Friday, January 30, 2009

Finding myself

So my "Find Me SPOT" arrived in the mail today. It's my parents' Christmas gift to themselves me. The deal is I carry a big orange hunk of plastic with three easy-to-use "Help, "I'm OK" and "911" buttons, and the device tracks me wherever I go and transmits my location to a remote Web site. After I reportedly lost myself for three days during last year's Iditarod Trail Invitational race, I think my parents just decided the SPOT would pay for itself in anxiety medication.

Today I set out on snowshoes with the SPOT and my GPS to intentionally get lost in the woods. I have an unnaturally terrible sense of direction for an adventure junkie, and I'm trying to sharpen my woeful skills in reading the terrain and route-finding. The idea is to cut my own trail through the dense woods, reading the topo maps, distance and elevation on my GPS as I go, and track my progress so I don't wander around in circles. And yes, I recognize that it is pretty hard to get hopelessly lost when you are tromping your own rather obvious path through the snow. That's my insurance policy. Even then, there is always on the periphery a light urge to panic - "Aaaa, I'm lost in the woods!" - an urge honed after many years of having a spectacularly bad sense of direction.

But GPS reading could come in handy if I ever find myself actually lost in a more remote section of this state. Rain fell hard in the late morning as I set my snowshoes into a foot of unbroken, oversaturated snow and began the dull trudge. I know I'll never convince readers of this blog that the combination of 35 degrees,wind and heavy rain is the worst weather in the world, but it's something I believe with unwavering faith. Maybe it's because the weather is like that in Juneau quite a lot. Quite a soul-crushing lot. Enough that it can really help a person overlook all of the beautiful days that make living here worth it.

Either way, the trudge. Breaking trail through a foot of new, wet snow is a crazy hard workout. I set out today for a five-hour hike, but five hours of hiking in stuff like that is really closer in effort to five hours of running. Heart-pounding running. At 1.5 mph. In other words, another great Iditarod workout. I'm seriously sore right now, in muscles that I actually use quite a lot - like my quads. I'm going to have to incorporate the trudge more often.

But I did successfully wander off into the woods and direct myself to a full loop that took me up the steep slopes on the south side of Mount Jumbo, down across several miles of muskeg and stream crossings, then dropping down the mountain through the devil's club stalks, log jams and overflowing creeks. I ended up on the far side of the Treadwell mine - way beyond the point where the shoreline trail ends. I came to a cliff and actually had to climb down an old mining structure, into a creek, to get around it. Lucky for waterproof boots (yep, definitely waterproof.) When I realized how far south I had come, I had to pick up the pace along the shoreline to try to make it home before dark. My snowshoes felt like they weighed 40 pounds, which was probably close to their actual weight, from all of the ice I had picked up walking through overflow.

During a five-hour trudge like that, with the decisions I'm facing, you'd think I'd have a lot of time to sort through my life. But it's strangely just the opposite. I don't think about my outside life at all. Even though I have all of these modern devices that keep safety from really being an issue in that situation, I still find myself every bit as alert and focused in the moment as I would if I were actually lost in the woods. Even though SPOT knows where I am, I don't know where I am, and every step I take carries me farther into the unknown. So all I think about are the crunch of my footsteps, the snow patterns on a tree trunk, the way each tree looks different from the last tree, the cloud-obscured features of mountains, the deer tracks that I hope mark the best path through a thick grove of spruce ... I like it when this is all I think about for five hours: the simple path forward. Things which never seemed obvious before become obvious. Landscapes become landmarks. I lose myself and find my way home.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Conflicted, part 2

Date: Jan. 26 and 27
Mileage: 25.6 and 27.1
January mileage: 739.4
Temperature upon departure: 22 and 26

I admit I was more than a little disappointed when the snow returned. Deep snow followed by heavy rain followed by unseasonable warmth followed by a healthy freeze had settled Juneau's snowpack in a way that almost everything was rideable, everything. All of those places that I usually need snowshoes and a fair amount of time to access - the Douglas Island backcountry, Spaulding Meadows - I could ride, and quickly, covering so much normally forbidden ground that I could hardly haul myself off the snow and into the office in the afternoon, knowing that any time not spent chewing up crusty backcountry before the snow fell was time wasted.

Then came the snow, soft powder, 12 inches or so, much to the delight of skiers and disdain of crust-seeking cyclists. I was pushed back on the roads, all 80-odd miles of them, again facing one of the things about Juneau that has gotten under my skin: the dead ends. How many times can I ride up to Eaglecrest? How many pictures can I take of the Mendenhall Glacier? What adventures are left for me here?

And yet, as I set out today to climb the Eaglecrest Road for the 235th or so time, a thick blanket of new snow enveloped the canyon in quiet. The road was devoid of cars on a Tuesday. The trees were brushed in shades of gray as breaks in the clouds revealed a soft glow of color behind bald white peaks. I took a deep breath of cool, moist air and wondered, "How can I leave this place?"

A clever reporter called it "Bloody Monday," the day when American companies announced they were axing 55,000 jobs in a single day. My boss pulled me into his office and pulled out a thick stack of papers bound by a big black clamp. "All of these are the resumes I've received for your job," he said. (my current job, the one I've already quit.) He reached in his drawer and pulled out another thick stack of papers. "These are for (the new job, the one I'm being offered.) We've received resumes from Washington, New York, Texas, Florida, even journalists overseas. Most of them were laid off. Now they're ready to come all the way to Juneau, Alaska." He set his thick stacks of papers down and smiled his most disarming manager smile. "All I'm asking is for you to make this really simple for me. Trust me, there aren't a lot of jobs for journalists out there."

What kept looping through my head all day was an ad campaign for Best Buy that captured my attention over the holidays: "You, Happier." It was a memorable slogan, but not particularly effective for a person like me. All I saw when I looked at those ads was: "You, with a Playstation," or "You, paying $99 a month." Either way, nothing changes. You're still you.

"You, with a new job." What would that really mean? I'd still drive a 1996 Geo Prism, ride my Karate Monkey and my Pugsley, live in a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate and four cats. I wouldn't change those things because I already enjoy my life and what I have, and I wouldn't have any real reason to change them. So what were the sloganeers at Best Buy hiding from me? "You, in management." "You, never able to climb to the top of Mount Roberts on a weekday again." "You, with a slightly larger stockpile of money." "You, on a career path that may not be the best one for you." "You, Busier."

There are really only two forces inside myself at odds right now: The force that loves newspapers and loves community journalism and yes, loves to work. And on the other side, the force that leads me to believe that time is the most valuable thing in this life, and all money is good for is buying more of it. It's a happy problem to have - too many choices. And I am a truly lucky person. Not just for the opportunities I have, and for the confused but unconditional support extended to me by my friends and family, but also for the confidence I have in myself. Because when I finally reach a decision, I'll know it must be the right one.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Conflicted

Date: Jan. 24 and 25
Mileage: 11 and 42.2
January mileage: 686.7
Temperature upon departure: 16 and 15

Frost had started to form on my sweat-soaked hair as I heaved my bike over a four-foot cliff and stepped gingerly onto ice-coated roots to climb up beside it. I gasped and grunted and pushed the bike's rear wheel forward while I clawed at petrified snow with my bare fingers. I stopped to catch my breath and look up at the trail - a continuing series of steep "steps" just like it. As a hike, the lower portion of the Mount Jumbo trail is a relaxing jaunt through the woods to gain 500 feet in a half mile. Throw in a big, awkward bike, and it becomes quite the grind.

But I knew it was all worth it because at the top of that small climb lay the Mount Jumbo muskeg - a fairly large area of stunted trees and open space that was, for now, covered in the most ideal kind of concrete snow. The kind of snow that's so smooth and icy hard that you don't even need a packed trail to ride your bike. You can go wherever your heart takes you. You can weave through trees, circle up a hill and back down, lock up your brakes and spin donuts. You can do anything you want. The world is your trail.

As I crested the last pitch, I set my bike down at the edge of the muskeg and wavered a second. I took a deep breath. I thought of Ken Kifer. Ken Kifer was a prolific Internet author and career bicycle tourist who was tragically killed by a drunk driver in September 2003. Back in 2002, when I was barely a skilled enough cyclist to keep two tires on the road but aspired to become a long-distance bicycle tourist, I considered Ken Kifer my mentor. I read his extensive site from start to end and e-mailed him for advice, which he was always kind enough to give. One anecdote that particularly resonated with me was an exchange — of which I'm sure he had dozens like it — with a person who questioned how a 50-something-year-old man could afford to devote so much time to traveling by bicycle.

"I've never had much money," Ken replied, "so I've never had much need for it."

The doubter scoffed. "Well, I wish I could ride my bicycle all the time."

To which Ken replied, "Why don't you?"

Ken's words struck deep as I moved to make major changes in my life in 2003 - quit my job, explore Alaska, ride my $300 Ibex bicycle across the country. I wanted to live my life like Ken. I wanted to earn miles, not dollars. I wanted to to accumulate experiences, not stuff. Not because miles and experiences are necessarily superior to dollars and stuff, or even mutually exclusive. But I was enamored with miles and experiences. I did not care about dollars and stuff.

This simple truth creeps back in as Geoff and I discuss our future. We have, for a while now, been formulating our exit strategy to leave Juneau. We wanted to move back to Southcentral Alaska, a more centralized, less-isolated region from which to conduct future adventures. There are, of course, many pros and cons to shifting from Juneau to Anchorage. But it was easy to think about back in September, when the rain never stopped coming and the promise of endless opportunity loomed large around the big city. Then the economy landed in the toilet, the newspaper industry settled even lower, and Geoff and I started to talk about not only leaving Juneau, but going away, for six months or so .... Out ... to briefly let go of our grip on dollars and stuff in the pursuit of miles and experiences.

The more we talked about it, the easier and more appealing it sounded. The terrible economy actually pushed our drive. "I've never had much money," I pictured myself saying to concerned family members, "so I guess I don't have much need for it." I gave notice to my employer some months ago. I thought a long resignation notice would give them the time they needed to make the transition as smooth as possible, and possibly give me a bridge back if I needed it, once my dollars and stuff dry out. Instead, the long notice has given them ample time to try to prevent the exit altogether. My new boss, a driven reformer whose workaholism I respect because I believe work is what he truly loves, told me, "I'll give you an offer you can't refuse." I was offered a raise, which I refused. I was offered a better raise, which I refused. Then my boss came back recently with a promotion - a big one - and a raise - a startling one. I would have to work 60 hours a week under my current salary to earn it. "I'll even give you a month of unpaid leave for your race," he said.

The promotion would be salary pay instead of hourly pay. I strongly suspect my 40-hour workweek would eventually increase, possibly significantly. I would be working days, which wouldn't just put a dent in my current cycling adventure habits. It would put them in a shredder. Except for the brightest months of summer, I would either have to ride a lot in the dark, a lot indoors, or quite a bit less than a lot. Much in my life would change, but many parts, maybe not the best parts, would stay the same.

And yet, I have temptations. I have doubts.

In many ways, I feel like I have been pushing my bike up the Mount Jumbo Trail for several years now. Sweat is frozen to my hair and I'm gasping for air, but through the last row of thick forest I can see that frozen muskeg, smooth and inviting and glistening in the noon sun. Only now I face a choice. I can set out onto the frozen muskeg, ride wherever I want to ride, go wherever I want to go, on seemingly endless but actually finite trails of my own making. Or, I can continue on the same steep forest trail, pushing my bike further up the mountain, with the hope that there is something even better up higher.

I'm fearful because I don't know where I should go.

I'm even more fearful because I think maybe I do.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Happy to be home

Date: Jan. 22 and 23
Mileage: 16 and 100.4
January mileage: 633.5
Temperature upon departure: 11 and 15

We were 30,000 feet over Yakutat after another brutally long, overnight flight from Kona to Honolulu to Anchorage en route to Juneau when the clouds started to clear. I gazed with chest-tightening awe over the ice field below, shimmering pink in the morning sun as glaciers flowed like suspended-motion whitewater rivers around the coastal mountains. My forehead was pressed against the window when a flight attendant came on the intercom and said, "If you're reading a book or looking at a computer, you better put it down and look out the window right now, because it doesn't get any more beautiful than this." I realized that she was right. Hawaii is beautiful; often stunningly beautiful. But it's true when they say there's no place like home.

My total sleep on that endurance flight amounted to about an hour and a half, tops, and I was already seeing double when we arrived in Juneau at 9:30 a.m. We stepped out of the airport for our first taste of outside air since Kona - 10 degrees and sustained 25 mph wind driving the windchill below zero. It felt 80, maybe 90 degrees cooler than the warm breeze over the Pacific the night before. We were still in our Hawaii clothes. "Ga! It got cold again!" I yelped, and ducked quickly into my roommate's car.

But beyond the chill, the day was absolutely beautiful, and I knew that sleep deprivation is one of the skills I have to hone for the ITI. So after we arrived home and unpacked just a bit, I headed out for a bike ride.

My roommate told me the week before, a "Pineapple Express" direct from Hawaii had blasted Alaska with unbelievably warm temperatures. He said the temperature rose to 55 degrees in Juneau, about the same temperature it was in Honolulu the night Geoff ran the HURT 100. The warm temps brought rain on top of the old snow, which had refrozen to concrete-like consistency. You can hardly ask for better snow-biking conditions.

I quickly adjusted to the huge temperature drop and headed up the Dan Moller trail. The trail is steep enough that I can only ride up the majority of it in the most supreme conditions. Thursday had those conditions. I sweated and gasped my way up five miles of crust, stopped at the Ski Bowl and turned around, almost shaking with nervousness about the idea of dropping 2,000 feet in five miles on a trail that's roughly as hard as a sidewalk. But as soon as I let off the brakes, I was caught up in the rush of pure, well-earned speed. I caught several blips of accidental-but-sweet air off the snowmobile moguls and careened through pockets of sunlight as spruce trees whirred past. It was so, so fun. Worth any amount of sleep deprivation.

Today I set out for a long ride. Last week, while Geoff and I were waiting for our rental car in Kona, we ran into Jeff Oatley, a cyclist and ITI veteran who lives in Fairbanks. It was yet another completely random and unlikely encounter of which we had several during our stay in Hawaii. We talked for a bit about the race. Jeff asked me how many "hundred milers" I was doing in prep for this year's ITI. "You know," I told him, "I don't think I've done any hundred-mile rides yet."

Today I set out in below-zero windchills, on my Karate Monkey because ice conditions are so treacherous right now. But I felt great, completely fresh - probably because I'm coming off a week of serious tapering - and decided that maybe today would be the day to go for 100 miles.

It was not easy. Five miles from the end of the road, all road maintenance ended, and the leftover snowcover was deeply rutted and frozen solid. I found a snowmobile trail off to the side and used that, but even that was so hard and rutted that my arms started to hurt from lack of front suspension, and I nearly bucked myself off my bike twice before I finally made it back to the relative safety of ice-covered pavement. I drifted through various levels of sleepiness but mustered up the courage to cut away from the direct route home and ride the spur I needed to complete to net 100 miles. I actually started to feel good again as I returned, only to run over a tack with my front wheel and discover that I stupidly had not put my tire levers back in my pack after the Hawaii trip. My options were to try to remove a tight studded tire on a metal rim with my bare fingers in below-zero windchill ... or walk three miles home. I chose the walk. It actually felt good at first ... warmed my feet right up ... but quickly became a tedious march that seemed to never end. I returned home just over nine hours after I left ... still not a bad time for a winter century. What's more important to me than the mileage is simply spending that long out in the subfreezing weather, eating frozen Clif Bars and drinking instant-brain-freeze slushy water. And pushing my bike for a fair distance. That's the experience that counts.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Painless view of HURT 100

Date: Jan. 17
Mileage: 77.6
January mileage: 507.1
Temperature upon departure: 75

Geoff told me that, even though I attended the race meeting with him Friday night, it wasn't very likely that I'd find the race start on my own Saturday morning. "I'll be fine," I answered. He left at 5 a.m. with the car for the start of the HURT 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon that climbs 25,000 vertical feet over the five loops of a rooty, muddy, narrow 20-mile course. It was Geoff's "training race" for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I don't claim to be nearly that ambitious about my training, so I set out to spectate the race and do some urban road biking.

I left the hotel room at 8:21 a.m., hoping to cheer Geoff on at the end of his first loop. Unfortunately, he hotel had stranded us on the 43rd floor, one floor down from the top. The first elevator arrived vacuum-packed with people. The second came 10 minutes later under similar conditions. The third had a little more room, but not enough for me and my bike. By 8:43 a.m., I began contemplating the walk down 43 flights of stairs with a bike on my shoulder. At 8:48 a.m., I decided I would have to change out of my bike shoes into some more walkable tennis shoes. At 8:49 a.m., I had my back turned to the elevator, prepared to spend all day riding clunky clipless pedals with tennis shoes after hoofing down 43 flights of stairs just to avoid the endless wait. That's the minute that an elevator with enough room for me arrived.

I rolled out onto the streets of Waikiki and, as predicted, became instantly flustered. Traffic around Honolulu is intense and I don't think I've ever encountered a less bike-friendly city. It's strange - Weather in Honolulu is 80 degrees and mostly sunny year round. You'd think that kind of environment would nourish a strong cycling community, but I encountered few bike paths and even fewer cyclists out and about in an entire day of riding. I wove through rush-hour traffic and made my way toward the hills, but somehow ended up at a race checkpoint. They pointed me in the right direction of the race start, about six miles away. I arrived at 9:45 a.m. just in time to miss Geoff's first loop through.

I spent some time talking to Pam and Anne, two ultra-runners from Anchorage who came to Hawaii to support their fellow Alaskan runners and enjoy the sun. Anne competed last year in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, dropping out just south of the Nikolai checkpoint after she sustained frostbite on her eyes and face. So we had a lot to talk about - perspectives from last year's race, this year's training. Anne's training schedule baffles me. It must amount to 40 hours per week. She was leading the foot race before she was injured last year, and with her mental tenacity, may just give Geoff a run for his money this year. :-)

Geoff was running a strong, consistent race, and it was easy to gauge when he would be coming into checkpoints. After missing him the first time around, I met him most every time at the race start and the seven-mile checkpoint. I took advantage of the two and three-hour gaps between to ride the hills on the outskirts of Honolulu. It was focused riding with hard climbing in mind, and I ended the day with 77 miles and 7,300 vertical feet of climbing, according to my GPS. Still, because I spread the riding out over most of the day, and spent so much time chatting with ultrarunners and cheering on Geoff, it really felt like I didn't ride at all.

Not counting our brief leapfrogging in the 2007 Susitna 100, this is the first time I ever watched Geoff race a 100-miler. It was amazing, really. He seemed to just coast through it. He was driven and focused, definitely, but I was not seeing the hurt I had expected to see. In an effort to try to help him as much as I could, I cut through sketchy neighborhoods and rode in the dark just to see him through most of the checkpoints. But he had little use for my or anyone else's help. He drinks checkpoint water and eats checkpoint food, but he is otherwise very self-supported in his racing strategy. This style often catches race officials and other runners off guard. For me, the fun wasn't in helping Geoff but in meeting other faces in the ultrarunning world. I tend to get caught up in an ultracycling bubble, and forget that there's a whole other world of amazing people who are even crazier.

Geoff won the race in a course-record-settling 20 hours, 28 minutes. Anne, Pam and I were all there for the 2:28 a.m. finish, cheering into the night as Anne waved her "Go Alaska Runners" sign. Three Alaska runners started the race. Blisters forced Dave Johnston to exit the course at mile 40. Evan "yes, ladies, he's single" Hone of Eagle River, on the right, finished 10th in 28 hours. The Hawaiian race officials were genuinely impressed by the strong showing by runners from the land of ice and cold. Geoff didn't let them in on his secret - that he trains not on the tundra but in Juneau, Alaska, probably one of the few regions of America where summer trails are more tree-shrouded, muddier and root-choked than Hawaii.

I learned a few things about biking while I was in Hawaii:

1. I have somehow become a really strong climber. Finally on a bike that weighed less than 25 pounds with tires that had less rolling resistance than a flat-bottomed boat, I found I could shoot up 10, 12, even 14-percent grades like they were nothing.
2. I am a terrible road biker. On the skinny tires and low handlebars, I felt so jittery and cautious inching around switchbacks that it often took my nearly as long to descend a road as it did to climb it.
3. I have been told Honolulu traffic is worse than many metro areas, but I don't understand the appeal in urban road biking. Don't understand it at all. All that stop and go, constantly fighting back the stress and strain while streams of hot steel roar past. I'd take grizzly bears and ice over that any day.
4. I was blocked out of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific because I was on a bicycle. I was told there was no "running, jogging or bicycling" allowed in the area. When I explained to the security guard that I was simply a tourist on a bike, and expressed my viewpoint that I was no different than the lines of cars streaming in, he looked at me like I was an alien from Alaska.
5. Now that I've seen the Big Island, I can't wait to go back there on a bike tour. Look at that road up Mauna Loa. Doesn't that look amazingly fun?

Hawaiian desert, Hawaiian snow

Geoff's and my first reaction after arriving in Kona on the Big Island was startled sense of relief. We had spent five days plunged into the heat and crowds and traffic and HURT 100 race fanfare of Oahu. All the clamor and noise and Mai Tai-flavored, manicured beaches had come to define Hawaii for me, my first time in the state. So the sound of rustling palms in an otherwise quiet breeze over the open Kona airport was almost startling. The town rested on an open hillside, swept in dry grass and desert-like vegetation. "Wow," Geoff said. "This place is like, normal."

We drove out to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and set up camp beside a rust-colored lava flow, speckled with dry-climate plants that could have easily stood in for salt brush and juniper. I felt like I was in Utah, camped on the sandstone with only the endless ocean horizon 3,000 feet below us to suggest otherwise. Geoff was recovering from his 100-mile race and the purpose of our Big Island vacation was to take it easy. Geoff napped while I unpacked the car, chatting with this habituated nene - a Hawaiian goose - who even honked back.

We headed down the coast to get out of the smog that was seeping along the volcano's cone - sweet-smelling like antifreeze and abrasive in my throat and lungs. Geoff and I called it "vog." It was nasty stuff. Geoff was more than a little creeped out by the idea of a National Park straddling a 13,500-foot volcano.

We came to the end of the road, cut short by lava flow. "Shouldn't this be evidence enough that this is not a place where people should be hanging out?" Geoff said.


But I felt at ease among it, much more so than I had endlessly fighting the human lava flow of Honolulu. After that experience, I had decided I wasn't going to bother renting a bike on the Big Island. It didn't take long to realize that I had just picked the wrong island to rent a bike.

Volcanic activity billowed in the distance. I felt close enough to reach out and touch it - a plume more than seven miles away. The open space was baffling - and real distance very hard to gauge.

The next morning, I followed a trail near our campsite down to the coast, dropping 2,500 vertical feet in a thick cloud of vog. I ran when I could to make distance in limited time. The sweet-smelling pollution irritated my eyes and scratched my throat. The heat of day trickled ceaselessly down my neck and back. I was trying to get a good workout, sweating buckets, thinking there was nothing remotely healthy about hiking through vog in the heat with minimal water (50 ounces, the rest we had at our dry camp site, and gone amazingly quickly.) But I was so happy to be out and alive, jogging through jagged lava flows and visible heat waves, surrounded by beautiful devastation.

The next day we moved camp to a spot on the coast near Hilo, back in the rainforest with its towering bonsai trees and thick spruce-like needles. We soaked in a thermal hot pond amid fruit orchards and farmland. "The diversity on this island is amazing," Geoff said.

Time seemed to always crunch in, but we found enough of it to head up the backside of the big volcano, Mauna Loa. Back in the desert, with its lava-speckled tundra and rolling yellow grasslands, could have easily been a scene in the early winter in central Utah or Nevada. I felt happy and at ease again, and I wondered if this was what I was looking for in the new places I visit all along - familiar pieces of home. I looked across the valley to the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea. "I want to see that," I thought. "I want to find some Hawaiian snow."

Geoff set up a comfortable resting point by the Volcano Observatory and I went for another time-crunched jog up Mauna Loa. The jagged lava rocks ripped at my shoes and scratched my shins. I quickly ran out of breath, and soon thereafter became dizzy and had to slow to a walk. The bright blue sky and black rock spun around in misshapen circles. "Am I really this out of shape after four days off the bike?" I wondered. But a glance at my GPS revealed the root of my problem. I was quickly ascending to 12,000 feet, after too many years spent living at sea level, with no acclimation to speak of. I smiled at the harsh elevation and harsher sun, and kept climbing.

I found my way to the snow fields and sat down to catch my gasping, raspy, volcano-ash-scratched breath on a petrified piece of ice at 19 degrees North. It was a beautiful way to spend my last day in Hawaii, and my favorite part of the whole trip. We're back in Anchorage now and just waiting for our final flight to Juneau, home, and I'm excited to go back. But a big part of me is going to miss that harsher side of Hawaii, the side that doesn't taste like Mai Tai, the side that few ever talk about.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Geoff's Hurt 100 race. It was actually a lot of fun - even for him.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wind and waves

Date: Jan. 14, 15 and 16
Mileage: 30.5, 55.1 and 34.2
January mileage: 429.5
Temperature upon departure: Low 80s

My Hawaii trip so far has been a comedy of errors, but I'm starting to settle into the flow. I feel perpetually lethargic because of all of the heat and sun and the Benadryl I'm sucking down (I seem to be allergic to a lot of different things down here.) But this island is nothing if not beautiful and an adventure in itself. True to my vacation record, even Hawaii managed to throw exciting weather my way.

The first thing we did after the car rental place opened for the morning Wednesday is drive around looking for the start of the Hurt 100. We ended up on a high bluff at sunrise, where I caught my first glimpse of downtown Honolulu. From a distance, it's breathtaking.

I rented a road bike from this place called The Bike Shop. It's light and fast and holds its own on gravel, but the traffic on this island takes some getting used to. It's been really windy, which has been great for my training in the limited time I have to ride. It helps me get my heartrate up without gaining too much speed, which can be scary and hard to control in tight traffic on a strange bike when you're used to none of it.

We camped the first two nights at a private campground on the edge of the North Shore. It was a beautiful spot and crawling with feral cats and chickens. We of course adopted one of the cats, feeding it pieces of ahi tuna and leftover cereal milk. While walking on the beach, Geoff randomly bumped into friends of his, Kelly and Adrian from Smithers, B.C. Neither had any idea the other would be in Oahu. Really, what are the chances?

The day we arrived, the National Weather Service issued a high surf warning, forecasting 25-35 foot waves on the North Shore. The beaches were all closed and I could see few people even braving walks on the shoreline as I rode by, hoping to catch a glimpse of monster wave surfers. I did see one windsurfer out in the roiling mass. His kite jolted wildly back and forth until it dipped low and I lost sight of it. I never did see it come back up.

On Thursday night, we were handed an voluntary evacuation notice with instructions for a nearby shelter that we could go to. We were a little confused about that, especially because our camp site was many hundreds of yards off the shore, so the high surf didn't threaten us. We're in a strange place and inclined to take weather warnings seriously, but there was nothing on the notice that raised any red flags. They were calling for 40 mph sustained winds with 50-60 mph gusts and heavy rain. Similar weather in Juneau is called "autumn." We reinforced our little backpacking tent and hunkered down.

On Friday, the island of Oahu closed all schools and told all non-essential government workers to stay home. I went for a bike ride. It was a little hurricaney, but hardly the kind of weather I think of as "extreme." It was still 75 degrees outside. The drenching felt good.

We headed back down to Honolulu today so Geoff can prepare to run that crazy hard 100-miler tomorrow. We decided to rent a hotel room because it's so much less of a headache than trying to camp close to the race start, which is right in town. A last-minute booking for a $60 room netted us an ocean-view setting on the 43rd floor of one of Waikiki's myriad high-rise hotels. I get a little light-headed if I spend too much time looking out the window, especially with the wind rattling the glass. But I'm excited for Geoff's race tomorrow, and certainly glad I don't have to run it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Aloha ... can I come back?

I found this photo on an old post that I started writing but never finished. I'm not sure exactly when I took it. It looks so serene, so welcoming, so cold ... so very different from the place where I am at right now.

OK, so I'm killing some time in the nether regions of the Alaska Air check-in part of the Honolulu airport. It's 3:53 a.m. Honolulu time. There is some infuriatingly mellow island music blasting over the loudspeaker in this not-quite-inside, not-quite-outside kind of a room, and I'm already down to boxer shorts and a T-shirt, sticky with heat and sleep deprivation. Just need to make it until the Thrifty Car Rental place opens. Just a little longer ...

I know, I know. I'm in Hawaii on vacation and I'm not allowed to complain, especially since I haven't even escaped from the airport yet enough to give island life a chance. I guess it just feels good to vent after really bad flights. I know everyone has bad flights. This was the worst flight ever. I know everyone has worst flights ever. It's just that after 11 hours on a single leg of a flight between Anchorage and Honolulu, long after the foil-wrapped hamburgers ran out and the toilet seats were ringed in urine and the flight attendants were rationing water, sitting in 85-degree heat amidst a plane completely full of screaming children and adults whose good humor had pretty much worn out, I will say it was all a little too Superdome for my taste. And, having gone through and survived that flight, I will say that it's amazing the suffering so many people will endure to get themselves someplace warm on a vacation. I am pretty sure it is beyond any endurance I have ever exhibited to bike myself someplace cold.

Now I am sitting cross-legged on a floor near the only electric outlet I could find and observing how embarrassingly white my legs are, having seen no significant amount of sun in about three years, and wanting to put something on to cover them up, but I just can't deal with more sitting and sweating quite yet. I need to find a refrigerator to go sit in. Did I really think I was going to be able ride a bike in this climate? Ha ha ha. Maybe after I finally get some sleep, we shall see.

I really shouldn't complain. It's all good for me. Food, water and sleep deprivation training at its finest. I need to get past it, though, because I'm having strong urges to go somewhere quiet and be really lazy.

I guess I just need to think of that distant place I left 24 hours ago - seems so far in the past - with 2 inches of rainfall and an untold accumulation of snowmelt backing up behind several feet of snow base, driving my car to the gym through standing water deep enough to splash in through the closed door, running for two hours on an eliptical machine before getting in the dungeon-like shower only to have the power go out two minutes in, groping around a strange room wet and naked in the dark and thinking, "Wow. Here we go again." Snow. Rain. Avalanche. The city's only connection to its power plant gets taken out for months. Again. All in a day's life in Juneau.

Could be worse. Could be here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I feel so fast

Date: Jan. 11
Mileage: 41.3
January mileage: 309.7
Temperature upon departure: 35

Ever have days when you would rather do just about anything besides drag yourself outside? I actually have lots of days like this. I can usually overcome the feeling, and was nearly to the point of beginning the suit-up process when Geoff returned from his morning run and said, "Do not go out there. It's nasty out there." What, you might wonder, could possibly be so bad? Deep subzero temperatures? 50 mph winds? Whiteout blizzard? No, in the case that statement was a warning that it was warm outside. 35 degrees warm. Warm and wet and sloppy.

Still, I reluctantly persisted. I dug my rain gear out from the bottom of the pile - first time it's been above freezing in more than a month. I left Pugsley at home in favor of studded tires, knowing that rain quickly turns packed snow into the slipperiest substance on Earth.

I put set the wheels down on wet ice and pointed north. As the studs scraped over the slick surface, I accelerated at a rate I could hardly fathom, and I was riding uphill, with no wind. The breeze of my own momentum flowed around my bare hands and bare face. The air was moist and almost warm in a familiar but distant way. I felt like I was flying. For the first time in weeks, I was pedaling a surface free of snow, free of sand, free of churned up sandy powder and chunks of ice. For the first time in weeks, I was pedaling without resistance. It was just me and rubber and studs on ice, and nothing could stop us.

The point of the ride was to climb, but I rode all the way to the end of North Douglas because I suddenly possessed so much extra time usually reserved for churning out slow miles. I reached the end of the road, 15 miles out, in one hour. If it were summer, I'd be ashamed of 15 mph. But today, I felt like I had pounded out a personal best time trial.

After that, I did the five-mile climb. It was way too easy.

I'd need to ride for six hours and 45 minutes Monday to complete my 10-day goal of 40 hours. That is certainly not going to happen, but overall I'm not disappointed about how the current training binge went down. In the past nine days, I battled two days of subzero temperatures, one all the way down to -18, 50 mph wind gusts, frigid wind chills, 40 inches of snow ... I ran the hard winter gamut, basically. And what does the NWS weather forecast call for the last day of binge training? Lets see ... ooo, a flood warning!

HEAVY RAIN WILL BEGIN LATE TONIGHT SPREADING NORTH OVER THE
PANHANDLE. TEMPERATURES WILL REMAIN ABOVE FREEZING AND WATER WILL
INCREASE THE WEIGHT AND DENSITY OF THE SNOWPACK. MANY DRAINS ARE
LIKELY TO BE BLOCKED WITH SNOW. THE IMPACTS WILL BE STANDING WATER
INCREASED SNOWLOADS ON ROOFS AND THE POTENTIAL OF SNOW CAPSIZING
BOATS. STREAMS WILL RISE AS THE FREEZING LEVELS GET HIGHER. SOME
AREAS COULD RECEIVE UP TO TWO INCHES OF RAINFALL.

This winter is nothing if not harsh.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hold back the rain

Date: Jan. 10
Mileage: 30.1
January mileage: 258.4
Temperature upon departure: 24

Saturday, tempo ride, 30 miles, 2.5 hours. My knee felt much better today. Still some soreness, but I've concluded the problem was almost entirely in having my seat too low. I originally lowered it to help leverage better steering control on the foot paths (i.e. winter singletrack.) I greased the seatpost heavily because it is a tight fit anyway and always a beast to adjust, and I'm guessing that caused it to slip down a little more before it froze in place. I fixed the problem today with a little help and a lot of leverage from Geoff. I am going to install a new seatpost soon.

But I felt a lot more comfortable and even a little faster heading out North Douglas today, despite yet more new snow. I pedal as hard as I can, until my quads are screaming, but that doesn't really translate to speed in these conditions. I've decided that any time I average more than 10 mph, I can count the ride as a "tempo" ride. Nearly 40 inches of snow has fallen since Jan. 2. That would translate to a 120-inch snow month if it continued at this rate, but it's not going to. A warming trend has commenced, and rain is in the forecast now. I wish the rain would hold off for two more days. After that, I'll be gone. But it probably will come Sunday. And when it does, rain on top of several feet of dry powder snow is going to make everything, and I mean everything, horrifically sloppy, nasty and completely unbikeable. Since I've lost my momentum in my 10-day training binge anyway, I see a bit of slumming at the gym in my near future.

But, on a different note, I wanted to share something I found during random Internet browsing:

It's a picture of guys in the U.K. reading my book! They didn't send this photo to me. I found it while I was browsing the blog sites of other 2009 Iditarod racers. I'm guessing one of them is John Ross, who's living the dream and training for the Iditarod Invitational in another typically wet, cold coastal climate. I was pleasantly amused. I never really thought about the possibility of other racers reading my book. I hope it doesn't dissuade anyone from showing up at the starting line. (I have to admit that I question my own sanity when I think too much about my experiences last year.)

I haven't posted about the book in a while, but it's still available. I've made a few edits since the original version and it is slowly becoming more polished. Such is the nature of spontaneous indie publishing. I've sold a little more than 500 copies since November, which is awesome! I'm slowly working on increasing the distribution. It's available now at Hearthside Books in Juneau and Speedway Cycles in Anchorage, and should be up on Amazon.com pretty soon. I'd love to further increase the distribution, but have taken close to no time to actually market the book. I still have yet to send out review copies to several magazines and publications that requested one (I keep running out of my own stash of books.) If you have a favorite little bookstore or bike shop that you think may be at all interested in stocking a book like this, send me an e-mail at jillhomer66@hotmail.com and let me know where/how I can contact them so I can send them my pitch. I'm happy with the lucrativeness of this book so far, but I think I've nearly tapped out the market from my blog. Time to branch out.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Powder dump

Date: Jan. 8
Mileage: 52.4
January mileage: 228.3
Temperature upon departure: 6

It's amazing how warm single digits feel after a short swing into the subzero range. Even when the sun is gone, and icy flakes are falling from the sky, there's a certain warmth to the air that can only be felt after dips into something much colder - like climbing out of a glacial lake on a cool spring day. I think that may be the only reason people can tolerate living in Interior Alaska. I check the current weather for McGrath almost every day. During this past cold snap, which lasted more than a week, every time I clicked on weather.com I saw current temperatures of -43, -47, even -55. Weather.com always includes a "feels like" reading with the actual temperature to account for windchill, but during the cold snap, the "feels like" temperature just read "N/A." I thought about writing weather.com and telling them they should change "N/A" to "outer space" or "standing on the moon." But maybe, just maybe, after a week or so of that, -45 just feels normal. Or not. Either way, if McGrath has a cold snap like that forecasted for the week of March 1, I am going to think hard and twice about starting the race. Cold weather training can only go so far for those of us who do not live in outer space.

Thursday, long slow distance and more weather exposure, 52 miles, 6 hours. Thursday was not really a great day on the bike. A snowstorm moved in, and with it a gray pall over the general cold. I pulled on my goggles and rode into the whiteout, plowing through the powder and trying to imagine what I could think about to get myself excited for many hours of that. It really was just one of those put-your-head-down-and-ride kind of days. It's good pshycological training to have days like this from time to time. One of the skills most endurance cyclists must hone is pushing through boredom. (And thanks again to Brian for the photo. I see him out often while I am riding, and it's a little like having my own personal photographer.)

After about four hours, I started to feel sharp streaks of pain in my right knee - old injury flareup. It happens from time to time. I am never quite sure how seriously to take these flareups. Whether I should turn around right there and soft pedal home, raise my seat up a little more and carefully push through it, or ignore it entirely. I decided on option two. But I couldn't get my seat to raise in the cold with the seatpost somewhat rusted and frozen in place. I finally decided to turn toward home and finish out six hours - on the low side of what I was hoping to ride Thursday, but still in range of my goal. The knee pain continued to bother me throughout the evening, so I decided Friday would be a bike-free active recovery day, even though I was trying to push through this 10-day period without any recovery. It was just as well, anyway, because the forecast was calling for 18 to 36 inches of snow Friday.

Friday, active recovery on snowshoes, about five miles, 2.5 hours. Geoff and I went on an afternoon snowshoe hike that turned out to be a little more strenuous than an actual recovery day. An hour of snowshoeing is generally more difficult than an hour of cycling, and two and a half hours leaves me good and tired. But I really like hiking when I am having knee pain, because it heavily works my lower quad muscles and actually helps me feel like I am pushing out the inflammation that is causing the pain (obviously, there's probably no real physiological proof of this, but that is the image I see in my mind while I am walking.) Anyway, like most placebo effects, it works wonders, and I actually feel much better tonight. I think I'll try to get back on the bike tomorrow and take it generally easy, and hope the pain doesn't come back. If it does, I may be in for a longer rest period.

I don't think the 36 inches of snow are going to pan out, but it's a foot at least and still falling. Even though I don't live in the "feels like outer space" region of this state, 2008-09 is definitely shaping up to be a harsh winter.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Much better

Date: Jan. 7
Mileage: 38.1
January mileage: 175.9
Temperature upon departure: -5

Wednesday, cold-weather acclimating, 38 miles, 4.5 hours. Clear cold weather arrived as promised this morning. I was giddy about it. Not only was it a (brief) respite from the snow, but it also was a chance to try out some gear combinations I have been thinking about running. I wanted to ride longer than four and a half hours. But it seems that although I possess the willpower to drag myself outside in subzero weather, I am still unable to drag myself out of bed earlier than 8 a.m. Before I receive criticism from early risers, I just want to say: You try working until close to midnight and then get up before dawn in the midst of a four-hour-a-day cold-weather training binge. It's not easy.

The last time I went riding in the danger cold - New Years Day - I found myself dangerously close to hypothermia. The last time I went riding in hard subzero windchill - yesterday - I sustained mild frostnip on the tip of my left thumb. So today I gave a lot of thought to how I dressed and what I packed. I added an extra layer on both the top and bottom - polyester longjohns and polar fleece pullover. I also crammed my helmet onto an extra thick fleece balaclava and wore a neoprene face mask. And I used my bike pogies instead of mittens. Amazing what a difference a few small additions can make. A world of difference. The difference between quiet suffering and exhilarating freedom.

It was about 5 below zero in downtown Juneau, with cold mist wafting off the "warm" seawater of the Gastineau Channel.

I rode out to the Valley for a couple hours of trail riding. Before I left the house, I loaded up my bike with an excessive amount of clothing, food, and a couple random objects just to add weight. I've resolved to start riding with more weight to get used to the sheer grind of a loaded bike. I also tried out the water system I am thinking about going with in the race - one 32-ounce bottle in an insulated sleeve on the handlebars, and a 6-liter MSR bladder in pack on my back. I don't plan to typically carry six (well, seven) liters of water, but I did today, just to see if it bothered me. And to tell you the truth, I didn't even notice the extra weight. At all. I'm sure I was moving slower, but when it's minus double digits out, there's an east wind kicking up, and the whole world is washed in stunning color and light, you tend to have other things on your mind than your excessively heavy backpack.

The air felt extra frigid on Dredge Lake (a sinkhole on the glacier moraine), so I pulled out my thermometer to see what the temperature was. The red line was barely there, a little sliver hovering above the bottom-out zone of minus 20. That would make it 17 or 18 below zero - officially the coldest temperature I've ever seen in Juneau, and, with the exception of last year's Iditarod race and its 30 below on the Farewell Burn, the coldest temperature I've ever ridden in. And the amazing thing about it is that I felt toasty warm the entire 4.5 hours. It feels like a big victory, getting my cold weather gear right. It's liberating to affirm that I can move freely through weather and seasons that most people find oppressive and debilitating. When I pull off a long ride in near-record cold without incident, I feel like I can do anything.

My friend Brian took a photo of me riding along Glacier Highway while he was out trolling for cold-weather photos for the Empire. I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure I'm grinning in this photo.

It's crazy to think that temperatures will be nearly 100 degrees warmer in Honolulu next week. Melting will feel strange.