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.


  1. Hey Jill,
    Notice you wear a "road" helmet. Have you tried a "BMX" or "Skate" helmet?
    kb peace out

  2. Sleeping aids during the race? Do other you know use such items?
    The strongest sleeping aid I have ever taken is Advil Pm (2) and it knocks me out for a solid 8 hours.

    good luck, maybe you would sleep better with better nutrition during the event?

  3. try sleepy time tea or melatonin. i would stay away from ambien type of stuff. try the tea first. you should have a hot drink and soup before you sleep anyway.

  4. and the soup has lots of salt in it.

  5. sorry, this has nothing to do with sleeping...

    but have yous seen this???

    i'm curious what a snowbiker has to say about it...

  6. any sleeping pills i've tried (and none of it is hardcore like ambien) make me pretty sloggy the next morning. not so bad that i can't work or anything, but very... unmotivated. i'd be very careful about using stuff during the race besides chamomile tea! good luck!

  7. Dani,

    Yeah, I'm worried about that, too. But here's my problem ... it's not that I'm just tossing and turning and a little restless. I can't sleep because my heart is racing. I'm amped up even though I'm exhausted. I feel like I'm running in bed. After several days of putting in hard efforts, it's impossible for me to recover in time to get some sleep. Even if I do fall asleep, I often wake up multiple times in the night, and my heart beat is still much higher than my normal resting rate even though I've been sleeping for an hour or two. Then I can't fall back asleep. Tea and soup, although good ideas for regular situations, really isn't going to cut it. I may be groggy in the morning by taking drugs, but it can't be worse than not sleeping at all. Of course I want to experience widely before I actually take anything during the race.


    Ah yes, the Ktrak. I've never tried one myself, but I've never heard anything good. I watched the video on that blog. It's cool, but you'll notice that those guys are using it for downhill riding, mostly on groomed ski slopes. I'm sure it's a great downhill bike, probably much better than a Pugsley for that function. But I think it would be a nightmare as a cross-country winter bike. Just imagine the rolling resistance on that thing. It doesn't even have a front wheel, just a ski that you essentially have to push along while you crank that huge back track through the snow. You'd be lucky to go 5 mph. Casual snowshoers would be passing you on trails. That's my opinion about it, anyway.

  8. Hi Jill, are you familiar with ‘training periodisation’?
    I started incorporating rest weeks into my training last year after reading Friel’s Cyclist’s Training Bible and it makes sense. You build up your training intensity and volume gradually over three weeks and then you incorporate a rest week with greatly reduced intensity and volume to give your body a chance to adapt. I experimented with the concept and found that three week cycles work best for me (two weeks of high intensity/volume and one week of rest).

  9. Maybe experiment with a counterintuitive approach on the sleep, too: I mean, the big challenge in winter camping is staying warm enough at night, but I'm wondering if a rapid cooldown before you turn in might help. It can help with insomnia in room-temperature environments; in your situation the challenge would be negotiating the thin line between being cool enough to sleep and hypothermia. Something to muddle while you're tossing and turning, anyway.

  10. Hey Jill-
    Provocative post. You can research drug warnings at (do not operate machinery, make important decisions, etc...) Me? I'll take melatonin. (And look forward to your posts.)

  11. This sleep thing is a big deal. You should find out what is going on physiologically before medicating, methinks.

  12. It seems (IMHO) that adrenaline and racing heart beats may be appropriate in a potentially life threatenening situation, like sleeping in a tent in sub-zero temps in extreme wilderness.

    I would be concerned that sleep aids my prevent me from waking in a situation that I need to be awake for. Do other traveling in this environment use sleep aids?

  13. Getting myself on the email comments list ... sorry for the spam.

  14. Yeah. The sleep thing is a big deal. I need to figure it out. I've heard of people using mild sleep aids like Benadryl and sometimes even Ambien during ultraendurance races like the Great Divide. Not sure about Ultrasport.

    Geoff mentioned magnesium and melatonin and made a good point - I just need to believe it will work. It's all about the placebo. I'll try that first.

  15. Hi Jill,

    As a shift worker, I went through a number of phases on not being able to sleep... I have tried things like valium, but found they did not have much effect on me, and you have to be careful with the proper sleeping tablets for 2 reasons - 1, their effect lessens with use! and 2, you will be in the middle of nowhere, and I'd hate to think what could happen if you weren't able to wake up!

    There are a number of calming herbs/teas/etc that can help get your body into a relaxed state. I found a number sleepy teas useful (or even just chamomile - common ingredient), but I recommend against Valerian. While it did knock me out, it left me quite groggy when I woke up.

    In any case, as you say, everyone is different... try a couple of things and see how you go.


  16. For sleeping I've always just used two aspirin and a little warm milk. On the trail it might have to be powdered milk? -ick.

    I have very little appetite while ridding as well, even during long rides. However I've never done anything nearly as extreme as you, so I’ve never had to find a solution.

    My equivalent to your “peanut butter cups” is fig newtons. =)

    I’ve been experimenting lately with a vitamin called Co Q-10. If I take it before a long ride I feel no muscle pain afterwards. Still don’t know if it coincidence, but I’ve experimented on 50 to 75 mile day rides. Every time I have taken it before the ride I don’t feel muscle pain – lack of pain may help with sleep? I’d love to know if this vitamin works for anyone else as well.

  17. Xanax will work the best. It will lower your heart rate and let you sleep but it's not a "sleep aid." It also processes out of your system in 3-4 hours so you don't over sleep and it will not knock you out when sleeping in a dangerous situation. Is your heart rate up because you have overtrained or because you are anxious? Ask a Doc.

  18. I have taken ambien and found it was gentle, magically delicious, and knocked me out like it was chump v. champ. i took xanax but just didn't like it. i don't like taking these things for more than a couple days since these are slippery slope drugs.

    i have had several sort of endurance type situations, northwest face of half dome attempt in a day. no sleep night before, up at 2am to scamper up the death slabs, start climbing a 5am. climb for 19 hours on very little water. don't make it to the top and have forced bivy at big sandy (17 pitches up). early april and no sleeping bag. my partner drank the rest of the water overnight. i didn't really sleep at all. had fantastic visions all night long, the view of the valley from big sandy is incredible and you can see out of the valley into the sierra.

    next day felt like i was underwater, but we did top out and felt cryin' pain by the time we made it back to the valley. staff at the bar gave us pizza and chicken. as soon as we started eating we both started the shakes. then tried to drive home in a 1963 Volvo Amazon station wagon. Fell asleep part way home at the side of the road. found red bull, drank 2 and then made it home.

    the nose in a normal 3 days - also no sleep. the lack of sleep slows you way down and messes with your judgement. if i could have taken a few grains of ambien it would have helped, but i also am often unable to sleep bc i have no bivy gear and am just cold. when it is one to two nights this is ok - even part of the experience. hallucinatory and otherworldly, shamanistic vision quest sort of thing (or wasted drunk on a bender?) but more than 1 night is too much. ambien doesn't leave you with residue the next morning. i would do a step by step process of soup, tea. beddy beddy time, and then if no sleep 1/4 ambien dose. if no worky, take half to full dose.

    vision quest or walk-about? it's in the eye of the beholder.

    ps a guy named andy declerk, who is a s. african climber, gave up a fullbright scholarship to oxford to devote his life to climbing. when asked why, he said that climbing (alpine climbing) gives him "psychic energy." what did he mean?

  19. Good info, Asa, and good suggestions. I think your expereinces better illustrate what I am trying to talk about. It's both overtraining and anxiety. How can you not be "overtraining" during a 4-6 day adventure race? Your out running 120-150 bbm for 14, 18 hours a day. It doesn't just drop back to 55 instantly because you've stopped moving.

    Inability to sleep early in the Great Divide Race is what essentially shut down Geoff after eight days. In the Iditarod, I tossed and turned in every sleeping period save for the four or so hours of my first bivy. I was out cold then. I'm not sure I got more than 10 hours of sleep the whole rest of the race, in six days, even though I spent upwards of 30 hours "sleeping."

    I didn't notice the "race insomnia" again until night two of my Yukon bike tour. Wasn't in a race then. I was a little anxious, but not terribly. But I had ridden 150 miles that day and 100 the day before. Couldn't sleep.

    I actually don't know how most multiday endurance athletes do it. I'm sure it's very personal, and also probably one of the secrets of the trade. :-)

  20. Jill,
    Your post worries me to some extent. You would essentially be using sleep aids in an off label manner. None of the sleep aids have been tested on elite, endurance athletes. The clinical trials for all these drugs did not include such an experimental cohort of users. My big concern is that you are at considerable risk when you are pushing your body to the extremes during your events, and the additional (unknown) stress added by using drugs in an off-label manner is probably not wise.

    If you do opt for using them, please don't quit blogging for a few days in the middle of a race, or we will all wonder what became of you. Good luck with this. Doug

  21. Good luck with all the training Jill - I keep reading and being inspired to keep biking over winter.

    I've had to have a hunt around on your site to check what temperatures you're usually riding in. I'm trying to start riding again after injuring my knee two weeks ago, but temperatures here (Canadian Rockies) have dropped dramatically since my last rides pre-injury. Most days it isn't getting above -4oF, and spending a lot of time between -15oF and -20oF or colder. I'm having real trouble keeping warm... and I guess I'm coming here to share the problem because most people I know think I'm mad for trying to ride a bike in this weather.

  22. Jill; Sounds to me that the problem is not lack of sleep, but how to get your HR back down, I do long distance trail running and maintain a HR of 145-160 but within an hour or so it is back to normal 45-50

  23. Jill
    I have problems with cold hands during rides, now its not 0 deg or lower but its around 20 deg. My hands freeze right up. Thanks Joe

  24. Jill,
    sounds like anxiety. I had lot of it at school and tried just about anything. Relaxation and mediation may help with that, but sleep aids work well too. I tired ambien a few times - for a whole one I need good 8 hours a sleep, 1/2 I'm out for about 5 hours. If you use it, try it at home first. And make sure you are already in bed when you take it (Paul can tell you what happens otherwise). Plus, doctors seem to love prescribing it. I also tired Bendryl and it makes me feel really groggy the next day even after 8 hours of sleep. Tylenol PM worked well the first few times only. I also tired Valerian root and melatonin, one of each pill, and I slept pretty good. One more thing I realized with taking all the sleep meds is that they work differently under different situations. I almost never experienced the same effect from the same drug, pretty close, but never the same. Good luck!

  25. I've never tried sleep aids, but my husband swears by Dramamine. I know it's for motion sickness, but he uses it as a sleep aid. It's harmless, and it doesn't leave him feeling groggy in the morning. Worth a try, I suppose.

  26. Jill,

    Prior to the start of the race, perhaps you could make a small bottle (say 500ml) of chamomile tea. Chamomile tea can be drunk cold, not ideal but possible. The bottle should be able to cover you for 4 to 5 nights.

    Sleeping pills do have effects beyond that of grogginess. As Doug and Maria pointed out, please do be cautious when it comes to taking of drugs.

    Be well.

  27. Thanks for all who commented. Good advice all around, and I've come up with a pretty good idea of methods I want to test out before the race. Nothing extreme. I'm not going to a doctor for ambien.

    Joe ... your hands will freeze up if they're not covered. :-) I like to use snowboarding mittens. Finger use is overrated in cycling.

  28. Do you have trouble sleeping when your not racing? When you're at home after hard rides, etc.

    I only ask this because I had a helluva time sleeping for the two years I was in grad school -- it can be a bit like endurance racing -- grad school.

  29. How about trying to learn how to control the heart rate naturally, e.g., by meditation or biofeedback? I bet you could get someone to teach you how to do that. Safer than messing around with that dope. Who knows what the drug interaction might be with peanut-butter cups, goldfish and xanax?!

  30. Following on from Michael, there is a wonderful titled "The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind" by B. Alan Wallace.

  31. Jill, first I want to thank you for your efforts. I've been lurking for months, enjoying your thoughts, experiences, and inspiration. But most of all, I enjoy your gift for photography.

    I would suggest looking into recovery supplements before sleep aids. Ambien is the only sleep aid I've found that doesn't leave me groggy the next day, so long as I get at a minimum of 7 hours of sleep. But even so, I am nowhere near peak performance the next day. I started sleep aids to accommodate rotating shifts at work, and it's easier to become dependent on them regulating your cycles than people might realize. It's not that you're addicted to the drug, it's that your body forgot how to regulate without it. A few days here and there won't affect you like that, but if you're naturally wired like I am, it's easier to take a pill than fight the insomnia. Not trying to scare you, just letting you know the real world drawbacks.

  32. Sun on the mist almost looks like flames. Great photos, Jill!

  33. Jill, have you tried a homeopathic remedy for your sleeping problems?

    Personally, I love Moon Drops-- they are like little mints or lozenges but not the hard candy kind. And they don't taste of mint, kind of vanilla-y. is the website on the box for more information.

    You suck on one or two at bedtime, and they help calm your mind and body so you can fall asleep naturally. I haven't had any side effects from them, they aren't habit forming, and I've found them in my local Whole Foods/Wild Oats/Natures grocery store. You may be able to find them elsewhere locally; if not, let me know, I'll see about shipping you some. :)

    I also have problems with race insomnia-- try driving a rally car at breakneck speeds on unknown roads when you aren't rested! :) I always make sure I've got my Moon Drops on race weekends.

    Definitely check out homeopathic remedies, though.

  34. Jill, just thought I'd post this about sleeping. On August 29th, I shattered my left foot, dislocated my left shoulder tearing the labrum and capsule, badly sprained my right ankle and lost considerable amounts of skin. Needless to say, I was pretty thrashed. I was able to get off the pain meds about 3.5 weeks after my surgery but I had to keep taking the Norco's at night (norco is 10mg vicodin/325 mg acetaminophen) so I could stay asleep. I wasn't having a racing heart, but I was dealing with a lot of healing & stress. I went and talked to my PT and my masseuse and they recommended I try Valerian Root. It's been my secret weapon ever since. It mellows me out and allows me to get at least 8 hours without waking up. Sometimes I'm a little tired in the morning, but it's something to try. I use a pure valerian root in a capsule.

    On another note, have you looked into a full vapor barrier top instead of just the vest? There's a great article about vapor barriers at the Stephenson-Warmlite website at


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