Sunday, March 30, 2008

More movie fun

Date: March 30
Mileage: 13
March mileage: 606.2
Temperature: 37

I did a short ride up the Dan Moller Trail today that turned into more of a moderately long hike. I was gone for nearly three hours, but the opportunity to leave the house and its incessant blaring of college basketball, plus the four-mile descent that takes all of 15 minutes, made it all worth it. I made another short video today during the downhill run. This one is much better than Friday's. I got a better angle by stuffing my Olympus point-and-shoot in my goggles, so I had a ghetto helmet-cam thing going on. One thing I noticed after watching the clip is that it actually makes the ride seem fairly smooth - there's no indication that I spent most of the narrow stretch correcting my line with my handlebars while my rear wheel fishtailed wildly in the snowmobile-churned sugar snow. It may be proof that I do in fact have sound upper body handling - or it could just be poor quality footage. Either way, I got my hands on some video editing software, so today there is music and titles. Enjoy!


Saturday, March 29, 2008

The push

Date: March 28 and 29
Mileage: 12 and 30.1
March mileage: 593.2
Temperature: 42 and 35

Spring has taken over Juneau with a vengeance. The roads are dry (and dusty). The sea-level snow has all but retreated. People are having big bonfires on the beach even as temperatures drop into the 20s. March in Alaska means it's still cool, but the 7:30 p.m. sunset and the day's slow creep into the 40s leaves no doubt: 'Tis a beautiful season.

The best part about this time of year is there is still good snowbiking to be had, if you are willing to work for it. And by work, I mean walk. And by walk, I mean climb. And by climb, I mean lean hard against the bike as you slip and grind and grunt your way up 1,800 vertical feet of slush in a little more than two miles. The effort will leave you red-faced and stumbling through your light-headed hallucinations of swirling stars. But rub a little of that corn snow in your eyes, place your wheel on top of a hardpack trail atop the high mountain meadow, and just roll. I can promise you'll start to feel a whole lot better, quickly.

Spring can actually be the ideal time for snowbiking if the conditions are just right. Day thaws and night freezes polish the snowpack to a crusty sheen. Hit up a snowfield early in the morning and you often don't even need to stick to the trail - just ride the crust (half the fun is the nervous anticipation of when your front wheel is finally going to break through.) But I woke up late Friday and wavered a bit on the walk up, so by the time I made it to Spaulding Meadow early in the afternoon, the 40-degree sunshine had done its damage. But there was still much slushy fun to be had on the rolling snowmobile tracks, running my tires at ~6 psi. And thanks to the bare dirt patches that pepper the snowmobile access trail, I had the place all to myself.

Saturday brought a different kind of bike hike - much less dignity and much less fun. After pulling my Roadie out of the basement earlier this month, I admittedly did little (no) spring maintenance. The roads are still littered in winter debris, and I'm pretty much at a flat-a-day average, but until today, they've all been on the front wheel. But as I rolled past Mile 11 Douglas Highway, I felt that familiar bobbing in the back. When I went to remove the wheel, I discovered it no longer had its quick-release skewer. It had a regular skewer that Geoff uses to ride the bike on the trainer during the winter. And I just stood there, picturing my Allen wrench, safely stowed away in my Pugsley, some 13 miles distant. (doh!)

So I began the walk, reasoning that it was a nice day and I was bound to see another cyclist go by. If I didn't, plan B was to walk to my friend Holly's house, some four miles distant, and borrow the tool from her. I moved to the left side of the road and glanced away from passing traffic. I have strong personal convictions about hitchhiking - I'm not going to do it unless I'm gravely injured or gravely late for work. If a motorist stops to offer unsolicited help, great. But I'm not going to ask for something I don't need.

But after two miles, my feet were killing me and it was becoming apparent that I was going to walk the full four miles. I started jogging, but the awkward cleats on my clipless shoes made a horrible clacking noise. I pictured them being ground to dust in the gravel. I halfway hoped this was happening. I keep the clipless pedals on my bike because ... I don't know ... maybe because I'm lazy. But there's much I don't like about them, and right at the top is walking . (Seriously, what use does a forgetful tourist like myself have for tiny, uninsulated shoes that lock me to my bicycle and serve no other practical purpose?)

I was less than a quarter mile from Holly's house when two cyclists went by. I asked the woman if she had an Allen wrench, and she was kind enough to let me borrow her bike tool. I wrenched the wheel off in a second and waved them back on their way. Then I fixed my flat, tightened the skewer with my half-frozen fingers, and shot down the road. It occurred to me that my rear wheel may pop off at any second. But it felt so good to not be walking that I really laid into the pedals. I probably hit a personal speed record over that stretch, but I'll never know because to odometer screen froze and went black while I was playing around by an icy waterfall. (Seriously, that Roadie is such a wimp.)

Anyhow, if I haven't had enough bike pushing already, I think I'm going to try to wake up early to hit some Douglas Island crust tomorrow. I made my first-ever video while I was snowbiking Spaulding Meadow on Friday. I must have turned the camera on some strange setting because it's cast in purple. And because I shot it by holding the camera against my handlebar as I pedaled along the trail, it's more than a little Blair Witch Project-esque. I really wanted to shoot the downhill stretch (oh yes, I did ride down, often using my right foot as a brake/ski.) But after five seconds, a dropping of the camera, a too-late grab for the brake and a fishtailing crash, I realized that wasn't going to happen. But I have a link to a flat stretch here: I call it "A Minute of Snowbiking in Juneau, Most Likely Uninteresting to Everyone But Me."


Spaulding Meadow from Jill Homer on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My world in old ways

Date: March 27
Mileage: 90.4
March mileage: 551.1
Temperature: 39

I had this idea that I was going to do a long ride today. I didn't know how long it was going to be. It was going to be long. The weather forecast was stellar. I packed water and food. I was thinking maybe all of the Juneau roads. I've never done that in one day before. Eaglecrest is still ice-packed, but everything else ... could be 135, 145 miles.

But then I stayed up much too late last night, staring at Northern Lights. Then my annoying cats started to pounce on me at the crack of dawn. By the time I stumbled out the door, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived at 11 a.m., the glare of the sun hit my face like a brick. As I pedaled down the road, my head pounded and my stomach churned. And even as I crossed the bridge to face the full force of the beautiful day, all that awesomeness that encompassed me last week just wouldn't solidify. There was no way around it. I felt crappy. There would be no effortless hundred-plus miles today. I pretty much doubted I would even be able to rally for a painful hundred miles.

What commenced was basically the opposite of what happened last Thursday. I arrived at the glacier cutoff and wanted to turn around, but I didn't (I did skip the spur, though, so riding all the available pavement was out from the get-go.) Then I limped out to Tee Harbor and wanted to turn around, but reasoned that since I had bothered to carry three water bottles, and all of that food, I might as well keep going. Then I started to eat my food. It was beyond terrible. I had one good Clif Bar, and everything else was nearly inedible. Do you ever carry the same piece of food for about two dozen rides before finally eating it? Do you ever carry food that you have no idea where it came from? Do you ever carry food that you know you don't like but don't want to waste, reasoning that a cyclist on a century will eat anything? Yeah, I did all that. So what I ate was one waterlogged Clif Bar that tasted strongly like mildew, one strange chocolate bar that tasted strongly like dust, and one package cola-flavored Clif Shot Bloks. (I seriously dislike those. I have several stocked up and keep giving them a chance because so many people rave about them. But all I taste is waded-up cubes of vegetable shortening drenched in Safeway-brand soda.)

But I still kept going because it was such a nice day, and I didn't really have anything else planned. When I rolled into the far-away land of Echo Cove, bleached in snow and blazing in warmth, I was glad to be there. I thought maybe I still could take this thing all the way, even if I wasn't feeling great. I've definitely felt worse.

And I actually did rally all the way through downtown Juneau, moving toward Thane, thinking I could at least make a century out of the day. Just then, the front tire deflated. I sat in the shade to fix it, not really registering that early evening was setting in and the temperature was approaching freezing. My pump had rusted shut and I struggled to crack it open. My fingers went numb as I fumbled with the rim and tube. Geoff rolled by on his commuter bike just as I was finishing up. He was heading home. I followed him.

It's strange to have a ride like that, because now I'm sitting here wondering whether or not I wasted my day. There are always chores to do, annoying cats to feed, groceries to buy and bills to pay. Why spend all afternoon on a bicycle if I'm not totally loving it, and not training for anything to justify the effort? But at least I got out and experienced Juneau on a sunny day. I never regret doing that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My world in new ways

Date: March 26
Mileage: 19.1
March mileage: 460.7
Temperature: 37

As I bulldozed through the distracting crackle of empty mussel shells, my heart already pulsing 180 shots of blood per minute, I heard the one sound that could stop it all together ... "shhhhlorp." I struggled against the sudden sticky friction as my momentum plummeted ... 4.1 mph ... 3.7 mph ... 2.9 mph. I turned the front wheel sharply toward the shore and spun with everything I had. Every Alaskan knows the story of the duck hunter who sunk to his thighs in Turnagain Arm mud and had to breathe through the barrel of a shotgun until the tide washed over the top. It's urban legend, like the one where the phone operator tells the babysitter, "The person making the call is in your house." We like to repeat these stories to ourselves, even though they happened far away, and even though they may or may not be true, just to scare ourselves with a sound ... "shlorp." The faster I spun, the slower I moved ... 2.2 mph ... 1.8 mph ... as my rear wheel bogged down in a mere two inches of wet mud. Hardly enough to get stuck in, but still I pedaled frantically, urging my feet not to touch the beach or all would be lost. Never mind that it's not really true. I feel more alive for letting myself believe it.

I've ridden the North Douglas shoreline in bits and pieces, but never in one long strand. I've decided that Channel riding is crazy fun ... and hard. I have yet to find a stretch that's truly sketchy, but I've found pretty much everything else ... smooth gravel, hardpacked sand, soft mud, fields of broken shells, spongy grass, deep stream crossings, barnacle-coated rocks. What's most fun about riding on the beach is the sensation of being on a "trail" that's as wide as a football field, covered in a minefield of technical obstacles, and you have to pick your best line. If you choose poorly, you walk. If you choose really poorly, you sink. But if you choose well, you can cover an amazing amount of ground that doesn't always exist, at least as solid ground.

Today I covered a full seven miles, all the way from just north of the bridge to the wetlands where I crossed the Channel last week. It was probably the most strenuous ride I've done since the race. I felt like I was in my own new world, a personal wilderness, all the while closely parallelling a highway that I would later use to cut away those seven hard-earned miles in 25 minutes.

Still, it was worth it.

Tonight after leaving work I noticed a soft green glow splashed across the starry sky. Northern Lights are a rare, rare thing in Juneau - we're a bit far south for the bulk of them, and what does reach here is nearly always obscured by thick cloud cover. So I went home and grabbed my camera and raced back out to North Douglas ... for once happy to be traveling at 50 mph rather than 15. I don't know why I bothered with the camera. I took about three photos before I realized my limited point-and-shoot was next to useless. But it's really better that way. Instead of watching the Northern Lights through a viewfinder, I left my camera in my car and stood on the beach in my work clothes and thin cotten hoodie, letting my fingers go numb and my neck go stiff while I gazed at the stratospheric dance. Deep green light reflected on the water while waves of white slithered across the sky ... pulsing and fading in a random motion that had both rhythm and rhyme. I was struck by the timing - at least for me - beautiful opportunities to see my world from different angles.

Covering ground

Date: March 25
Mileage: 42.5
March mileage: 441.6
Temperature: 32

A co-worker who doesn't know me very well stopped me today and said, "Hey, I saw you out on your bicycle by the ferry terminal the other day. Wow! You're really covering ground."

"Which day was that?" I asked, because it seemed the natural response.

"That day you were out by the ferry terminal," he answered.

"Could be a lot of days," I said.

"You mean you've been out there more than once?"

I just smiled because the ferry terminal is only 12 miles from downtown Juneau. There seems to be this perception among non-cyclists that their world is a very, very big place - too big to traverse without the aid of big machines and fossil fuels. It takes a slow-moving cyclists' perspective to realize that our world is in fact a small place, because all it takes is patience - just patience - and you can go almost anywhere.

Right now I'm suffering from a bit of "my world is too small and there's nowhere to go" fatigue. Despite the longish rides I've put in this past week, I feel hungry for a good, hard ride where I can really work myself over. But the trails are all covered in slop; the hikes are all buried in avalanche danger; and the roads have all been done, again and again and again.

Not that I have any right to complain. I recall this time last year, swimming 90 laps at the pool, running for two and a half hours on the elliptical trainer at the gym, just for a shot of that satisfyingly addictive "worked over" feeling. Things could definitely be worse.

This picture I think illustrates very well the way Geoff feels about cycling in Juneau. But he only has to suffer this place for one more month.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dear Sugar

We have to talk.

We've been together what ... three years now? I still remember our first ride. I pedaled you up Emigration Canyon - pavement, oh the indignity. But on the way back there was something about you - something so young, so enthusiastic - that coaxed me to veer onto a trail. We shot down the narrow singletrack, both knowing that I possessed the handling skills of a three-legged dog. But you were so smooth, so responsive, that I suddenly felt I could do no wrong. You might say that was the day I fell in love with mountain biking. Love at first sight. If only it could stay that way forever.

I always loved the way that, despite your specialized status as a full-suspension cross-country mountain bike, you were willing to be anything for me. You were my trail bike, my winter commuter, my snow bike and my road warrior. You were my endurance racing bike, my expedition bike, my training bike, my recovery bike ... even my touring bike. But the years go by, Sugar, and things change. I've changed. My focus started to narrow. My needs sharpened. I need sturdy and versatile, something that's as friendly on the road as it is on trails, something that's designed to be everything but can still be that one thing I need. And I'm sorry, Sugar, but it's no longer you.

So now it's time we go our separate ways. I want you to know that I wish the best for your future. I hope you find a good home, with someone who will dote on you and travel with you and love you and yes, even abuse you as much as I did. Because you're strong enough, Sugar. You're the strongest bike I know.

I'll never forget you.

Love, Jill

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I rode my bike across Gastineau Channel

Date: March 22
Mileage: 28.4
March mileage: 399.1
Temperature: 35

Well, in keeping with tradition, I spent my Easter Sunday on a close-to-home adventure that I didn't set out to have. I was all dressed up this morning for a relaxing road ride out North Douglas Island when my parents called to wish me Happy Easter. In the half hour that commenced, the temperature slipped and it started to snow. I grumpily grabbed my Pugsley and instead set out for an expected sog-fest, justifying that as long as I was dressed up, I might as well still go biking.

After nine miles in the slush shower I was more than ready to turn around, but at the last minute veered off on the Mendenhall Wetlands access trail. The tide was really low and the sand had set up nicely, covered as it was in a dusting of snow. I rode to the water's edge and etched an arching path along the shoreline. The Gastineau Channel carves a narrow moat through the towering mountains near downtown Juneau, but out here the water disperses in ribbons through an open valley, more like a river than the sea. I noticed that I could see the bottom of the channel all the way across the first ribbon. And the sand on the other side looked so enticing.

I decided that as long as I carefully watched the rising tide, and as long as I didn't begin to bog down in any quicksand, there didn't seem to be any real risk in riding out to the middle of the channel. I portaged Pugsley across the water and pedaled over virgin mid-channel sand. I came to another ribbon, this one a bit deeper than the first, but it barely brushed my shins. And when I reached the other side, I began to believe that I just may be able to cross this daunting waterway.

Many valuable, tide-rising minutes passed in my quest, but after a half hour, I had forged the sandy bottom and rode up onto the grassy bog that marked the beginning of the mainland. I thought I was home free, but my adventure was only beginning. Just ahead of me lay the Juneau International Airport, its long runways, and all of the "restricted area" signs that go along with it. I cut an angle due south and began to search for a way around. Wading through long strands of wet grass, I couldn't ride my bike anymore so I had to run. The back wheel gathered clumps of grass and slush until it would no longer turn. I had to stop often to chip away at the mess.

I came to a deep water crossing - the first in which I could not see the bottom. My only choice was to cross the channel again or climb directly onto the airport runway. By then, more than an hour had passed and the tide had come up considerably. I didn't know if returning to Douglas Island was even an option and didn't really want to wander back out to the middle of the channel to find out. I hoisted Pugsley on my shoulders and stepped into the cold water. When it began to whisk over my knees, I took a lot of short-breathed comfort in my knowledge that I'm a strong swimmer. I wished Pugsley had the same skill. I made it to the other side and sprinted for a levy, which I believed to be an established trail that I had hiked before. It wasn't. It was a narrow, overgrown levy that guarded a very deep-looking pond. Crossing was impossible, so I had to go around. That moment was the closest I came to panic, knowing I'd have to make the deep crossing again, convinced that if I wasn't snagged by the rising tide, I'd definitely be snagged by the po-po on suspicion of terrorist activity.

Luckily, around the levy the channel wasn't too deep. I crossed a final time and trudged through the last ribbons of wetland streams before emerging on the no-man's land of Egan Drive, a no-bikes-allowed divided highway currently under heavy construction. I had no choice but to ride the wrong way down the shoulder back toward the airport.

I was just about to veer off to the safety of the frontage road when the po-po pulled me over. The officer was good-natured enough and asked me if I knew it was illegal to ride a bike on Egan Drive. I said yes, I knew that, and proceeded to explain that I had been riding my bike on the wetlands and become stranded on Egan. "Were you by the airport?" he asked me. I nodded, feeling a lump in my throat. "Do you have ID?" he asked. I shook my head. He took my name and birthday and called my info into the station. I just stood there, hardly caring about the prospect of a bicycle traffic ticket when it was obvious I was going to be arrested as a suspected terrorist instead.

The officer put down his radio. "So, you're getting off Egan?" he asked.

"Right now," I said.

"And you won't ride on the highway any more?" he asked.

"No," I shook my head eagerly.

"Well," he said, looking directly into my mud-spattered face, "you look like you know what you're doing." It was a bald lie, but I appreciated him for saying it. And with that, he got in his car and drove away. I merged onto the frontage road and laid into the pedals. I don't think Pugsley's ever traveled so fast.

I had to ride 10 miles home in a snowstorm following my multiple water crossings. I sloshed into the house, mildly hypothermic but relieved. I felt a little bit proud, too ... I mean, how many Juneauites can say they've ridden their bike across the channel?

Not that I'm ever going to try it again.


LATE EDIT: For Monika

I made a Google Earth image of the approximate route I took to cross the Channel on Sunday. As you can see, it's not all that crazy. At low tide the area is pretty barren, and the constant swift-flowing tides keep the sand hard-packed, so there is little danger of sinking in and getting stuck. But those same swift-flowing tides come up quickly, and it is possible to get stranded out there on a small island if one is not careful.

Here is a larger view of the entire ride, starting on Douglas Island on the left and crossing over to mainland Juneau on the right. I returned to the island by crossing the bridge, lower right.

Not too bad for a senior and a girly

Date: March 21
Mileage: 48.1
March mileage: 370.7
Temperature: 37

So Kathi and Bill Merchant rolled into Nome at 2:48 a.m. Friday with a race time of 25 days, 12 hours and 58 minutes. Lots of milestones there: Bill's the oldest man ever to ride a bicycle to Nome (is he really a senior? I doubt it. He strikes me as a 30-year-old, but he's probably in his early 50s.) Kathi is the first woman to ride a bicycle to Nome, and now holds the overall female course record on the Northern Route. The two of them have probably had this goal on their mind for many years. I can hardly imagine the sense of accomplishment (or relief) they feel right now, but I wanted to send them my congratulations. Bill and Kathi, Carl and Pete, and everyone else who tackled the trek to Nome this year (six so far have made it, and one more is on the way): You are my heroes. How cool is it to have sports heroes that you can connect with in such a personal way? Most people have to settle for looking at Web stats and watching television and purchasing outrageously expensive sports memorabilia. I rode a whole race alongside my heroes, shared trail stories and food, expressed fears and future plans. I have as much respect and excitement for people like Bill and Kathi as I ever would for pro athletes like Lance Armstrong. And that's not a slam on pros by any means. This is just where my passion fell - this tiny, esoteric little branch of cycling where people push their bikes in the snow. I'm happy here.

I was kinda proud of my own surge this weekend, although it hardly compares. On Friday I followed Geoff on his planned 50-mile ride as he starts to begrudgingly put in base miles ahead of the Great Divide Race. It's been strange riding so much with Geoff. I long ago accepted that he essentially only likes riding bicycles on dry, technical trails and long, remote gravel roads - so, basically, nowhere in Juneau. He loaded up his mountain bike with a bunch of water and gear so he could carry a little weight on our ride out the road. Not to be outdone, I opted to ride my Pugsley (weather called for scattered snow flurries, but really, bringing the heavy beast was a completely unnecessary move.) I paid for my pride with the indignity of fenderless four-inch tires blasting me for four hours with an endless spray of grit, mud, dirt and goo. I looked like I had danced around in a mud sprinkler; I had goo in my teeth, behind my ears, down my pants, in my eyes. Not to mention poor Pugsley. And all we did was fight, fight, fight the goo and wind and passing snow squabbles, then rode home two miles short of our goal. (Geoff did not want to ride loops around the block to kick up the total.) Still, 148 miles would make my longest training weekend, mileage wise, of the entire year. That includes all my big weekends going into the Ultrasport. It goes to show that mileage pretty much has nothing to do with my cycling efforts. Because, although the time I made wasn't terrible, I don't feel like I put all that much effort into the endeavour (and yes, I do nearly all of my longer rides at my "endurance" i.e. perpetual pace.) 148 miles this weekend was easier than any weekend I put in during the winter. And the century was easier than the 50-miler.

I guess it's time for me to start intervals and weight lifting again. Maybe dig deep and find some speed ... or stretch out and enjoy the tour. I haven't yet decided. Meanwhile, look what came in the mail on Friday:

Hoo Boy.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

First day of spring

Date: March 20
Mileage: 100.1
March mileage: 322.6
Temperature: 40

At 9:48 last night, just as I was rolling out the last newspaper pages and preparing the leave work for the weekend, the vernal equinox happened. And just like that, the days became longer than the nights, winter was no more, and the calendar heralded its triumphant successor: The first day of spring.

I lazed about most of the morning, unwilling to commit to any activity, watching raindrops hit the window. But then, just after 1 p.m., the rain stopped. I could see hints of sunlight over Mount Roberts. I thought I should go for a little bike ride. A trip to Thane sounded nice - 19 miles round trip, rolling hills, wind protected. I packed a raincoat, my camera, a $10 bill and a half-empty bottle of four-day-old water. I was good to go.

But as I crossed the bridge, warm sunlight broke through the clouds for the first time in what seems like weeks. I looked out over the channel, so calm I could see all the way to the sea floor. I thought, "I should stay out a little longer than Thane." I turned my bike north for a nice trip to the Mendenhall Valley.

But when I reached the valley, a cool wind began to brush against my face. "That will be a tailwind going home," I thought. "I should stay out a bit longer." And I kept going.

Then at Eagle Beach, it occurred to me that I was beginning to feel hungry. I didn't have any food with me, because I was supposed to be out for a 19-mile ride. I dug around in my frame bag just to make sure. Nothing. The cool wind kicked up sweet, salty scents from the sea. "I'll be OK," I thought. And I kept going.

I rode to the end of the road, skimming my skinny tires tentatively around sheets of black ice. And when there was nowhere left to go, I turned around.

The bonk hit me hard at mile 55. I was 20 miles from the nearest convenience store. I started to feel a strange, involuntary calm, as though I had just taken a strong sedative. I could feel my sluggish legs spinning, probably slower and slower, but my mind rapidly disconnected. I began to think only of two Snickers Bars I had procured in Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Invitational. At 20 below, one would think a Snickers Bar would freeze into an inedible brick, but just the opposite happens. The candy becomes as breakable as rotten glass. The candy would practically explode with every bite; my handlebar pogies were littered with the shrapnel of nougat and nuts. What I did manage to get in my mouth I would greedily swallow before the thaw, choking as frozen shards of candy scraped down my throat. So today, for 20 miles, I thought only of deep-frozen Snickers Bars and all of their shattery goodness.

Snickers: The bonk food of champions. That, and a Quaker chewy peanut butter and chocolate chip granola bar. Total cost of fuel: $1.41.

Finally fueled with decidedly not-shattery candy, I began to regain my senses. I was still about 20 miles from home, without bike lights, when the sun began to sink low on the horizon. It occurred to me that the camera display I had been using to keep track of time had never been reset for Daylight Savings Time. It was actually an hour later than I thought it was. I began to sprint. The effort felt amazingly good.

I managed to make it home just after dark without being killed by a car. And no, I totally didn't ride loops around my neighborhood in the dark for a half hour just to run up the odometer. OK, I did do that. First century of spring!

By far the best ride of the season. Yeah spring!

In defense of music

Date: March 19
Mileage: 28.0
March mileage: 222.5
Temperature: 35

Geoff and I both set out for separate rides today (different departure times, different goals), but we both returned home at the same time. He seemed to be in a grumpy mood, said something about awful weather, but I couldn't figure out what his problem was. I hosed the slush off my Pugsley and the grit off my clothing, poured the standing water out of my shoes, regaled Geoff with the tale of the white-out blizzard I encountered at Eaglecrest (“You couldn’t tell the sky from the road”), sloshed into the shower and doubled over in pain as the hot water hit my frozen feet like hydrofloric acid. Then it kind of occured to me ... that sure was a crappy ride.

But for some reason, I was in a good mood. It was hard to discern why. Here I am, no training goal in mind, resting period, putting in all this junk mileage, and still happily heading out into the crappiest crap Juneau has to offer. Couldn’t I just sit back with a cup of tea and “Desert Solitaire?” Why am I still riding my bike? What is my problem?

There can only be one explanation, I think ... I really like to listen to my iPod.

For most of this month, my mind has been flooded with the kind of subdued introspection and memory-heavy thought patterns that music so beautifully accompanies. There will always be debate about how safe it is to wear headphones on a bicycle, and I don’t disagree. But when I am wending around an otherwise-deserted trail or churning along a wide road shoulder, I relish in the way music allows me to feel like I’m moving not only through space, but through time as well.

I lean on the white noise of my iPod shuffle for other reasons during most of my "epic" rides and races, but I always walk away with one song, one special song, that for me is forever linked to the pain and passion of the trail. Months, years later, I will hear these songs and instantly travel back through the mental landscape of those moments. I don’t actually choose these songs. They sort of just happen in the seredipitous way only a random-shuffle mp3 player can dictate. But I cherish them.

2006 Susitna 100: Before this race, I had never owned an iPod and never trained with music. But a number of people recommended that I not go into a potentially 24-hour-long race with nothing to sooth my mental agony. So I took a little FM radio. I didn’t switch it on until about 20 hours into the race. The only station it picked up was some horrible Top 40 drone out of Anchorage. Slightly better than static. I listened to it indifferently until the soft snow on the trail caught my wheel for the 100th time and tossed me into a drift. As I laid in the snow staring up at the sharp steaks of raindrops illuminated by my headlamp, “D.A.R.E.” by the Gorillaz came on. It was the first time I had ever heard that song. It was so surreal, so appropriate for that moment. I’ll never forget it.

Soggy Bottom 100: By then, I owned an iPod. I had it plugged into my car stereo as I drove from Homer to Hope. As I passed through Ninilchik, I came upon the scene of an accident where a little boy on a bike had been hit by a car. There were several people on scene but no emergency vehicles. The boy’s limp limbs were sprawled out on the pavement. His bike lay in a twisted heap in the shoulder. The people around him appeared to be talking to him, so I kept on going. But I was wracked with all of this guilt and grief. Regina Spektor’s “Consequence of Sounds” was playing. I went on to ride the whole race without music until I started to bonk at the top of Resurrection Pass in the last 25 miles. “Consequence of Sounds” was the first song to play. I kneeled down on the trail for a short time and let my grief seep through.

2007 Susitna 100: I cheated and switched on my iPod (low volume) right at the beginning of the race. Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was the first thing out of the gate. It was a strange, mellow offset to the frenzy as I swerved through strings of skiers on the narrow dog track while other cyclists nudged by me. "Chicago" stuck with me as the one song I remember listening to during the race.

Golden Circle: I loaded up two separate mP3 players going into this 48-hour tour. By then, I was deeply iPod dependent. I burned the first one out during the first 10-hour block and spent the next day listening to nothing, suffering and sweating and swearing as I plowed into 120 miles of headwind on the AlCan Highway. I went to bed that night convinced that I was not cut out for multiday endurance cycling, because common sense told me that once you start to feel bad, it can only get worse. I suffered through the first 30 miles the next day, but then slowly, inexplicably, started to come around. By the late morning I had traveled 100 miles, nearly all of it over steep climbs and descents as I ascended the Coastal Mountains, and I felt great. Better than great. I had nearly reached my goal of cycling 370 miles in 48 hours, and inexplicably felt like I could turn around and do it all over again. And just as I crested White Pass Summit and rolled by the sign saying “Welcome to the United States,” I was listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “Sister.”

2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational: I bought a AAA battery-powered mP3 player that I was only able to load 88 songs on, got sick of them on the Yentna River, and really didn’t listen to music all that much over the course of the next four days. But on the last day of the race I pulled out my iPod Shuffle as a treat. I didn’t think the embedded battery would last longer than two hours in that kind of cold. But the iPod kept plugging along, just like me. And when I was really zoned into the wind-drifted slog, I became fixated on The Wrens’ “Happy.” Not even sure exactly why. “Happy” is breakup song ... a good song for such a moment ... but I was obsessed. I just kept listening to it over and over again, pulling my hands out of my mittens and exposing my poor bare fingers to the minus 50 windchills just to hit the “back” button. Toward the end of my loop I had learned all the words and started to sing along, obnoxiously, to no one but the trail itself ... “Are you happy now? Got what you want? I wanted you. But I’M OVER THAT NOW.”

It was great fun.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March already

Date: March 18
Mileage: 19.3
March mileage: 194.5
Temperature: 37

I stopped for a break at the edge of Sheep Creek, uncomfortably aware of the passing of time.

Strange that it's not only already March; it's nearly April. I have been thinking a lot lately about Bill and Kathi on the Iditarod trail, fighting their way the last hundred miles or so to Nome. I connected with them only briefly during my own Iditarod tour, but I feel like I have a lot of emotional currency invested in their success. Fresh off what I viewed as an epic adventure, Bill, Kathi and I shared the couches around a warm fire in McGrath. We guzzled hot cups of evening coffee and told our trail stories as we fondled Bill's sweet "hand-me-down" Snoots bike. I was just so glad to be done with the race, and Bill and Kathi were so excited to get going again. I've never seen so much enthusiasm. I love the adventure, but it became apparent to me that they live the adventure. And I just can't fathom that our warm Saturday evening together was 18 days ago - 18 days ago - and they're still out there - still out there - locked in their epic battle.

"Crossing the sea ice in a storm with blowing and drifting snow and with no visibility has been the toughest section of trail for me. Last night I couldn't tell what was up or down or left or right where the horizon was or where the ground right in front of my feet was."

Kathi posted this from Koyuk after a 28-hour struggle to cross 30 miles of open sea ice - open sea ice - in a wind-driven blizzard. In all of the history of this race, no woman has ever cycled the Iditarod Trail all the way to Nome. If (and when!) Kathi gets there, she'll be the first. I have a hard time understanding just how difficult this endeavour really is, let alone describing it. Since I returned from McGrath, I have had friends ask me, "What's next ... Nome?" No, no, no, no. It just doesn't work that way. You don't just return from a first-time jaunt across the easy third of the trail and say, "OK. Now I go to Nome!" No. It takes a truly hardy soul to complete such an expedition. It's like comparing a climb on Mount Rainier to an ascent of Mount Everest. Both are hard. Both are dangerous. Both can even see the same harsh conditions. But one is accessible to most everyone who truly wants it. The other is nearly impossible to all but the few. Is a trip to Nome potentially even more difficult than a trip up Mount Everest? It's hard to say. Jose Diego Estebanez, a walker who is fighting through intense pain to bring up the rear of the race, has supposedly done both. I hope to ask him someday.

That said, there are still adventures within my reach. As April creeps closer, so does the date when Geoff plans to leave Juneau for his grand summer of adventure down south, the flagstone of which is the Great Divide Race in June. I'm insanely jealous of his summer plans, and lately have spent too much time wondering what exactly is holding me back from taking flight myself. My job, of course, is a crucial part of the equation. Without employment in one of the few appealing positions in town, I'm likely to be coaxed into moving to some place where it's hot six months of the year and crowded year-round: Some place that's not Alaska. That would be tragic. So I hold onto my anchor.

But sometimes, especially when I am reclined on the shore of Sheep Creek watching a storm of seagulls swirl over my head, I dream up schemes to hold onto my anchor and still take flight. Last summer, one of our photographers spent the entire summer in Norway. The newspaper hired out an intern who meshed well with everyone, took beautiful photographs and happily worked for slave wages. And the company still hired our main photographer back at the end of the season. Everybody won.

And then I got to thinking ... I have a public space on the World Wide Web. There's always the off chance I could capture the attention of an aspiring journalist college student who may be looking for a grand adventure in Juneau, Alaska. Maybe I could open their eyes to the exciting world of page design and copy editing. And then I could talk my employers into hiring an intern for a few weeks this summer ... six or eight ... while I jet off for my unpaid leave of absence.

Of course I don't have any authority to approve such a transaction. It probably involves plenty of red tape with both my company and the sponsoring university. But I could at least open up my powers of persuasion. Are you familiar with QuarkXPress, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator? Do you own an Associated Press Stylebook and browse it occasionally? Does your worst nightmare involve seeing the misspelled word "grammer" in print? Does your dream job involve working nights and weekends? E-mail me at jillhomer66@hotmail.com and we can scheme together! I could even sublet my room while I'm away. You don't mind caring for four cats, do you?

Hey ... it's worth a shot.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday morning, coming down

Date: March 16
Mileage: 29.3
March mileage: 175.2
Temperature: 33

The sleet storm was reaching balaclava-piercing velocity as I turned off Douglas Highway into the dark shelter of the Rainforest Trail. A stick-thin strip of gravel snaked through the imposing crowd of Douglas fir trees, cutting an unforgiving line that was half covered in slippery snow. My entire worldview narrowed to the switchback that was immediately in front of me, and then the next, and then the next, as I wend my way downhill to the sea.

Sometimes I am grateful for difficult trails, maneuvers so near the limit of my ability that they clamp down on every corner of my mind. All I see is here and now. All I do is everything I can to not crash. The descending thoughts that tracked me to this point - the letdown beyond the big event, the settling emotions, the questions of what am I doing? Where am I going? Why am I still here? - everything stalls just outside the tunnel. I function as a machine with little room for rationalization, humming a song I just discovered but hardly know ...

"We're living in a strange time, working for a strange goal, we're turning flesh and body into soul."

My bike shot out of the woods and fishtailed wildly across a pile of broken shells before gaining purchase on the sand. The wheels rolled easier and I settled back into the sinking sensation that had latched onto my mood. I wondered what I would be thinking about if I had never finished the race to McGrath. What would I be thinking about if I had never started it? For so long I had this goal, this driving goal, that cast a thick curtain over everything else. Now I no longer have the goal. The curtain's up and there doesn't seem to be much behind it. Just the sand beneath my bike, the sleet above my head, and this story, this memory that fades a little more, disappears a little more, every day. And I miss it. Already.

It's inevitable that every big high requires a return to equilibrium. A post-race downer. It's normal. But sometimes I am grateful for harsh headwind and deep slush and driving sleet to pound on me all the way home, so I can put my head down and spin my legs to the precipice of pain and think only of wind and slush and burning legs. As I approached Douglas, the accumulating slush had become so deep that I had a hard time keeping my rear wheel rolling in a straight line. My goggles had become so full of water that I felt like I was looking through Coke-bottle glasses; the distorted road appeared to be a least 15 feet below me, and shrinking. I had the iPod blaring because I was wet and chilled and so beyond enjoying this ride, so over it, when I passed the scene of an accident. Red and blue lights swirled. A tow truck was hauling an SUV out of a ditch across the street. Cops milled about and I thought I saw one give me a dirty look. It was difficult to tell through my wet goggle fun-house vision. "This can't be safe," I thought. But the moody side of me wasn't about to change that.

When I arrived at home, Geoff was sitting at the table. I thought about telling him I was sad. But he spoke first. "I nearly died today," he said.

"What? What do you mean?" I asked.

And Geoff recounted his own morning. How he was returning from a long run, a mile from the house and more than ready to just be home, when he glanced over his shoulder. It was a random move, he said, just a mindless gesture, but what it yielded him was a direct view of the sideways SUV careening down the icy street at 40 mph. It had crossed the center line and was quietly skidding directly into his path. Out of instinct or pure serendipity, he hopped sideways over the snow berm and sprinted into the woods. "I ran toward the big trees," he said. "I didn't stop until I heard the crash." In those few seconds, the vehicle swooped across his footprints, jumped the ditch, plowed over the small trees and slammed into a big one. Geoff was standing 10 feet away. (Geoff recounts the experience here.)

In the end, Geoff and the driver both walked away. He had already processed his experience enough to be able to laugh about it by the time I came home ("We were both listening to the same NPR program.") But I was a little shaken. My head flooded with new questions, better questions ... What if that hadn't been simply a close call? What if Geoff hadn't glanced over his shoulder at exactly that moment? What if it had happened?

I am grateful because I still have everything to look forward to. And sometimes, I'm lucky enough to realize it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cost of fuel

Date: March 15
Mileage: 43.4
March mileage: 145.9
Temperature: 28

Let me preface this post by saying that sometimes I like to play the devil's advocate - even on issues I strongly agree with, such as bicycle commuting. I can think of dozens of reasons why bicycle commuting is a great transportation choice - fresh air, good exercise, lots of fun, cutting down on fossil fuel use, reducing global warming impact, reduce traffic congestion, good for the environment, good for the soul, etc. ... But it seems one of the most popular arguments people make in favor of bicycle commuting is to "save money on fuel." Especially these days, with oil hitting $110 a barrel and rapidly climbing. Still, gasoline remains relatively cheap here in America. Personally, I drive way too much because it's "easy." So, selfishly, I wouldn't mind if gas jumped to $10 a gallon and forced me to give up my crutch ... although I wouldn't want to impose that kind of burden on people who depend more directly on fuel than I do. After all, not everyone is physically capable of riding a bicycle.

But yes, gas is cheap. I know it's approaching $4 a gallon. Gas is still cheap. And today I wondered if people took the time to crunch the numbers, how much money on "fuel" are we, as cyclists, really saving?

I had a little too much free time on my hands at work this evening, so I started scribbling figures on a sheet. I woke this morning to beautiful weather - bright, clear and cold. Geoff and I set out for a mellow road ride, cycling 43 miles in about three hours. Based on a table I found on Dave Moulton's blog, a 155-pound cyclist traveling at 15 mph burns about 31 calories a mile. Since I weigh closer to 125, I arbitrarily cut that number to 27. So in theory, I burned 1,161 calories in the ride. But the temperature was below freezing and Geoff and I both underdressed and consequently shivered through most of it (I blame the sunshine ... it made it look like it was 70 degrees outside). So I feel justified in rounding the caloric output up to 1,300 to factor in necessary heat energy and wind resistance.

How much does 1,300 calories cost? Well, let's take another subjective example: What I ate for breakfast and lunch (This is the embarrassing part where I reveal how much I eat.) For breakfast I had three cups of Honey Nut Cherrios, two cups skim milk and 6 oz. orange juice. That nets me about 700 calories and $2.68 in grocery costs. For a mid-ride snack, I ate a Clif Bar - 250 calories for $1.50. For lunch, I had a turkey sandwich - 4 oz. turkey, two slices of bread, 2 tsp. sun-dried tomatoes and mustard for 400 calories and a $2.50 grocery bill. What I land on is 1,350 calories for $6.68.

So how much does it cost me to drive my car 43 miles? Well, I drive a small sedan that I paid for with cash eight years ago. It used to get 40 miles to the gallon, but only musters about 30 these days. It needs a new clutch, but I have yet to put any money in repairs beyond general
maintenance and tires since I purchased it, so I essentially haven't shelled out a dime just to own this car in eight years. I pay about $0.85 a day to insure it. Gas in Juneau right now costs $3.50 a gallon. To drive my car 43 miles would cost me $5.01 in gas and $0.85 in insurance that I pay either way. Total: $5.86. A little cheaper than riding, no?

Granted, it's a lot more fun to stuff my face with Honey Nut Cherrios and pedal through the beautiful clear air of a Saturday morning than it is to inject my car with a gallon and a half of noxious, CO2-spewing liquid. Plus, my calculations don't factor in the original cost of the car, which would be $5,100 divided by however many days there are in eight years. But they also don't factor in the cost of my bike(s), or all the gear I buy so I can ride in cold temperatures.

Again, I'm certainly not arguing against bicycle commuting. I'm just trying to point out that for some people - at least, for myself - cycling has much more value than simple economy. Tell a non-cyclist they should ride their bicycle because they'll save money on fuel, and they're
probably as likely to write that advice off as they would the difference between $6.68 and $5.86. But try telling a non-cyclist they should ride their bicycle because it will change their life. That may be a tougher sell, but in the end, the potential returns are enormous.

Friday, March 14, 2008

My bicycle history

Date: March 13 and 14
Mileage: 22.5 and 31.5
March mileage: 102.5
Temperature: 37 and 35

I dragged out my road bike today - first ride of the year. With an inch of new snow on the ground and temperatures in the mid-30s, it was a risky move. But after taking Pugsley to a few nearby trails yesterday and finding nothing but slush and mud, even a potentially icy road seemed more appealing.

As I hoisted the bicycle out of the basement and up two flights of stairs, I couldn't believe how light it felt. The reality of my road bike is it weighs about 25 or 26 pounds; it is unforgivably heavy for a road bike. But after five months on my fat bikes, it felt like a featherweight. I clipped into my pedals - so strange to feel so trapped. I coasted down the road, hitting 10 mph without even pedaling. When I finally fired my war-worn muscles into the effort, I shot up to 16 mph, 17, 18 ... By the time I crested the hill out of Douglas, spinning hard but well below a dead sprint, I moved beyond 20 mph - speeds my Pugsley rarely sees even on a solid downhill. I can understand why people get so fired up about road biking. It's a good workout, and it's so darn easy.

But today as I pedaled along and thought about the reality of trying to use my road bike for anything serious - say, a 400-mile highway race - it became more and more apparent that I'm not completely happy with my set-up. I'm not surprised. I've had this bike since 2004, and it's been amazingly versatile and reliable for what it is. But it is what it is - a four-year-old, $599 retail, flat-bar "light touring" Ibex Corrida. And I fear I may have outgrown it.

Yesterday an anonymous commenter, probably one of my former roommates in Salt Lake City (Curt?) pointed out how far I've come since my bicycle beginnings, in 2002, when my cycling outings consisted of "tenuously pedaling along through the Avenues, periodically falling over for lack of any sustained biking ability." It's completely true. Six years ago this spring, Geoff and I decided we wanted to prepare for a two-week bicycle tour of Southern Utah. I had only ridden a bicycle a handful of times in the past decade. I borrowed Geoff's rigid mountain bike, which he admitted was probably worth about $20. I had to have him show me how to shift the gears and work the brakes. I had to have him expain to me what the gear shifting accomplished. I felt so wobbly and uncertain on his bike that I would occasionally tip over, on city streets, for no reason. If one of the tires went flat, I would walk to the nearest phone for a rescue call or appeal to passing cyclists to bail me out. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday throughout the summer of 2002, I would head out after work to try and gain more cycling experience ahead of our fall bike tour. I refused to let my roommates call it training. I called it "practicing."

As we neared our planned tour, I decided it was time to buy my own bicycle. I purchased from eBay a 2002 Ibex Corrida and paid $300. I considered that a fortune. After the bike came in the mail, I somehow managed to put it together myself, with the exception of somehow getting the derailleur caught in the spokes. Ibex sent me a new derailleur. I went on to put nearly 8,000 miles on that bike, including a 3,200-mile tour across America, before I traded up for a newer model of the same bike in 2004. I realized that since 2002, I have purchased a new bicycle every year. The progression fits in nicely with my growth as a cyclist:

2003: Geoff talks me into purchasing a mountain bike, so I grudgingly peruse eBay and pay $250 for a Trek 6500. The first ride we do is a winter ride on the singletrack of Stansbury Island - steep, exposed and covered in patches of ice. The ride hardens my convictions that I do, in fact, hate mountain biking. This bike would have remained mostly unused throughout my ownership of it had I not dragged it up to Alaska during my road trip in summer 2003, where I rode it to transport myself around towns and train for my upcoming cross-country bicycle tour.

2004: Through my first blog, Ibex catches wind of my big bike trip and my potential to write semi-decent ad copy. The company offers to upgrade my now-well-worn Corrida in exchange for updating their Web site. I spend 60 to 70 hours on the project, and in the end have to revise and rewrite most of it. But a 2004 Ibex Corrida shows up at my door as promised. My friends tease me for getting a "free" bike. The first ride I take it on is the Salt Lake Century.

2005: My $250 Trek 6500 is by now falling apart, but I'm still convinced I'm not a mountain biker. Still, Geoff has strong powers of purchasing persuasion and finds a great eBay deal for me on a women's specific Gary Fisher Sugar. "You'll ride so much better with full suspension," he tells me. I grudgingly shell out $800 for the bike, which I find completely ridiculous. The nearly new bike spends most of the summer sitting in my Idaho Falls apartment. It doesn't start to see any serious mileage until I move up to Homer, Alaska, and inexplicably latch on to the idea of snow biking. And yes, I do find poetic justice in the fact I spent my whole life in the mountain-biking mecca of Utah and never caught on until I moved to Alaska, where, were it not for snow biking and the Kenai Peninsula, mountain biking would essentially not exist.

2006: It becomes more obvious to me that Gary Fisher did not intend the Sugar to be used as a snow bike, and I set out to build a faux fat bike with a used Raleigh mountain bike frame, a pair of SnowCat rims, 2.7" Timberwolf tires with the tread shaved off and a bunch of random eBay parts. I call it "Snaux Bike" and ride it aggressively all season, culminating in the Susitna 100 that shredded my right knee. I sour a bit to the bike after that - not that my injury was the bike's fault, but all that time off did enlighten me to the fact that bike was not enough for everything I wanted to do.

2007: I finally accept my destiny and set out to build a fat bike, which began with an impulse purchase of built wheels and tires in July. I spend almost as much for said wheels ($430) as I did for my first two bicycles combined. I no longer consider this ridiculous. I go on to mull several frame options before purchasing a Surly Pugsley frame and fork and moving on from there, mostly with old Snaux Bike scraps and a few online bargain parts to complete a fairly low-end but perfectly functional (and, in my opinion now, completely bomber) Pugsley.

2008: The best part of this timeline is it further justifies my need to get a new bike this year as well ... but only one. As much as I'd love a new road bike, I feel like a more immediate need is to retire my poor Sugar and pick up a new bomb-proof steel 29er, possibly a Karate Monkey just like Geoff's. Time will tell.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beach ride

Date: March 12
Mileage: 10
March mileage: 48.5
Temperature: 36

I know I said I would stay off the bike until my post-race fatigue blew over, but when have I been good at avoiding bikes? I finally unpacked Pugsley from his FedEx box this morning. (Oh yes, I did swallow my customer service convictions and take the cheaper and more accessible FedEx Ground option out of Anchorage. Not only did they scan the box upon arrival, they tracked it to the point of redundancy and delivered it to my door three business days later. I wonder if FedEx has flagged my name for extra-careful treatment these days ... or if it's possible, just possible, that the company made actual mistakes when they shipped my bike out of Juneau. Not that FedEx will ever admit that, so I guess I'll never know.)

The tide was ultra-low when I set out, a condition that rarely lines up with my workout window, so I had to take advantage of all that open sand. Instead of my usual ride on slush-covered trails, I veered onto Sandy Beach and began the slow grind south on the only surface that puts up more resistance than snow: low tide quicksand. I had to laugh as my rear wheel slurped and gurgled while I wheezed and sweat for a measly 4.5 mph. There were a hundred easier ways to ride a bicycle in Juneau on a day like today and I gravitated to the hardest one. Post-race lead legs and all. I truly am a lost cause.

But the more normal I feel, the more strange it seems that I have nothing to train for. My plan all along was to complete this super-hard race in February and then head into something of an off-season. But then came Daylight Savings Time, and every day felt a little more like spring. The equinox is on the horizon, and after that, the sprint into summer, sweet summer, when cyclists flood the streets and schedule a slew of fun rides and races. So many races. All of which seem so easy now with the Ultrasport behind me. The 24 Hours of Light? Ha! What's 24 hours? The Fireweed 400? Who cares if I'm slow on the road? I'm pretty much slow everywhere. The Soggy Bottom? Just try and stop me this year. The Great Divide? Don't be an idiot.

And yet I remain without a goal, still trying but somehow unwilling or unable to take it easy. Always in back of mind is a buzzing, as-yet-undeveloped excitement for the future.

With a little souvenir from McGrath to remind me the past is not too far behind ...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Take me back to the start

Date: March 9
Mileage: 23
March mileage: 38.5
Temperature: 34

Every time Geoff and I go for a ride together, he can only listen to the creaks and groans emanating from my bike for a few minutes before he demands I pull over to assess the damage. Today it was a rickety bottom bracket and a rear hub that has become so loose the wheel sways from side to side as it rolls forward. Geoff is always disgusted with the perpetual state of disrepair in my old bikes, especially my mountain bike. And I take full responsibility for their sorry conditions. I put a lot of miles on them on awful trails and awful roads in awful weather. And the only question I ask when gauging my bikes’ fitness is, “Do I think (whatever part is creaking or clanking) will snap in half on me today?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to go.

That said, people like me shouldn’t own old bicycles, just like people who never check the oil and ignore the “check engine” light shouldn’t own old cars (Yes, I also own an old car.) Geoff has spent our first few days in Juneau pimping out his Karate Monkey, and has planted the seeds of 29er dreams in my head. I used to think a 29er was too much bike for me, but Pugsley and his huge tires essentially make him a 29er, and a sometimes-70-pound fat load to boot. My reasoning now is if I can handle Pugsley, I can handle anything.

Right now, though, I’m still just trying to handle cycling. I realize I haven’t given myself that much recovery time since the Iditarod Invitational. But how could I pass up a blue-sky day after a night just cold enough to freeze up the gunk, with Geoff actually ready and willing to join me for a mellow ride out Douglas Highway? We took the pace easy but I still felt heavy and tired with noticeable sharp knee pain toward the end. I may have to take another week or so off the bike. But if the sun comes out again, all bets are off.

Recovery continues elsewhere, including my efforts to re-establish a healthy relationship with food. From the second I recovered my appetite - during the “morning after” in McGrath - I’ve been eating everything in sight. I think I’ve gained two or three pounds back since the race - not that those pounds were all that missed in the first place. It actually would have been kinda cool to keep them off. But I’m so afraid of the spectre of the bonk now that I’ll find myself sprinting to the vending machine at the slightest tinge of hunger pangs. That would have been a great move during the race, but I have to remind myself that pounding M’n Ms at 4 p.m. is not healthy in the real world.

Beyond my semi-broken bikes and semi-broken body, every day I come to a new realization of just how valuable of an experience this race really was for me. One life lesson that comes to mind happened after Bill Merchant caught up to me at Bison Camp and I admitted to him that I had somehow tossed my headlamp during the day. I bit my lip and waited for the lecture about my stupid, boneheaded carelessness. Instead, Bill confided that he took a number of of own spills that morning, and one of those falls had snapped his GPS off its handlebar mount. “It’s lying out there a snow angel somewhere,” he said.

“Oh man, that sucks,” I said, thinking that Bill must have been devastated to lose a $300 gadget, and so early in his race to Nome. He just shrugged. “I didn’t really need it,” he said. “I’m just glad it wasn’t my mittens!” I remember looking at my own $20 pair of mittens and thinking about how carefully I had been guarding them, how much I valued them. Out on the trail, the value of your paltry possessions takes on a whole different meaning. Clothing becomes as valuable as the body parts it protects. Electronic gadgets are heavy luxuries. A hack repair job that keeps a bicycle running is as good as gold. Cash is worthless. And kindness can change the world.

Good lessons. And here I am, a week later, back in the real world, coveting a new bicycle.

Life is a mystery.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Aftermath

Date: March 8
Mileage: 15.5
March mileage: 15.5
Temperature: 41

Well, I've been off the trail for a week now. I'm finally back in Juneau, back at work, but still trying to plow through the solid wall of culture shock I first encountered when I stepped onto the tarmac at the McGrath airport. I feel like I have been away much longer than two weeks. It seems spring has come to Juneau since I've been gone, but little else has changed. Winter will surely be back for one final blast. Winter always comes back.

Physically, my body is recovering great ... for the most part. I went for my first bicycle ride since the race just this morning. I definitely don't have much oomph yet - my legs especially are sluggish and I still have to struggle up the smallest of hills. But at the same time, I don't seem to have any acute injuries. That's especially amazing after my first forays into physical activity: A few violent jolts following three days of basically sitting on a couch. On Wednesday, I set out for a walk to buy some sushi. It had been raining buckets in Palmer and my friends never shovel their driveway. I took one step on the wet ice and went down hard - legs up in the air, tailbone bounce, everything. The fall knocked the wind out of me and I laid there for quite some time, fretting that I had broken my tailbone. It did strike me as funny that I might have managed to injure myself worse in a driveway than I had on 350 miles of Iditarod Trail. But as it turned out, I was fine.

So on Friday I made the mistake of going night-riding at Eaglecrest Ski Area with my friend Libby. This is part of my late-winter transition back to being a somewhat normal person. I wanted to take up snowboarding again. But I'm pretty sure I haven't been on a snowboard since I went to Brighton in Utah with my sisters in November 2006. It was of course raining/snaining buckets at the resort (as you can see in this beautiful picture), and we were trying to negotiate steep slopes of slush as 15-year-old jibbers flew over our heads. First-time-of-the-season snowboarding is just not the thing to do when you already are stiff and sore and slow with your reflexes. I made it two hours before my knees began to scream bloody murder over every little carve. Then I took a fall off the lift and struggled to drag myself up like a 70-year-old arthritic woman who lost contact with her walker. I announced to Libby I was going to have to soft-ride it down and call it a day. I felt like a 70-year-old arthritic woman in a sport for teenagers.

So I'm definitely not back to 100 percent. But have had a week to reflect on the race. I wanted to thank everyone who wrote a nice comment on my super-long race report. In many ways, it was the easiest article I have ever written. I wrote about all the events I remembered exactly as they happened, and the words just poured out onto the screen. But it other ways, it was hard for me to go through and relive those moments. I got so wrapped up in the writing that I would have to take breaks and walk away from the computer and stare out the window at the dogs and the cars, just to remind myself that I was no longer in those situations, lingering so close to the edge of danger, locked so deeply in those emotional battles. This event became much more of a journey to me than a race, so much so that I'm still caught off guard when the first thing people ask me about it is, "Did you win?"

As a race, the Iditarod Trail Invitational was a success for me in many ways. I mean, I finished. With all of my body parts intact. And those were really my only goals to begin with. So, in that way, the race was a huge success. My physical fitness held up better than I could have even anticipated, given that I trained not really knowing exactly what I was training for. So much of the race involved heavy lifting, walking and bike pushing, all things that were only a small part of my training regimen. So to get through the race without serious shoulder soreness, or huge blisters, or foot injuries, was a big stroke of luck.

My gear performed even better than my body. After the debacle of Pugsley going missing in the FedEx vortex and arriving in Anchorage almost too late for the race, Speedway Cycles did a rush job of last-minute repairs to ensure my bicycle was in top running condition. The irony of the situation is that most of the work was done by Pete Basinger, who ended up having so many mechanicals of his own early in the race (Geoff has joked that he was too busy fixing my bike to work on his.) It goes to show that a lot of the success in gear performance is simply luck, but I am extremely grateful to Greg, Pete and Speedway for giving Pugsley every edge they could. I never even had so much as a flat tire in 350 miles.

I also am a huge fan of Epic Designs bags. My bivy burrito turned out to be my favorite piece of gear in the race. Being able to pull that off my front rack, unsnap the straps and crawl into my ready-to-go bivy set-up in less than a minute was especially comforting when I was completely bonked out, cold and discouraged. If I had needed to fumble with three stuff sacks and put everything together in those moments, I might still be out there frozen on the trail. The seatpost bag also held its shape well, even as I packed it and repacked it throughout the race without ever readjusting the straps. The only time it rubbed the tire was the last day, when I was wearing nearly all of my clothing and the seatpost bag was nearly empty. Those bags endured a lot of tossing and a lot of crashes. The only thing I broke was the stem strap on the gas tank. Not bad when you consider the abuse those bags endured. So thank you to Eric Parsons. I'm definitely going to be pulling out the checkbook for your summer line.

I also was pretty lucky with my clothing choices, with the exception of not having good overboots for the stream crossing. Temperatures during those six days ranged between about 25 above to 30 below. I discovered the best way to regulate my core temperature throughout the day was to remove hats, and actually did little to change my torso and leg layers until the last two days, when the sustained temperatures were well below 0 and the windchills were otherworldly and I put on nearly everything I had. I emit a lot of heat through my hands, and actually spent most of the race without gloves or mittens on - just bare hands in my admittedly cheap but warm Cabela's pogies. I did most of my chores with my bare hands. Only the last two days did I pull out my mittens, when the wind worked to flash-freeze all exposed skin. But the liner gloves hardly made an appearance.

So this is the part of the race reflection where I talk about "What Went Wrong." I had my fair share of rookie mishaps, misjudgements, and outright big mistakes. And right at the top of all that was my inability or unwillingness to eat enough calories. Bonking out on the trail the way I did, twice, was scary and pointless. Part of it was the sleep deprivation, but I think the largest part was almost complete bodily mechanical shutdown as a result of running out of fuel. I've never felt anything like it. For a half hour or so I'd putter, putter, putter, and sort of feel it coming. But when the real shutdown came, I'd slump into the trail and feel completely helpless. If I did not have a sleeping bag and my life had depended on it, I probably could have crawled out of those situations, but I'm not positive of that. In reflecting back on the food I actually put down, I was probably eating about 3,000-3,500 calories over a 24-hour period on days I went through checkpoints with meals, and as little as 2,000 on the days I had to feed myself. Hard to say what I was burning ... maybe 6,000? It definitely was a deficit that is NOT sustainable over six days. Eating while cycling has always been a struggle for me, but if I ever plan to do a multiday even like the Iditarod Trail Invitational again, I really have to focus and dial in a better nutrition plan.

In hindsight (skewed as it is, with a week of comfortable nights in beds behind me), I believe my emotional handling of the race could be better in the future, knowing what I know now. I left Rohn after nearly a full day of agonizing, still not entirely convinced I had what it took to even survive the terrain ahead, let alone finish a race. I learned over the course of the next three days that I do, in fact, have what it takes to survive Interior Alaska in the winter, as long as I make good choices, stay alert, and stay on the move. My long stay in Rohn and 12-hour bivy on the Burn were physically unnecessary (and, in the case of the long restless bivy that left my water frozen, actually physically detrimental.) But I used those long layovers to work through what was at the time paralyzing anxiety about the remoteness and the cold. I needed the layovers then, but I doubt non-rookie Jill would have needed them, at least to that extreme. Those alone would have shaved a full day off my time.

Finally, my bicycle was too %&@! heavy. I either need to work harder to cull my gear to a more sizeable mass (and it did cross my mind that cutting out all the uneaten food I carried would be a fast way to do this), or I need to work harder to build strength and train longer with the full gear set-up. I feel like simply being a woman puts me at a disadvantage in this regard ... I have less overall muscle mass to work with in the first place, but I still have the same amount of winter survival gear to hoist. There must be a happy medium.

A question I have been asked often this week is whether I am going to enter the race again. It's hard to say. I already am in "what now" mode and daydreaming about new adventures. I still have no idea where these dreams may take me. People have asked if my next step is Nome. And my answer is, I can't even fathom Nome. The race to McGrath is 3.5 times longer than the Susitna 100, but the increase in difficulty and effort was beyond exponential - it was a quantum leap. The race to Nome is more than three times longer than the race to McGrath. No, I can not fathom it.

Yet.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Day seven: Ghost trail to McGrath

Bathed in comfort at Nick and Olene's house, I made the mistake of reverting back to the status of a real person. I sat in discouragement as I examined my legs, a cacophony of bruises, swollen ankles and throbbing knees. I grabbed the loose skin around my abdomen and realized I had lost some weight. I had lost a lot of weight. Most of it was probably water, but still, it hadn't been that long. My head throbbed from a serious dehydration hangover and my stomach lurched from my frantic efforts to stuff down calories. Then I made the mistake of going online. I learned how worried people at home had become for my well-being. And then I checked the weather report. "Severe Wind Advisory" it screamed. "35 mph winds gusting to 50 mph. Wind chills to 60 below 0." I just shook my head. That couldn't possibly be real. I asked Nick, the wizened local, how he dealt with traveling in such weather. "I don't travel in this kind of weather," he said matter-of-factly.

It was late in the evening and I figured I had at most 24 more hours to ride into McGrath, and likely closer to 12. But I had seriously underestimated how many batteries I would need for the race and figured at the time I only had five, maybe six hours of good lithium battery power for my headlamp and about two hours of desperately low battery power with my one set of (near useless) alkaline batteries. If I left at 9 p.m., I would likely be caught out in utter blackness in the storm at 2 a.m. My only option was to leave around 4 a.m. and hope I had the strength to push into McGrath before the next night. Waiting until pre-dawn would also give me more rest, more time to rehydrate, more time to let the wind calm down, I told myself. I tossed and turned with words of Nick's wisdom ringing in my head. "I don't travel in this kind of weather."

At 4 a.m., the wind was as strong as ever. I remembered the way it tore at my face through my goggles the day before, and it was much, much colder now. Maybe 20 below, before wind chill. I put on every layer I had. The clothing provided a good climate zone for my body, but I could feel the fingers of death clawing at the air only centimeters away. "I will go two miles," I told myself. "And I will see how insane this really is. And then I will turn around." However, what I didn't know was that outside of Nikolai, the trail makes a sharp angled turn onto the river, back almost the way it came. And pretty quickly, I realized that the 35 mph wind gusting to 50 mph wasn't just no longer in my face. It was full on at my back.

In the arctic blast, Pugsley and I flew down the Kuskokwim River. I had to keep the tire pressure really low - about 6 psi - to punch through all the soft sugar snowdrifts across the trail. But for long, hardpacked stretches we would fly at 12 mph, 14 mph, without even trying. I felt like I was piloting an airplane. After an hour, a small chill began to set in near my chest and I started to shiver. I noticed that every time I sat down on my bicycle seat, it felt like a burning block of dry ice. It stole more and more heat away from my core until I couldn't feel my butt any longer. I quickly stopped, pulled three of the four chemical heat packs out of my mittens, stuffed one down my bike shorts for each butt cheek and one between my legs. The chemical warmers improved my situation nearly 100 percent. Later, in McGrath, I would notice a deep red burn on the top of each butt cheek. That may have been the beginning of tailwind-induced butt frostbite.

It was a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even when you feel on top of the world with a 35 mph tailwind. I did not know it then, but at nearly the exact same time, another competitor, a woman walker, was fighting that same wind into Nikolai. A headwind for her, the monster gusts would ravage her eyes until they froze shut. Completely blinded, she would grope around for her sled but somehow become disoriented and unable to get in her sleeping bag or even zip up her jacket. She would wander around helplessly until another racer, a cyclist, met her from behind, put her in her sleeping bag, and rode as fast as he could into Nikolai to send back help. She would acknowledge that she would likely have died if this cyclist did not meet her and help her when he did. I was heartbroken when I learned this later that night. How quickly everything changes.

As day broke, the trail became more and more drifted in. I suspected this would happen in the wind, especially where the river narrowed, but I still couldn't hold back the frustration after I had foolishly allowed myself to believe I could make a six-hour run over the final 50 miles to McGrath. For miles, the trail would be covered in anywhere from one inch to 12 inches of fine, sugar-like snow. Often, I couldn't even distinguish the trail from the rest of the river. I would scout around with my front wheel until it dropped down into the waist-deep snow just off the trail. Then I would climb back out, walk tentatively forward, and continue scouting until the wheel fell out from under me, again. My average pace dropped from over 10 mph back down to 2 mph. I still had 20 miles to push into McGrath. At first daylight, an average pace of 2 mph would put me in town right at sunset. I began to fret about my batteries, again.

I would later talk to Kathi, the first woman cyclist who was just under a day ahead of me, about this final stretch. She is arguably the most experienced female Alaska winter cyclist alive, and is hugely optimistic and open to anything. She would call it "a slog." She wouldn't even refer to the push over Rainy Pass with this derogatory of an adjective. She called Rainy Pass "a fun walk." So when Kathi calls something a slog, you have to know it's really A SLOG. To me, temporarily losing the trail every once in a while was frustrating. But the movement itself felt like wading through a giant, endless bowl of granulated sugar. My calves burned with the effort of the soft steps and my heart rate pounded. And all the while, the landscape of the open river lingered like an anchor caught at the bottom of the sea. I was the sailor tirelessly cranking away at the pulley, but the anchor never gave up its hold. Walking down a frozen river is the definition of monotony. I would fixate on a single tree and watch it take a half hour to reach me. Bluffs could take over an hour. I was losing my will, losing my mind. I stopped to eat a fruit leather. I ripped off the package with my teeth and the howling tailwind tore it out of my mouth and sent it fluttering down the trail. I watched it dance down the river until it disappeared from sight. It followed the exact path I wanted to take. I was so angry that my wrapper could travel to McGrath faster than I could.

I tried to keep my mind occupied. I thought about Geoff and what he must have gone through to let go of the race even when he had no choice. I thought about bicycle touring and how different touring really is during the summer. I thought about cycling and how different "cycling" really is from this endless effort I was experiencing. I thought about my frantic family and hoped they hadn't checked the weather report. I thought about the foods I might like to eat and decided I no longer cared about food. I thought about Juneau and my job, and I wondered how I could ever go back to it all. How I could ever really leave this trail. I caught The Wrens' "Happy" on my iPod shuffle and set it on repeat for at least six playings ... "is this how it's going to be? ... is this how you wanted me? ... broken down again ... it's almost over now." I could not think about the end in McGrath. The end was still so far, far away.

The hours passed by like minutes, and sometimes like days. My knees began to burn and throb, not unlike my right knee had at the end of the 2007 Susitna 100, right before I spent several months injured. I worried about the future, but in a way, I didn't care. The only thing that mattered now was step after step and The Slog. Then I started to see the signs outside of McGrath. "Ultrasport: 10 more miles" the first one read. Then, an eternity later, nine more miles. Then eight. Then I turned off the river onto completely blown-in snowmobile trails. Then seven. I walked as though locked in a slow-motion dream, where every effort I had to give amounted to nearly nothing.

After the six-mile sign, a gust of wind caught me from the side and knocked me off the trail. I laid in the snow, with my 70-pound bike on top of me, and I wondered whether or not I would be able to get up. I laughed because the thought of being pinned there was funny, but then, just like that, I started to sob. I had not cried once during the entire race. And there I was, six miles outside McGrath, bawling so hard that I had to gasp for air as my tear-filled eyelashes froze shut. I cried and cried and cried. I cried for my frozen water and heavy bike and burning knees and throbbing calves and piles of food I could not eat. I cried for the hard, unwarming sun and the wind and the driving cold. I cried for the distance and for my aloneness and for the remoteness and the mean, mean, unmerciful nature of it all. I cried because my adventure was nearly done. I cried because I knew I was going to survive it. I cried because I knew there was an end to the suffering. And I cried because I knew there would be no end to the drive.

About three miles outside of McGrath, the trail veered onto a road. A full-on, two-lane snowpacked-but-plowed road. People in Subarus and snowmachines puttered by, waving often but not even doubletaking the alien bicycle lumbering up the road. Riding the first road I'd seen since Day One, I decided I was going to sprint the final three miles into town. I was going to give it every thing I had. I laid into the pedals with my burning knees and pushed, pushed, pushed. My lungs seared and head throbbed. The bicycle odometer inched up to 9 mph and dropped back to 8. Eight mph. That was all I had to give.

I felt a subdued sort of peace as I rolled into driveway with the big Alaska Ultrasport sign, the warm home of Peter and Tracy, a couple in McGrath who open their lives to the dozens of stinky trekkers who push into their small town. I was told by Jeff Oatley that McGrath is an oasis in the tundra, a heaven where angels feed you grapes and wrap you in warm blankets. Peter's and Tracy's home did not disappoint. I rolled in at 4:20 p.m., just in time to sit down to family dinner. Bill and Kathi were still there, as were a few other Euro racers, and I didn't even have time to strip off all my layers before Peter sat me down at the table with a tall glass of orange juice and a big meal of pork chops and potatoes.

As I sat at the table, chatting about strange topics with the strange crowd and trying to stuff down the food I still was not hungry for, I could feel a piece of me being ripped away. I went into the race believing I would change out on the trail. Less than an hour into being done, I couldn't believe how changed I felt. How severe the final shift, it's still hard to say. But as I stumbled upstairs to take a shower and looked at my emaciated body in the mirror, I couldn't help but mourn the person I had lost. I was still Jill from Juneau, but I would never be the same. I had followed the ghost trail to McGrath and in a way had become a ghost, forever in flux, forever searching for an end.