Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year in miles

January: 833.8
February: 647.7
March: 636.3
April: 789.6
May: 1,188.4
June: 822.1
July: 747.0
August: 748.3
September: 893.3
October: 587.0
November: 831.1
December: 790.1
Total 2008 bike mileage: 9,514.4

I finally got around to tallying up my 2008 mileage. I just used the numbers that I kept track of on my blog, with a few approximate additions of the Iditarod race (about 350 miles) and the 24 Hours of Light (120 plus 25 of extra riding around Whitehorse, probably on the low side.) The total surprised me. I had no idea I was that close to 10,000 miles. If I kept track of all of my human-powered mileage, including hiking and (limited) running, I almost definitely would have a 10,000-mile year behind me. Not bad.

The high-mileage month by far was May, although it certainly wasn't the most difficult. That designation would have to go to February, the third shortest month in terms of miles. After that, I'd probably throw in a bunch of other winter months and of course September and put May in sixth or seventh place. Ah, those lazy days of summer.

It's been a fun, harrowing, amazing year on the bike, and certainly not at all about the mileage. But there's a more-than-small part of me that wants to up the ante in 2009.

I eat snow for breakfast

Date: Dec. 28 and 29
Mileage: 36.3 and 31.1
December mileage: 790.1
Temperature upon departure: 19 and 15

For the past few days, biking conditions have been tough. Really tough. Like fishtailing-in-sandy-sugar-snow- punching-through-postholes- being-blown-by-wind- into-deep-snow-drifts tough. And that's just in the road shoulders! All the trail riding I've tried has been an abysmal, bike-pushing failure. Every other person in the entire city is up at the ski resort, lining up to battle for first runs through two feet of fresh power. And while I don't necessarily want to be doing that (ski crowds: ugh), I am still a little unclear about why I am trying to ride (and often walk) a bicycle in the worst of conditions.

Yesterday, I was wading through a still-unplowed bike path when I came to a mountain of chunky snow that had been deposited by a highway snowplow driver. The pile was at least six feet high. It was over my head. On one side of the path is a chain link fence; on the other, a deep trench. The bike path is the only way through. I picked up my 35-pound bike and hoisted it over my shoulders, holding the seatpost in one hand and the handlebars in the other, and stepped into pile. It was littered with ice chunks and sand. The first step engulfed my knees; the next, my waist. I threw the bike to the side as I kicked and struggled to extract myself. Then I crawled and flailed my way across more precious inches of progress, stopping briefly to catch my breath and drag my overturned bike those same few inches forward. After about five minutes I was finally somewhat free, having moved all of six feet down the path, with only another half mile of 2 mph bike pushing to go. Once I was past that obstacle, all I had to look forward to was more unplowed road shoulders, more fighting of drifted sugar snow and sand, more crawling over loose piles of snow to avoid swerving into traffic; and after that, the impossibly deep trails that were my actual destination.

Then today, I did it all again, minus the submerged bike path.

And as I churned along the North Douglas Highway amid a swirling ground blizzard and breathtakingly cold cross-winds, I realized that beneath my face mask, I was smiling. I was enjoying the high drama of it all, relatively safe in my cocoon of clothing layers and riding as far away from the light flow of traffic as I could manage. I was working hard, and I was having a tough time just moving forward, but I was happy.

And, of course, I asked myself, "What's wrong with me?"

I think the answer lies in the reality that all cyclists, from the fast to strong to the "crazy" among us, need a challenge. For some, the challenge is losing weight. For others, increasing speed or distance. And then there are those who simply want to clean that impossible move or crush other cyclists in certain races. We all have different motivations, but we're all connected by one thing: the reward. If we meet our challenges, our brains reward us with happy thoughts and a fair dose of endorphins.

So what's my challenge? My challenge is tough. That's it. The tough stuff. Rides that are tough to me. Rides that are tough to most. I'm an atypical cyclist in many, many ways. I don't care about speed. I've tried. Really, I have. But in the end, I could never develop an interest in watching a clock and calculating fractions of fractions of numbers to chase that ever-elusive edge over arbitrary standards. And I don't care about distance. I like to ride far, but what I like to do most is ride long, in terms of time, and do the best I can with the hours I have.

So if I don't care about fast and I don't care about far, what does that leave me with? Really, after that, there's only tough. I'm left with tough. And riding a bike in the winter in Juneau, Alaska, is tough. And the tougher it gets, and the better I get at it, and, yes, even the faster and farther I can go in tough conditions, the happier I am.

That's my excuse. I'm not crazy.
Monday, December 29, 2008

12 months in photos

I went through my blog archives tonight to pick out my favorite photos of the year, and it was hard to decide. I don't really think of myself as a "photographer." Photographers generally take photos for the purpose of taking photos, as works of art and expression. I'm more of a "photo documentarian." I take photos for the purpose of illustrating a particular time or place or event (most often a bike ride.) As such, it's nearly impossible for me to separate the actual aesthetic quality of photos from my emotions about the events and places surrounding them. But I tried. One for each month - 12 months in photos.

The top photo is my favorite of the year, taken on Sept. 25 along the Klondike Highway, south of Carcross, Yukon, during a late fall bike tour of the Golden Circle. Maybe it's because we spend so much of the year washed in the blues and grays of winter, but all of that color still leaves me in awe.

"Long ride," Jan. 10: I guess it's pretty clear that I like this photo since I used it on the top of my blog and on the cover of my book. It's a nice example of camera serendipity - all I did was set the 10-second self-timer on the camera, wedge it in the snow on top of the Mendenhall Lake ice, and ride away from it. But it managed to capture this perfect moment between the mist and the glare of the winter sun as Thunder Mountain loomed in the background.

"Long race," Feb. 25: February was a pretty weak month for photos. I was preoccupied with other things. This photo was taken along the Skwentna River on day two of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I just like how crisp and clean the trail and the horizon looks - the day before everything in that race went dark and blurry. :-)

"First day of spring," March 20: This is a photo of Auke Lake taken during a century ride on the Spring Equinox. I love how the perfect reflection of the Mendenhall Towers shines in a small break in the ice.

"Spring snow," April 17: This photo was taken the day after an avalanche took down the city's connection to the Snettisham hydroelectric power plant. Eight inches of snow fell on the city, and more than a foot of new powder settled up high. I took advantage of the day to go snowboarding along the Douglas Island Ridge. The powder was as smooth as butter and as light as a cloud - so perfect.

"Commuting home," May 18: Yeah, it's another random-timed self portrait. It's true that my camera sometimes takes better pictures than I do. This was taken back when I diligently commuted everywhere on my bike, and I was heading home from work at about 10 p.m. when I stopped at the Salmon Creek delta to watch the sun set. I like the reflection of soft light in the water scattered among the seaweed.

"Broken chain," June 28: I broke my chain during my 10th or 11th lap in the 24 Hours of Light and had to hoof it about three miles back to the race start. I snapped a quick 11:30 p.m. sunset photo above a small tributary of the Yukon River. I like both the intense pink light (I honestly did nothing to color correct this photo, although the pink sky may be a camera glitch), as well as the oddities of a bike chain wrapped around a seatpost and a rear fender in the dry climes of Whitehorse.

"Wildflowers," July 17: I took this photo during a midsummer hike in the Granite Creek Basin. The lighting is a little flat, but I think that's why I like the bright yellow flowers amid the melting snowpack that much more.

"Eagle Beach," Aug. 29: I took this photo the day John McCain announced Gov. Sarah Palin was his running mate. I was called into work on a day off, and ended up riding much later into the afternoon than I had planned. Because of that, I caught the most amazing rainbow on Eagle Beach. But I decided this photo, taken with my back to the rainbow, turned out better for its stark lighting and ominous storm clouds.

"Autumn Rain," Sept. 13: September, strangely, was actually the hardest month for me to chose a favorite photo. I had the bike tour and also a handful of amazing hikes that produced good images. But I chose this one for its subtle ways it captures the season: the color and the rain. It was taken along the new gravel road at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

"Grand Canyon," Oct. 14: I took this photo of my dad hiking down the South Kaibab Trail just after sunrise. High winds the previous day kicked up a lot of dust, which created a soft glow along the canyon walls.

"First tracks," Nov. 25: Taken near where the April snowboarding photo was taken, above the Dan Moller Ski Bowl. I like the shadows and the perfect sparkly snow, just waiting to by stamped out by snowshoes.

"2 p.m.," Dec. 12: I was going to post that Christmas Eve picture of the blowing snow at sunset, but decided to post the blowing surf near Eagle Beach instead.

It's been a good year for photos. Here's hoping 2009 is even better!
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Snow days

Date: Dec. 26 and 27
Mileage: 30.1 and 34.2
December mileage: 722.7
Temperature upon departure: 27

Well, I'm back home now after starting the drive north, running into a wall of whiteout conditions, and thinking better of crawling my front-wheel-drive-with-summer-tires sedan out to the Eagle Glacier trailhead for a 5.5-mile night hike and campout in the snow. I was going to meet my friends, who are staying at the Eagle Glacier cabin. My plan was to resist the lure of the toasty cabin, and instead test my trench-digging and sleeping-in-a-suffocating-bivy-sack skills by camping outside. I realize now that even though I couldn't make it out to the cabin, I could in theory still go camping. But I've been avoiding that crucial aspect of my training. Eight hours of winter bivying is in many ways more exhausting than eight hours of biking, so I've been waiting (stalling) for the perfect opportunity to come along. It's too warm tonight (25 degrees.) Maybe I'll wait for another cold snap ... next week ... maybe ...

It's been a snowy couple of days. We received about 18 inches of snow yesterday and today. While I enjoy the addition of new white stuff, it seems to bring out the worst in Juneau biking as long as it's falling. Yesterday, with all the trails snowed in, I set out to do some serious resistance training on the North Douglas Highway. I stuck to the far right of the shoulder, plowing through 8 to 10 inches of warm (i.e. heavy) powder, breaking a serious sweat even though I rarely broke 8 mph, and was often churning closer to 5 mph. It took me four and a half hours to ride 30 miles, in conditions as difficult and slow as soft sand, while icy flakes continued to blast my face in the headwind. Even though the road lanes were swept fairly clean by traffic, I avoided them almost entirely except for a few swings to veer around snow berms. The sheer physical effort I expended to stay on the shoulder is the main reason why I was supremely offended and annoyed when a guy in a truck stopped, in the lane, and rolled his window to yell at me. "You're a traffic hazard!" he said. "What's wrong with you?" All I said was "Whatever, dude," and kept on riding. But what I wanted to say is "I'm a traffic hazard? I'm a traffic hazard? I'm working my butt off to keep my bike a full two feet off the road. You're the one stopped in the traffic lane! Jerk off." But I'm too timid. I wondered if that guy would have even given me a second thought if I was jogging or walking a dog, or if he was just bombarding me with typical bicycle prejudice. I stewed about it for quite a while. Little encounters like that are enough to ruin entire rides, but luckily, I was soon north of the ski resort traffic, engulfed in beautiful white silence and lost in my maximum-heart-rate cloud.

I headed out to the Valley this morning to see if any of the trails had been packed down, and encountered another resistance workout just getting there. Anytime there's heavy snowfall, the city can take days (and, if the snow continues, sometimes weeks) to plow the bike paths. The problem with this lies in the fact that bicycles are illegal on Egan Drive, Juneau's freeway-like artery that is the only road through these narrow sections of town. This law is heavily enforced, making the bike paths mandatory. There's a mile of unplowed path near my office building and another mile near the airport, and the only way through is to push your bike through knee-deep powder. This adds a full 45 minutes of slow walking onto a ride that usually takes less than an hour. It's great if you're training for a race like the Ultrasport, but infinitely frustrating if you're trying to bike commute from one side of town to the other. The city and its overfull bus system are forever conducting surveys to see how they can convince more people to bike commute, and I want to don my Captain Obvious suit and show up at those public comment meetings singing "PLOW THE BIKE PATHS!" (and make it legal for cyclists to citizen-arrest idiots who stop in the traffic lane to lecture them.)

Yes, I like the snow, but I will be relieved when it settles down.
Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

Over our years in Alaska, Geoff and I have become more and more minimalist in our holiday celebrations. We moved past the pretense of giving each other gifts years ago. We do give serious thought to going "home" for the holidays, but each "home" is on the opposite side of the country, and neither is anywhere near Alaska. Geoff went home in 2005 and 2006. I have yet to make the leap. And we have the admit, the sadness we feel in missing our families and their holiday traditions is tempered by relief in missing the extra expense and stress that always accompanies travel this time of year. I work at a business that operates 365 days a year. I wouldn't even have Dec. 25 off work if it wasn't my natural weekend. But since it was, Geoff and I decided to go for a Christmas Day snowshoe hike.

The winter sun was out.

We went for a casual stroll up to Spaulding Meadow. It was a holiday outing, and we treated it as such, walking easy and talking about life. I think it was a little strange for both of us, in the midst of our mostly focused winter training, to do something outside that didn't feel like exercise.

Well, maybe it felt like exercise to Geoff, who forgot to bring his snowshoes on our snowshoe outing.

After he became tired of swimming, we went on the hunt for a packed snowmobile trail. We explored new places and did some impromptu "sledding" into some creek beds.

Christmas Dinner: Turkey and mustard on wheat, homemade chocolate chip cranberry cookies, and slushy Pepsi.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Date: Dec. 24
Mileage: 12.1
December mileage: 658.4
Temperature upon departure: 23

My boss gave me an unexpected day off today. Geoff had to work. I finally put Pugsley back together after getting a new free wheel installed, and managed to mangle the chain during a particularly bad case of chain suck. Now I'm going to have to order a new one. Lately, Pugsley's been sick more often than he's been healthy. But there wasn't much I could do about it on Christmas Eve, so I went for a hike.

I worked hard to reach the Douglas Island Ridge, and decided to walk along the spine for a while and see if I could make it to sunset. Low clouds on Admiralty Island promised the possibility of some spectacular colors, and it seemed like the ideal Christmas Eve situation: Watch the sunset at 3,000 feet, sprint down the mountain in the twilight, and ride home beneath an emerging pattern of stars, all while scanning the sky with that same kind of childlike anticipation that my sister and I used to feel when I snuck into her room and we stayed up late on Santa Watch.

That would have been ideal it if wasn't for the awful wind. It was hard to tell from lower on the mountain how bad it really was up high, because the slopes had been scoured clean by earlier winds and there wasn't much powder blowing around. But when I reached the top, I discovered the surface snow was as hard as concrete, and even still, 50-60 mph gusts would find loose grains of frigid, dry powder to blast right in my face. I wasn't dressed warmly enough for that kind of windchill - with an air temperature of 13, it was probably close to 10 below - but thought I could hang for 45 minutes if I kept moving, knowing I could always retreat back down to the wind-protected basin.

I couldn't hang. I started to feel uncomfortable, and then concerningly cold. I turned my back on sunset and blasted down the steep slope in long, loping strides (a lot like beginner powder skiing without the death wish.) I had to enjoy the subtler reflections of sunset on the eastern peaks, but was happier for getting myself out of the wind.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good ride.

New York Times coverage

I don't have much of my own content to add today, but I wanted to post a link to this great New York Times article about the Iditarod Trail Invitational. There's an embedded video on the Web site that is probably my favorite piece of reporting I have ever found about this race. The video follows race organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant as they conduct a winter training camp for those who plan to attempt the race this March. It captures so well the transition - well, it's more of a startling realization - between the expectations about the Iditarod Trail and the realities of it. The two men at the winter camp, George Azarias and Aidan Harding, start out with the usual "easy explanation" Iditarod banter: "Oh yeah, we're crazy, we don't know why we're here. The guys go out on the trail, eat some nasty yellow glop, push their bikes for a while, and, suddenly, you can see that moment of truth in the face of George - the moment that I think every rookie experiences - the "holy cow, this is real" moment: "People think, OK, this race takes seven days. 350 divided by seven, that's 50 miles a day. On a road bike, easy, you do that in three, four hours, max," George says. His eyes widen. Cut to pushing a bike up a steep snow berm. "It's (voice becomes quieter) ... it's so hard. You need to struggle to survive."

Perfect. Great video reporting from the New York Times. Go watch it!
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 11 of sun

Date: Dec. 22
Mileage: 27.5
December mileage: 646.3
Temperature upon departure: 14

Eleven days have passed and I'm still in awe of this clear, colorful, holy-cow-you-can-see-forever weather. Today was likely the last day of sun, with a Tuesday forecast calling for seven inches of snow. But it's been a good run, and I'm not complaining. I'm fairly certain this has been the longest stretch of consecutive dry days since I moved to Juneau two and a half years ago.

"Clear weather is such a waste this time of year," Geoff told me. "For every clear day you get, what, six hours of sunlight? And none of it's direct sunlight. I'd rather have three sunny days in the summer then 11 in December."

I disagree. The winter is such a beautiful time of year, in my opinion, and the clear sky opens up jaw-dropping views that catch me off guard even after two and a half years. Just today, I headed out North Douglas for a mellow "endurance pace" two-hour ride and a quick jaunt on the Mendenhall Wetlands. I was so focused on trying to hold my line and keep the studded-rubber-side down atop papery ice that I almost rolled right into the Channel. As I looked up from where the water met the frozen shoreline, I was met with the searing white cliffs of the Mendenhall Towers and the light blue glacier below it. I looked left to a sharp view of the Chilkats, and right to the rolling outline of Blackerby Ridge. How many times have I seen these geographical features? And from how many angles? And still, the same reaction hits me: "This place is unreal."

Beyond that, the wetland rides have been really fun, although pretty precarious. There is certainly a limit to what studded tires can handle, and I have been skirting the edge of those limits all week. Still, I love the shimmer and sparkle of glare ice. I'm going to miss it when the snow returns.

Yup, that's my happy face.

Look at that line and tell me that doesn't look fun.

No one said winter sun in Juneau doesn't come at a price. This photo didn't turn out so well, but I was trying to show my handy compass/ emergency whistle/ firestarter / thermometer giving a reading of about 10 degrees. Oh, and that black streak on my fingers isn't frostbite - it's chain grease. :-)

Also, I wanted to post a link to a "Ghost Trails" book review by Sandra in Brisbane, Australia. I nearly forgot to post it, as it was written about a week ago, but it's very flattering. Thanks, Sandra.

"When I put the book down I had this sad feeling I get sometimes when I fall in love with a book character and have to say good-bye after sharing such an intense and intimate time. I was wishing that she had taken up the invitation of Kathi to continue on, all the way to Nome, adding another hundreds of miles to the race and consequently more pages to this amazing story. "

You can read the review here.

I have received a number of insightful e-mails from readers, and wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I wanted to post some quotes, but decided against it because e-mails are generally intended as private communications. I also got in a little trouble earlier this month for posting part of an e-mail on this blog, because the woman who wrote to me had intended to give the book to her sister as a Christmas gift. Whoops. Sorry. :-)

If anyone is interested in some holiday reading, the offer is still out for free PDF copies of the eBook for any blogger who doesn't mind taking the time to write a review. Just e-mail me at jillhomer66@hotmail.com or leave a comment here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Shoutout from the South Pole

Claire "Down in Antarctica" sent me this photo, and I had to share it because it's so cool. That's the South Pole (the South Pole!) and that's a sign for me (for me!) right next to it. So cool. What a great Christmas present. Thanks, Claire.

Claire told me they are currently enjoying balmy (read: Frigid) summer weather on the South Pole, where she works for a physics project called "Icecube." She offered to traverse the continent on a bicycle with me if I ever decide to do so. Careful, Claire, I might just take you up on that offer.


Date: Dec. 21
Mileage: 38.1
December mileage: 618.8
Temperature upon departure: 23

Dec. 21 is a big day in Alaska. And not because it's the first day of winter, which no one gives much thought to, because most Alaskans have been thinking about winter since October. And not because it's a solstice, a designation that no one gives much thought to on June 21 when they're kicking back in lawn chairs, sipping cold drinks and watching the sun set at 11 p.m. No, Dec. 21 is a big day because it's the winter solstice. The day that brings the light.

I rode out to the glacier today, and the area was packed with people. Ice skaters weaved around each other in erratic lines like water skeeters on the surface of a blindingly blue pond. The low sunlight sparkled on the frozen lake. I ventured out onto the glare ice for the first time. I'm terrified of riding glare ice. I've washed out enough with my studded tires to know they're not slip-proof, and I don't have any traction on my shoes to back me up. But I saw enough people out walking on the lake that I let my guard down, picked my bee-line so I wouldn't have to turn or use my brakes, and pedaled toward the blindingly blue towers at the end of the lake - the age-old glacier ice.

Normally I shy away from crowds, but I was happy to see all the people on the lake. It warms my heart when people go outside simply to enjoy the winter air and the noon sun hovering at its lowest point of the year. It's four days before Christmas and everyone I passed said, "Happy Solstice." They know the real reason why nearly every major culture in the Northern Hemisphere saves its biggest celebration for this time of year. The coming of the light.

Yeah solstice.
Sunday, December 21, 2008

On ice

Date: Dec. 19 and 20
Mileage: 4.0 and 23.4
December mileage: 580.7
Temperature upon departure: 7

I've had actual requests to start listing the departure temperatures in my daily ride stats. I think I stopped posting them back in July, when I got tired of typing boring old 50-something every day. Temperatures get interesting again in the winter, and more meaningful for my future reference, so back they go. It was 7 degrees when I left the house today. Feels brisk! But, then again, it feels less brisk every day. Juneau's been locked in this clear cold snap for so long (nine solid days with hardly a cloud), that when the rain (or even snow) finally does return, it's going to feel strange.

I only cheated a little on my day off on Friday ... with one quick sunset lap around the Mendenhall Lake (so quiet, so cold, so perfectly beautiful. I heard a wolf - likely Romeo - howling in the forest.) I was out in the Valley running a bunch of errands (first and last time Christmas shopping all year. Woo Hoo!) and had my mountain bike on top of my car anyway (how did that get there?) I was dressed more for Christmas shopping than for riding a bicycle on lake ice at 5 degrees. It was one of those rationalization moments (it'll be a quick trip. What's the harm?) And, of course, in about 20 minutes I managed to become so wracked with shivers that I had to slow down just to avoid shimmying my bike clean off its wheels. Funny how quickly you forget those elementary school lessons in winter cycling - you have to dress as warm for 20 minutes as you do for 20 hours.

But there's good news, Juneau readers. Taking the day off gave me time to finally drop into Hearthside Books and get "Ghost Trails" placed on shelves! Woo Hoo! So you can drop in to the Nugget Mall now and buy my book. You should go buy them out quickly so they'll think it's really popular and order a bunch more. I'm also working on sending some books to Speedway Cycles in Anchorage, so Anchorage readers can pick up a copy without paying for shipping. I'll post again when those are available.

Today I went ice biking on the frozen Mendenhall Wetlands. I've owned my 29" Nokian studded tires for about two months now and I can't say I'm real thrilled with them. I knew they would take a beating a wear down quick from the hundreds of pavement miles I ride each month. These have also had the added beating of rides on rocky trails that were coated in light layers of ice, but mostly rocks. Either way, wow, after two months they look nearly as worn as the 26" Kenda tires that I used for three seasons. They're missing about 10-12 studs in each tire, and the ones remaining on the center of the tire are bent, pushed all the way in, or otherwise misshapen. I'm a little disappointed, if only because I should have known better. If I'm going to ride a bike in such a way that a pair of tires is only going to last a single season, I might as well buy the cheapest ones I can find.

The cold snap looks like it might have a least a couple more days left in it. Now, if only I could find the courage to go camping.
Friday, December 19, 2008

Wash the day away

Date: Dec. 18
Mileage: 82.7
December mileage: 553.3

I feel like I just went through the bike version of the Master Cleanse:

* I set my mind to completing something illogical and counterintuitive.
* It pretty much took over my life for a little over a week.
* It tested crucial aspects of my willpower.
* I started to suffer toward the end.
* I walked away with feelings of renewed vigor and control, a better understanding of my own body, and a reluctance to go back to solid food (or, in my case, free time that I don't spend riding my bike.)

And thus ended my eight-hour ride following a 30-hour week, for 38 hours of riding and hiking in eight days, always in temperatures below 25, with plenty of single-digit temps and windchills below zero. That's essentially a peak week for me. I don't plan to do any longer efforts in preparation for the Iditarod. This week just had a perfect storm of ideal conditions for enjoyable riding and race training, and I figured a "peak" week would fit in well to something new I am trying this year: Rather than just build, build, build, I am going to try to ride some hard weeks followed by "recovery" weeks, for an ebb and flow of effort that I hope will make me a healthier person come March 1.

Effort: Every time I stopped to eat (and yes, I do stop to eat. After all this time, I still haven't mastered the skill of ripping open wrappers and gnawing on frozen energy bars while wearing mittens and piloting a bicycle on ice), I checked my thermometer. So I know temperatures ranged between zero degrees (the icebox around Herbert River) and 15 degrees (roasting in the sun on the Mendenhall Lake ice.) The air was breezy, but I only felt a few really strong gusts of wind. Even without the "extreme" aspect of the cold that I admit I was somewhat hoping for, it's still hard for me to spend eight hours outside in those temperatures. It's hard when I'm riding. It's hard when I'm walking. It's hard when I'm standing still. Every second of the day feels like hard work, pumping out massive quantities of body heat and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy when one part of my body is roasting and another stings with cold in the frigid air. I woke up feeling pretty weak and still went out and tried to maintain my normal pace riding on roads, a few miles of hardpacked but bumpy trail and about 12 miles of loops around the (perfect and so much fun) lake ice. As always, parts of the ride were exhilarating (the lake ice). But I also hit a fair share of low points. Some were really low points, where I was angry at myself for riding out the road because I couldn't catch a bus out there. But I never got on a bus. I rode home, and toward the end, I felt happy again, awake and alive, even strong, for having tried it.

Eating: So, as expected, I never had an appetite, all day long. I wish I could change that part of my physiology. But I didn't do too bad with the force-feeding. I was able to stuff down three Power Bars and four "100-calorie" granola bars, for an average of 150 calories per hour. For me, that's a perfectly sustainable amount for an eight-hour ride, although it's not really sustainable for the long term, when I'm out riding hard in the cold and there's no big dinner waiting for me at the end of the day. I'd like to be able to put down twice that, about 300 calories, ideally, and am going to continue to work on it. Starting to use my pogies so I can stuff baggies of Goldfish crackers in my handlebars and eat them while I'm riding will, I think, help.

Clothing: I'm pretty happy with my "base" system. I wore a standard pair of bike shorts, two pairs of socks with a vapor barrier between them, winter boots, a thick pair of polyester leggings (to deal with the "cold butt" issue), a skin-tight polypro shirt, a vapor barrier vest, a fleece jacket, soft shell pants and coat, mittens and either just a headband or a balaclava. My insulation was on the "a lot" side for the conditions I ended up riding in. I did a lot of sweating in the sun, but I was glad to have it all on when I went through breezy, shaded areas. I find sweat pretty much balances itself out in the end, and is almost impossible to avoid anyway, so I like to lean on the side of overdressing.

I never had problems with "too cold" body parts. I did notice a problem area with the coat. The vapor barrier vest funnels nearly all of my body moisture through the arms. Back when I used a Gortex coat, I used to get ice rings around the bottom of my fleece jackets, and quite a bit of frost coating my arms. But the Gortex coat has pit zips, which I think helped funnel away a lot of the moisture. This new soft-shell coat expels moisture better than the Gortex, but it doesn't have pit zips, so I ended up with a lot of frost built up on the coat beneath my arms. I'm not sure if that's really even a problem, but I may stay in the market for a better fitted soft shell with pit zips.

Sleeping: I couldn't sleep last night. This is always a problem for me during hard, long efforts - rides that I can't recover from quickly enough - and I try to fall asleep while my heart is still beating at an abnormally high rate. I know now if I want to get any normal sleep during the race, I am going to have to experiment with sleeping meds. I've avoided drugs because frankly, I'm afraid of them. But I think I won't have a choice but to lean on sleeping aids, so I'd love to hear recommendations.

Right now I'm trying to take a day off. I admit it feels strange. Another beautiful, cold, bluebird day, and here I am at the computer. I'm tempted to drag my bike out to the Mendenhall Lake for one more gorgeous lap, because I feel pleasently tired, in control, and strong, like I could ride forever.
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Only one more shopping day!

Date: Dec. 17
Mileage: 39.2
December mileage: 470.6

I completely forgot to hold my LIVESTRONG drawing for a book this week. I plugged the pleasingly large numbers into a raffle and Nancy P. is the winner. Congratulations! I sent you an e-mail, but if you didn't receive it, post a comment and let me know. I'm going to hold another drawing this Friday, and this week's pool is still relatively small. Five bucks nets you one ticket. You can donate to the fight against cancer here.

Also, Thursday is the last day to buy a book in time for Christmas. I'm going to make a trip to the post office Friday morning for shipment on "Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, depending where they live (in the U.S.)," according to the postman. Then it's Christmas. You can purchase a signed book or two or several from me directly by clicking on the gold "Buy Now" button in the sidebar of this blog.

Thank you to everyone who supported me in my book-selling efforts this past month. Sales have been strong, better than I expected, and I appreciate your contribution to my "Iditarod fund," as well as your comments and suggestions. Geoff and I were just talking today about the idea that if I could somehow maintain the book sales I've had in the past month, I could make a modest living by riding my bike all the time and occasionally entering a crazy new race and self-publishing a book about it. Of course I know I can't keep that up - on all fronts - but it's fun to dream.

I took one step into the dream life by working hard yesterday and today and achieving my goal - a 30-hour workout week. I've noticed that toward the end of a long workout week, I can't get away with the same things I can when I'm fresh. Like riding for 3.5 hours and not eating anything. I do this all the time, but at the end of a 30-hour week, it cuts a lot deeper. My blood sugar was so low after my ride today that my hands were shaking. And I couldn't recover as the day wore on. My heart rate stayed high, and my energy level remained low.

I know, I know. Classic signs of overtraining. So what am I going to do about it? I'm going to do one last long ride tomorrow. I'm hoping for eight hours if I can survive it. I can't say I'm particularly thrilled about the idea when what I really want is an eight-hour nap, but there are several reasons I think this is important:

1. The weather forecast is calling temps between 8 and 14 and gusting winds to 40 mph, which will drive the windchill to 20 below. I know. Sounds awful. But it will give me a chance to really test the clothing I've put together for the Iditarod, minus stuff I don't own yet (but won't really need when the weather is as "mild" as 20-below windchills. Ha!) It's one thing to go out for two or three hours, and it's quite another to go out for eight. That will give me time to really identify problem spots, like sweat pooling on my back or cold toes.

2. The psychological training for the race is as important as anything, and I really need to become reacquainted with putting in tough, long efforts when I am 100 percent less than fresh.

3. I also need to gain better understanding about maintaining performance when I feel like stopping, so I can avoid another 12-hour bivy in the Farewell Burn.

4. I need to work on eating enough calories to cover my effort during longish efforts. I didn't do so well last week. This week, I won't have much choice, because I think my glycogen deficit is spent.

Should be fun. Or wait, fun's not quite the word. Should be educational. After that, it will be time for rest and recovery, I promise.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The brightest time of year

Date: Dec. 16
Mileage: 12.5
December mileage: 431.4

The sun rose today at 8:42 a.m. and set at 3:06 p.m., for a daylight total of six hours and 24 minutes. Juneau is going to lose exactly one more minute of daylight between now and the solstice on Sunday; then we begin the long upward arc toward summer. It is, by most accounts, the darkest time of year. And yet, I don't see it that way.

Back when I first moved to Alaska and started venturing out into the snow and painful air to train for the Susitna 100, I joked with Geoff that winter was my favorite time of year in Alaska. But as years wore on, as snow fell and wind blew and I spent more and more time out in it all, that became less of a joke. Now I find myself in my fourth winter in Alaska, falling more deeply in love.

I love the sharp lines and soft colors of a world swept with snow and encased in ice.

I love the crunch of tires spinning up a difficult trail. In winter, the rides become so much harder; the rewards so much greater.

I love the random bruises that crop up on my skin after I fling myself off my bicycle in yet another battle with gravity. They remind me that I am pushing myself; that I am always pushing myself to be better.

I love the sting of cold air on sweaty skin, and the flecks of frost wrapped around strands of hair and eyelashes. They remind me that I am a furnace of self-perpetuating warmth, biologically engineered to move freely through the world, awake and alive.

I love the low sun and long shadows, stretched across pristine landscapes.

I love the stark, white surface of distant high mountains, looming with all the fragility of a ceramic sculpture and mystique of a forbidden border.

I love the deep silences and startling realizations.

I love my Pugsley.

I love winter.