands, ripping me off my feet, and carrying us both out to sea. I turned around with a renewed feeling of frustration and anger at myself, and began the slog up to the bridge.

Once across the bridge, I was finally able to convince myself I was home-free. Just like that, all of that negative emotion flipped over to a massive adrenaline high. The last mile of beach was all rideable and I sprinted over it with rekindled energy. My hands came back from the dead and I could maneuver the bike with ease, powering over steep sandbanks and launching across boulders. I felt great, so great, like I had suddenly been granted some kind of cycling superpower. I laughed at yet another reminder of why I voluntarily take my Pugsley out on a trailless beach on the coldest, wettest day of the season - why I voluntarily put myself through hardship. I crave the lowest lows because I believe I can survive them, and I crave the highest highs because I believe I have earned them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Day 35 of rain

Date: Oct. 17
Mileage: 24.6
October mileage: 337.7
Temperature upon departure: 41
Rainfall: .13"

There actually have been breaks in the weather this month - big, beautiful holes sky that occasionally remind the skeptic in me that there is a great emptiness beyond the crushing ceiling of clouds. But as soul-lifting as these weather breaks have been, none of them have been long enough to encompass a 24-hour period between midnight and midnight. And so the rain streak continues. Day 35:

I woke up late, finished a quick succession of sprint intervals up to Eaglecrest and took advantage of the fact I was on a mountain bike to practice my plank riding. Wet wooden planks are my worst nemesis, whether I'm on bike or foot ... even the crampons on the bottom of snowshoes don't seem to prevent me from flipping butt over back on the slippery surface. So I made a few runs on a quarter-mile-long section of planks across the Nordic park. During the snowless season, it's better known as "Slowly Sinking Bog."

Despite my trouble with them, planks are great practice for becoming a better rider on technical singletrack. You have no choice but to keep your (very thin) line. When the planks made a 45-degree turn to the right, I tried the same. When my back tire slipped off the "trail," I had a split second between that horrible slurping sound and the moment I had to put a foot down to pray that this particular mudhole was not a keeper. I nearly lost a bootie in one.

More moisture in the forecast this weekend. There's not much I can do about it, except pray for snow.

Stuff

My new sleeping bag arrived in the mail. I was thrilled. I carried it to the bedroom and pulled it out of its stuff sack, watching in wonder as it self-inflated to a mass only slightly smaller than my bed. I tugged at the industrial-strength zipper and crawled inside. It was there, enveloped in a mountain of down, that I basked in the afterglow of consumerism. I congratulated myself on my shrewd eBay shopping - well, lucky happenstance - that netted me a nearly brand new, relatively rare product for less than half its retail price.

Beads of sweat started to form on my neck as I slipped deeper inside the bag. Buyer's remorse was beginning to trickle in. What was I thinking? What was I planning to do with this thing? Good deal or not, how could I go and spend more money on a sleeping bag than I did on my first mountain bike? I'm a cyclist, for crying out loud, not a mountaineer gearing up for a solo summit of Kangchenjunga.

I have never been the ideal American consumer. It's rare that I buy any non-food item that isn't either secondhand or heavily discounted. My closet is stuffed with hand-me-downs from my little sister, who is eight years my junior but has eighteen times as many clothes as I do. It's not that I care all that much about money. It's just that I've never cared too much about stuff. I had a built-in Alaska mentality long before I moved here. I like things to be functional, not frilly. I like things to be burly, not beautiful. I like to condense and consolidate. If I truly believed there was a bike out there that could fit all of my wants and needs, you can believe I'd only own one bicycle.

My camera is a good example of this aspect of my personality. It's survived the full brunt of impact in a 20 mph mountain bike crash and endless hours in my waterlogged pocket. Its picture-taking capabilities, however, are about what you'd expect in a low-end digital camera. It is the only camera I own. My friends have asked me, "You seem to really enjoy photography. Why don't you get, you know, a real camera?" ... A real camera? You mean a camera with a highly focused, fragile lens and 100x optical zoom that will spend all of its time sitting in a protective bag inside my house while I thrash and trash my Olympus during my adventures? Yeah, no thanks.

However, I'm worried that my paradigm may be shifting. I seem to have succumbed to the mad impulse to spend! spend! spend! I own all sorts of stuff now that would have made the Jill of five years ago spray Pepsi out of her nose ... a cramped little bivy sack, a snow bike that's worth more than my car, GPS technology I don't even understand, enough neoprene gear to assemble a decent scuba suit, and now, a -40 degree sleeping bag ...

All in the name of the reckless pursuit of wilderness. I may be turning into a good little consumer. Or, more likely, I may just be on the slow train to crazy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eaglecrest, twice

Date: Oct. 15
Mileage: 34.6
October mileage: 313.1
Temperature upon departure: 43
Rainfall: .45"

I am very lucky that I don't have a coach to breathe down my neck and assault me with numbers and statistics and myriad equations to prove that I'm not trying hard enough. My imaginary coach is irritating enough, especially now that she has an odometer and GPS and my bad habit for reading training blogs to back up her claims. She hovers over my shoulder, chanting witless mantras such as "Go! Go! Go!" "I ... am ... doing the ... best ... that I ... can," I huff back, sometimes out loud, for emphasis.

My imaginary coach always backs down. I live with my guilt. I embrace my freedom. I adapt. When road interval training turned out to be a hideous exercise in breathing through an unmitigated runny nose, I took the intensity workouts indoors. I can run just as hard on an elliptical trainer, and while I'm recovering, I read books. I've burned through three so far this month. My current subjects of choice are nonfiction about Alaska mountaineering and dogsled racing. I am learning tons.

Now my imaginary coach is telling me I should spend more time climbing. "Best bike workout there is," she tells me. "Good for the quads." As limited as my climbing options are, it's not quite as monotonous as the gym. So I listened this time.

Today I rode the "Double Eaglecrest." My GPS tells me this ride climbs 2,958 feet in 34 miles. Of course, most of that climbing happens in the 10 miles it takes to ride up the Eaglecrest road twice. It's a respectable grade.

It seems a bit silly to use a 26" full-suspension mountain bike for a road climb, but that's my best option right now. Little did I know it was going to be the perfect bike for the job today. I was actually enjoying the slow comfort of the squishy saddle when I passed a large road machine - sort of an industrial weed whacker - about two miles into the climb. The thing was crawling down the mountain and leveling every bush and tree within 10 feet of the road - probably to make room for a snow berm come winter. The air was suddenly overcome with the strong scent of evergreen - the kind of overzealous pine aroma that reminds me of a kitschy Christmas store. And behind the machine, I could see why. The weed whacker left a trail of debris that stretched the entire width of the street - twigs, leaves, spruce bows, spiny devil's club shoots, even logs. It was a complete minefield.

I was gunning for 90 percent effort for the first climb, even as I ran over some obstacles and dodged others. Easy enough, right? Now turn that around, factor in a wet road and a 35 mph, teary-eyed descent, and you have a swerving, exhilarating mountain bike ride that is every bit as exciting as, well, a real mountain bike ride.

The weed whacker operator had destroyed another half mile of road by the time I climbed past him a second time. By then I was at 80 percent effort and starting to feel it. I was a little less alert on the second descent and nearly launched over one of the logs. I like to think I would have landed it. Towards the bottom, there was a break in the clouds and I could see a half rainbow floating overhead. I took a picture and continued on my way before the full view opened up - the rainbow disintegrating across a deep gray sky that stood in stark contrast of the snow-covered mountains, the low-lying clouds, and the muskeg bathed in new sunlight. The moment became so beautiful that I said so, out loud, adding a swear word for emphasis.

I think even a real coach would approve.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two road bikes bite the dust

And here Geoff waited, for nearly two hours, hoping his rescue ride would pick up the pace.

Date: Oct. 14
Mileage: 40.1
October mileage: 278.5
Temperature upon departure: 46
Rainfall: .31"

Another break in the weather drifted past Juneau this morning. This one was more glorious than any of the breaks from the past month - clouds nearly clear-cut from the sky; sun that nearly blinded eyes unaccustomed to unobstructed light; temperatures that nearly allowed one to roll up a sleeve. Yes, it was a beautiful morning. So Geoff and I decided to go for a "long" road bike ride.

Before we even made it past the house, Geoff observed that my crank was really loose. He pulled the crank and discovered the bottom bracket was falling apart. Probably just a few spins away from falling to pieces. I should have noticed it earlier, but I recently reinstalled my clipless pedals, and assumed the loose feeling and strange clanking was the pedals' fault (after all, I like to blame all of my riding troubles on clipless pedals.) Geoff regreased the bottom bracket and tightened the crank back up. He told me I might make it through the ride. Might.

We pedalled north on a feather, moving through the calm morning like seagulls on an ocean breeze. Geoff wasn't feeling stellar so we kept the pace pretty easy, but it didn't take long for my crank to begin wobbling again. By mile 20, it was clanking more horribly than it ever had before. It sounded like an ax striking metal. Geoff and I were discussing how much longer we should ride when I decided that I couldn't pedal that bike a mile further than I had to. I was going to have to turn around. He decided to go with me.

We were just leaving the spot where we sprawled out on the beach for a short break when he stopped suddenly. He jiggled his back wheel until he found what he suspected - a spoke snapped clean off the hub. He climbed back onto his bike as I followed behind, watching his rear wheel wobble back and forth like a rolling hula hoop. Rather than risk the catastrophic failure of his wheel, he decided to stop right there. He was going to need me to rescue him. We were 17 miles from home.

So I set into my ailing pedals, cranking with everything I had so Geoff wouldn't freeze on that beach and I wouldn't be late for work. A light breeze brushed my back and I mashed away - 18, 19, 20 miles per hour, listening to my crank groan as it fluttered wildly from side to side, the whole way wondering if this stroke was going to be the one to finally snap the bottom bracket in half.

Somehow I managed to ride the entire way home (the last three miles had me convinced I'd be unipedaling at best), take a shower, pack a quick lunch and drive the 17 miles back to pick up Geoff in less than two hours. But now, both Geoff's and my road bikes are out of commission. My bike requires ordering a bottom bracket from out of state, waiting for it to show up in the mail and installing it. By the time I fix the bike, there's likely to be ice on the roads in the morning. This could be a season-ending injury for Roadie - and in the midst of my month of interval training!

On the bright side, I took a picture that I really like.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Day 30 of rain

Date: Oct. 12
Mileage: 35.4
October mileage: 238.4
Temperature upon departure: 45
Rainfall: .22"

Well, it's official. The last day that Juneau received no precipitation was Sept. 12, making today the anniversary of a solid month of rain, and counting. Thirty days of rain. Straight. Thirty. Days.

In those 30 days, 15.4 inches of rain has fallen on West Juneau. For October, the average monthly precipitation in Seattle is 3.2 inches. It's also 3.2 in Syracuse, New York. Atlanta sees 3.0 inches. In Anchorage, it's 2.0 inches. In Minneapolis, it's 1.5 inches. Salt Lake City has 1.4 inches. Lincoln, Nebraska, has 1.2. San Fransisco only sees 1.1. Denver gets 1.0 inches. Phoenix gets 0.6 and Las Vegas enjoys the light drizzle of 0.2 inches of monthly rain. In Juneau, we get more than 15 inches in a month. Fifteen! Just trying to help keep everything in perspective.

All this rain means the Dredge Lake trails could use a good dredging, but that didn't stop me from heading out that way to weave through the moraine jungle and test my new GPS. I had promised Geoff (the person who cleans out my hubs) that I wouldn't attempt any more BikeSwims. But it's so much fun to launch into swamps that were once trails and frantically spin my way out before my back tire bogs down in the mud. Puddles are pretty much impossible to avoid this time of year anyway. (Well, those quarter-mile-long puddles in the middle of nowhere are probably avoidable. But why must the nagging conscience of bike repairs always hover over my shoulder and try to wreck my fun?)

I spent so much time gazing at the GPS screen that I narrowly avoided more than one head-on collision with a tree. I've never used GPS before - what a cool gadget. Not only can it tell exactly where I am in this big world, but it can draw a perfect line of the path I've followed and show it to me on a map of Southeast Alaska. Then it will tell me how much I've climbed, how fast I've been going, and how far I've come - all pretty close to accurate, based on comparisons with my odometer. All that information from free-falling satellites hundreds of miles over my head. It scares me just a little, and intrigues me at the same time.

Is it just me, or are these Dredge Lake beavers a bit too ambitious?


I was going to ride the Perseverance Trail this afternoon with Geoff, but I came home from the first ride chilled and ravenous and a little more wiped out than 35 miles on the mountain bike used to make me. I definitely have less endurance now than I had in August. At the same time, I noticed that I've become a little stronger. Today I was able to power up some of the rooty technical sections of Dredge Lake that I've never cleared before. Maybe it's true, the classic training mantra: You can have power, or you can have endurance, but you can't have both.

But after a day of trying to make sense of my new Garmin, I think I like Honorio's mantra the best ... "Sometimes is too hard to meet with yourself, even with the best GPS, (a mí me sucede muchas veces)."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

South Douglas attempt 2

Date: Oct. 11
Mileage: 14.8
October mileage: 203
Temperature upon departure: 44
Rainfall: .50"

I seem to always pick the absolute wettest times (otherwise known as my weekend mornings) to go out for Pugsley rides. These rides are a barrage of wet from all points in space. The simple fact that it's raining doesn't even register after I've spent a couple of miles on a saturated trail, being bombarded by wet clumps of mud (those 4" tires can kick up some impressively large clumps of mud.) Thoroughly mud-soaked, I then hit the slippery wet rocks of the wet beach and mash my wet pedals up to creek crossing after creek crossing, pedaling up to my ankles, wading up to my knees, sloshing my way through the rising tide. Sometimes I think I should just buy one of those balloon-wheel pedal boats and get it over with.

A pedal boat would have come in handy during today's ride. I'm wise enough now to actually check the tide charts before I go out, but not wise enough to wake up early enough to ride with the 7:30 a.m. low tide. Out the door at 11 a.m., I knew I would probably end up skirting the high tide, scheduled for 1:50. So I decided to go to South Douglas - it's a large beach, I reasoned. Surly it won't be completely inundated, even at high tide.

I'm beginning to learn just how serious these Juneau tides are. They can make the difference between a smooth traverse across a 200-yard-wide gravel beach, or a tight bushwhack through a tangle of alders inches from the water. Today I watched waves gobble up my trail with stunning speed, pushing me closer to the precipitous rock gardens and thick forests that were quickly becoming my only exit route.

But the precariousness of traveling away from civilization as the tide came up didn't become clear until I came to a cliff perched over the channel. The beach below it had become so narrow that my knee brushed against the cold, wet wall as I piloted Pugsley along the lip of the surf. I cycled another half mile down the beach before I finally began to tune into the sarcastic voice of reason ... "You do realize you're going to strand yourself on the wrong side of the island, right? You do remember that the next low tide happens well after dark, don't you?"

By the time I returned to that spot, the thin gravel bar had completely filled in with water. I hoisted Pugsley on my shoulder and stepped into the ocean. I could feel the force of the tide tugging at my ankles as I placed my careful steps, 36-pounds of obese bike cutting into my shoulder blade. The deepest point was up to my shins ... it all happened so amazingly fast ... and I wondered just how high the water was going to rise.

I had to push my bike most of the way back, through a high-line tangle of driftwood and brush and boulders that wasn't rideable even in my wildest Pugsley aspirations. Back to the safety of the trail, I pedaled to Douglas proper and popped out on Sandy Beach. No one was out walking in the driving rain, so I proceeded to ride weaving laps along the half-mile-long strip of sand, back and forth, swerving, tumbling, splashing though the surf and drawing big fat tracks in the sand. I felt like a little kid in a go-cart; at one point I even burst out laughing. I was going absolutely nowhere, and having the best time I'd had all day.

Before I started building up this bike, other Pugsley owners promised me that just riding it would put a smile on my face. Of course I didn't believe them. A bike is a bike, I reasoned. It's not the equipment that makes the ride; it's the places you go with it, the things you see with it. But I'm beginning to change my mind about that. Sometimes it's most fun to just play in the sand.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Anticipating winter

Date: Oct. 10
Mileage: 23.1
October mileage: 188.2
Temperature upon departure: 42
Rainfall: .51"

Before my lung-busting climb and nose-freezing descent of the Eaglecrest road this morning, I noticed several heating oil trucks parked along the North Douglas highway. Homeowners stood outside with gray looks on their faces, watching hundreds of their dollars being pumped away into rusty holding tanks.

This afternoon at work, my boss - who happens to sit in the desk next to mine - decided to set up his full-spectrum therapy light. We’ll both be happily clicking away at our computers until he turns to answer the phone, and suddenly I’m blinded by hundreds of watts of Seasonal-Affective-Disorder-blasting brightness.

Winter is coming. Am I the only one who’s happy about this?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the unlimited daylight and marginally warmer temperatures of summer as much as the next person. But winter! Winter with its promise of snow-swept skylines and crisp air and trails frozen to smooth perfection. Winter with its boundaryless bike rides and powder-carving snowboard descents and trail-blazing snowshoe tracks. Winter is coming! How could you be anything be excited?

Of course, winter also is the season of 2 p.m. sunsets and sleet storms and endless days of 35-degrees-and-raining. But summer has mosquitoes and sunburns and seemingly endless days of daylight-induced insomnia. If I had to weigh all of the good and the bad, and was completely honest with myself, there’s a good chance I’d still choose Alaska winters over summers.

I’m beginning to think there might be something wrong with me.

Some people go to sleep at night thinking about tropical shorelines and warm sand and the calm rhythm of the ocean. When I dream, I see frozen expanses of muskeg lined with black spruce that bend and twist like great Gothic sculptures ... an environment just as foreign to me as as a palm tree paradise, and just as quieting. Interior Alaska in the winter.

I look forward to winter. Winter is a time of peace and solitude, of retreat and reflection. At the same time, winter demands constant attention and vigilance. There are times of unexpected hardship that rattle my emotions to their core. Winter forces me to toss introspection aside and focus solely on the necessities of survival. A return to instinct ... something pure.

I crave these cold landscapes and I’m not entirely sure why. Sometimes I wake up from another muskeg dream and I wonder where this obsession comes from. Maybe it’s because there’s meditation in the emptiness. There’s challenge in the extreme. But mostly, there’s beauty in the environment ... places so lonely, you’re certain you must be the first person to ever set foot there; places so quiet, you begin to wonder if maybe the world finally ended, and nobody let you know.

I want this winter to be the best winter yet. I want to travel the Yukon; I want to travel the Tetons; I want to travel the Alaska Range. And if I have to suffer a bunch to make any of it so, all the better ...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Snowline creeping down

Date: Oct. 8
Mileage: 31
October mileage: 155.1
Temperature upon departure: 44
Rainfall: .11"

Today I had a regular session of weight lifting on my schedule. That did not sound appealing when I woke up to the usual view of slate gray stretched across the sky. I gathered up my gym clothes and fired up the coffee maker. As it gurgled, I stood by the window and admired the new snow, accumulating below treeline and creeping a little lower every day. The snowline is almost like a time marker, counting down the days until winter. Juneau weather is nothing if not predictable. Probably one of the few places in the world where the forecast is right 90 percent of the time.

But today, behind a horizon of freshly-fallen snow, I saw something altogether unexpected - a patch of blue sky. As I ate my breakfast, it continued to expand until the sun emerged, casting strips of golden light across the grass. By the time I stood up to change into my gym clothes, the solid slate of gray in the sky had disintegrated into white wisps. I knew it was only a window in the storm, but I didn't want to waste what could almost qualify as a sunny morning staring out of a window. I put on my bike clothes instead.

This is the kind of morning I have to pencil in as an unscheduled "fun day" ... mornings that don't really fit anywhere into my plan; mornings in which I toss away my agenda; mornings in which I exhale with lungs that have breathed too hard, loosen my legs that have pushed too hard, stretch my limbs that have lifted too hard, and just ride.

Isn't this the way it should always be?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Intensity

Date: Oct. 7
Mileage: 23.1
October mileage: 124.1
Temperature upon departure: 42
Rainfall: .31"

Everything about my October training plan has been a bit of a struggle for me ... more time crouched over sweaty weight benches, less time on the bike, with the time I do spend on the bike generally of the red-faced-and-huffing variety. This picture I took on Thursday was all about pleasure ... a mountain bike ride with Geoff. That was a day off. The days on, of which I am gunning for five a week, consist of trips to the gym and these lung-burning cycling intervals that I don't enjoy but believe are crucial to my fitness - if only in my own mind.

I still haven't figured out how to integrate my intensity training with the fall monsoon. A workable medium between hot, cold and face-stinging rain is nearly impossible to find. Today I rode the most difficult route in my rotation - the sprint climb to Eaglecrest (which is less of a sprint and more of an energetic chug.) My legs are currently in great shape for such a project, but my lungs protest and protest, and gulping down all of that 40-degree air is not helping matters. By the time I reach the ski resort, my chest hurts, my throat hurts, and my clothing is saturated in enough sweat to nullify all of my rain gear. Then, just like that, I have to turn into the 40 mph descent and its sub-freezing wind chills, blinking back the rain in a confusing strobelight of spruce trees and pavement, until I start riding the brakes because I don't know which way is up and I can't feel my toes.

When I finally reach the bottom of the hill, I'm so fatigued from the climb that all I want to do is tip over and take a nap. But I'm so chilled from the descent that I have to mash the high gears through all of the six miles home, just to stay warm. When I finally make it home, I'm so completely wiped out by my 90-minute ride that I really do need to take a nap, but instead I choke down a lunch for which I have no appetite and slog off to work.

How do people train this way? It's tedious in all of the ways that long, slow mileage is fun. And between the sore lungs from these intensity rides and aching muscles from weight lifting, I'm almost starting to dread my workouts. But I'm not going to quit, because I do think it's helping. I'm finally confronting all of my weak points - the knee crackling and lung burning - and the longer I face my weaknesses, the better I'll understand them, and the more likely I'll be to overcome them when it really matters.

On a lighter note, it seems there are even tackier choices for full-face neoprene masks than the one I posted yesterday. eBay offers a wide assortment of designs, all with their own touch of sophistication. I think I should hold a vote. Which one should I buy?

Choice B: The full-face skull mask. This one says, "My mother never let me dress up as Freddy from "Nightmare on Elm Street" on Halloween, she always made me be the fairy princess, and now I just want to light things on fire."

Choice C: The bald eagle. Never mind that it looks more like a constipated duck. This one says, "I'm proud to be an American. And I have definitely never lived in Alaska."

Choice D: The clown from "IT": This one says, "Oh yes, Georgie, they float. Down here, they all float! And when you're down here, you'll float too!"

Choice E: The Confederate flag. I won't venture to guess what this design says about its wearer. I think these face masks are marketed toward winter bikers (as in motorcyclists); but I gotta say, I'm not sure about the crowd I'm falling in with here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Spending spree

So the other day, when I admitted to feeling a little guilty about greedily accepting my big check from the state, I also admitted I already spent it. This is technically true - over the summer, while I was dropping something in the range of $1,300 to build up my Pugsley, I promised myself I was doing so on PFD credit. But there are those nagging facts that the credit card bill has been paid, I still have a big guv'ment check trickling my way, and I have needs, real needs, itchy needs that recently erupted into a full-blown case of spenditis.

The first box from Sierra Trading Post arrived today. Inside was a badly needed pair of new trail-running shoes (because, yes, I am in the process of blaming my current foot woes on my assortment of terrible shoes. My overuse injury is definitely not my own fault, no way.) Also inside was this sweet new Marmot winter shell, all waterproof Gortex with all the pockets on the inside to keep your Power Bars and fruit snacks from freezing. I ordered the size large, which is a bit of a tent on me - plenty of room for a mixture of fleece layers, a full-sized Camelbak, and maybe a down coat that could be purchased sometime in the future.

Then today, while lamenting about losing an eBay auction for a sleeping bag, I finally bought the GPS I have been eyeing for a few months. Garmin eTrex Vista HCX. I was mulling all kinds of different GPS gadgets and their perks - heart-rate monitoring and elevation profiles and the like. But when I read somewhere that this one could record the points where you've traveled and relay them back to you should backtracking be required, well, I was sold on this one. Maybe someday I will care about how high I've climbed or how far I've come, but for now, with the whole big world threatening to leave me lost and wandering forever, I'll be happy with something that can simply tell me where I've been.

Among the other eBay treasures I have my eye on:

A Marmot -40 degree down sleeping bag. Never mind that I may only end up using it a couple times a year, and that I would have to travel quite a distance to camp somewhere where it even gets this cold. This bag would be my security blanket, my pacifier, and if I can somehow acquire it for a slightly less bloodsucking price by buying it used, I will cry warm tears of relief.

Two pair of Golite vapor barrier socks. All the warmth of wool, with none of the weight. The overcautious auction description promises that only a few people in thousands would even actually enjoy wearing these, given that they don't breathe at all. But given my love for Neoprene and PVC jackets, I think I may be one of those few.

A down coat to go under the shell. Also not a definite need. But can you tell I've become really, really obsessed with staying warm?

I really don't have any ideas for ski goggles dialed in just yet. I am skeptical of anti-fog claims ... every single one is dubious at best if you ask me. But I am looking for goggles with a clear lens, and probably just something really cheap so I won't feel bad about ruining them by supergluing a duck-bill-like flap of neoprene across the bottom (that's the best idea I've had yet when it comes to avoiding irreversible frost buildup.) If anyone has any suggestions, let me know.

I need a new face mask. Don't roll your eyes. Really, would you be able to resist something so delightfully tacky?

Almost like fall

Date: Oct. 4
Mileage: 46
October mileage: 101
Temperature upon departure: 41
Rainfall: .01"

When I first moved to Juneau, a friend told me that the Native people of Southeast Alaska had a dozen words for rain, a dozen words for wind, and nothing to denote the seasons. That's obviously a complete fabrication, but when the gray days really start to stack up, you begin to wonder what that would feel like ... to believe things never changed.

But every once in a while you wake up in the morning, and the day just feels the way you think it should, the way you think October should, the way October used to feel, back when you didn't live in a temperate rainforest, and the Pacific Ocean didn't hold the temperature hostage, and the leaves didn't stay green until they died, and things changed.

Maybe it's the morning after a the first frost, after the night sky was so clear that the stars burned into your retinas before you could close your eyes. Even when heavy fog moved in with dawn, you knew it was still clear and bright up there somewhere, and you intended to find the sun.

Maybe you used your mountain bike to look for it, pedaling through the sticky air as your breath swirled in cumulus clouds around your face. The leaves crackled and disintegrated beneath your tires, only slightly less green now that they'd died. But as you climbed into the strengthening light, the leaves almost seemed yellow. Even orange.

You climbed until the frost rematerialized, holding the dead leaves hostage beneath white capsules of ice. You climbed until your breath felt hot against your face and the sweat trickling down your neck nearly froze en route. Then suddenly, almost without warning, you emerged from the fog into the blazing truth of morning ... a morning so clear the sky burned navy blue against the snow-capped peaks; the sun burned your retinas until you closed your eyes, and saw stars.

It made you think about they way October feels, the way October felt in all of those Octobers passed. Maybe you were sprinting down neighborhood streets with bags of candy, or standing in line for a concert, or cycling through an inferno of red maple trees in upstate New York. Maybe you were scrambling on granite outcroppings in the foothills with a kite in your hands, the way you did in junior high, with the cotton string wrapped around your wrist as you climbed. You let the kite go into the cold wind, watched it tumble and swirl over the abyss, watched it catch a breeze and dance in air so crisp and sweet you could taste the possibility, the promise of a new year, the promise of fall.

And you think it feels like that. Almost.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

PFD day

Date: Oct. 2
Mileage: 28
October mileage: 55
Temperature upon departure: 45
Rainfall: .74"

Today marks the first wave of permanent fund dividend checks. This is the day every eligible man, woman and child in the state of Alaska sells their soul to Big Oil for a taste of that sweet, sweet oil money. And thanks to "The Simpsons" movie, now everyone else in America knows what the urban legend of "paid to live in Alaska" is really about. You know that part where Homer drives across the state line and the customs agent tells him that all Alaskans get a stack of bills so they will look the other way while oil companies exploit the environment? Yeah, it's something like that.

Suddenly, we're all flush with $1,600 in free money. Most Alaskans do the rational thing with their PFD - they blow it on some impulse buy, like plane tickets to Hawaii or a down payment on a new snowmachine. This is the first year I'm eligible for the PFD. I did the rational thing with mine, too. I spent it in July, on a new snowmachine. I call him Pugsley.

I did not refuse the PFD. I don't think, when I gaze deep into my greedy heart, I could ever do such an audacious thing like turn down free money while the Alaska economy is squeezing $5 out of me every time I buy a gallon of milk and $12 for a case of Diet Pepsi. But still ... it feels a bit dirty. Call me a pinko greenie, but I am not a big fan of the PFD. It is not my money. I did not earn it. I was a mishmash of molecules when oil first started flowing through the TransAlaska pipeline in 1977. I was in fifth grade when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Prince William Sound. I remember seeing the televised images of sludge-coated sea otters gasping for air on the shoreline. It was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. I wanted no part of it.

Now I am part of it. I still own a car and take warm showers. I don't deny that oil feeds the very economy that allows me to live comfortably and work in Alaska. And I didn't refuse the PFD. I can think of hundreds of social programs where I would rather see the money spent ... Alaska could have universal health care; the best education system in the country; we could buy our politicians for a lot higher bribes then they're taking from VECO and the like. But instead, we all get $1,600 to spend on snowmachines. But I didn't donate my PFD to a good cause. I spent it. Before I even had it in my hands. So I am part of the system. One could say the worst part.

Man, now I feel guilty. And I haven't even gotten my PFD yet (I didn't file early enough and have to wait two weeks.) I think I will go soothe my shame with a $1 can of Diet Pepsi.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Training vs. survival

Date: Oct. 1
Mileage: 27
October mileage: 27
Temperature upon departure: 47
Rainfall: .94"

I think cycling is good physical therapy for an injured foot. I get all of the benefits of warm blood flow without any of the motion that sparks pain. That is my theory, and I'm sticking with it.

So I have this idea about training to be a faster rider. It is loosely based on ideas I culled from magazine articles and blogs, minus the necessary gauging equipment and coaching: intervals, climbing, and in general more riding near my perceived lactate threshold (i.e. sucking as much air as I can tolerate without passing out.) While ramping up my effort on the bike to improve my fitness seems like a great theory in abstract, I think it is going to be much more difficult to achieve in actual practice.

I rode an easy spin with a tailwind out to the glacier to check out the new slab of bright blue ice exposed Saturday during the largest calving in years (I couldn't see much of it behind the detached chunks of ice floating in the lake and blocking the view.) Deciding that my foot was a nonissue, I resolved to work on my speed by riding all-out for a mile, then recovering for a mile, than going all-out again, etc., all the way home.

The first interval went well. I was riding a bike path, huffing audibly and peeling off layers in the 47-degree dampness of the afternoon. Shortly after my first recovery period ended, however, I turned to face the brunt of the headwind. The rain kicked up a notch and, because I had stashed all of my rain layers away, needled through my jersey and stung my skin. I was hot and cold at the same time, unsure what to do about it, and already committed to the hard pedalling. I decided to tough it out.

By the beginning of interval three, I was just plain cold, and wet to boot, but I was nearing home, and it was time to ride hard again. As I launched into the pedals, the fountain of snot that I had been fighting back through my sinuses suddenly gushed into my throat, leaving me choking and sputtering and slowing my speed just to catch my breath. The horizontal rain was moving fast enough now to force my eyelids into rapid blinking. In the confusing midst of strobelight vision, I caught a long line of jarring potholes just as traffic was really bearing down. I regained my composure, put my head down, and spun the pedals. I no longer had any goals in my mind. I was in survival mode ... conserve energy ... keep eyes open ... move toward home ... move toward home.

I feel like I can rec ride in this stuff forever. But speed? There's got to be an easier way.