Saturday, February 28, 2009

I've got nothing to prove this time, just something to improve on

The past few days have been a whirlwind of last-minute prep, illness recovery, exploration and social interactions. It always feels like a reunion coming to Anchorage - a place where I have never lived. Of course, my visits to Anchorage area always become the anxiety-ridden punctuation marks to some big event. This year, I gave myself more time than ever for the sole purpose of decompression, which turned out to be a huge mistake. I caught a nasty, gasping cold the day before I left Juneau. The cold itself wasn't that bad, but I mean it when I say I haven't been sick once all winter. The timing seemed comical at best. My condition continued to worsen as I rode around the city searching for scarcely needed little items, usually somewhat lost and struggling to keep my Pugsley upright on icy, traffic-choked Anchorage streets. Because nearly the only things I ever do in Anchorage are run errands and eat bad food, my opinion of the place is a bit skewed. But right now I'm a little shocked I came so close to moving here. I still think Anchorage would be a pretty nice place if it wasn't for the big sprawling city smack dab in the middle of it all.

One thing Anchorage does have going for it is an amazing trail system. I spent the first couple days crashing in the loft of Eric Parsons' house, just a small yard away from the place where all the magic happens at Epic Designs (in a just-above-freezing "sweatshop" filled with gear.) Eric was amazingly nice in not only providing shelter but also fast-producing a sweet set of pogies and fixing little tears and straps in the gear I've been relentlessly trashing since last year (I also, for the first time, had to own up to the creator for my notoriously harsh treatment of all of my gear ... "What did you do to this poor bag?!?" Me: "I thought they held up really well." On a side note, I received the same reaction and made the same response to Pete Basinger, who was also super nice in coming into the bike shop late Wednesday evening to overhaul my Pugsley. "Jill's bike is always in worse shape than she even realizes," he told Geoff. Me: "I thought it was holding up pretty well this year.")

Anyway, Eric took me on a tour of the techy singletrack up at Hillside. Kind of crazy riding for a winter trail on a bike that climbs like a pig and corners like a bus with a flat tire. But it was tons of fun. Between one little endo on those trails, a big hard fall on an icy patch on Spenard, and the worst day of my cold, I was feeling pretty beat up Wednesday night. So much for decompression before the race.

My time in Anchorage has for the most part been fruitful, though. I owe a huge thanks to Pete and Greg at Speedway Cycles for all of their help this year. Speedway not only overhauled my bike; they also outfitted me with a new set of wheels. The transaction happened so quickly and casually that I didn't even quite catch what kind of rims they are - but they're lighter and wider than my Large Marge rims, and will hopefully allow me to navigate through slightly softer snow, which I've heard there may be a lot of this year. "Worst trail conditions in years," has been thrown around once or twice, an assessment based on spotty trail reports and weather speculation. The weather reports still call for relatively mild temperatures, but there's more snow mixed into the forecasts. New snow and light trail use could mean a lot of walking.

Or not. That's what's so great about this race. No one really knows. And I feel a surprising sense of peace about the whole thing. I've certainly accepted the needed "come what may" philosophy and embraced that my presence out there has much less to do with time and distance and much more to do with raw exploration ... both of the landscapes inside my mind and out. Of course I'm anxious and fearful of the unknown and the solitude and the possibility of running into the extreme fatigue I experienced last year or weather conditions much worse than any I experienced last year. But at the same time, I feel calm. I'm on the verge of taking my last brave step into the inevitable.

For now, I just want to thank my sponsors:

Epic Designs, the go-to place for winter and summer bikepacking gear.

Speedway Cycles, home of the Fatback and the snowbiking center of Alaska.

Olympus Cameras, which outfitted me with a brand new Olympus Stylus Tough 8000 just days ago. I'm going to practice with the new camera a few times and likely take it in the race, because it has better zoom, more megapixels and is purportedly even more bombproof than my old camera.

And finally, if you want to follow my progress in the race starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, check back at this blog for updates from my SPOT tracker. You can also view my SPOT tracker shared page, and be sure to check into the latest updates from the race.

I might post a few more words tomorrow if I have time. It's coming fast.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Leaving warm and sunny Juneau

Date: Feb. 21, 23
Mileage: 25.5 and 19.7
February mileage: 601.7
Temperature: 34 and 36

I fly out Tuesday afternoon with Pugsley and two big bags of miscellaneous gear in tow. I'm going to spend the next several days in Anchorage and Palmer completing last minute prep, giving Pugsley a makeover, mad-rushing to buy gear I've forgotten and generally just getting my head out of the crush of things I have going on here in Juneau. I'm going to miss it here, though, because the weather has been so clear and seasonable and generally smile-inducing. I have been trying to get out for bike rides but haven't had a lot of time. I thought I was pacing myself well this year, but I'm still going to end up packing late into the night tonight.

Weather in Anchorage for the next week also looks pleasant - highs in the 20s and not a lot of snow on the forecast. Sunday's forecast in the Mat-Su Valley calls for partly sunny and highs in the 20s. Skwentna on Monday has a high of 30 and a low of 11. Puntilla Lake on Tuesday calls for snow showers, a high of 18 and low of 2. Nikolai and McGrath later in the week calls for intermittent snow showers, highs in the teens and lows near 0. All in all, a very encouraging forecast. Of course you can't put a lot of weight on long-range forecasts, but I can keep watching them and crossing my fingers than no -40s or 60-mph winds pop up.

I'm sure I'll post again before the race, which starts at 2 p.m. March 1, so I'll post up my SPOT shared page and race updates links then. I wanted to announce that Scott Morris, organizer of the Arizona Trail Race, mapping expert and all-around ultra-mountain-biking geek, has offered to track my progress on my blog this year. Those of your familiar with his coverage of Mike Curiak's 2008 self-supported tour know how thorough he can be. (Incidentally, Scott will be tracking Mike Curiak's ride again this year as well.) He'll probably stay busy with Mike's page, but I'm guessing Scott will provide at least some commentary about trail conditions, splits and other racer's positions along with really cool Topofusion-generated maps. So be sure to check in on this blog during the race.

Also, I won't be available to send out orders for signed copies of my book for at least two weeks. But you can still support me in this race by purchasing the book for yourself or your crazy outdoor-nut cousin using any one of the other Lulu or Amazon.com links in the sidebar of this blog. The eBook is only $8! Your support, as always, is appreciated.

Also, Ultra Rob is again holding a fundraiser for my race. For every item of cycling and outdoor gear purchased through his site from now through March 1, he will donate 20 percent of the commission to my Iditarod effort. If you have something in mind that you were thinking of getting, now is a good time. Check out the wide selection here.

Wish me luck! It's a total lie when people say just getting to the starting line is the hardest part, but it sure ain't easy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stoked

Date: Feb. 19-20
Mileage: 41.2 and 16.5
February mileage: 556.5
Temperature: 32 and 34

There is little I can do to improve my fitness ahead of March 1 at this point. So I set out this weekend to simply do "fun" rides, thereby hopefully shoring up happy memories that I can look back at wistfully when things get rough in the race, as they inevitably will. "Oh yeah," I will tell myself. "Snowbiking used to be fun."

It may be the mild taper or the fact that six months or three years (depending on how you look at it) of training focus is narrowing toward something specific, concrete and real ... but I both physically and mentally felt better and stronger than I have in a long time. Everything came together at the right time - the warmth, the sunlight, the speed, the snow. It felt like a big smile from the universe, directed right at me. I decided to believe that's a good omen.

Yesterday morning, Pugsley and I motored out to the Valley at 18, 19 even 20 mph. I thought there was some kind of crazy wind at my back, but it was just calm and warm and partly sunny, same as it has been for more than a week. (How can it even be February? This is solid April weather.) I hoped to hit up a few trails but assumed they'd be mush in the heat. Strangely enough, a cold air mass hovered right over the Valley. Temperatures fell to 25 or so. My front derailleur, covered in road slush, froze solid. But the Lake Creek snowmobile trail was hard-packed and recently groomed. I dropped my tire pressure, churned up to Spaulding Meadow and coasted back down on a feather ... snow almost too soft to ride, but not quite. It feels like riding on a cloud. It's probably the closest bicycles come to powder skiing.

Today was even more strangely perfect. It was 34 degrees when I left the house, not a good snowbiking temperature. Low-lying clouds hugged the mountains and I rode toward the Dan Moller Trail because I only had three or so hours to spare, and the Dan Moller Trail is the most fun trail close to home. I approached the trail expecting what I should have expected - mush, slush and fog. What I found was a perfectly flat, very recently groomed snowmobile trail. Nobody had used it since it had last been groomed, and I mean nobody. There were a single set of footprints that turned around about a half mile up, and after that, it was a smooth, flat, well-packed trail ... everything ideal for uphill snowbiking.

I took my rear tire pressure down to about 4 or 5 psi and left the front around 8 ... because I seem to get better grip for climbing when the front tire is little more solid. I set to the riding, 4 or 5 mph, which is flying up this trail. It takes all the effort I have to give ... running a heart rate of 165+, gasping for air, stripped down to my base layer and still gushing sweat. In marginal conditions - soft snow or steep climbs - riding a bike a 5 mph can easily take four times more effort than walking a bike at 2.5 mph, which is why bike pushing is so regularly employed in most endurance snow bike races. Only the strongest of the strongmen can afford to expend that much extra effort without an equal speed payoff. But on a day like today, when I'm only planning to ride for three hours and rest as much as I want later, I can burn as hot and high as I feel like burning. I was red-zoning at 5 mph, and feeling awesome.

As I climbed higher, the fog began to clear. The trail pitched steeper, and I started the push. I assumed that any second, a snowmobile was going to come up and chew up my perfectly smooth, perfectly predictable trail, making for a fish-tailing rough ride down. Last Friday, at the exact same time of day, I saw at least two dozen snowmobiles blast up this trail. I told myself I should turn around right then and enjoy what downhill I could, but the sunlight beckoned me higher. The edges of the hard effort were starting to cut through. My GPS ticked off feet of elevation like seconds on a clock, but I didn't slow down. I felt like I had to beat the rolling fog, had to beat the approaching snowmobiles.

But neither came. The sky became clearer. I crested the ridge. It was Pugsley's first ascent. I congratulated him. I took a drink of ice-free water and walked along the ridge, watching wisps of intensely illuminated clouds swirl along the mountainside.

The contrast of dark and light was intriguing ... hard to capture with a camera. But, then again, it's different up there, heart still pounding and hair still dripping from the hard climb. You squint against an expanse of snow and see every shadow and color with a pulsating intensity. Cameras never capture that.

After that, there was nowhere to go but down. I kicked off the ridge and shot down the steep face of the Douglas Ski Bowl, digging in deep with my rear wheel but hardly losing speed. I dropped into the bowl and mashed the pedals to churn up a 100-foot knoll, the last hard climb. I slowed but didn't put my feet down as I took a lingering look over the canyon, draped in clouds but clearing, and launched into the final descent. The trail, unbelievably, almost in a Twilight Zone way, was still perfectly groomed. Not a single snowmobile had been up there in at least three hours, and possibly all day. For the first time ever, I was able to ride this trail without a single mogul or snowmobile ski track or soft spot or chewed-up edge. The risk was gone so I released the brakes and let gravity reign. I glanced down at my GPS, registering a max speed of 25, 27, 29 mph. On snow! With a rear tire at 4 psi!

I arrived at the bottom of the trail less than 20 minutes after I left the ridge, five miles and 2,300 feet of elevation behind me. I pulled into the empty parking lot practically drenched in ecstasy, almost in disbelief at what just happened, just like being 19 years old and carving my way to the bottom of a black diamond run on a snowboard for the first time. After I did it once it was never quite the same, but today was just like that. Remind me to send a donation to the groomer with the Juneau Snowmobile Club.

I used to have a next-door neighbor who, whenever I told him about something cool that happened, would say, "You're stoked."

Exactly. Stoked, fired up, and ready to leave scorch marks on the snow.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Goodbye to a good car

Date: Feb. 18
Mileage: 28.1
February mileage: 498.8
Temperature: 36

The low-lying fog was just starting to break up when I wheeled my bike out of the shed just after 10 a.m. Streaks of sunlight tore through the gray curtain and dusted the road, which was already slushy atop a thick layer of decaying ice. I was dressed for springtime, a fleece pullover and tights, and it felt like springtime. In fact, this whole week has been unbelievably, unseasonably nice. It makes me glad I'm not moving away from Juneau just yet. If my original plans had worked out, this would have been my last week in town. It would have been a tough week to leave behind.

As I lubed my chain, I caught a glimpse through my spokes of Geoff's 1989 Honda Civic. The bike rack was gone, as was the strap that held the trunk shut. Melting snow dripped down the sun-faded paint and icicles clung to the rusted edges. I remembered Geoff told me a guy was coming to pick it up at 11 a.m. Geoff listed the car in the freebie ads last night for $100. He had six calls on it by morning. And as I rolled away, I realized that glimpse would likely be the last I'd ever see of that car.

It was early January 2002 when I first met the Civic. I was visiting Geoff and his family in New York when Geoff's brother offered to sell him a 13-year-old car for $700. Geoff, who lived in Utah, thought that sounded like a perfectly rational business deal. He bought the car and then talked me out of a perfectly good American Airlines ticket so I could help him drive it across the country in two and a half days. I took one look at that car - drooping bumper, rust holes all the way through the body, and 200,000 miles on the odometer, and said to Geoff, "That thing is never going to make it to Utah."

The cross-country trip was fairly uneventful. I saw Indiana for the first time, and Kansas. We spent the night in the car at a rest stop in Wyoming at 8,000 feet. Temperatures probably dipped below zero. I shivered in whatever K-mart sleeping bag I owned at he time as Geoff wheezed and mumbled with a fairly nasty flu bug he had come down with. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

I had to drive the rest of the way with Geoff unconscious in the passenger's seat, but we amazingly made it to Salt Lake with everything still in one piece. I gave that car three months tops. Geoff spent nearly every weekend in either in the Uinta Mountains or the Southern Utah desert, driving hundreds of miles a week and bouncing that car down the worst kind of roads the BLM and Forest Service can dish out. One time we took it on an excursion to find an over-mountain route from Heber to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Geoff dropped the car into first gear as we bounced over boulders the size of basketballs, skirting cliffsides and grinding up pitches so steep I didn't know if I'd be able to walk down them once the thing broke down. I couldn't imagine four-wheel-drive trucks going up that road, but the Civic kept churning along. Loathing boiled up from my gut. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

Later that year, Geoff bought a 12-foot aluminum boat in Wyoming. He drove the Civic all the way back to New York to visit family and had a friend gerrymander a towing hitch on the back. He then drove to Wyoming, picked up the boat and trailer, and drove it back to Utah. For the rest of the summer and fall, he'd head up Parley's Canyon twice a week to fish for perch and rainbow trout. Even when it got late in the year and there was snow on the road, there Geoff was, driving down an icy 6-percent grade towing a boat and trailer with a Honda Civic. I thought he was going to die, and I blamed the car.

But the years just kept rolling by, and the odometer kept rolling up. There were countless more trips to the desert, more trips out East, that first trip to Alaska, that first winter in Homer, the frequent hair-raising drives up the Sterling and Seward highways, moving to Juneau, a summer trip all over Western North America and then back again to Juneau. The odometer crept above 300,000 and then 310,000. I never lost my faith that the Civic was going to die, any minute now, and yet somehow seven years passed.

The brakes finally went out, completely, in early February. The '89 Civic has 313,000 miles on it. Geoff finally had to come to a decision ... $500 of brake work that would probably bring to light the myriad other repairs needed, or going car-free.

And Geoff, who mostly bike commutes these days anyway, put his car up for sale.

I know we're cyclists and not supposed to get all emotional about cars, but I can't help it. I'm gonna miss the clunker.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Semi-approved!

Date: Feb. 17
Mileage: 20.2
February mileage: 470.7
Temperature: 34

Way way back in the early days of bike blogging, back when Fat Cyclist was still uploading satire to that boxy Live Spaces page and Bike Snob NYC was still in etiquette school, I used to scroll through "Bad Idea Racing" and dream about achieving the kind of blogging notoriety that Dicky seemed to enjoy on a regular basis. I commented on one of his posts back in 2005 and my blog received more kickbacks from that single comment than any other link, for days. I thought, "Once I score a mention from Team Dicky, I'll know I've arrived."

I never thought it would come in the form of a virtual ogling. (Sorry, Dicky, it kinda does feel that way.) But I was given fair warning and we both had a good laugh about it from our respective computers thousands of miles apart. I do love the world of blogging. It's such a bizarre community.

The issue at hand was a scene toward the end of my book where I describe undressing to take a shower after the Iditarod race and catching my first glimpse of all the war wounds I accumulated on the trail. When I think of that scene, I see the peeling off of all those excess layers as a metaphor for shedding the skin of the race and cutting to the heart of the experience. Dicky saw undressing. Which obviously makes sense, but I had to laugh. I guess you had to be there, but I can promise you, it was anything but hot.

Just the same, I still feel like I've finally arrived. Dicky still knows where it's at:

"I know that Jill has been reading my blog for a few years, and I can't help but feel that I inspired her along every step of her adventure. When you think about that fact that she went into the race underprepared with untested equipment, and throughout the course of the race she ignored her nutrition and hydration needs while making poor decisions bringing her comfort level down considerably all the while detesting her very own existence.... and she never gave me any credit? Not even something inside the cover? It cuts deep Jill, very deep."

I think back to all of Dicky's race reports I've read over the years, and I think maybe we have more in common than I imagined.

Thanks, Dicky!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Piling up

Date: Feb. 15 and 16
Mileage: 25.4 and 28.7
February mileage: 450.5
Temperature: 25 and 29

I leave for Anchorage in one week. I have a lot to do. And for some reason my co-workers won't take "Eat, sleep, breathe Iditarod" as an excuse for not exactly having 100 percent focus. When I think about race preparations or things I have to do just to leave my job behind for two weeks, my stress levels spike. But when I think about the race itself, I feel a strange sense of calm, as though I were anticipating a week of laying out on a warm beach and not a cold-weather suffer fest. I think last year's experience lent me a new perspective about the adventure. I was so amped up before the race, and then somehow so calm during the race. There were times I was hurting and times I was deeply afraid (the fear was always worse than the pain) ... but most moments of those six days were so fulfilling and meaningful and - dare I say - fun. You might say I'm looking forward to this year's event as a vacation. A bike tour, if you will. That's all it really is. Sure, it has the word "race" attached to it and somebody out there will be recording my time. But all I really want to do is ride that frozen wave of grace into some of the most beautiful country I have ever experienced. My bicycle, whether I'm pedaling it or using it as a luggage cart, is simply a vehicle to help me get there.

And yes, I realize it might be stormy and awful; that I might have to deal with 45 below and soft new snow; that I might have to deal with rain and a trail churned up into mashed potatoes (like it was on Saturday for the Susitna 100); that I might have a mechanical I can't deal with and my knee might act up at the worst possible time. I'm mentally preparing for those possibilities, too.

Until then, I just wanted to post a few links. First of all, my book is on Amazon now! You can find it here.

Also, I am trying to set up a good SPOT tracking system to share on my blog. I have a shared page set up here. However, I'd love to set up something that can be embedded in my blog to somehow show my progress along a map, Tour Divide style. I'm worried the shared page provide by SPOT will only work for 500 page views. In all of my digging, though, I only found pages that will allow me to show a single dot, the last point I clicked "I'm OK" on. Not nearly as fun. Any suggestions with how to use SPOT would be greatly appreciated (Even if anyone could explain to me exactly how to get tracking to work I'd be grateful. I paid for it and the SPOT help team confirmed that I have tracking on my unit, but I haven't yet successfully started it.) I'm not sure I'll be able to spend much more time dealing with this. If not, I'll probably post this map at the top of my blog before the race:

It's where I am now. Or, at least, where I last used my SPOT.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The armor

Date: Feb. 14
Mileage: 30.1
February mileage: 396.4
Temperature: 17

I'm officially into the taper period of my training now, taking a few wind-down days to ride an easy two-or-so hours each day and sort my gear. I spent this morning collecting and trying on the clothing I plan to use in the race. I rarely wear it all together, "warm" as it is where I live, so I wanted to walk around in it for a while and make sure everything was comfortable and moved easily together. And I thought as long as I was trying it on, I might as well shoot pictures for a reference point when it's finally time to pack for this trip. So my photo essay today is "The armor:"

This is the base layer, an Under Armour syntetic-blend shirt, basic Canari bike tights with chamois, and RBH designs insulated high-rise vapor barrier socks. It looks like a silly super suit, so I struck a silly super hero pose.

The mid-layer is 2 mm neoprene shorts (to help combat that typically female problem of "cold butt syndrome"), a pair of Outdoor Research polyester long johns, J.B. Fields Icelandic wool socks, a Mountain Hardware fleece hat and a Go-lite vapor barrier vest. The vapor barrier vest is intended mainly to keep sweat from pooling near my back, where I will be carrying a backpack and several liters of water. It also works to funnel moisture up through my neck line, where it's easier to vent, so it helps prevent too much ice buildup on the inside of my shell. As you can see, this is the part of the photo shoot where fashion is thrown out the window.

Getting closer to the outer layer here: A pair of Arc'teryx soft shell pants, Mountain Hardware windstopper gloves and a polyester pullover. I haven't decided yet whether to go with this lightweight pullover or a Mountain Hardware Monkey Man jacket, which is furry and warm with a nice pocket but fits a little tight inside my coat, and feels a little over-warm above single-digit temperatures. Decisions, decisions.

This is likely what I'll look like for the bulk of the race. I have an Outdoor Research soft shell coat, a polar fleece balaclava and my Raichle mountaineering boots. I wrestled a lot with whether to wear these boots again or get a lighter pair of winter hiking boots and some N.E.O.S. overboots. All my experience with N.E.O.S., however, has been annoyance with walking in them and ripping up the nylon sides by pedaling in them, due to chain rub. There is enough walking and pedaling in this race that I started looking for ways to forgo the N.E.O.S. and still deal with overflow (these boots are waterproof to my lower shins, and I plan to wear gators, but I was looking for a waterproof layer that was knee-high or higher.) When I found one, these boots won out. I'm happy with their warmth and I'm comfortable walking in them for long hours, even though they're at least three sizes too big. And no, the boots don't have clipless cleats in them. I don't even like riding clipless in the summer with my road bike ... I can't fathom why anyone would try to deal with it in the winter when walking, ice buildup and heat loss is such a factor. :-)

I also wanted to note that the balaclava is probably the oldest piece of winter gear I own. I bought it at REI when I was a teenager because my neck was always freezing when I went snowboarding. No, I didn't care about fashion back then, either.

This is the rest of it, the 70-below-zero-windchill-I-hope-this-keeps-me-warm outer layer: A Mountain Hardware Subzero down parka with hood, a neoprene face mask, Oakley goggles and Outdoor Research shell mittens. The baggy layer on my legs are Wiggy's lightweight hip waders, a thin, waterproof nylon shell that will protect my boots and pants should I need to cross any open streams or overflow this year (Thanks to Martin for the suggestion). The hip waders are solely an on-off item for open water, to minimize the risk of ripping a hole in them. I also will be carrying a lightweight pair of nylon rain pants as an extra wind layer. I love the breathability of the soft shell pants, but I'm not totally sold on their wind-blocking abilities. The gear looks more like a moon suit than a super suit at this point. The bulk of it may seem like overkill, but I'd rather move slower with more confidence than faster with more uncertainties.

Still seems like a lot, huh? Now you see why I go on such long rides in the winter. It takes so long to get dressed that you might as well make it worth your while.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday the 13th

Date: Feb. 13
Mileage: 22.3
February mileage: 366.3
Temperature: 20

Today was an absolutely perfect day. In Juneau, you can't get a better day than a day like today, unless it's summer, and even then, I'm not sure it would really be better. Warmer, yes. Different, yes. But there is something about the silk-smooth sweep of snow over the mountains, the ice glistening on the cliffs, the power-coated trees ... something about winter that makes a blue-sky, no-wind, sunny day just ... perfect.

I dragged my loaded Pugsley up the Dan Moller Trail. It's a short trip, mileage-wise, even when I add an extra leg of highway biking at the end. I was still out for nearly five hours. Climbing to the ridge on this trail usually nets about 3,000-3,500 feet of elevation gain, depending on how long I spend traversing the ridge. I don't drag my bike all the way to the top, but I take it as far as I think I'll be able to ride downhill, which even on a soft day like today is generally pretty far. Minute for minute, it's the best workout there is walking up (specific to my upcoming race at least.) And mile-for-mile, it's the most exhilarating workout there is coming down.

I dropped Pugsley off just below the bowl and hiked to the ridge to take pretty pictures and dodge snowmobiles. Everyone was out today, everyone and their dog. It was the kind of Juneau day that leads to half the town calling in sick.

Even the ghost trees looked happy.

The air above the wind-scoured ridge was as calm as summer. My thermometer hovered somewhere in the low teens, but in direct sun with no wind after hiking from the bottom, I was warm enough to sit on my coat for a few minutes wearing only a T-shirt as I sipped my orange juice and gazed over Stephens Passage.

Geoff and I had a dinner party tonight and after that I put together my drop bags for the race. I'm allowed two drop bags of 10 pounds each. One goes to the 135-mile checkpoint and the other to the 210-mile checkpoint, over the Alaska Range. I figure I'll see an average of about two days between drops, less if things go well. I packed 12,000 calories in each drop, lithium batteries (lots of batteries) and chemical warmers. The calories are on the high side. That assumes I'll eat about 6,000 a day, which I know I won't, although I'll probably be burning at least that many. But we're allowed 10 pounds and whatever I don't need I can leave behind. I left a lot of food behind last year.

At dinner, our friends made fun of our food selection. On the surface it looks like a lot of junk food, and it is. But I've actually spent a fair amount of time thinking through this. My one and only goal is to get calories in. That is all. As long as they go in, it doesn't matter where they come from. Fat is good and sugar isn't so great, but sugar is what I like. Sugar is what I always like, even after six days. I can also digest large amounts of it it without issues, unlike most high-fat foods. So I'm going to eat a lot of sugar. I'll probably come home with a couple of cavities, but as long as I eat, that's what matters. I'll be burning through the calories so quickly that I really don't think it matters of they're not complex-carbohydrate, amino-acid, antioxidant, lycopene-infused calories. They just need to be appealing enough to go down in the first place. Thus, the miniature peanut butter cups (thanks, Richard!) with almonds in a handy 3,000-calorie zippy. Get in ma belly!

There's actually a decent balance of fat and protein in the mix, and I'll be supplementing it all with vitamins, antacids and electrolyte pills. But what I'm drop bagging is a delicious smorgasbord of peanut butter cups big and small, Kit Kat bars, almonds, walnuts, dry-roasted edemame, Corn Nuts, a mix of dried cherries, cranberries and chocolate-covered raisins, and home-made chocolate chip cookies (mmm, butter.) This isn't a performance race. It's a survival test.

Notice that I've given up on bars. I like to eat Clif Bars on training rides, but they're impossible to ingest once deep frozen. Freezing is actually a strong factor behind many of these decisions. Has to be good, has to be easy, has to be edible deep frozen. Healthy crap can come before and after the race.

There you have it. My next book will be called "How Cycling Turned Me Into a Junkaholic."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nine hours of recharging

Date: Feb. 11 and 12
Mileage: 26.7 and 97.4
February mileage: 344
Temperature: 30 and 19

I really can not overexaggerate the energy that surrounds me when I wake up to the first sunny day after a long stretch of gray. Winter or summer, snow or rain, after a while, it just doesn't seem to matter. Gray is gray. And sun is intense color and open space, dry snow and packed trails. Sun is light. Why it would really matter what the temperature is, I've long since forgotten. Today was 20 degrees and as beautiful and energizing as any day in June.

I'd hoped to squeeze in about a 10-hour ride today, but it took me a while to pack up this morning. I loaded my bike with a good chunk of the kit I plan to carry with me in the race - about 10,000 calories in food (today, because I wasn't planning on eating the majority of it, mostly nuts and dried fruit), stove, chemical warmers, all my extra clothing (because it was so "warm" today, I was wearing my base minimum), ~four liters of water, bike repair stuff and tubes, other random little things ... The only thing I was missing was my bivy bundle (sleeping bag, pad and bivy sack), because I am still waiting on a front rack. But the bulk of it, the main weight of it, was all there.

The road shoulders, while still coated in a tire suck of loose powder/sand and clunky ice, were in better shape than I've seen them in weeks. Even with the weight of bike, food, water and gear pushing 55 pounds, I was able to sit back and coast easy. I hit up all the side roads in the Valley looking for packed trails, but didn't find too much. It's still too soon after the snow dump. I pushed my bike on the foot trails for a short while before settling back in to cruise mode.

I greedily soaked up sun through a few square inches of exposed skin on my face and made frequent stops to practice all the little things that long-distance snow-biking usually entails ... adjusting my tire pressure, adjusting my layers, feeding my face. I experimented today with force-feeding. I've gotten better about taking in calories on long rides, but still end up running a deficit before the ride is over. Small calorie deficits are fine for daylong rides, but they add up quickly over longer efforts. Today I was determined to end the day somewhere closer to even. For a nine-hour ride, that's at least 3,000 calories ... ug ... but I tried to put it down. I snacked on dried apples for close to the entire day. They were delicious at first. And then not so delicious. And then downright revolting. I supplemented the apples with Luna Bars and peanut butter cups. Both went down smooth. I ended the ride pretty close to my calorie-intake goal - and somewhat nauseated. It was a strange feeling ... I was nauseated but I had a ton of energy. With the exception of never wanting to look at a dried apple again, I felt nearly as fresh as I had at the beginning of the day, before all the pedaling and heavy bike pushing and cold wind and 90-something miles. And I'm thinking ... food is the answer.

But, then again, maybe sun is the answer. Or maybe just having a whole day to ride my bike is the answer. After dinner, Geoff and I decided to go to Costco and Fred Meyer to buy all the stuff we need for our race drop bags, among other things (Costco runs always result in about 400 pounds of groceries.)

"Aren't you too tired?" Geoff asked me when questioning whether we should go.

"Are you kidding?" I said. "All I did today was ride my bike."

And, the more I think about it, it's a pretty relaxing way to live.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book update

It's been a while since I posted an update about my book. I wanted to again thank everyone who has purchased it. I released it in November as a fundraiser for the 2009 ITI, and the royalties have helped me pay for the entry fee, travel expenses, food and new gear. I received my 2008 W2 tax form from Lulu the other day. When I showed it to Geoff, he said, "You earned as much from your book in a tenth of a year as I earned in a tenth of the year, working." I didn't remind him of all of the long summer nights I stayed up until 4 a.m. pounding the thing out. I also didn't remind him that the sum only included the books that sold directly through Lulu, and not the boxes I've moved out of the house. Anyway, it's been a lucrative fundraiser, and I wanted to say thanks again.

I also wanted to thank everyone who e-mailed me in the past month with contacts at bike shops and book stores. I'm sorry if I haven't gotten back to you. I made the mistake of posting a request for contacts before I went to Hawaii, and came home to a flood of e-mails. I just wanted to let you know that I have saved them all and will be sorting through them in hopes of expanding my distribution when I have more time. Right now, the book (and any future projects) have been pushed far on the backburner, and that's OK.

A few readers have been nice enough to post reviews online. You can read them here:

Kent's Bike Blog
An Adventure Called Bicycling
Moronacity (not a book review, but a really cool essay just the same.)
The Accidental Athlete
Danielle Musto

UPDATE: Fat Cyclist (Thanks, Elden! Great timing.)
One Less Car

Finally, I want to apologize for the long delay in getting the signed copies of the book out during January. My trip to Hawaii, the fact that I ran out of a shipment before I expected to, and continued busyness all conspired to delay some purchases for a couple weeks. I should have all of the books out now, and I now have more in stock, so if you ordered my book in the past few weeks and you don't have it in hand by Friday, please contact me. The book is still available for purchase, the money still going into my hemorrhaging Iditarod fund. In a couple of new developments, I now have the eBook listed separately. It costs $8 and is available here. Also, Amazon.com approved "Ghost Trails" for sale, but they don't yet have it in stock. For those dead-set on purchasing it from Amazon (who, I will say, take their fair cut), it will likely be listed here in the near future.

I still receive the highest royalties from those who purchase a signed book directly from me, using the "Buy Now" button in the sidebar. I'll only be able to offer this option for the next two weeks. After Feb. 22 I will be in Anchorage and no longer able to process orders until mid-March.

Right now I am working on my gear list and will probably post it in the next few days. (Having it on record helps me more than anyone.) Stay tuned!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Facing the anxiety

Date: Feb. 8 and 19
Mileage: 42.2 and 12.1
February mileage: 219.9
Temperature: 34 and 29

Iditarod Trail near Burma Road, Jan. 28, 2006

"Of course, everything about today was exactly what I would expect of such an excursion. Temps were cold, but not unreasonably so. The trail was soft, but all-in-all better than I expected. Mt. Augustine decided today was the fourth of July, but all the ash headed south. Yes, today was a good day. An encouraging day. And yet, I feel the cold grip of this daunting task tightening around me. It could be my neoprene gear. But, no. I think it's the Susitna 100. It's going to be hard."

It's funny for me to go back and read this old blog post from a training ride before the 2006 Susitna 100. I feel like I could have written it today. There was even a volcano erupting (Mount Augustine) to parallel the current restlessness of Mount Redoubt in the near area. But this blog post completely denies a raw anxiety that I remember hit fever pitch after this January 2006 ride. I don't think I was ready to admit it to myself when I wrote this post.

Geoff and I drove from Homer to Palmer for the weekend, a trip almost solely dedicated to getting in one training ride on the actual race course. It was 7 below zero when we left Palmer, likely colder where we connected with the Iditarod Trail at Burma Road. We both rode full-suspension Gary Fisher Sugars. We stopped to play with tire pressure and I got really cold and struggled to warm back up. I tried to eat a frozen Power Bar, bit my lip and bled all over the front of my coat. We both crashed hard going down a steep hill and I broke my seat post bag. We rode for five hours. We covered 20 miles. I returned to Palmer bloody, shivering and completely, utterly spent.

Our friend Amity, never one to skimp on sweets, made us a celebration desert of three big homemade chocolate chip cookies topped with several scoops of ice cream. I ate the whole thing. I remember sitting on the couch with a horrible, sickening pit in my stomach thinking, "I am never, never going to finish this race."

Recent Snowslide Gulch avalanche as seen from Douglas Island.

Ever since I moved to Alaska, February has been my toughest month. Mid-winter blues and training fatigue, along with preparation and pre-race anxiety for the various adventure racers I keep signing up for, always add up to a month full of creeping malaise. The end result is worth it, in my mind, but the lead-up is sometimes difficult to bear.

This February, I can't even catch a break from the weather - which simply means that the weather hasn't cooperated with my training plans. It also means I haven't had a direct hit of sun in quite some time (It feels like weeks). Snow turns to rain turns to ice turns to snow, which has left nothing very rideable, trails or roads. I'm fusing my old job with my new job and I really do have less time to train, because the extra hours I'm working generally spill out into mornings. I've been bike commuting to work more often because the roads have been too treacherous for my wimpy little car. The actual biking is nice, but it often adds up to 10-12 hours straight at the office, and I never bring enough food and end up close to bonked before I have to ride home (I could probably plan better, but I haven't been shopping for myself in a while.) These are all just little problems, nagging issues, but they start to add up. I'm trying to keep my head above water, but it's hard to push it back sometimes ... that sinking feeling.

The 90-minute snowshoe run that made my day.

Going outside helps. A lot. My race and job anxiety seem to dissipate proportionally with the number of hours I'm able to spend traipsing through the snow. The continuous record snowfall that is literally smothering the city becomes alluring and beautiful up high. I walk and run with purpose, listening to the rhythm of my breath and feeling the movement in my muscles. It all seems so simple and I try to remember that the upcoming race, as big and complicated and scary as it seems right now, is just as simple.

"One foot in front of the other," I tell myself. "One pedal stroke in front of the other. Keep yourself warm, keep yourself fed, and keep moving. You'll get there."

I'll get there. Eventually.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Just missed it

(photo by Peter Bibb, stuck on the wrong side of a big slide)

Date: Feb. 7
Mileage: 19.8
February mileage: 165.5
Temperature: 39

Every once in a while, I have a rare but memorable day where I come home from a bike ride grumpier than I was before I left. Today was one of those days. I planned a short recovery ride, 20 miles on pavement, and the roads looked almost bare thanks to an overnight scouring by heavy rain. But because city road crews never actually scrape the shoulders, I had to ride my brakes over wet ice as a strong southeast wind pushed my back like a sail. After two miles of hardly pedaling on flat road, I turned onto the bridge to meet the crosswind. Unobstructed over the Channel, the gale pulled like an industrial vacuum toward traffic, blowing 50-60 mph steady. Steering was an exercise in futility, coasting a vehicular game of Russian roulette. I crawled off my bike and started walking, bike on the leeward side, until the wind ripped it right out of my hands and tossed it like a blanket against the pedestrian barrier. It didn't even hear it clatter amid the ceaseless roar. Daggers of rain pierced my cheeks. I moved the battered bike windward, leaned against it, and kept walking. I nearly turned around right there, but decided if I could just make it over the bridge, things would get better.

I churned out Thane Road directly into the gusts, but a least there the wind was buffered by houses and trees as it rushed along the steep face of Mount Roberts. Near the bottom of the second hill, my studded tires slipped and washed out on the wet ice. I went down, elbow first into a puddle. I swore out loud and picked myself up, holding my sore elbow against my side, dripping rainwater and grit as I made all the mental promises that I don't really intend to keep, but that make me feel so much better: Throw away the Nokians; Renew my gym membership; move far, far away from Juneau and never look back.

But because I get so stubbornly locked into things, I still fought the wind to the end of the road and turned around, playing Russian roulette with patches of wet ice as the gusting tailwind determined my speed. I had little choice in the matter, brakes and all. When tailwind gets overly pushy, it stops being fun.

And of course, grumpy as I was, I was thinking, "Can it get any worse than this?"

I rode the freight train of wind past Snowslide Gulch at about 12:15 p.m. I was probably in the shower when the avalanche came down at 1 p.m. It tumbled down the mountain like a rock slide, 300 feet long and 18 feet high, completely burying the road before settling into the sea. The debris effectively blocked off the community of Thane and its dead-end road from the rest of the world. Right now it seems that there wasn't anyone driving by when the slide came down, but in the Russian roulette game of life, that possibility is always there ... you never know ... it could happen to a random hapless cyclist who picked Thane Road because it's usually the most wind-protected area, who fell off her bike on the ice in nearly that exact area a mere hour earlier, who thought she was having a bad day ...

I guess it can always get worse.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Seven hours of white

Marginal weather conditions showed up this morning as promised - heavy snowfall with temperatures right on the cusp of freezing, threatening to warm throughout the day and mix rain with snow for the worst kind of riding surface imaginable (in my opinion). It's like trying to pedal through a six inches of Slurpee.

I wanted to get outside for seven our eight hours today, and it was either that or a long hike. I picked the hike. Walking, actually, is a huge part of the Iditarod race, and I learned last year it's important to be in good trudging shape for slogs that can last upwards of 24 hours and more. To be best prepared, I'd actually have to get out and push my loaded bike, thereby building the shoulder and arm muscles that I am still probably lacking. But there's a limit to the misery I'm willing to endure when I'm just training. The idea of pushing my bike through the unbroken snow of the backcountry definitely goes beyond this limit. Slogging through steep, deep stuff in snowshoes feels like punishment enough. But a little slogging is good for the soul ... in the long run.

I left from my house, hiked up the Mount Jumbo Trail, traversed along the Treadwell Ditch Trail and went up the next canyon to the Douglas Ski Bowl and eventually the ridge, where I traversed until the wind and chill rattled me back down. I lost the trail more than a few times. I snowshoed about 15-17 miles and 4,500 feet of vertical gain in seven hours, much of that mired in the slow slog of trail-breaking. The kind of work that cuts deep into the core of your muscles with every step. The good slog. And the whole time, icy snow fell in streams, sometimes to the point of whiteout conditions. The above picture pretty much sums up everything there was to see for seven solid hours.

I was pretty well soaked through and through by the time I crested the ridge, because the falling snow was so wet. The wind had picked up throughout the day, and it hit the ridge with shocking force. The gusts were probably 40 to 50 mph - enough to actually knock me off my feet once. My soaked hair froze into one solid block even after I put my hood up, and my coat and pants froze as well. It felt like I was wearing an outer layer made of wood. The fabric became almost immovably stiff, trapped as it was beneath a sheet of ice that had once been beaded-up precipitation. But in the amazing way Gortex can, the coat still completely blocked the wind and let my insulation layer (just one) keep me warm, so I hiked along the ridge for a little while.

I'm always fascinated by the ghost trees that live along the ridge. They live just a few dozen feet of elevation below treeline, the absolute margin of where a tree can even grow. They're fringe trees, and their postures show the burden of hard, hard lives. Every square inch of needle and bark is coated in solid ice (not snow, ice), for most of the months of the year. They're incessantly pounded by brutal wind. And yet, somehow, they survive. I don't pity these trees. In a way, I envy them, because through whatever twist of fate, they arrived at the brutal fringes of their environment and still decided life was worth living.

I don't have real photoshop on my computer, just this freeware photo organizing software with an "auto levels" setting that goes more than a little heavy on the contrast. But I kinda like what it does with monotone photos. Artsy.

The last miles of the hike passed in the way that many, many miles on the Iditarod Trail pass ... forever moving toward a small island of light amid an ocean of night.

Friday, February 06, 2009

8.5 hours

Date: Feb. 5
Mileage: 93.4
February mileage: 145.7
Temperature: 28

I had a really good, strong ride today, according to the "sweat test." I usually feel I can't base the progress of winter rides on distance or speed, because trail and road conditions are so variable (and generally marginal at best, necessitating a lot of work to go pretty dang slow.) So I base my winter progress on the amount of sweat I generate. I always check the weather forecast and current temperature before I go. Since neither varies much in Juneau, I have pretty much down pat exactly what I need to stay warm but not overheat in the most common temperature/precipitation combinations (between 10 degrees and 40 degrees dry or wet I have down pat. Beyond those I have much less experience.) So, if I look at the temperature, and dress exactly how I think I need to, then head out and still sweat a ton and have to shed layers, then I know I've had a good, strong ride.

These eight and nine-hour rides don't really feel long or hard any more, but they're good enough because I don't have much more time to burn. Working nights as I do, the only way I can have any social life at all is by making dinner plans on Thursdays and Fridays. So I wake up early (for me) and ride from 9 to 6. Lately, I've felt relaxed and strong the whole day, even pushing at a rate I consider moderately strenuous, and often come home wishing I could stay out even longer, if I didn't have this and that lined up. I guess that's a good sign that I should be taking in longer rides, but I still believe I'll be more successful in the long run if I live a balanced life rather than taking the quickest route to burnout.

I've been pretty frustrated with the road conditions and general uselessness of snow removal crews in Juneau. The roads are basically in better shape where they don't bother to clear them at all, like mile 35-40 Glacier Highway, because then it's just a snowmobile trail. But I'll try not to complain about snow removal because it's a boring subject. I will say that if it's snowing quite a bit tomorrow morning, I'll probably spend my planned long day as a long hike rather than take too many more chances in the slush and sandy powder in traffic. I've just lost control of both my bikes too many times for comfort, and going slow enough to feel totally confident about staying in control just isn't really exercise (This specifically isn't a criticism of Juneau road crews. It's just a truth about riding on roads where snow has been piled up unevenly by traffic flow. The fact that the City and Borough of Juneau never bothers to clear that crap away even after many days go by is what irks me.) Ok. Rant officially over.

It was a nice day, though. The sun was always on the horizon, stretched between the mountains and a ceiling of clouds.

I found my way to the Airport Dike Trail right at sunset. It was the perfect combination of a trail ride and exactly the right time. Great way the end the day.