Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

This is one of my favorite photos I took in 2007 ... serendipitously captured while I was wandering lost in the woods below Heinzleman Ridge in September. I like the way the beams of light slice through some shadows and slip behind others. I like the intense illumination on that single bush in the center. And I like the context ... the first streaks of sunlight to cut through the fog. Everything below here was shrouded in a thick cloud. Everything above was glaring and clear. But for these few steps in my meandering search for a trail, the two worlds collided, perfectly.

New Year's is a good time to write a reflective year-in-review blog post. Here's mine.

January: The holidays. January became consumed by my training for the Susitna 100. It was a fun month because nearly everything I did had some connection to cycling. I spent my mornings plowing through snow drifts and skirting icy roads. I wandered into work with wind-burnt skin and more times than not, a huge smile spread across my face. Then I would spend the rest of the day stealing moments to research gear and plot different rides and type up reports. It's amazing I managed to keep my job.

February: The race. Everything about February centered around the Susitna 100, which took place on Feb. 18. The first half of the month involved more preparations than training as Geoff and I tried to gather up required gear, tweak my bicycle and his sled, and somehow pack it all in boxes that we could take on a plane with us to Anchorage. But all that stress seemed to melt away when I set my bicycle on the frozen ground and began to pedal into an expanse of snow. I love that place, that Susitna valley. Even after those 100 miles left me with little more than an injury that stole three months of the year, I wouldn't take it back.

March: The knee debacle. That knee injury I sustained during the Susitna 100 followed me into the next month, when it became apparent that I was probably in for a long recovery. I remained defiant during the first few weeks, and continued trying to ride my bicycle through sometimes blinding pain and Juneau's snowiest month on record. Nearly 100 inches dumped in my backyard over the course of the month, a beautiful barrage that I hardly took the time to appreciate. But I remember it now.

April: The waiting. April was a quiet month; I might even say the cruelest month. By then I was fairly entrenched in a routine of physical therapy, doctor visits and mundane gym workouts. Meanwhile, I didn't feel like I was making any progress. Instead, I felt like I was cycling through an loop that offered neither hope nor relief. I remember traveling to Anchorage for work and visiting old friends from Homer. As we sat around a table at the Glacier Brewhouse, I began to wonder if my whole Juneau existence had perhaps just been a bad dream.

May: The desert. It was an ideal reunion - friends who went to college together and dispersed to far-away lands such as Alaska, Ann Arbor and northern Idaho, reunited in the remote Utah desert for a week of biking, backpacking and general debauchery. While setting up camp in a dry wash deep in a canyon on the southern edge of the state, we came across black bear tracks. So we followed them up a side canyon, tracing the path of the unlikely desert dweller until the walls of the canyon cut us off. At the end, I think we all had a better sense of the way life's mysteries interconnect.

June: The comeback. At the first hint of feeling stronger, I went on a bit of a cycling bender. And after a substantial stretch without it, I felt like a recently-reformed crack addict who suddenly discovered heroin. Even as toned down as my fitness was at that point, every mile I pedalled seemed effortless, from my first summer century to riding 12 hours of the 24 Hours of Light in Whitehorse, Yukon. Unless I'm forced to abstain from cycling for three months, I'll probably never again experience that inexhaustible feeling.

July: The summer. A friend came to visit us from Washington, D.C., and had the amazing fortune to experience a four-day stretch of consecutively sunny weather in Juneau. One Friday night, we were sitting on the beach in our T-shirts, roasting salmon and watching a brilliant sunset linger over the horizon. "Is it always like this here?" she asked. "Not even remotely," I replied, "but when it is, it could make you forget a month of grayness."

August: The distance. I set out to test my endurance by touring the "Golden Circle," a series of roads that connects the sister communities of Haines and Skagway in the most roundabout way possible - by stretching across a mountain range and meandering through interior Yukon for 371 miles before returning to Southeast Alaska. I experienced a startling range of highs and lows in that often brutally hot, aggressively hilly 48-hour whirlwind tour. I also gained more confidence that I can handle the distance when I need to.

September: The mountains. I took another subtle hiatus from cycling to prepare to walk across the Grand Canyon in late September. I spent the month stomping up and down all the major trails around Juneau, bulking up my quads and gaining a better sense of the sweeping geography that towers over the place where I live. The Southeast Alaska tundra above 2,500 feet has become one of my favorite places to visit ... windswept and barren and nothing like the light-smothering rainforest below it.

October: The rain. Nearly 16 inches of steady rainfall, drenching all but one of October's 31 days, pretty much defined this month. Fall in Juneau can be downright dreary, and I burned it up by embarking on a month of "speed work." I emerged with prune-like fingers, a runny nose, and a better understanding that as long as I live in this waterlogged place, I will probably never be "fast," but I will always be "tough."

November: The decision. I actually struggled for a while with the question about whether I really wanted to spend the winter training for a race like the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Although I have been eyeing this event since 2006, I had no idea if I was actually ready, and still don't. But in deciding to enter the race, I gave myself a free pass for a near-daily adventure.

December: The beginning. Back to the holidays, the training, the uncertainty. I don't know where I'm going. But at least I know where I've been.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Walkin

There's something underrated, and yet subtly satisfying, about putting on a pair of shoes, stepping out the front door, and going for a walk. There seems to be an cultural perception that it is difficult to have a good time outdoors without strapping oneself to some sort of toy. I definitely buy into this idea, what with my penchant for dragging and hoisting my bicycle over every near-unrideable trail I can find. The temptation to bring a toy on my walk today was nearly overwhelming. "I can bring my bicycle," I thought, "and only ride it downhill." But even downhill snowbiking involves a fair amount of pedaling, and I am trying to cut back on the deep bending of my left knee for the time being. Then, I thought about carrying my snowboard. But if cycling is bad for my knee right now, then snowboarding most definitely is. So, almost grudgingly, I strapped on my snowshoes (which could be considered a toy, but I like to think of them as a "walking aid"). I walked out the door and marched up the unplowed surface of Fairbanks Street, waving at children as their plastic sleds whisked past me.

The reason I can walk through my various knee injuries is because my pain is caused not by impact, but by bending the joint further than 90 degrees - achieving that ever-elusive acute angle that pedaling demands. The impact of running can be too much to bear, but walking I can do forever. I make it an honest workout by pushing as hard as I can uphill. Today I had stripped down to my base layer and snowboarding pants - no hat or gloves - by the time I reached the Douglas Ski Bowl. From there, I commenced my ongoing quest to find a walkable route to the ridge - and by walkable I mean a route where I can keep my snowshoes on my feet rather than removing them to kick steps up the steep slope. I follow snowmobile high-marking tracks because I feel that if they can make it up a mountain, so can I ... but that's really not the case. During my final attempt - while I was still sans hat and gloves - I lost my footing and began to slide, on my belly, backward down the slope. I decided mid-slide that this was probably a good time to "head down," so I flipped over on my butt and continued to careen downward, dragging my naked fingers through the snow and trying futilely to use my snowshoes as brakes. My coat ripped from my waist, and several dozen feet went by before I finally rolled to a stop and crawled back up to retrieve it. No more high-marking for me.

The knee's already making progress. My pain-free range of motion is increasing at a fairly encouraging clip, and I spend my day wearing these arthritis patches that smell like an old lady's medicine cabinet and make my skin feel like it's pressed against a hot oven - but they seem to be working. Optimism will prevail.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My year in miles

Date: Dec. 29
Mileage: 14.4
Hours: 1:30
December mileage: 710.3
Temperature upon departure: 28
Precipitation: 4"

When I break down my 2007 miles by month, I realize I've had a fairly inconsistent year:

January:
893.4
February: 361.1
March: 14.4
April: 25.3
May: 168.9
June: 598.2
July: 874.6
August: 1,009.1
September: 475.6
October: 648.1
November: 793
December: 710.3

What surprised me is the total: 6,572 miles. That's still about 1,000 more than last year, despite a three-month period between mid-February and mid-May in which I essentially did not ride a bicycle. Looking back on my year of riding, I'd say the "most challenging" month was January. The "most fun" month was August. The "most eye-opening" month was February.

Cycling hasn't been the same since February. I'm beginning to understand that it never will be be the same. When my right knee locked up on me in February, I began to realize how precariously close I am, all the time, to not being able to do this thing I love. The threat rolls beside me like a shadow, much more well-defined than vague fears like death and disaster. The shadow reflects my weaknesses and muddles my strength. My strength is my willpower. My weaknesses are my knees.

I set out on a short ride today and cut it shorter. Several inches of new snow made for some hard pushing, but that didn't justify my inclination to pull my left knee off the pedal at rapidly increasing intervals. I realized at mile 7 that I wasn't in great shape, and wasn't going to improve, so I turned around and soft-pedaled home by sliding as far back on my saddle as I could sit and pushing the edge of the pedal with my heel so I was practically recumbent on my bike. When the surface wasn't too slippery, I stood. I felt despondent, for a little while. But after I got my head together, I realized that this is not the end all. I have eight weeks until Feb. 24, and this is only a minor onset of what feels a lot like (and probably is) chondromalacia. Not nearly as advanced as my right-knee symptoms earlier this year. I can be proactive about it and still stay on track. First, I plan to stay off the bike for several days. I'll revisit my old swimming haunts, go hiking, and the gym is always good. Today bought a bunch of different over-the-counter arthritis medications and supplements, and I'm going to try them all. (Glucosamine, yum). If I don't feel substantial improvements after a week, I'll get my doctor involved. I'd rather avoid that route for now, because a new year means a new deductible.

2007 has been a year of dedicated cycling accentuated with cross-training, IT band stretches, low-weight-high-rep lifting, attention to pedal stroke and regular icing. I tried to do this injury free. I tried the prevention route. I tried my best. So this is where I wrap up my biking year. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ten hours in photos

Date: Dec. 27
Mileage: 111.5
Hours: 10:00
December mileage: 694.9
Temperature upon departure: 38
Precipitation: 0"

I had a good ride today - first of the winter to break double-digit hours and triple-digit miles. I felt really strong except for two small things. But more on that later. Now, for my weekly photo essay:

8:30 a.m.: My only big wildlife sighting of the day: phosphorescent deer.

9:30 a.m.: North Douglas. I was again disappointed by the lack of sunrise.

10:30 a.m.: Looking toward West Juneau. After two hours of riding, my house is in that shot somewhere.

11:30 a.m.: Obligatory glacier shot.

12:30 p.m.: Auke Rec.

1:30 p.m.: Basking in the 30 minutes of sunlight that reached me today. I could see sunlight on the mountain tops for most of this "mostly cloudy" day, but the sun was always too low on the horizon for any light to touch the ground.

2:30 p.m.: A dirty-looking sunset way out toward the end of the road. This "increasing daylight" thing is happening way to slowly.

3:30 p.m.: The Glacier Highway was entirely covered in packed snow with patches of glare ice. Three times my back tire slipped out from under me and kicked several inches to the side. Luckily, it was my rear wheel, so I was able to regain control of the bike without falling. I was really hoping these studded tires would make it through the season, but it's becoming more obvious that they're not up to the job.

4:30 p.m.: The obligatory self portrait.

5:30 p.m.: It's still pretty nice outside.

6:30 p.m.: Celebrating my first triple-digit ride since August with the last obtainable sips of my Nuun slushy.

A few quick thoughts about the ride: I am definitely having some pain in my left knee. It was never too sharp today and didn't seem to stiffen up much afterward, but it caused enough concern that I opted out of pushing "big gears" pretty early; and for most of the ride, I kept my left foot out of the pedal cage so I could push the back of the platform using my heel. (The ability to move my foot around on the pedal for comfort was always a huge bonus of platforms when I was rehabilitating my right knee, and one of the reasons I will probably never be a total convert to clipless.) It is strange to have my "bad" knee suddenly feel like the strong one. I'm going to have to monitor this left knee pretty closely in the coming weeks to make sure it doesn't find its way down the bad knee's path.

Also, this is a little embarrassing, but I frost-nipped the sides of both pinky toes. It was really, really, really minor. But for as mild as the temperatures were (20s), definitely embarrassing. The mistake I made was wearing a thin neoprene sock - which I use fairly often during wet weather in the summer - as a "liner" layer. This sock is really tight, and even though my toes weren't constricted in the shoe, they were fairly constricted within that neoprene sock, which doesn't stretch much. I noticed around hour eight that my toes felt tingly. But since my feet didn't feel cold at all, nor had I ever noticed any feeling of cold, I figured I could ride out the last two hours. Sure enough, when I got home, I had white patches on the surface of two pretty swollen pinkies. They came back to having feeling again over the course of the evening. None of my other toes were affected at all. But a valuable lesson to learn - the onset of frostbite doesn't always feel "cold." The sensation to watch for and take seriously is the tingling. Circulation is key.

Anyway, beyond those two things, I'm pretty happy with how training is progressing. I feel much less thrashed after this ride than last weeks, despite the extra hour and 40-something extra miles. I just have to watch my knee. And hide those socks!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"The point of snow sports is hot chocolate"

Date: Dec. 25
Mileage: 30.4
Hours: 2:30
December mileage: 583.4
Temperature upon departure: 36
Precipitation: .31"

Geoff was on NPR today!

It has been really interesting to listen to the feedback Geoff and I have received since we decided to enter the Iditarod Trail Invitational. We've heard a fair amount of commentary, not only from friends and family, but also from strangers - radio personalities, marathon runners, people who blog in Ajax, Ontario. The general reaction is “They’re crazy. They’re going to hurt themselves out there.” And yet no one has stepped in and tried to stop us. Instead, we receive an abundance of encouragement and advice. I think nearly everyone who stumbles across our story has some understanding of how it feels to aspire to something so extreme, it all but promises both the depths of suffering and the apex of joy. If they had no comprehension of that feeling, they simply wouldn’t care.

One aspect of this race that is incomprehensible to nearly everyone is how Geoff and I fit in it together. I ride a bicycle and he runs. In the real world, these are very different activities that have very different techniques and ends. A cyclist, even a poor cyclist, is nearly always faster than a person on foot. But on the Iditarod Trail, our playing field is much more level. I have a hard time explaining this to people. Geoff, who is a much better athlete than I am, can hold a steady run/walk average of 4-6 mph almost indefinitely, and can do so even on poor trail conditions. I can swing wildly, from riding 10-15 mph on hardpacked snow to walking and pushing my bike at 2 mph through a number of much more common snow conditions, such as fresh powder, wind-blown drifts and sandy “flash-frozen” snow. In the end, if I hold a 4-6 mph moving average over the course of the race, I’ll be more than happy with it. Truth be told, I will be happy just to finish the race. And as long as I am relatively healthy and my bicycle is still basically in one piece, I’m willing to give myself as much time as it takes. Of course I know it’s a race and of course I want to be fast. But to put it in perspective, beyond just Geoff and myself: The women’s cycling course record for the 350-mile race is 5 days, 7 hours. By contrast, the course record for a man on foot is 4 days, 15 hours. If history has been any indicator, in all likelihood Geoff, on foot, will beat me, on a bicycle, to McGrath.

Still, my physical fitness is one of the few things I can control about this race, and I want to be as prepared as possible in this regard. I can’t believe it’s already nearly Thursday again, and with it, another plan for an endurance-building long ride. Tomorrow I plan to shoot for several continuous hours in the saddle rather than the stop-and-go conditions of trail riding. Pushing a few big gears will help me pinpoint some nagging pains that have been cropping up, and it will be fun to shoot for some bigger miles ... I mean, as big as they go when it is 25 degrees and snowing, and you are hunkered over a full-suspension mountain bike with studded tires. I am just hoping the temperature drops below freezing and the roads are not as sloppy as they've been, or I’ll never be able to ride it out.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Hints of Christmas

Date: Dec. 23 and 24
Mileage: 30.2 and 25.1
Hours: 2:30 and 1:40
December mileage: 553.0
Temperature upon departure: 39 and 34
Rainfall: .11"

This is the third year in a row that I haven't been home for the holidays. Instead, I work right through them ... Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day, all that time lingering among the ghost crew at the office while the people with priorities, the people with families, disappear into warm-looking homes. Geoff and I don't make a big deal out of Christmas (we don't even exchange gifts), and the rest of my Alaska family is comprised of two cats who only understand that this is a dark and foreboding time of year. Our good friends, who are Jewish, took pity on us and organized a potluck tonight. We will be joining a few other holiday orphans for a Christmas Eve dinner of mac 'n cheese, salad, and if I am lucky, some kind of fudge.

My lifestyle has evolved such that Christmas sneaks up very quietly, hiccups quickly, and flutters away. So it wasn't surprising when nothing felt very "Christmassy" when I headed out into the gray predawn or my morning ride. Even the decorative icicle lights, which my landlords last year left glowing until June, hung dark against the house. The weather has warmed up again, and has otherwise been very windy and fairly dry. It makes for less than exciting biking, definitely not the kind that feels like Christmas biking, and I had to push hard to log a few decent miles before I had to be at work.

As my studded tires clacked on the wet pavement and my quads began to burn, I thought about Dec. 24. Right about now, I thought, my entire immediate family is probably gathering at an overcrowded movie theater for a holiday matinee, probably a feel-good PG film, or maybe that Fred Claus debacle. If I were there with them, I would be able to wrap up the Marmot rain jacket I bought for my dad rather than hoping the U.S. Postal Service actually delivers it in time. "Next time we go hiking in the Grand Canyon," I'd say, "you won't get soaked." Then there would be dinner - probably a half dozen of those baby chickens my mom likes to call Cornish Game Hens, and ribbon jello, and sweet spinach salad. We would watch "A Christmas Story" and eat peanut butter balls until our eyes started rolling toward the back of our heads, and then we would move on to hot-fudge sundaes. There would be a suburban tour of Christmas lights in there somewhere, and new pajamas, and the quiet hustle of parents with three grown children and no grandchildren, perpetuating the ritual of Santa Claus.

As I tilt my head back and imagine Christmas Eve, I can hear the roar of a truck barrelling through the slush behind me. I'm way over in the shoulder but I pull over even further, and I can tell this guy's still right on top of me. I turn to him just the truck passes me. It's all but straddling the white line, and in the face-soaking spray of sludge coming off the wheels I hear the driver yell out his open passenger-side window, "Merry Christmas!"

Merry Christmas to you too, buddy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Toward the light

Well, the winter solstice has come and gone. The days are growing longer now. For the first time in months, we have physical evidence that summer will in fact return again, someday. Alaskans always seem a bit more reflective this time of year. It may have to do with the calendar turning over yet another notch, or the stress-fueled holiday season nearing its climax, but I think a lot of this reflection has to do with the irresistible pull of darkness that draws us inward. I even uploaded the music mix I made specifically for the 2007 Susitna 100 to my iPod, filled with several songs I haven't listened to since. Music never fails to evoke vivid images, and today I found myself so swept up in a mindscape of spindly spruce and snowy expanses that I actually startled myself when I snapped back to the image of my reflection clutching a 15-pound barbell in the gym's mirror. These "race" memories are so valuable to me. I feel like no matter how I perceive my accomplishments of the past, or what I hope to achieve in the future, nothing can rob me of the beauty I've seen. And in my own contrived sense of cause and effect, the promise of beauty is the reason I spend time counting biceps curls in a stuffy gym.

I spent the past two days off the bike. On Friday, I took the day completely off, and today I put in two hours at the gym. I hadn't planned on a full rest day Friday, but I managed to jackhammer myself into a porous mush during my ride on Thursday. I woke up the next morning zapped of energy, sore in all sorts of new places, with a throbbing left knee. The pain in my "good" knee was the major reason for taking the day off, but I can't deny that I felt almost entirely spent. The jump from single-day to multiday endurance events is a big one, and I haven't completely spanned it even now, two months before the Ultrasport. But I feel confident that my slow build will pay off, hopefully just in time to burn the dim lamp for as many days as it takes. The rest day paid off, too, with a full recovery that had me feeling great today, almost excited to slog off to the gym to read decade-old magazines and pump some iron.

I thought I'd show my parents what they gave me for Christmas: An pair of "All Degree" Raichle mountaineering boots. I excavated these from the bargain basement of Sierra Trading Post and levied a coupon I had in my inbox to snag them for dimes on the dollar. I realize they may be overkill, but it was hard to let them float by when I was in the market for a new pair of boots anyway, and these happened to be the perfect size I was looking for (about two sizes too large). Now not only do I have a new pair of winter boots for not a whole lot more money than I had budgeted, but I won't have to buy a new pair of overboots, because I think my old, noninsulated ones will hold up fine with these monsters beneath them. All Degree! Thanks Mom and Dad!

I think after I finish riding the Iditarod I should learn how to climb big mountains. I nearly have the right gear to try mountaineering. All I'd need are crampons, and an ice ax, and a four-season tent, and rope, and beeners, and a harness, and a helmet, and one of those lightning rods that keep a person from falling in crevasses and ... hmm ... come to think of it, maybe I'll just stick with cycling.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nine hours in photos

Date: Dec. 20
Mileage: 68.4
Hours: 9:00
December mileage: 507.7
Temperature upon departure: 19
Snowfall: 2"

So I hijacked the one-hour-one-photo idea again, because it can be difficult to come out of a nine-hour ride and write anything intelligent about it. Especially a ride like today's. It was relentless. Lots of trail riding on foot-packed (or unpacked) singletrack, lots of climbing and technical descents, lots of fighting loose powder and tweaking all the muscles I've failed to build. The kind of ride that makes you earn every single inch. Snow fell for most of the day. They recorded two inches near my house, but six or more fell out in the Valley, where I spent most of the day. This was probably the toughest single "non-race" ride I've done this year, and I include in that assessment any segment of my 48-hour, 370-mile trek around the Golden Circle. 68 miles in nine hours. This is my reality.

8 a.m., West Juneau. Hitting the road before dawn. Today was the day before the shortest day of the year.

9 a.m., Sandy Beach. I did a few laps around the trails to warm up for all the snow I hoped to plow over today. Sunrise's failure to make an appearance was a disappointment. I realized the day would end up toward the stormy side of the forecast.

10 a.m., Perseverance Trail. Climbing 20-degree pitches over peoples' footprints really helped this trail live up to its name. I hoped to go all the way to the end, but about halfway up I hit this massive landslide that completely blocks the trail. I scouted for a bit out of curiosity and could find no way around it, and it doesn't look like anyone has tried. Seems like a small disaster for the most popular trail in town.

11 a.m., Salmon Creek. Another tough climb. I'm already beginning to feel it, and the day isn't even half over.

Noon, Mendenhall Lake. I sought refuge beneath an iceberg to eat my lunch. Snow was coming down hard. The lake was a fun place to ride ... about eight inches of unpacked powder over a smooth-as-glass surface. It put up a lot of resistance without being too technical. I did a few laps but didn't make any tight turns. No studs. Oh yeah.

1 p.m., West Glacier Trail. I only saw a single set of footprints in the snow that weren't mine. There were a lot of low-lying branches that kept whipping the top of my helmet, and one actually pulled me off my bike. It was crash one of three today.

2 p.m., Dredge Lake. Lots of fun riding through here. It looks like a different place beneath snow ... more closed in and tighter, like an ice maze. I began to feel like the clueless mouse trying to escape. Crash two of three came when I failed to properly negotiate a minefield of clumpy ice hidden beneath the snow.

3 p.m., Montana Creek. My fatigue really started to set in and I was maneuvering terribly at this point. The trail is as wide as a road - in fact, it is a road that's closed to full-sized vehicles. And I was all over it, fishtailing and swerving and jumping the faint canyons created by snowmobile skis. It was a mess. After crash number three, washing out my rear tire, I decided I should probably spend the rest of the ride on roads and bike paths. As it was, with six inches of new snow and a bit of sand in the shoulders, even the pavement riding was strenuous and slippery.

4 p.m., somewhere in the Mendenhall Valley with my genius water system. So I mentioned yesterday that I wasn't going to carry a Camelbak. I got a new nozzle to replace the one I lost. Unlike the old one, this nozzle doesn't freeze too quickly ... but only because it leaks so much water, which then freezes like armor across any clothing it soaks. So today I filled up three water bottles and stuck one inside my coat and two in my handlebar poggies (the warmest places I could think of), figuring that if my water froze, I'd never be that far from a source (given that I was spending the whole day covering the meager winter trail system of Juneau proper.) The handlebar water stayed as toasty as my fingers ... I swear it was almost warm when I went to drink it after eight hours. The water inside my coat froze to slurpee-like consistency and the nozzle froze shut. I realize that while poggie water works wonderfully at 20 degrees, it's probably less wonderful at minus 20. I do still plan to get this Camelbak thing figured out.

6 p.m., El Sombraro. I forgot to take a 5 p.m. picture, so instead I'm ending with my friend Brian's 47th birthday bash at a Mexican restaurant. I gorged on beans, rice and a huge burrito and as well as most of Brian's birthday dessert. It pays to sit next to the birthday boy. Happy Birthday, Brian!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Another great day for a ride

Date: Dec. 19
Mileage: 10.3
Hours: 2:00
December mileage: 439.3
Temperature upon departure: 16
Snowfall: 0"

I was supposed to go to the gym this morning. I've had a hard time getting in my twice-weekly weight lifting as it is, and I told myself I wasn't going to neglect it any longer. But when I woke up this morning to the blaze of blue sky and hints of sun on the horizon for the first time in, well, it seems like weeks - I had to get out. I decided I would go for a hike. And as long as I'm hiking, I might as well take my bike for a walk.

So it was another day of walk-up, ride-down, just like the handful of skiers I passed. Several inches of new snow and powder-stirring snowmobile use put the trail in considerably worse condition than yesterday. It was hard to gain any traction, uphill or down, and there was lots of fishtailing and lots of meetings with snowmobiles. Everyone was out enjoying the sun. Still, it was worth it just for the views. And it was worth it the hints of sun. Although the canyon spent the duration of my ride in shadow, I could at least vicariously enjoy the orange light streaked across the mountain ridges.

I am preparing right now for my weekly long ride tomorrow. I am going to shoot for nine hours, spending a lot of time on trails. It will give me more opportunity to play with my tire pressure in the cold, which I remembered today is not exactly easy. The uneven nature of trail riding also mimics Iditarod conditions much better than an intense road ride can ... but don't expect big mileage tomorrow. Temperatures should be in the teens to low-20s, and if I'm lucky, at least partly sunny with scattered snow showers. I am going to try to do it sans-Camelbak because I am still having big issues with leaking, even after I replaced the nozzle. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Downhill freestylin

Date: Dec. 18
Mileage: 15.1
Hours: 2:30
December mileage: 429.0
Temperature upon departure: 25
Snowfall: 1"

I had four miles to lose nearly 2,000 feet of elevation. I was standing thigh-deep in a posthole I accidentally punched through a thick bank of powder. Ahead of me, a faint snowmobile trail rolled across the otherwise pristine snow of a mountain meadow before plummeting over a horizon line into certain oblivion.

If somebody had informed me right then that within 20 minutes I would be back at sea level, spitting gravel off my back wheel and making a turn toward Sandy Beach, I would have never believed them. It had taken me well over an hour just to push to that point, mostly on foot. Despite the hike, I was amazed how much terrain I was able to ride. It was the first time I had taken Pugsley on a real snow ride - not just a ride on a trail covered in snow, but a ride on a trail made of snow. At the trailhead, I deflated the tires to 10 psi and was soon floating over packed powder at a breathless clip (6 mph!). I even caught up to Geoff on his backcountry skis while he was applying his skins to better fight the trail's relentless moguls and icy overflow holes. This was about the spot where the trail took a sharp line upward. The wimpy tread of Pugsley's tires could not find traction on the steep slope, and most of the "riding" I did from that point consisted of spinning and spinning the back wheel over a single, unmoving space until I lost my balance.

I walked nearly two miles before I decided to call it good and return to a place where I could actually ride my bike. As I turned to face the disappearing downhill line, I could feel a warm lump of dread gurgling up from my gut. When did this trail become so steep? I leaned over the handlebars for a better view of what lay beyond the slope's horizon, but I could see only sky. So I took a deep breath, put my boot on one pedal, and kicked off.

Pugsley launched into a gravity-fueled explosion of snow with all the enthusiasm of a puppy that just broke its leash. The rear wheel fishtailed wildly until it found traction in the deep track down the middle of the trail, and together we plummeted. Waves of moguls lifted and dropped us with increasing violence, and I applied the brakes ever-so-gently against a jackhammer of momentum. My butt hung inches above the rear rack. As I shimmied the handlebars I felt like a real DH freerider, half-crashing my rigid bicycle down a mountain without fear - if only because snow forgives so much.

Snow forgives much, but not all. Against the flat light of the darkening sky, I failed to notice the mother of all moguls near an opening in the trees that led to a small meadow. I was braced for a tight turn several yards ahead when the back wheel suddenly dropped into a deep hole with a loud clunk, and then the front wheel shot off the small mountain of snow in front of it. The immediate sensation was a feeling that I was coasting over the softest powder imaginable. In fact, I was flying through the air.

In my initial failure to realize this, I actually stuck the landing ... for a fraction of a second. But the sudden shock of what had just happened led me to inexplicably wrench the handlebars to the left, leading Pugsley into the soft, deep powder of the meadow. Our momentum kept us afloat for another fraction of a second, long enough to begin fishtailing wildly, before the front wheel finally planted itself and threw me into the snow, face first, like an Arctic ostrich.

After I fought my way upright, I turned to see Pugsley completely flipped over. Melting snow dripped off my chin, and I could taste a small amount of blood in my mouth. Pugsley's rear wheel was still spinning, like a wagging tail. I had to laugh, too.

It should be against the law to have this much fun on a Tuesday morning.

Monday, December 17, 2007

On commuting

Date: Dec. 17
Mileage: 7
Hours: 35 min. (plus two hours gym)
December mileage: 413.9
Temperature upon departure: 30
Snowfall: 2"

I rode my bike to work today.

Contrary to my aspirations, I rarely bike commute to work. I use my bike for nearly everything else. If fact, going to work is one of the few situations in which I use my car these days. There are a few reasons for this. One, it makes it much easier to show up at the office looking “presentable.” Two, driving allows me to go home during my dinner break, which is about the only time I see Geoff during the workweek. Three, my commute is short - 7 miles round trip - which makes it more difficult for me to get motivated about suiting up after I’ve already taken a shower following my regular training ride, packing something clean to wear, packing myself something to eat for dinner and riding to work, just to save two gallons of gas per week (which is how much gas I use if I drive back and forth to my office twice each day.) Four, all of these excuses prove that, at heart, I'm a lazy person.

But I do have aspirations to become a regular commuter, especially during the winter, when my bikes become the better-suited vehicles for most road conditions (I drive a 12-year-old, front-wheel-drive Geo Prism.) So every so often, I give it a go. Today I packed for my dinner a banana, an orange and an apple sliced up into a fruit salad, as well as Wheat Thins, a can of V8 and a roll of Sweet Tarts. After packing a pair of dress shoes (I don’t currently have a pair stored at the office), I didn’t have enough room in my Camelbak for clothing, so I just dressed in a button-down shirt and pair of slacks - all cotton - and threw my rain gear over the top.

All of the preparation had me running later than I intended. Luckily, the road conditions were nearly perfect for commuting - about an inch of new snow, all nicely packed by passing traffic. The bike path was a mess - here in Juneau, bike paths don’t get plowed - but my route on the bike path is mercifully short. If it had been warmer out, I would have been subject to the standard slush shower that coats everything I’m wearing in gray goo (and yes, I do have fenders on my mountain bike.) But today I arrived at work fairly clean.

A few observations about commuting:

• The commute itself only takes about eight more minutes than the drive, but the preparations and cleaning up at the office seem to take about 20 minutes to a half hour extra.
• Is it possible for bus drivers to be more oblivious to me when I’m commuting? How do they know?
• Wearing my waterproof PVC rain gear, I sweat a fair amount even on a short 3.5-mile ride, and I probably should make more of an effort to carry my work clothing separately.
• As much as I abuse my bikes when I’m using them, I don’t like having to store them outside for any length of time.
• My bike lock had rusted shut when I went to use it today. I’m a little worried about wrenching it back open before I head home tonight.
• I’m not thrilled about the food I quickly packed for dinner, but I don’t have a choice in the matter because I work out in an industrial wasteland devoid of restaurants.
• Gas is getting expensive, but last I checked (and I don’t check often, because I only buy gas about once every six weeks), two gallons of gas still cost less than $7. Saving $7 a week is more a matter of principle than a matter of economy. So I need to work on bulking up my principles until they trump the little inconveniences.

People who bicycle commute to work every day of the year have my highest respect. They belong on the upper tier of cyclist groups; they belong at the top ... just above, of course, winter endurance cyclists.

Trapped

Date: Dec. 16
Mileage: 31.1
Hours: 2:45
December mileage: 406.9
Temperature upon departure: 35
Precipitation: .03"

I did quite a bit of Internet research tonight regarding my travel/training options for this winter, and I've drawn the conclusion that I am officially trapped in Juneau until Feb. 21, 2008. People who advocate building a road that connects Juneau with the real world said the state ferry system was useless, but I didn't know they meant it. I even agreed to work Christmas and New Years just to cash in on a four-day weekend in early January, only to discover I might find one boat to Skagway during that period, but I wouldn't be able to return until sometime in 2010.

I briefly considered a flight to Fairbanks, but for what it would cost, I'd probably be better off buying some wool base layers and a pair of waterproof pants that don't have duct-tape patches across the backside. It's a bit frustrating because I had this whole "cold-weather" cycling trip planned since I started training in October, and now I know it's not going to happen. I probably should have researched it earlier, but I just assumed there would be a boat for me when I needed one. (It appears the Marine Highway all but shuts down during the winter.)

Geoff has insinuated before that he can feel Juneau's isolation closing in on him like a cold fist. Sometimes I feel it, too.

But I had a good ride today. Conditions were really icy, but I rode as hard as I felt my lungs could manage in the cold wind. I was able to keep my speed mostly above 15 mph, except on short stretches of bike paths that were covered in several inches of clumpy debris from plowed roads; I also brought my average speed down quite a bit once I attempted trail riding at the glacier, where I did a lot of 2.5 mph walking. It felt good to put in a sustained hard effort. I died a little toward the end, after not drinking enough because my water bottle had become completely coated in disgusting gray goo, and not eating enough because I hadn't brought anything with me to eat. But when I pulled up to the house with my lungs still searing and my legs pumping hot lead, I could almost taste the success of a hard ride well executed, and I knew it was going to be a good day.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A little bit SAD


Date: Dec. 14 and 15
Mileage: 33.4 and 31
Hours: 3:00 and 3:00
December mileage: 375.8
Temperature upon departure: 36 and 35
Precipitation: .54"

I think just about every Alaskan - at least once during the winter - experiences a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a depressive condition cause not by cold, but by lack of sunlight. Here in Juneau, we have a more daylight than points north of here, but it is arguable we see even less sunlight. As solstice nears, with the low sun barely scraping above the peaks of Admiralty Island and a thick, thick cloud cover refusing to budge, Juneau appears to be locked in perpetual twilight - like the Arctic Circle, but without the long sunsets.

Darkness takes its toll. I love winter and spend a fair amount of time outside, so SAD has never hit me that hard. But when it does, I know exactly what's happening. I sense it in the morning, when I wake up with an enduring junk fatigue - not the satisfying fatigue that one feels when returning from a long ride, but the empty fatigue one feels after sleeping too long and spending the whole day on the couch. This kind of fatigue is self-perpetuating, I and know this, so I try to force myself to shimmy into all of my bike gear and head out on the long ride I have planned. I hoped for five hours on Friday. I made it nearly three, slogging the entire time, before I had one of those "%$&! this" moments and turned promptly for home, where I proceeded to consume every carbohydrate-laden snack in the house (even chips. I never eat chips.) The evening was filled with false starts and at night my cat decided to start screaming like a murderous banshee (cat screams are very humanlike ... terrifying.) I jolted out of a deep sleep and spent the next several hours in bleary-eyed weariness, staring out the window, waiting for some semblance of light, any light, to appear in the sky.

I had been simmering in moodiness for two hours when Geoff woke up. He blamed my bad mood on training and told me I should take a day off. But I knew sitting around the house watching snow fall and stuffing my face with chips and spoonfuls of jam would only stoke the grump, so I grudgingly suited up and headed out into the ice storm.

The road was covered in new, heavy snow, which made the pedaling slow-going and strenuous. It helped take my mind off carbohydrates and screaming cats, and focus more on my breathing, and the sharp way my quads burned, and the soft drumming of low-volume music on my headphones. I didn't even think that much time had passed when I approached Geoff, who was 10 miles into his weekly long run, looking sopping wet and completely ragged. "That's how I must look, too," I thought.

Later, I veered off the road to the Mendenhall Wetlands, a long mudflat at low tide, thinly blanketed in snow. This kind of terrain is difficult at best, impossible at worst, and I locked into the single-minded pursuit of staying upright amid shallow channels of water, snow-covered clumps of grass, sudden steep banks and pockets of sand so deep it felt as though someone had lassoed my back wheel and was trying to pull me backwards. The landscape was so barren and yet so intricately detailed. My goggles had long since become uselessly wet, and I squinted against the sharp snowflakes, focusing on abstract shapes through my blinking tunnel vision until I lost all concept of where the ground ended and my bike began. Then, suddenly, like a white explosion, a flock of seagulls erupted from the snow right in front of me. I jumped off my bike, completely startled, and paused a moment to let my heart rate slow as the birds swirled and tumbled and settled again on the snow.

And I realized that I felt better.