Thursday, November 29, 2007

Flat disaster

Date: Nov. 28
Mileage: 29.1
Hours: 2:30
November mileage: 691.4
Temperature upon departure: 30
Rainfall: 0

Well, I'm back from my camping experience, sans camping experience. I was feeling a bit despondent last night about the way in which I failed, failed before the cold settled in, failed before the darkness tightened its grip, failed before the lonliness gnawed at my sanity, failed before I had to gather water or eat food or even pull my sleeping bag out of its stuff sack. I failed. But it's a pretty funny story. Here's what happened.

I set out into the darkness with the evening rush hour traffic, swaddled in my best cold-weather clothing and hoisting what I estimate to be about 55 pounds of obese bicycle, food, water and winter camping gear. I was styling. A commuter passed me as I was climbing a short hill on the bike path, and then looked back as if to inquire whether I was going to give him chase. Excuse me? You try commuting with the necessities of life.

But the night settled in clear and cold, quickly dropping into the 20s, and I felt amazingly good. Better than good. I felt fresh and strong, like I had to hold myself back just because I didn't know what hardships lay ahead. All that energy conservation left me as relaxed as if I was at home sitting on the couch, and I was toasty and happy, a bit overdressed as I was. It seemed like no time at all had gone by, though it had in reality been about two and a half hours, when I felt that mood-plunging bouncing in my rear tire. Flat.

I pulled off to the side of the road and began to undo my set-up, pulling out the repair gear that I really didn't think I'd have to use. I had never bothered to practice changing a tire on the Pugsley (I know, not smart.) After wrestling with the wheel for about 10 minutes I finally just unbolted the caliper of the rear disc brake. I learned later that I have no choice but to do this anyway (curse you, Surly, and your horizontal dropouts!)

Tire off, I realized that the tube had snapped at the valve, a circular, unfixable hole (probably caused because I inflated the tires to full pressure before I left, after running them 15-20 psi for the past several rides, they were then up to the maximum 30.) So my Surly tube was history. I went to work installing my spare, which is a regular mountain bike tube, rated for tires 2.1"-2.5" (Endomorph tires are size 3.7") But I'd heard this works fine from credible sources. So I set it in place, took out my tiny hand pump, and pumped. And pumped and pumped and pumped and pumped and pumped. Fifteen minutes went by like this. I took breaks to rest my arms. I felt my fingers slowly losing circulation, estimating it was about 20 degrees out by now, and I had been trying to fix a flat with my bare hands for 45 minutes. One car went by in that entire time. They stopped to ask if I needed help. I said no.

So I pumped and pumped and pumped. And progress was being made. I was beginning to feel much more positive. Then everything deflated very quickly, literally. As the gush of air poured out of the valve, I screamed. No! No! No! No! All my hard work, torn asunder. I tore off the tire and squinted at the tube in the low light of my headlamp. A circular tear at the valve. I had managed to do the exact same thing. Two unfixable flats. No more spare tubes. (Geoff and I have probed the valve area extensively. We are still unable to figure out what made that happen twice.)

I began to assess my situation. I had a flat tire I could not fix, which meant I could not ride. But I was only two or three miles from my camping destination, and I could walk there if I needed to. But then I would only be stranding myself into the next day, when Geoff would be at work. I was out in the boonies. I had been out there one hour. I had seen one car go by.

As I mourned my bad luck and stupidity and everything else that left me in the bind I was in, another car went by, and kept going. Not a huge surprise. I don't expect everyone to stop. I got up and began to put my bike back together. I had seen a spattering of cabins along this road, and figured if I walked toward town, I would not have to walk more than five miles before finding someone who would let me use their phone. Just as I was doing this, a car approached me. It was the one that had passed me five minutes earlier. A woman stopped. "Do you need help?" she said. I asked her if she had a cell phone. "There's no reception out here," she said. "But I live a half mile down the road. You can come use my phone. I'll make you some tea."

By the time I arrived at her house, she had already brewed up some wicked good Chai, called Geoff, who was not home, and left a message explaining my predicament and whereabouts. We talked for a while. Her name was Rebecca and she once lived in Fairbanks, and now lived in a cabin with her husband on the outskirts of the Juneau Borough. Her husband was in Anchorage. She had rented a movie to pass the cold night away, "Hairspray," and asked if I wanted to watch it with her. I did.

We laughed and giggled at the silly movie like girlfriends, sipping our tea and making jokes. I found out she once toured cross-country on a bicycle, and she did a fair amount of skiing in Fairbanks, and she told me, before I set out on the Iditarod trail, that I really need to read "To Build A Fire." I also need to learn how to change a flat, I remarked.

Geoff arrived shortly after the movie ended. His timing was perfect. I thanked Rebecca for her unconditional generosity and we set out into the cold night. The night was still not without its casualties. I had torn two tubes, broken the mount to my headlight, lost one of the bolts to my brake caliper, accidentally left my sleeping bag at Rebecca's house, and managed to completely wreck my first winter camping bicycle experience before it even started. But when all was said and done, it wasn't a bad night. I walked out of it laughing. And I will try again. Oh yes, I will try again. And when I do, I will be one flat experience wiser.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Going camping

Well, it's time to bite my bottom lip and plunge into the deep end, head first. I had the day off today as my obligatory "Thanksgiving" work holiday. I spent most the morning doing laundry, scrounging up food from our woefully empty cupboards, gathering camping gear, sorting clothing and stuffing my sleeping bag in its stuff sack. That last chore was a particularly evil beast. Either I am going to have to get much better at that, or I am going to have to allot a full hour and about 200 extra calories each day during the Ultrasport to sleeping bag duty.

The plan is to leave the house around 5:00 p.m., when the city is already shrouded in darkness, ride 30 road miles out to the glacier trail, and continue to ride, probably by doing out-and-backs on the glacier trail, until I am ready to go to sleep. I will then crawl into my sleeping bag/bivy combo, sleep as much as nature will allow, and then get up and ride home. That's the plan. I hope it works out as something similar. The forecast tonight calls for clearing skies and lows north of the Mendenhall Valley in the teens. In my camping spot, with the wind wafting off that big glacier, I could find local temperatures near 0. Hooray!

This is the food I will be carrying: Five assorted power bars, baggie of Wheat Thins, six fruit leathers, random old airplane snack and a thick peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Carbolicious!

I'm not going to take a stove, because I'm not sure whether there will be snow out there or not. Instead, I'm taking my filter bottle and planning to drink out of streams. I'll sleep with the empty bottle in order to keep the filter from icing up. The top picture shows my bike completely packed up for the night, minus the Camel Bak I will be carrying with little more than water and a camera. That, for the most part, is nearly everything I hope will serve me well during the Ultrasport, minus, of course, the stove, extra clothing and food. But everything else is in there: -40 sleeping bag, bivy, sleeping pad, entire change of base layer, two pairs extra socks, extra hat, extra mittens, aforementioned food, eight batteries, tube, repair kit, tire levers, pump, multitool, knife, lighter, first aid kit, chemical hand warmers, camera and cash. I have to say, those frame bags that Epic Eric makes are amazing. Time will tell if this is the stuff I want to use in the race, but the pursuit of knowledge is the reason I'm heading out tonight. That, and it's going to be lots of frosty fun.

Wish me luck! And have a great Wednesday/Thursday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

38 and raining

Date: Nov. 26
Mileage: 31.2
Hours: 2:30
November mileage: 662.3
Temperature upon departure: 38
Rainfall: .38"

Today was Groundhog Day, again. It's hard not to think about Bill Murray's bewildered face as the morning opens up to another gray slate, with snowfall at the same spot on the mountain and rain hitting the same spot on the porch as I look toward my routine: to bike, to eat, to work, to sleep, then to wake, again, to the gray. The weather has changed little in the past couple of weeks, and when I say little, I mean I'd be surprised if the temperature has varied more than 10 degrees. There's a bit of sun here, a blast of wind there, 30 degrees here, 40 there, but for the most part, it's just 38 and raining. Day and night. If it wasn't for my habit of crawling to a different corner of Juneau on my bicycle most every morning, I fear these days would be devoured by eerie sameness.

At least my rides are going really well. I have my 38-and-raining gear system to a science and the cold precipitation no longer makes me even remotely uncomfortable. I guess I can't complain about conditions in which I'm comfortable. But even beyond the variety I so deeply miss, I crave a ride that will challenge me ... force me to think ... force me to make mistakes, and learn to correct them. Give me 20 and snowing. Give me 0 and windy. Give me 95 and sunny. But please, make it different.

This weekend I hope to seek out a more challenging ride, but I haven't decided yet what to do. I don't want to launch into too long of a single ride, or two long back-to-back rides, because that may be too much of an increase to the weekly mileage for my knee to handle. I'd like to go for a campout, but unfortunately I don't have great gear for 38 and raining. It's going to have to get a bit colder before my bivy can handle the precipitation. Otherwise, I forecast a late-night onset of 38-and-soaked-through-and-through.

And to answer anybody's question who has read this far, yes, I am a bit concerned about my lack of extreme-cold experiences. Last year, during the Susitna 100, I made a few mistakes that no one who regularly rides in temperatures near 0 would ever make. Juneau just has mild winters, and access to extremes is limited, and it's easy to become complacent about conditions that never change, and forget that in most parts of the world, weather can and usually does change, sometimes very quickly. But what can I do about it? Juneau is where I live. To quote the wise sage Donny Rumsfeld, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want ..."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Went for a run

Date: Nov. 25
Mileage: 16.2
Hours: 2:30
November mileage: 631.1
Temperature upon departure: 40
Rainfall: .03"

I rode all the way up the steep face of downtown Juneau just to confirm that my favorite trail near town is in fact closed. A sign at the trailhead informed me that it would remain that way until after Christmas. Apparently, the CBJ (an acronym which, when spoken out loud, can only be a disdainful reference to the City and Borough of Juneau) decided that the Perseverance Trail isn't enough of a highway already, and they're blasting out big chunks of mountain until the New Year. Truly disappointing.

So instead I wheeled over to Salmon Creek with this crazy idea to run up to the reservoir. I haven't done any free running, at all, since knee problems bogged me down in February. I haven't even hiked since the foot fiasco in late September. But I'd like to get back into both for the fitness benefits, and two slow, uphill miles seemed like a good start.

Salmon Creek is a lightly technical trail with steady but steep elevation gain. These are the kind of trails where Geoff does most of his running, and I think I may understand why. I became so absorbed in dodging wet roots, leaping over mudholes and sprinting up veritable cliffs that I completely forgot that running is tedious and not very much fun at all. And in a matter of minutes (maybe 20?) I was at the top, lungs searing and face soaked in sweat because I am just not used to high intensity. But it feels good to get back out there in the world where bikes can't tread, to pound my bones a little, to overtax my heart a little, to feel shaken and alive.

I walked back down the trail, lined in brilliantly green moss and fresh shoots of some kind of leafy groundcover. I took this photo about 150-200 feet below snowline, which is nearly 1,000 feet above where the snowline was two weeks ago, when this area was likely covered in at least six inches of powder. This is one thing I really like about living in this soggy part of the state. Even during the early winter, spring is always just around the corner. All it takes is one warm week, even if the threat of a dozen frozen weeks lie in the near future. New life just keeps on trying.

Creating motivation

Date: Nov. 24
Mileage: 25.1
Hours: 1:45
November mileage: 614.9
Temperature upon departure: 39
Rainfall: .19"

I've been feeling really strong lately, and I figure I should continue to chip away at base miles as long as the blurry line between buildup and overtraining hasn't been breached. I've decided that all of the training I do for the next four months is going to be entirely dedicated to three things: conditioning my body to stay hunched over (or beside) a bicycle for a long, long time; practicing different camping, repair and survival situations; and keeping my bad knee healthy. Speed won't serve me at all after several days on the trail, and I'm not even going to flirt with it. A rookie like me will benefit most from longevity, patience and confidence - as much as I can trick myself into mustering.

That said, there are definitely going to be numerous days, like today, where I am going to have a hard time dredging up motivation to ride. Surprisingly, the threat of a slow, cold, bonked-out death isn't really doing it for me. So some days I have to contrive little rewards. Today, my reward was "I'm going to listen to Korn."

Yeah. I know. Korn was one of the more self-indulgent bands I circulated on my sticky CD player in the 90s. I didn't pretend that they made good music, or that I even really liked them. But, just as a band can manufacture music, a band can apparently also manufacture anger. And when I needed a funnel for my flailing teenage angst, Korn was there for me.

The appeal of no-strings-attached anger could be why nu-metal didn't die the death it deserved in the late-90s, as was the fate of the Big Band revival and California ska. Korn persevered, and today I downloaded their latest (released in 2007?!) untitled album. I set out on my bike for a sluggish warm-up, as per usual, worked my way out to the solitude of North Douglas, and kicked on the iPod early, losing the raspy rhythm of my flem-coated breaths to a barrage of bad noise.

Irritability was instantaneous, they way it was the one time I saw Korn in concert, in an overcrowded hockey arena with hypnotic strobe lights the stench of sweat and stale water and my friend Adam in his black eyeliner trying to look his gothiest. That was the basic setting, but the only specific I can remember is that everything was so, so loud as I followed Adam through a violent sea of fists and flailing steel-toed boots and I was getting bruised, everywhere, but I didn't care. We were mad and we were going to get to the front and we were going to plow through the fortress of churning bodies if it killed us all.

Why seek out directionless anger? I didn't know then and I don't really know now. But here I was in the year 2007, a full-grown woman on a bicycle, with Korn pulsating through my little white earbuds. I felt my lips tighten, felt my eyes narrow, felt my legs pound into the pedals, felt the wind and rain tear at my face, felt my heart rate explode. And then I felt hate ... hate for the November rain, hate for the gravel-strewn road, hate for the puddles and the invisible craters, hate for the cars and the taxis and the gravel trucks coated in new snow, hate for my bicycle and its tires with the pressure too low and its stupid mud-streaked fenders and cheap headlight and odometer that ticks up in steady increments while I hate and hate and hate.

And just like that, I found myself transferring this rush of new energy to crazy speed that I rarely see. I ccould hear my raspy breaths again even over the battering noise; I was all but gasping for air. And I realized that I didn't actually feel hate. I felt great.

We all need to vent sometimes.

Friday, November 23, 2007

90 miles of Thanksgiving

Date: Nov. 22
Mileage: 91.1
Hours: 6:05
November mileage: 589.8
Temperature upon departure: 38
Rainfall: 0"

Mile .5: If all is quiet on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day must make up the balance. In the minimalist light of 8:36 a.m., traffic pours over the bridge, steaming to the A&P, turning for Wal-Mart and Fred Meyer. It's rush hour with cranberries. My dreams of solitude diced, I'm reminded of at least dozen Thanksgivings, in the back seat of my parents' vehicles, with the low winter sun glazing the roadside grass in iridescent shades of yellow. It was over the river and through the woods with a freeway and strip malls. We would marvel at the stream of empty parking lots until we passed a single store buffered by a wall of cars. "Look Dad, ShopKo is open today!" "Anyone who has to shop on Thanksgiving is a loser," my dad would proclaim, and we'd all feel self-satisfied, but secretly, a little bit lonely.

Mile 31: I can't believe how warm it is today, and calm. Despite the ideal traveling weather, I'm having a hard time finding my legs this morning, and the first two hours inch along. Many years ago, when my maternal grandmother was still alive, my family always split the holiday between my two sets of grandparents. When you're a kid, there aren't many holidays more pointless than Thanksgiving, unless it's time for pie. Unfortunately, that pie usually just comes as a stomach-churning punctuation point after a long sentence of only vaguely familiar relatives and smothering questions and gray stuffing and sticky yams. My mom's mom, fortunately, always understood that Thanksgiving was not set up for kids, and always had some new toys to present us. Then she looked away wryly as we slipped into the hidden safety of the back room. She was all-knowing back then, and ageless, and I never imagined there would be a time when I would not know her.

Mile 39: The pace is starting to pick up. I'm beginning to feel more pep, more alert, and I can even see the sun trying to slip through thick strips of clouds. My dad's mom never kept many toys in the house. My cousins and I always ended up rooting through a musty box in the basement for an ancient, truly ancient game of Life. For many years, we just played with the money. Eventually, we taught ourselves the board game. After we revised the rules to work around a myriad of missing pieces, we were hooked. We dug it out every year. Something rang true about simply choosing the color of your car, rolling the dice, and watching sheer chance make everything work out. We were certain that's what Life was all about.

Mile 45: I don't think I have ridden all the way to the end of the road since August, or perhaps September. It looks different stripped of its green and framed with the thick snow that now coats the mountains. But it no longer feels very far away, and even the memories don't seem too distant. The adults would never let us eat pie until we finished all of our Thanksgiving dinner, which I rarely had much interest in. However, one year I discovered a dessert loophole through my Aunt Marcia's gigantic bowl of Chex Mix. Mixed with chocolate, powdered sugar, corn syrup, peanut butter and the vestiges of breakfast cereal, I was allowed to snarf all I wanted under the guise that it was an "appetizer." I was always grateful to Aunt Marcia and her Chex Mix. She was an real Ironman, a finisher of crazy triathlons, and built of pure steel, although I had no idea what any of that meant back then. Now that I have an idea what it means, what it feels like, to aspire with all your heart for a chance to be an Ironman, I'd like to go back to those Thanksgivings, with my face stuffed full of gooey "appetizer," and ask her where she found her strength.

Mile 55: I take my last picture for the day. The lighting makes everything look like sunset, but it is only a little after noon. I was well into adulthood the Thanksgiving I bowled a 131, at a quiet little bowling alley in Ogden, Utah, where my sisters, cousins and I sneaked out after dinner. Having just won the game with a surprising number of points that I would never see again, I was sure I was strong and in charge and could do no wrong. We drove back to my grandparents' house on a street with railroad tracks built high above the pavement. A short, steep hill bridged the tracks, and usually cars slowed to a crawl over this daunting obstacle. But there weren't many on the road that day. As we approached the tracks, my cousin behind the wheel announced, "What do you think? Should I gun in?" The others in the car were silent. I was the oldest. "Well, yeah," I said. She punched the gas and charged at full acceleration toward the hill. I remember feeling a G-force rush as we shot up the berm, but that was the only rush that came before the world disappeared beneath a slow and deadly silent place. The group of cousins following behind us said they saw sky, blue sky, deep below our wheels as we rocketed off the tracks and plummeted to the road that seemed a mile below us. We landed in a barrage of screeching and sparks. My cousin panicked and overcorrected. I saw and experienced a lot of different things in that swerving moment of helpless momentum. My cross-country road trip. The turkey I ate for dinner. My maternal grandmother. That moment represents what I think it feels like to know it's all over. But my cousin managed to regain control of her car, and we somehow returned to our lane without flipping over. I'll never understand how. I think I was the only one in the car who was that frightened, although I'll never know. We never spoke of it again.

The final 35 miles of my ride pass by in a blur. I'm really feeling great now, and my legs are warm and strong. I munch on Goldfish crackers out of a frame bag, trying hard not to overindulge. In just a few hours, I'll be gorging myself with barbecued turkey, cranberry-pomegranate sauce and apple pie. There will be dozens of people in a hot room and I will have to meet many of them, an inundation of information and food and possibly new friends. But for now, I just want to pedal, and I want to quietly miss my family.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New NPR interview

Click here to listen!

I'm sending in a weekly blog post for the Bryant Park Project blog. It even has its own Main Series Page. It's a fun project and I think it's going to help keep me honest and determined in my training, now that the training log stretches beyond my family and extended network of InterWeb friends. I hope NPR continues to call me, because it will be probably be more entertaining to talk about my misadventures once I start camping out and putting in longer hours at night. Will Jill hold on to her sanity? Stay tuned!

I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving. My plan is to earn my turkey. I mean really earn it. Happy T-day!

Embarrassing injury

Date: Nov. 20
Mileage: 23.0
Hours: 2:00
November mileage: 498.7
Temperature upon departure: 34
Rainfall: 0"

I was strolling up to ask a co-worker a question today when he blurted out, "Are you limping again?"

"Huh?" I asked, confused. My knee felt great. My foot felt great. I'd been gimp-free for more than six weeks, just about a personal record.

"I don't know," he continued. "You're kinda limping. What happened? Is it that bike thing again?"

I suddenly realized the acute pain I was feeling must be physically manifesting itself. But what could I say? That bike thing? You mean that bike thing where I grunt on my heavy bike all the way up to Eaglecrest just to look for snow, and there isn't even much snow up there, but I ride anyway on a faint trail across the frozen tundra and I manage to ride really fast until I hit a puddle that isn't completely frozen and plant my front tire 8 inches deep and my bike stops cold but my body flies forward and I'd probably still be spiraling into space if I wasn't stopped abruptly and painfully by my stem slamming into a very personal place that I can't describe in this place of business except to say that if I were a man, I would probably never have children ... That kind of bike thing?

But instead I just said, "Yeah, it's that bike thing again."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pray for snow

Date: Nov. 19
Mileage: 28.6
Hours: 2:15
November mileage: 475.7
Temperature upon departure: 35
Rainfall: 0.06"

I spent some time today scouting the Fish Creek area in hopes of locating future winter trails, should snow ever finally take hold in Juneau. While mashing over faint foot paths that cross slightly-frozen bogs, I found several tasty possibilities. But who knows what their conditions will be once the snow settles? I am actually considering joining the Juneau Snowmobile Club, so I can advocate for grooming and receive information about local trails. I can already imagine how I'll explain myself when they ask me what kind of snowmobile I drive ... "Well, it's gray, and it has a two-stroke engine with extremely low emissions, and big fat tires, and, well, it's a bicycle ..."

With no new snow for a week and no snow anywhere in the forecast, it is beginning to look like Juneau is going to have one of those "normal" warm winters. The cyclists I meet are absolutely thrilled. Their road bikes remain useful in November and the relative dryness compared to fall has them out in numbers I haven't seen in months. I join the skiers on the sidelines, staring anxiously at the brown slopes and praying that a few of these flurries take root. I don't need snow to be happy. I need snow to survive. Training for a 350-mile race on a snowy trail means training on snowy trails. Without snow, I'm just biding my time and have fun while splashing through half-frozen beaver ponds, for what that's worth. But as I look at my new snow bike and imagine all of things I have yet to learn about it, I'm beginning to worry splashy fun may not be enough.

But what can I do about it? Lucky for me, I don't need snow to simply ride my bicycle. Cycling is one of those beautiful sports that can be enjoyed year round ... snow, sleet, wind, rain, mud, wind, and even, on rare occasions, sun. Come to think of it ... there are few conditions that can prevent a person from riding a bicycle, if a person is determined enough to ride. Unless, that is, the Juneau Snowmobile Club decides to start posting "No Bicycles" signs on the trails. Then I might just have to take up Nordic skiing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I like my dirt lightly frosted

Date: Nov. 18
Mileage: 39.6
Hours: 3:15
November mileage: 447.1
Temperature upon departure: 33
Rainfall: 0.05"

Mountain biking conditions were perfect today out in the Mendenhall Valley - maybe a degree or two below freezing, with ice-infused mud and sand hardpacked to crunchy perfection.

Riding along the Mendenhall Lake shoreline is usually like a bad dream - the one where you're pedaling in slow motion, and you crank and struggle, but no matter what you do, you just can't go any faster. Today the sand was frozen as tough and smooth as a gravel road. I became so absorbed in the thrill of amping up to 20 mph on a sandy beach that I forgot I wasn't on an actual trail, and nearly face planted over the sandy berms of slightly-frozen streams, more than once.

The trail riding was just as good. I challenge you to dream up a surface that would be more fun to ride across than paper ice - smashing and crackling and coasting as you draw a shattered line over what is normally the softest of bogs. Especially since I have yet to install my studded tires. Weeee!

My year in Homer conditioned me to regard bald eagles as pets, and that notion hasn't worn off even after 16 months in Juneau. This one was eating a moldy-looking salmon carcass when I marched up to take its photo. This picture isn't even excessively zoomed - this is basically where I was standing. The eagle wouldn't retreat for anything but continued to broadcast its irritation with a piercing stare as it tore away at the black flesh. Eagles remind me so much of cats.

The dead salmon was bigger than the eagle, and still the eagle wouldn't share. So much like cats.

Snow flurries, overcast, light wind ... all in all, an ideal day for cycling (for Juneau, at least.) This seems to be the weather trend for weekends ... Monday through Friday are awful. Saturday and Sunday are amazing. Too bad Saturday and Sunday don't make up my weekend. I tend to think of Sunday as "Tuesday." So this trend that seems to work great for everybody else just means I have to consume large chunks of weekday time to squeeze in beautiful weekend rides, but they're worth it. I think if the weather gods ever came to me to make a bargain, saying, "OK, we'll take away any and all rain in Juneau for four whole months. But to make it so, the temperature will never rise above freezing that entire time," I'd make that deal, and I wouldn't even feel guilty.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cool! I'm in a book!

An interesting thing arrived in the mail today: "The Bicycle Book: Wit, Wisdom & Wanderings," recently released by Jim Joyce of the Bike Exchange Web site. It's a whole book dedicated to bicycle essays and cartoons, written by various people who contributed to the Web site over the years. One of those essays happens to be mine.

It's been a trip back in time reading it again, because I always write so autobiographically. This is an essay I wrote in early 2004 - nearly four years ago - when I lived in a $300-a-month studio apartment in Tooele, Utah - an apartment that didn't even have a working refrigerator - and I spent my days dreaming about ways to support myself by becoming a freelance writer/graphic designer. I also spent my days riding over and around the Oquirrh Mountains on my first road bike, because my Trek 6500 was out of commission and wasn't very interested in mountain bikes at the time anyway. The essay starts out, "I have always thought of myself as a cycle 'tourist,' someone who uses a bicycle as a means of travel, escape and relaxation."

There's nothing in the essay about snow, or Alaska, or the virtues of fat tires. It's funny to realize how much I've changed since my early incarnations as a cyclist ... and also how much I've stayed the same. Because even though I don't travel much any more, and even though I can only escape as far as 40.4 miles from my home, and even though I can't even remember what relaxing on a bicycle is like, I still remain a "tourist." It's just that, as a tourist, I see the world very differently now.

Anyway, it was fun to see it published after all these years. I chopped off the whole introduction and posted it on my blog more than a year ago - "Of Dogs and Cyclists" - mostly because I liked the tone and thought I'd never see print. It's one of the few scrapes at subtle humor I've ever attempted (I really can't write humor. It's truly a shame.) Now it's in a book. Cool!

I read through quite a bit of the rest of the book at the gym today. It's a light read and a lot of fun. It's peppered with cartoons, a few of which made me laugh out loud. I already signed my life away to appear in this book and don't monetarily benefit from its sales, but I still recommend it as a worthwhile purchase. With Christmas approaching and stockings waiting for quirky little gifts, this book would make a good present for all of the cyclists on your list. We cyclists aren't too picky. We like just about anything and everything about bicycles, and this book definitely fits that description. You can order it here.

Six hours of wind

Date: Nov. 16
Mileage: 77.8
Hours: 6:00
November mileage: 407.5
Temperature upon departure: 40
Rainfall: 0.56"

The morning weather forecast can say a lot of things I don't like to hear, but just about the worst is "Wind Advisory." Especially when such advisories are followed by specifics: "East winds at 35 mph, gusting 45-55 mph." Ga!

Because of work scheduling conflicts that revolve around other people's Thanksgiving plans, Friday was my only day off this week. So it was the only day I had to squeeze in a weekly "long" ride, which I've been trying to bump up by an hour since the beginning of the month. First week was four; then there were five. Today called for six. And a wind advisory. An east wind, which is a cross-wind both ways (the single long road here in Juneau runs north-south.) Oh, and there was a 100 percent chance of rain. And temps in the high 30s. Ga!

So I left in the morning with a somewhat shaky resolve, convinced I was going to be miserable and determined to hate this ride. It's just that I need these long hours in the saddle. If they're hard, well, deep down, I know that's good for me. Riding into a 45 mph wind? Yeah, good for me too. You know what else is good for me? Wheat Thins! I don't eat crackers often anymore, and had nearly forgotten how tasty those little beige squares are. Those were one of three really good decisions I made today. Another good decision was to break out the new PVC rain jacket I just bought because my old one finally shredded into two pieces (The new one proved, as most brand new jackets do, to be completely waterproof.) The last good decision was to strap my handlebar mitts (i.e. pogies) to my road bike. They looked completely ridiculous, like huge floppy dog ears hanging over a wisp of a front tire. But they kept my hands dry, which kept my hands warm, which kept me happy. I stuffed my ziplock baggie of Wheat Thins inside the pogies. Any time a big gust of wind hit, or I was pelted in the face with a blast of rain, or something else happened that made me feel the tinges of grumpiness creeping in, I stuffed a few morsels of salty carbohydrate goodness in my mouth. And surprisingly, I began to feel better.


Several times to road curved enough to direct me straight into the wind. Gusts would hit with debilitating force, threatening to push me backwards if I let off the pedals at all. I would clench my teeth and accept my fate without frustration - because the wind wasn't really hindering my goal. My goal was not to "ride 80 miles" or "make it to the end of the road." My goal was to ride for six hours. The wind at times slowed me to a pace only slightly more productive than walking, but the clock was still ticking, and I was still riding, so all was going according to plan.


The wind only grew stronger toward the end of the ride, and I hardened with it. In the last flickers of twilight I felt completely empowered by that stupid wind. I welcomed the gusts and fought them into the darkness; fought them back with bursts of strength that were surprising to discover after six hours in the saddle; fought them back with anger and with glee. The way I feel immediately after a ride like this is tough to describe. I feel a mad rush of energy. I want to write poetry and punch in walls. It's what I imagine the "runner's high" must feel like - pumping endorphins, feeling satisfied and strong. I remember now why I continually seek out these mad conditions. I could obtain just as much fitness benefit - arguably even greater benefit - by riding a stationary bike for six hours in the climate-controlled calmness of my gym. But then I'd never know what it's like to conquer the roughness. And that, for me, makes the whole idea of indoor workouts seem so unfair. Even more so ...



... because no matter how rough it gets out there, it remains beautiful.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Into the morning

Date: Nov. 15
Mileage: 25.1
Hours: 1:45
November mileage: 329.7
Temperature upon departure: 30

I rolled out of bed at 10:17 a.m. Alaska time, after having that reoccurring dream in which I am driving a huge car full of friends into the remote desert at night, and everyone is sleeping, and I want to sleep so badly, too, but I feel this sense of urgency and I just can't stop. I wrapped up my short NPR interview just shy of 4 a.m. and crawled into bed without taking a shower, still coated in sweat and reeling with irrational nervousness about the outcome. I remember next to nothing about the 4 a.m. conversation and am still too nervous to listen to it. (It's funny how afraid I am of the sound of my own voice. When I write I can self-edit, but when I speak, whatever spews out is what is recorded for humanity. I don't like to feel responsible for it.) But ... uh ... I think it went pretty well. I thought it was just going to be a quirky little snippet on the Bryant Park Project, but they put my story and bio on NPR.org! Holy cow! The big time! If you happened to click over to this blog through the NPR page, welcome, esteemed public radio listeners. This blog is both a training and personal journal with the results of an amateur photography hobby mixed in. To get a sense of who I am and why I am so "into" winter cycling, a couple of my favorite posts are this one and this one.

I took advantage of the scheduled early-morning call to squeeze in a midnight ride, my first of the year. Midnight rides are likely going to be the most valuable miles of my training this winter. All of the necessary Iditarod components are there: darkness, loneliness, cold, sleep deprivation. I was coming off a long day when I set out for a 25-mile late-night (early-morning?) ride. On Wednesday morning, I completed my full-body weight-lifting routine, which takes about 60 minutes, plus a 75-minute run on the elliptical trainer, then a 10-hour-long day at work. By the time I ate a snack, suited up, and kissed Geoff good night, it was 12:45 a.m.

It's hard to describe how different cycling at night is compared to the day. With all the cars off the road, and all the house lights turned off, even familiar terrain takes on a wilderness feel. Visibility fluctuates from the whole universe of stars to a foot-wide circle of pavement illuminated by a headlight. Shadows become bears and bogeymen. Time rushes forward as though carried by a dream, or it stops altogether. Miles disappear, or they drag mercilessly. There is no uniformity or familiarity. There is only a subdued sort of awe ... amazement at having the world to yourself, and yet remaining lost in a very small, very personal space.

Temperatures dropped into the 20s and the weather quickly turned to freezing fog. Thick particles of blue ice streamed through my headlight like the light-speed scene in Star Wars. It was all I could see for miles. I had brought my iPod with me but left it off for the first 15 miles. All I could hear was the crackle of my tires on the frost-coated road. For much of the ride I was lulled into near-meditation, thinking nothing and feeling nothing, only to be snapped back occasionally in frantic moments of mild panic and confusion.

Past the Douglas boat launch, long past the end of the North Douglas neighborhoods, far away from the city lights and beyond where a car would ever venture at 2 a.m., I broke out of the fog. The clear sky opened up into a startling menagerie of stars, stars upon stars upon stars, like a bulging sky ready to burst at its seams. It was one of those gasp moments, and because I knew I was alone, completely alone, I turned off both my headlights, and pointed my bike into the direction of quiet darkness, and just rode.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I'm going to be on NPR!

At least ... that's the theory. Laura from National Public Radio's "alternative" morning show, the Bryant Park Project, called me today to set up a short interview for tomorrow. I'm pretty sure I'm going to talking about biking, specifically snow biking, specifically snow biking in the Alaska wilderness. I hope I can think of interesting things to say, and I hope not too much fun is made at the "crazy biker's" expense.

The plan is to go live with the interview at 7:30 a.m. New York time, which, last I checked, was the sleepy side of 3 a.m. here in Alaska. That's either really early or really late; no matter how you slice it, though, it's the middle of the night. I'm terribly nervous and don't think I'll be able to sleep anyway, so I'm going to opt for the "really late" designation. This could be a good time to kick in some midnight training - something I sorely need, but that's really hard to motivate for. What better excuse do I have to go for a bike ride in the middle of the night than this? It's like the cyclists' equivalent of downing a few shots before a live performance.

I don't know how many local NPR stations pick up the program, which I think competes directly with "Morning Edition," but here is where you can catch it:

Bryant Park Project podcast

Bryant Park Project Web site

KCPW 88.3 FM in Salt Lake City between 5 and 7 a.m.

Sirius Satellite Radio

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Me and horses

Date: Nov. 13
Mileage: 26.4
Hours: 2:00
November mileage: 304.6
Temperature upon departure: 37
Rainfall: 0.07"

I was speeding down a steep descent on the North Douglas Highway, tears freezing to my cheeks in the windchill and ankle still throbbing from an earlier spill, when I saw a dark figure in the distance. At first I thought “jogger,” but it was going to fast, approaching me with shadowy urgency, and my second thought was, “Oh crap! It’s a moose!” My heart shot into danger mode as my eyes darted back and forth, confirming that, yes, there was still a cliff directly to my right and the channel on the left. I had no way to escape and this moose was coming right for me and surely it would stomp me to death right here on the road before I ever got the chance to visit Antarctica or catch up on my New Yorker reading.

But wait ... there are no moose in Juneau.

I squinted at the figure and realized there was another animal right behind it, and behind that, headlights. It took me several seconds to figure out they were two horses - like moose, an animal I have actually never seen in Juneau - that were apparently either being chased or herded by a Department of Fish and Wildlife vehicle. It was hard to tell which. I pulled all the way off the road and watched as they went by, their wild eyes fixed forward as they pounded across the pavement. I decided they were being chased.

Not even ten minutes earlier, I had been writhing in pain on the Rainforest Trail. The trail, which is best ridden in laps, is a short, narrow stretch of raised singletrack that is more fun that can be justifiably had in a half mile. It was built for walking, not cycling, and its turns are really tight. If I don't hit them right, my rear wheel falls six inches off the log-lined gravel - a drop I have not yet learned to take without tumbling. I took two slow-speed spills while riding down. Then, while climbing back up with a maximum heart rate clouding my vision but gravity on my side, I somehow tipped over without even leaving the trail. My right foot stayed lodged in the cage and my ankle wrenched sideways. The initial shot of pain was awe-inspiring ... the kind if quick, intense moment in which you taste metal and see angels. It was a moment in which I convinced myself my ankle was broken, and I laid in the mud, still lodged inside my bike, gazing up at the silhouettes of trees in a sea of white shock.

It’s strange how sometimes the most intense pain ends up being nothing at all. I have limped for months on nagging soreness, but after a few seconds of stillness on the Rainforest Trail, my ankle pain had subsided. I slowly removed my foot from my bike and rolled it around a few times. No pain. No injury. Perfectly fine. Strange.

And then the horses. Those were strange minutes, those ten minutes. I essentially spent all of my adrenaline for the day, and the ride home disappeared into a sleepy blur.

Training for pain

Dan V. asked a really good question today: What's my game plan for training for a minus 40 or minus 50-degree cold snap that could hit during the Iditarod Invitational? The truth is, I haven't really worked it out yet. I can buy all the gear in the world “rated” to these temperatures. But until I actually experience the danger cold, it’s impossible to know how my body will react.

Like at least 98 percent of Americans, I will never see those temperatures in the place where I live. Juneau is in the Alaska tropics. Only on rare occasions does it even drop below 0 here. The coldest temperature I have ever ridden a bicycle in was minus 18 degrees, pushing minus 30 degrees with the stiff gale windchill. It was brutal. I had to stop three times in a 150-minute ride to run up and down the highway just to warm up my feet. But I wasn’t wonderfully prepared back then. I think I was still in my cotton sock phase. And, when all was said and done, it wasn’t really all that bad.

At least once this winter, I hope to hop a ferry to seek cold-weather experience in the Yukon Territory. Maybe repeat pieces of my toasty August bicycle tour of the Golden Circle, only in January. There’s a couple of problems with this plan. First, taking a couple of days off work and buying ferry tickets means I’ll have to plan the trip weeks in advance. I may not get the cold snap I’m hoping for. I may get another toasty warm front that gives me Juneau-esque temperatures. And I will not likely be able to coordinate such a trip on a whim. I can just imagine approaching my boss with the request ... “But the weather is supposed to be terrible this weekend.”

Another concern is the border gate. I’m worried that I’ll plan the trip, pack all my gear, ride the ferry to Skagway, approach the gate that's a mere five miles outside of town, and be deemed so crazy or incompetent by the guards that they won’t let me into Canada. I can just imagine approaching the frost-coated building on a bicycle, requesting access to a remote road that leads to a 3,000-foot mountain pass, in the winter no less, with all of the earnestness I can muster ... "But the weather is supposed to be terrible this weekend."

Other suggestions I've heard is to simulate danger cold by going out biking in 25-degree weather wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved bicycle jersey and shorts. But this seems idiotic to me. I already know what hypothermia feels like. The idea is to avoid it.

There are a few things I know: It's better to keep moving through the danger cold. Stopping to bivy in the cold isn't the best idea, unless you find yourself in trouble. If that trouble is the cold, though, bivying might not be enough. You need to start a fire, eat food, drink water, eat food, and run in circles with whatever energy you can muster to generate warmth.

I've heard matches won't strike in the danger cold. But I haven't heard negative reports about cigarette lighters.

I need to practice changing a flat with gloves on. Mittens I imagine are nearly impossible, but touching a metal rim with bare hands is out of the question.

Gas stoves are likely not to work at all when the temps drop really low. Liquid stoves will withstand colder temperatures, but tend to be worse in the wind, and all the effort to set them up and light them may discourage use. Snow will melt inside the bladder of a camelbak next to the body, but very slowly. So drinking water can become an issue. I continue to consider solutions.

There's an obvious advantage to experience in this department. Racers from Fairbanks continue to shine in the Iditarod Invitational. Anchorage people also tear up the trail. I can't say I've ever heard of anyone from Juneau in the race. But if someone from California can survive it, well, so can I.

Hopefully.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sun therapy

Date: Nov. 11
Mileage: 17.2
Hours: 1:45
November mileage: 278.2
Temperature upon departure: 35
Rainfall: 0.0"

I woke up this morning to lead legs. Stomped around the house, ate my carbohydrate-and-caffeine breakfast, and couldn't stop the sensation of blood congealing like cement in my veins. Clearly there would be no purposeful exercise this morning. I thought about building a cardboard divider shelf for my piles of winter clothing. I thought about cleaning the bathroom. I thought about reading Geoff's copy of "The World Without Us." I thought about the sunbeams streaming through the still-drawn blinds. I thought about the way the warmth of the sun trickles through clear air. I could probably go out in the 35-degree morning wearing polyester pants and a T-shirt. I thought about visiting the places where summer still lingers. Places best reached with a snow bike.

I shook out my legs some more and slogged over the bridge. The Gastineau Chanel was a stagnant sheet of glass. As a body of water connected to the Pacific Ocean, it's strange to see it so still. Like the world stopped spinning, and where gravity settled is where I stood. Strange to feel so heavy and light at the same time.

Out Thane to the Dupont Trail, a cliffside that holds onto its mossy greenness and thick shade well into November. The sunlight dissipated in the frosty humidity of the rainforest. I finally began to warm up, at least enough to melt some of that seemingly lead-based cement from my legs. Maybe too little too late, with a dozen places to be and no more time or reason to head further south. But for those few moments, everything looked like June. If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel it - as though summer is a state of mind, like tiredness. And suddenly I was lighter on my legs, lighter on top of the mud. Just lighter. And free.

Hit the beach on the way home. A stretch of jarring boulders gave way to perfectly smooth sand. I skirted the surf as it crept up so calmly it was nearly impossible to detect until it was on top of me, like a bathtub slowly filling with water. I returned home cured of my lead legs, feeling like I could go back out and conquer an entire afternoon if given the chance. Not what I expected ... but could it be true? Is the best way to relieve fatigue just to ride it out, ride it out? Or is the best cure simply to spend some time in the sun?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The hours

Date: Nov. 9 and 10
Mileage: 18.1 and 30.2
Hours: 1:20 and 3:45
November mileage: 261.0
Temperature upon departure: 37
Rainfall: 0.30"

My recent realization that the sun now sets before 4 p.m. has been a bit of a blow to my mood. At the beginning of the week, I was riding a sugar snow high and it was all I could do to straighten my face after hours of silly perma-grin. Now I am feeling the effects of greasy snow indigestion (not literal indigestion; just sort of a sinking feeling that not all is well.) At first I blamed the waning daylight. But now, I'm wondering if some of it could be mild overtraining.

For this race I plan to line up for in February, spending as much time as possible on the bike, on the toughest trail conditions, in the crappiest weather I can endure, is the most valuable training I'm going to get. Speed intervals, "time trials," weight lifting, hill climbing - these were all great exercises to build up my base. Now it's time to build up endurance. Even more so, it's time to toughen my morale. I need to learn to spend hours on the bike, days on the bike, learn to trudge beside my bike for hours, days, and not lose my mind in the process. It's a daunting task - especially because I there's a decent chance I could jump the gun and lose my mind in training.

The first 10 days of November, there has been a lot of riding. The miles don't show it, because almost all of the riding has been snow riding, muddy trail riding, road miles on the mountain bike, and trail-hopping road miles on the Pugsley (which so far I have been unable to coax over 14 mph without the benefit of gravity or wind.) So while the miles don't show it, the sheer hours of exercise have stacked up. I've probably jumped from 9-11 hours a week at the end of October to 16 this past week. Maybe more. I don't know. It's obviously not wise to make jumps like that, so I'm going to start keeping track.

It's funny, because I haven't felt any physical effects of "overtraining." There have just been a few hints of slipping morale. Like yesterday, when I purposely set out on my road bike in marginal weather and turned around at the first sight of snow flurries. Then today, riding the trails on a Saturday morning, I became overly annoyed with just about everybody I saw. Two people on the Salmon Creek trail stopped me to point out the girth of my wheels (Don't they know it's rude to call something "fat"?) and then chide me for not riding with studded tires. The trail was wet gravel covered by about two inches of slushy snow. I wanted to launch into a lecture about how studs are great on the street but nearly pointless in these kind of trail conditions - but instead I just smiled and through clenched teeth said "Yeah. We'll see how it goes." As I headed back up the trail, even as I vowed to never, never go trail riding on a Saturday again, I wondered about the real reasons behind my quick-tempered irritability.

I think I'll keep increasing the hours of my long ride(s) each weekend, the way I planned, but flatten out my weekday riding (I don't have much more weekday time to burn, anyway.) See how it goes. Hopefully it will keep me from snapping at a hapless hiker. Then, when training calls for the necessary dissection of my morale, at least I'll have happy memories from November.

*****

Late, completely unrelated tangent: I don't do political diatribes on my blog, but Geoff and I just returned from a showing of the documentary "No End In Sight" and I can't get it out of my head. This movie about the Iraq war isn't simply a vehicle to preach to the enraged choir, as Michael Moore's movies have done. It's a very simply laid-out, calm play-by-play of the events and decisions that led to the current situation in Iraq, as told my members of the military, former members of the Bush administration, and others who were very close to the process. The feeling it ends with is not anger, but an almost overwhelming sadness. That's why I highly recommend seeking it out and seeing it. Not because it will leave you in despair, but because it will inspire you to take action. It definitely has me asking myself what I can do. Especially today ... Veterans' Day.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Five hours of fog

Date: Nov. 8
Mileage: 56.2
November mileage: 213.6
Temperature upon departure: 33
Rainfall: 0.0"

Juneau can be so cruel. Even when the clouds break apart long enough to reveal more than a few fleeting moments of sun (and even that's rare. So rare), high pressure systems tend to build up a lot of fog. In many ways, fog-shrouded sunlight is the cruelest weather of all. You've been told the sun is out. You can sense it. You can imagine it. You can cling to the faith that it is in fact up there, somewhere. But you can not feel it. And you can not see it. In fact, you can't see anything further than five feet in front of your face. And, come to think of it, you're becoming more than a little tired of staring at the patterns made by the frost granules collecting on your handlebars.

So it went for my five-hour ride today. It started out well with a jaunt up Perseverance Canyon with Geoff in the morning. We were able to climb out of the clouds early and ride most of the trail with the sunlight in view, even if the canyon itself was entirely cast in shadow. After lunch I set out for what I was hoping would be 3.5 more hours of fast-paced distance riding. But my legs were feeling sluggish after a week that consisted mostly of hard climbing and weight lifting. I wasn't thrilled to be on my mountain bike on the road when just a few more degrees of warmth would have allowed the road bike. And I was grumpy about the fog. As it became even thicker in the waning afternoon, I became even more grumpy. Have you ever ridden a spin bike all alone in an empty room with four white walls? It was a little like that, except for add the terror of streaming headlights created by drivers who probably have no clue about your existence. Lucky I was on my mountain bike. I spent most of the afternoon bouncing across the snow-covered soft shoulders.

It was not my favorite ride ever. I thought I had until 5 p.m. to ride but I was wrong. Sunset was at 3:53 p.m. today! I had no idea! (curse you, Daylight Savings Time.) I did not have appropriate bike lights (yes, I know I should have been using lights in the fog. But I did not know the fog was as bad as it was when I left the house, either.) I would not have even figured out how early the sun was actually setting if the fog hadn't lifted a little as I worked my way north. I was tipping my head back and reveling in the newfound warmth and light streaming over the Lynn Canal when I first noticed that the sun was low on the horizon. Really low. Holy cow!

I had to turn tail there and ride south like a banshee. Of course I couldn't resist stopping to take a few pictures. It was like I had just been granted sight after an afternoon of blindness. Everything I saw was amazing and colorful and beautiful ... trees, ravens, even the cars that were attached to the headlights. It was so nice to actually see them.

And of course I did that thing where I point the camera straight at the sun. The lens can't quite handle the glare, but I always enjoy the otherworldly images it compensates with. Plus, I just like to take pictures of the sun.

The break in the fog was short-lived, though. The blue sky was nearly gone by Auke Lake, and the fog only thickened up as the sunlight faded away during my frantic ride home. I tried to mash out those last miles before my invisibility became absolute. I will never ride in the winter without a headlight again. Another long ride, another lesson learned.

Recovering junkaholic

Date: Nov. 7
Mileage: 15.2
November mileage: 157.4
Temperature upon departure: 34
Rainfall: 0.01"

I went to the dentist this morning, a few days after I became convinced that I had a massive cavity threatening to abscess into my jaw. Turns out I have nothing of the sort, but at least now there are a dozen really expensive digital photographs of the insides of my teeth stored in a computer somewhere in the purgatory of Airport Row.

I’m of course relieved by my no-cavity status, but there’s a thin layer of disappointment on the periphery. As the season of giving in approaches, I’ve been harboring this crazy scheme to reduce sugar in my diet. So far, I have struggled to find the motivation to even begin. I was beginning to believe a massive cavity may be just the kick-start I need to motivate toward ultra-clean living. But I need to be honest with myself. I’ve set a lot of goals in the past two years, and none of them have touched my diet. The sugar that remains is going to have to be surgically removed.

Not that I haven’t made an honest effort to cut back. For as much junk food as I eat these days, there was a time when I was absolutely devoted to it, defended it, and would have starved without it. When my friends and I ate dinner on our backpacking trips, I’d smirk as they toiled over their little camp stoves while I munched effortlessly on Snickers bars. Food is food, and energy is energy, I reasoned. I believed I was free. But I’ve changed since then. In my blog description, I define myself as someone who “likes to eat goldfish crackers and Pepsi for breakfast.” This isn’t untrue, but it is, and is becoming more so, a remnant of a past life. For as much as sugar calls to me, the lingering benefits of “healthy” food shout louder.

Geoff and I buy our fresh produce in bulk, Costco style, and even with the lag time of Juneau shipping that cuts longevity in half, we never fail to finish it. Geoff's a vegetarian, so there's not much meat. When I buy cereal, I try to stick to the whole-grain, low sugar types, and Geoff’s job as a cook at a natural foods deli has infused a lot of organic flax-seed hippy food into the mix. I’m a lot happier now than I was when I was a junk food junky, and my energy levels are off the chart compared to then. I attribute much of this to “better diet.”

And yet, my devotion to junk food remains. If sugar cereals show up in the house, I devour them enthusiastically and without regret. There’s a cupboard in the house I can’t go near - stocked full of store-bought cookies and six different kinds of chips and and Pop Tarts and Wheat Thins and granola bars and fruit leathers and trail mix and hot chocolate and ... the list goes on. Every time I open this cupboard, large amounts of simple carbohydrates disappear just like that. The reason this cupboard exists is because a former version of myself converted the once sugar-free Geoff to the church of high fructose corn syrup. Now his grocery choices (and mine) threaten to lure me back to the flock.

It seems a noble but impossible battle. Just tonight, I polished off a dinner of veggie burger on whole-wheat bread, green salad with sliced apples, baby carrots and balsamic vinegar, and a huge bowl of Rocky Road ice cream. I can’t help but wonder if my dentist had the decency to chew me out, if I would have eschewed the ice cream and munched on a banana instead. Probably not.

On the bright side, the dentist appointment got me out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness of 6:45 a.m. That gave me time to ride Pugsley up Perseverance canyon, eat lunch, and complete my lower-body weight routine at the gym. I should make a habit of waking up early. I wonder if that would convince me to go to bed before 1 a.m. Probably not.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pugsley's first sun ride

Date: Nov. 6
Mileage: 21.9
November mileage: 142.2
Temperature upon departure: 33
Rainfall: 0.0"

A perfect bike ride is a lot like a well-crafted chocolate chip cookie. Alone, the ingredients range from bland to intolerable: Tuesday morning, clear skies, light breeze, several inches of new snow, 33 degrees, early season inexperience, untested iPod mix and some tempered enthusiasm. But throw them all together, mix vigorously and bake in the rare November sun, and you have a bike ride that’s so rich, so sweet and so satisfying that you swear you could consume 100 of the same and never tire.

These rides are so delicious, in fact, that they inevitably stir up guilt from depths of pleasure. You question the wisdom of your line through the buttery snow; you wonder if its seemingly weightless airiness may suddenly turn on you, kick you sideways, send you sliding uncontrollably into a tree. You look up to a stream of snow tearing off mountain peaks in distant wind that hardly touches you; you feel the chill of ice water running down your neck. You ponder the tingling in your toes, and you think, “This can’t possibly be healthy.” And yet you crave more.

Three to four inches of new snow made the climb up Perseverance Trail extra tricky today - it was just enough snow to cover the rocks and roots to the point I couldn’t see them, but not enough to cushion the force of a direct hit. Luckily, Pugsley was more up to the monster trucking task than I ever anticipated, as I was completely consumed with staying ahead of the back wheel as it spun out atop the slippery surface.

Coming down the canyon was a passionate dance with terror and empowerment. My snow-riding skills are rusty, but my enthusiasm is as fresh as the day I first put a wheel to powder. Both are magnified by the sheer unpredictability of powder snow - I can lose control, quickly, sometimes for no discernable reason. My victories today gave way to horror, which in turn fed further victories. But after carving frantic cursive in the singletrack, skirting the steep edge of oblivion and swerving back to safety, my lingering impression told me I could do no wrong.

The final mile of descent, atop frozen gravel infused with soft patches of snow, was the most otherworldly experience of all. Sharp fragments of sunlight filtered through the trees; their bare branches were coated in snow, completely black and white except for yellow slashes of light. My iPod that had been playing really mellow Neko Case for the past half hour switched over the Jimmy Eat World’s latest. In a bombardment of amped-up rock, my speed increased to 25, 30 mph. The cold air tore at my face and tears filled my eyes as the wintry world blurred by. It reminded me of the time I rode the Slingshot - an amusement park ride that straps people in a large circular cage, pulls back on a fixed line and catapults them into the air. In the G-force rush, there is no up and down, no ground and sky, no real and imagined. There is only shadow and light, spinning and spinning to the end of the universe.

I rode to Salmon Creek afterward just to extend the fun, but by then my ride had consumed more than three hours, and it was time to go to work. These perfect rides are hard to come down from, and like a person sinking into the aftermath of a cookie binge, I feel a tinge of regret. Not because I overindulged, but because I was forced to stop.

My new frame bag

This just arrived in the mail today, a new frame bag custom-made by my friend Eric in Anchorage. The picture's not great because I just slapped the bag on the bike during my dinner break, pump mount and all. But it seems to form-fit Pugsley like a fine glove, matching gray colors to boot, and it's so sleek and shiny. It's my first-ever custom-made piece of outdoor gear. I feel like I'm moving up in the world.

Eric's an engineer by occupation, and he's created these frame bag designs that have a lot of clever and innovative features - an internal mesh pocket, removable dividers that allow different compartments and also reinforce the already-obvious bombproofness of the bag. The top edge tapers out to allow maximum space without compromising your leg clearance. There's reflective strips on the webbing, heavy-duty zippers ... I keep discovering new stuff. It's a baffling concept to me ... to tell somebody, long-distance, "Uh, yeah, I'd like a frame bag for my, um, let's see, it's a 16-inch Pugsley," and have them return with something so idealistically perfect. What those engineers can't do.

Frame bags themselves are a cool concept ... it's all part of the dream of carrying all of your survival gear on your bike, but keeping it off your back and off the back rack. They're very popular in Alaska winter endurance races, where equal weight distribution is crucial to maximizing your snow floatation, and a lot of time hopping on and off the bike means any bulk on the back is going to demand a fair amount of wasted energy while constantly swinging one's legs over it. I estimate my frame bag can hold somewhere between 350 and 400 cubic inches of heavy gear, all in the bike's triangle. Seems a whole lot more efficient than a water-bottle holder and a bike pump mount.

Eric is currently making these for anybody who's interested ... "Handmade bombproof in Alaska, Full suspension bikes, cruisers, funky geometry, whatever you want!" Here's his MTBR Classified ad. Or e-mail him at stampeeding_wilderbeast at yahoo dot com.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hey, it's the sun, and it makes me shine

Date: Nov. 4
Mileage: 42.8
November mileage: 122.3
Temperature upon departure: 37
Rainfall: 0.0"

Don't you hate the mornings that you wake up feeling a lot less than spectacular? Maybe you have this lingering dull pain in your mouth, and a headache too because you were up for several hours in the night worrying that you have a cavity. And your legs still burn from weightlifting two days ago and your caffeine's not kicking in and you know you have a heavy afternoon workload waiting for you at the office and you think some Chips Ahoy and a nap sounds about perfect. These mornings are even worse when they happen on the only 25-hour day of the year. But even without that extra hour weighing on your conscience, there's the weather forecast calling for "mostly cloudy with a 20 percent chance of showers" to consider. Letting any morning that promises to be not only long but dry pass by in bed is an unforgivable waste.

It was in this condition I slogged out on my mountain bike this morning, anticipating ice on the road and hoping to hit some trails if I could muster the motivation to pedal all the way out to the valley. I caught the tailwind north and slipped onto the Mendenhall trail system as soon as I could, winding through the neighborhoods and homeless camps atop frosty mounds of mud.

I crossed over to the glacier moraine and continued to ponder turning around. The mud was becoming softer, and anything that wasn't mud was an outright puddle. Splatters of wood chips, dead falls and other beaver carnage obstructed the trail. I practiced my moving dismount to jump the gnawed-off logs without stopping, until I finally splashed down into a huge stretch of beaver dam overflow. Piloting the mountain bike like a paddle boat through the hub-deep cold water, I nearly bogged down in the silt before I made it to shore. But I hammered hard up the last knoll and cleared the swamp without getting so much as a knee brace wet. I stopped on the edge of Dredge Lake to stomp out the water in my booties and soak in the satisfaction of my small victory. It was there I first noticed the sky shining through a patchwork of thinning clouds, backlit by a hidden sun and bursting with rays that nearly reached the ground. The world was suddenly infused with shadows, and light, and slivers of warmth. It felt like newfound energy, and renewal, and, come to think of it, the aftermath of a pretty fun cyclocross-type obstacle course, which definitely demanded to be re-ridden, only faster.

Funny how some mornings start out with head/muscle/toothache grumpiness, and end with a 40-mile mountain bike ride. Don't you love mornings like that?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Looks like November


Date: Nov. 3
Mileage: 12.1
November mileage: 79.5
Temperature upon departure: 38
Rainfall: .10"

Perseverance Trail, again. I could ride this trail every day of the week, and nearly have this week. I usually avoided this trail in the summer because of the crowds. Hikers on Perseverance tend to be out to lunch - some literally were out to lunch, as in state workers on their midday break; and others simply could not or would not acknowledge me when I screamed "On your left! On your left!" as they staggered up the wide trail.

But as summer disappears, so do the crowds. I do not know where they go. This has always been a great mystery to me. Where do people go in the winter? The town's population doesn't change much. I still see garbage trucks picking up trash and baristas serving oceans of coffee. But everything else - the trails, the bike paths, the beaches, the back roads - seem to go into some kind of stasis. I wonder in passing where the people go. But frankly, I do not care. It means more room for me, and I am greedy greedy greedy when it comes to space. A trail doesn't have to be great for it to be my favorite trail - it just has to be scenic and deserted.

As I become more and more anxious for winter conditions, I wonder if it's really winter I like so much, or just the fleeting luxury of solitude? It must be a little of both, because there's something about following a light dusting of snow up the most popular trail in Juneau to its quiet and peaceful conclusion that's just so ... satisfying.