Thursday, July 29, 2010

And then I forgot the name of the mountain

Expectations are an interesting thing. A collaboration of past experiences and future hopes, expectations cast such a strong light on the present that no single experience can really stand on its own. But when experience surpasses expectations, those "ah-ha" moments of discovery stand as singular mileposts on life's winding roads. Take moving to western Montana, for instance. A nice place, I expected, but certainly lacking in the varied terrain of Utah or the vast sweeping wilderness of Alaska. Then I came to Montana, and I saw great gray monoliths towering over the prairie, I watched bears amble through the spruce forest and I stood on the edge of rocky ridges overlooking vast tracts of rippled mountains. And I thought, "ah ha."

That simple realization that Montana is in fact an expansive, wild and beautiful place has been continuously jolted by six weeks' worth of small discoveries. And still, my expectations remain low. Take the Bitterroot Range. Straddling the Idaho-Montana border, the Bitterroots are a largely undeveloped range, cut off by a wide tract of wilderness protection. From Missoula's low perch on the northeastern edge of the range, I pictured soft, rolling hills with lots of spruce forest. I thought someday I would plan a long bikepacking trip on the Bitterroot periphery, but for now, there was too much else to explore.

Then, Dave suggested for our weekly Wednesday night endeavor that we go for a hike instead of a bike ride. He's in heavy taper mode for the Butte 100 this weekend; I'm in light taper mode for TransRockies the following week, and I think we're both starting to wonder, "what next?" As I seem to do every late summer, I'm already glancing deeper into the mountains for quieter adventures and more distant opportunities. Wednesday evening seemed like a good day to walk into the Bitterroot.

Thunderstorms and humid heat followed us out of town and into the Bitterroot Valley. We thought lightning would chase us out of the high country but we went there anyway, climbing into the white pine forest and the cool air and the barren ridge. Clear sky opened up around us and Dave pointed out places that seemed impossibly far away — the Pintlers, the Swan, and the beautifully sculpted, unexpectedly rugged mountains of the Bitterroot. We spent at least an hour on the windless summit, 9,300 feet in the sky, watching warm light flicker across a wild expanse.

These peaks are called the Heavenly Twins.

It's these quiet moments when expectation shifts toward possibility, and an entirely new experience opens up. It's an experience anchored in neither the past nor the future, only the extreme present, when "ah-ha" is nothing more than a deep, satisfied, "ah."
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Into the taper

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself."

~ Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

On Monday my lower body was mostly useless, blistered feet and fried quads, still cooked from a lot of walking downhill. I did my laundry and my dishes; I made me feel conventionally useful, but a little bit like I was somehow missing out. The sunset burned with deep summer intensity; I missed it in the way people often miss their spouses while they're away at work - it was out there, but not close in the way I was accustomed to. I watched it from my balcony, pleasant but distant, like calling on the phone to say hello.

Tuesday was the weekly ride with the Dirt Girls, the perfect solution to launch my taper 10 days prior to the next big adventure. The plan called for a mellow ride up the Rattlesnake Recreation Area with lots of chatting and resting, followed by a fast, fun descent. My legs were recovered and already feeling strong thanks to prior fitness; it takes more than a weekend's worth of pounding to really faze them for long these days. But my legs' strength made the rest of me feel restless and a little bit impatient. Big mountains turned gold beneath the storm-filtered sunlight; they whispered silver-tongued seductions that I had to ignore. I turned for home as the subdued sunset slipped beneath the rugged skyline.

I think about fitness and I wonder what it means, really means, to me. My body has never been a big priority for me; as far as I'm concerned, all it's mainly good for is carrying me through this world that I am madly in love with. It's a vehicle, like my bicycles, which in turn are an extension of me. And like my bicycles, sometimes I let my body get out of tune, and sometimes I leave it too long in the elements, and sometimes I bash it against the rocks. But when I feel fit, really fit, I feel like there's nothing in the world that can stop me from traveling relentlessly over the mountains and fields, through the valleys and streams, splashing, squealing, sprinting toward that blissfully elusive horizon I think of as freedom.

I plan adventures because their promise drives me. Adventures are a sublime sunset that I can chase. I grind my body into the dust and dirt and pavement toward the horizon, that elusive line I think of as fitness, which is really just a color-streaked threshold between my body and a borderless expanse of discovery. But as I approach that line, I discover there's nothing there but more horizon, more reasons to keep grinding away, and I realize that even if could somehow become exponentially stronger and faster, I would only chase sunset forever.

And I wonder what it means, really means, to me, to have no real destination. But instead of pressing for an answer, I slow down lest my body burn out. I take the breaths I badly need. I let the darkness surround me. And I steel myself for the next big cycle, because the sun is going to come around again, and again and again, whether I chase it or not. Bodies are limited but discovery is infinite, and somewhere therein lies the balance of life, the equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion.
Monday, July 26, 2010

Pictures of Glacier

Temperatures in Missoula this past weekend were forecasted to climb to nearly 100 degrees. My TransRockies partner, Keith, was planning to visit one of his friends in Kalispell, about two hours north of this insufferably hot place. I've been wanting to visit Glacier National Park, which I've never really explored beyond the Going-To-The-Sun road. These three factors sparked a fantastically fun weekend, the kind that leaves me with a loss for words and an excessive number of pictures to post on my blog.

Keith's friend is an ultrarunner named Danni, who works as an attorney for a firm in Kalispell. She used to be a lawyer for a high-powered firm in Chicago, with prestige, salary, and everything that goes with it. Then, one day about four years ago, she attended a "Woman-to-Woman" conference put on by her firm, where topics ranged from "What Not To Wear" (basically, the things she wore to work most every day) to "How to Balance Work and Family," where a woman talked about forgoing dinner in favor of "nighttime snack" with her kids. Danni went home that day and immediately plotted her escape to the mountains, and landed in Kalispell, Montana, where she still has a good job, a beautiful historic home and a husband who cooks beingets (New Orleans fry bread) for Sunday brunch. Oh, and sometimes she goes out and runs 100 miles. And she's super funny. By the end of the weekend, I wanted to ask her if she'd be my new BFF, but I didn't want to seem too forward, given we'd never met before I showed up at her doorstep late Friday evening.

Danni took me to her favorite spots in Glacier National Park, starting Saturday morning with Gunsight Pass.

The one-way hike is 20-21 miles (depending on what signs you believe) from the east side of the Continental Divide to the west. We parked at Lake McDonald Lodge and took the shuttle over the precarious, narrow, cliff-edge road to the Jackson Glacier trailhead.

The park's Web site had warned of lots of snow on the pass, and we were prepared with ice axes, but it turned out to be nothing more than a few short snowfields, not even long enough to glissade. We especially had to laugh at the minimally dangerous conditions after we passed a couple of backpackers near the trailhead who told us the snow had turned them around, and basically implied that we were probably doomed if we chose to continue on our epic attempt to traverse the entire trail in a single day.

I do think 21 miles is a decent day hike, but certainly within the grasp of most fit people. While we walked, Danni indicated which parts of the trail she would normally walk and which parts she would run. It was a little eye-opening, actually, to see that ultrarunning doesn't necessarily have to be about logging eight-minute miles for 100 miles straight. Many ultrarunners do a lot of walking, which makes it seem more obtainable for those of us who have leaned heavily on wheels for most of our "fit" lives.

While Missoula melted in the sun, the weather in Glacier was absolutely perfect, 70 degrees and clear.

Gunsight Pass.

Danni crossing under a waterfall below the pass.

We started to see lots of mountain goats right on the trail. This kid goat was so adorable. Both Danni and I wanted to reach out and pet it, but of course we did not. Funny how strong the urge is, though, when you see a cute fuzzy baby animal.

Then we encountered the billy goats who did not want to get off the trail. We herded a small group for several yards until they finally relented to letting us by. We finished the hike in about seven and a half hours (hardcore ultrarunners probably wouldn't even let you call that a day hike; more like a "half day.") We cooled down in the lodge with Diet Coke and beer in front of a sparkling Lake McDonald.

The next day we were able to enjoy a relaxing breakfast in Kalispell while we waited for Keith to make his way from the eastern half of the state, where he had been visiting friends. We all met up in East Glacier at 11.

Our Sunday hike was the Dawson and Pitimakin Pass loop, another favorite of Danni's. It wasn't hard to see why.

Starting at noon was a bit rough on both of us, tired as we were from the day before and struggling a bit as we climbed in 80-degree heat.

But it was minimal work for jaw-dropping views the entire time.

Keith lives in Banff, Alberta, and feels his home is the most beautiful place in the world. But he was willing to allow that maybe Montana is maybe kinda pretty, too.

The Sunday hike was strikingly different from Saturday's, just by nature of its location on the front range of the Rockies. Even though it's only a few dozen miles east of the Divide, it's a much drier and rockier place.

From the saddle where we perched to eat our lunch, we could even see the beginning of the American prairie, a flat expanse on the far horizon. I hadn't before really realized how close I am to the plains here in Western Montana. I'll have to get out there for a visit someday soon.

Instead of mountain goats, the Dawson-Pitimakin loop had bighorn sheep. We saw two separate groups — one all rams and the other all females.

The females were especially protective of the trail, but they eventually let us by.

The Sunday loop ended at about 17 miles, for a 37-mile weekend. I'm sore! But Keith agreed I could count it as a good training weekend, because there will be plenty of hike-a-bike in TransRockies. Only two more weeks! I'm officially in taper mode now. I'm hoping I can use that as an excuse to volunteer for the Swan Crest 100 next weekend. After spending 37 miles on my feet this weekend, I have this whole new fascination with Montana trail running and the possibilities therein (not that I'm going to start running on a regular basis all of the sudden, but I do admire the possibilities it creates, especially when you have the ability to travel 37 miles in one day as opposed to two.) But what a fun weekend! Thanks Danni and Keith!
Friday, July 23, 2010

Christmas in July

I need to find an online photo workshop for "Taking Photographs with Your Limited Point-And-Shoot Camera While Trying To Keep Up With A Massive Peloton During A Group Mountain Bike Ride." It can be frustrating to watch compelling image after compelling image rip by you, only to whip out your camera and grab a blurry shot of half of somebody's butt. Faster members of Missoula's Thursday Night Riders simply blaze ahead and then wait at a strategic perch, capturing dynamic shots of a 21-rider paceline grinding up a smooth ribbon of singletrack.

The rest of us get rear shots. And a face-full of this grass that I am fairly certain I am highly allergic to. During my Friday Death Ride, I attributed my early bonk to overtraining, but now I'm wondering if part of it was allergies. John and I went whipping through a few miles of this stuff on Friday night, and shortly after that I began to feel like my entire head was slowly filling with warm ooze. Then again, on Thursday, a ride through the grass was followed by lots of sneezing, coughing and more of that disorienting "lead head" feeling. For five years in Alaska, I had nearly no problems with allergies, but now I am back in the land where summer can be mildly toxic. Time to go purchase some Claratin.

Right now, I am looking to purchase a new point-and-shoot camera. I like the Olympus Stylus, but now that I am living in a spot where rain and grit is much less prevalent, and destruction of the camera isn't imminent, I'd like to buy something with a better lens and stronger zoom. Someday I will upgrade to an SLR with the goal of shooting a few magazine images, but I still suspect I'll carry the point-and-shoot on most of my rides, so that priority comes first. Anyway, I've already received a few good recommendations, but I'd love to hear more if you have any.

Being able to shoot close-up images would also be nice. I spotted these fireweed blooms as I was walking down the loose scree of the "Huckleberry Headwall." As I moved off the trail to take a photo, Bill asked me about the famous fireweed gauge. "Doesn't the flower height mean there will be a lot of snow this winter?" he asked. "No," I replied, "When the blooms reach the top of the plant, that means summer's over. So, see, this one shows summer is half over, which makes sense, cause it's late July." Just as we were discussing this, another guy came skidding out of control around the corner and toppled over himself, landing face first in the dirt. And I totally missed it, because I was taking a dumb photo of a flower.

Spending time at higher elevation helped clear my head, but then it was time to get back into the grass on the descent.

These Thursday night groups have been great fun, but my giddiness about a month straight of near-perfect weather and excitement for my upcoming weekend hiking trip to Glacier National Park could only be eclipsed by the arrival of my first new bike in two and a half years:

It's a fixed-gear commuter! Built by Mr. Fixie himself, Dave Nice of Over The Edge Sports in Hurricane, Utah. When I first moved to Missoula, I was badly in need of a new commuting bike. My old Ibex touring bike has served that purpose well, but it recently lost a bit of its brake lever and rear brake arm (Who knows when or how. I can't even say I was 'just riding along' when this happened.) "Roadie" has served me well, but I've had it now for more than six years and who knows how many thousands of miles, and it's starting to become difficult just to keep it on the road. When I considered my needs - a simple bike for commuting in a flat city, where the weather can be icy and wet during the winter, and a bike that doesn't have pieces regularly falling off of it - the fixie made perfect sense. Enter Dave, who had a vision, and an extra Fuji Obey frame lying around. He built it up and shipped it via UPS - i.e. "Brown Santa" - and it just arrived today.

The funny thing about purchasing a fixie is that I've never ridden one; not even once. I knew it would take some getting used to, so I took it out for a spin around the neighborhood, sticking to side streets and cautiously approaching intersections like a teenager in driver's ed. I learned that the fixie is a strict interpreter of Sir Issac Newton's First Law of Motion - a fixie in motion wants to stay in motion, and a fixie at rest is difficult to coax forward again. The pedals fight a lot when you're trying to achieve a quasi-stop. I can finally understand why some fixie riders don't bother with brakes, because your legs pretty much serve as your stopping force. The front brake just makes you feel a bit better. Anyway, it was a fun experiment. I can't wait to start commuting with it next week!

Dave asked me color of chain I wanted, and I said "pink." I thought he was kidding, but I guess chains really do come in colors. I love the look of this bike - it's so sleek and stylish. I am thinking about naming her "Contessa." Contessa is the word for an Italian countess, which seems fitting for a skinny (only 21-22 pounds!) rigid, fixed-in-her-ways bicycle with the model name Obey. But really, I came up with the name from a song that popped into my head earlier today, "Streets of Fire" by the New Pornographers:

Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, fire in the street,
Let's sully every stage.
Lick my lips, twist my hips,
But Contessa ... I already did.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My new favorite trail

One of the best aspects about being new to a region is that sense of discovery in everything you do - like a trail was created just for you; like you invented that tricky traverse. Of course this is far from the case; these places have been explored again and again, by tourists and college kids and REAL Montanans, who are second only to Alaskans in their ability to view long-term residency as a quantifiable gauge of status. So everyone and their brother has been to this lookout or that trail. What matters is that you haven't. You wander these mountains with an explorer's eyes, and you still see the mystery and wonder that are too easily forgotten.

I've had a bit of a hard time recovering from Hell Week. I took Monday completely off, as planned, and then on Tuesday headed out for a mellow ride with the Dirt Girls. We rode the Ravine Trail loop, about 25 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing total. The Dirt Girls are known for their fun, social pace, so I felt discouraged by how creaky and tired I felt trying to hold the paceline up Grant Creek Canyon. We collected the rest of the group at the trailhead and tackled the shaded singletrack 14-strong. I started off the far back but eventually passed most of the group. At the saddle, three of us encountered three guys who told us there were 17 men total in their group, all gathered at the SnowBowl Overlook. When we told them we were heading a group of 14 women, one guy said, "Awesome. We'll have a party at the top."

One woman replied, "Sorry, most of us are married."

"I didn't mean it like that!" he exclaimed with a huff, and took off. I had to laugh at the implication, but it's still quite the phenomenon when you think about it - 31 mountain bikers in two separate, segregated groups, all gathered at a remote little mountain knoll on a Tuesday night. But, unfortunately, there was no "party at the top." The guys took one look at our massive group of girls crowding the overlook and fled.

I still felt wooden and achy on the long, rolling descent, and contemplated taking Wednesday off as well. But then - and I should mention this happened while screaming over some guy's painfully earnest rendition of Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses" at a karaoke bar late Tuesday night during Dave's wife's 26th birthday party - Dave mentioned a trail he was thinking about riding Wednesday night. "I've never ridden it before," he said. "So I'm not sure about the conditions. It could turn epic. "

How does one say no to that?

We got an early start right after work Wednesday evening, and brought lights and extra water, braced for a hopeful three-hour ride but a possible six-hour adventure. We churned up the loose gravel of Mormon Peak Road. My legs started to ache early and I decided not to push it, hoping Dave wouldn't mind of I dawdled a bit. Even on the access road, the ride was stunning - sweeping overlooks around every corner, soft evening light filtered through dark thunderstorms, and even bright pink fireweed blooms lining the hillside (I didn't even know Montana had fireweed!)

I thought, "The trail can't be better than this."

We came to the Mill Creek trail junction and started up the singletrack, lined with sweet-smelling spruce trees and bright green groundcover. After the fireweed sightings followed by a trail through a loamy corridor beneath thick, tall forest canopy, I felt like I had found my own little slice of Alaska in Montana.

I thought, "The descent can't be better than this."

We came to a junction where Dave pointed out where a mountain biker could climb another 2,000 feet to a high ridge on a more ambitious day. The ridge offered high-alpine hiking access to the Bitterroot Wilderness and a number of peaks. I vowed to return on a more ambitious day, and we dropped into the singletrack descent. A thin ribbon of moss-lined dirt switchbacked tightly through the woods and suddenly popped out along the edge of a steep, rocky ravine. That's where the rock gardens started, and Dave attacked them with zeal, yelling out as his single-speed Karate Monkey rodeoed over the boulder minefield. I took the obstacles a lot more slowly or not at all, my rock technical skills largely untested and my confidence small. But I vowed to return to this Mill Creek trail again and again, and practice and practice until I too could squeal out uncontrollably as I bucked down the trail.

"I forget sometimes that riding a new, awesome trail is the best feeling in the world," Dave said at a rare quiet moment against a sweeping backdrop of green mountains.

"Pretty much what I've been thinking for the last month," I said. "But this one is definitely the best."

If a ride is nothing but amazing fun the entire time, does it even count against recovery or toward fitness? Often, I wonder.

Dave thought Mill Creek was fantastic, too: "Ride of the Year."
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hell week, finished

Last weekend, when I first formulated the idea to do one week of intensive time-in-the-saddle training, I knew I would either end up going pretty big this weekend - days six and seven - or do close to nothing at all. I even had a fairly ambitious out-and-back overnight ride tentatively planned. After Friday's big misadventure, I woke up too early Saturday morning with a throbbing dehydration hangover and not a single thing packed. I knew I was never going to make it happen. Instead, I spent the day doing a lot of neglected life maintenance. I even took my car into Jiffy Lube for the post-AK-drive Signature Service, and was conned into spending $121. Yeah, I'm one of those people. I can't even walk up to the free sample tables at Costco because I end up going home with one of those 174-packs of frozen taquitos that haunt me for months afterward. Every time I open the freezer, the giant frost-coated box taunts me with whispers of "what the hell were you thinking?" until I finally move out and have an excuse to throw it away. No, it's best that I avoid capitalism. Which is why I rarely spend Saturdays doing life maintenance chores.

Late in the afternoon, I started pedaling toward Mount Sentinel. I figured if I felt badly, I would simply go to the peak and back on the singletrack, ending with about 20 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing. If I felt good, I planned to drop into the canyon and work my way toward the upper ridge. But I did not feel good. I felt the opposite of good. I was in survival mode from the get-go, and I never perked up. My legs felt like they didn't have any power of their own, but were simply being propelled by imaginary fraying strings attached to the bike's wheels. I had to walk spots I never thought I would have to walk. I didn't even take any pictures, even at the peak where rich golden light stretched across the valley, because I was so frustrated and grumpy. Maybe it was time to cry uncle on Hell Week.

I don't like to succumb to mental defeat. I realize there are limited (if any) benefits to running oneself into a deep physical hole, but I'm the kind of person who likes to crawl up to the edge of these holes and look for ways to climb out of them. That way, in some future time when the going gets rough, as it inevitably will, I'll remember where to find that hidden source of strength. I decided, no matter what, come Sunday, I was going to at least set out looking for it.

Then, on Sunday morning, I got an unexpected hit of motivation. In general, I'm not all that competitive of a person in regard to other people (competition with myself and with the world at large is another story.) But I occasionally get hit with the race bug, usually in the unlikeliest of ways. This time, it came in the form of a simple Web post from my friend Sierra in Whitehorse, Yukon. Sierra and another friend, Jenn, are registered as a women's team in this year's Trans Rockies, so they are on the same training track as me right now. The three of us were supposed to go head-to-head-to-head in the solo category of the 24 Hours of Light in June, but I unfortunately had to move to Montana a week before the race, thereby posting a shameful DNS while those two killed it. On Saturday, Sierra and Jenn completed their big ride for the week, a "Triple Crown" of three mountains in the Yukon, for 100 km and 2,500 vertical meters (translated to American, that's about 60 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing.) I needed to try to match that! Never mind that I didn't stand a chance of matching it - but it at least gave me a high, high ceiling to shoot for.

I decided to return to Blue Mountain (location of the fire lookout) to check out a jeep trail that I had seen on my map. The jeep trail, called Forest Service Road 17806, intrigued me because it seemed to trace the high line of a ridge for a long distance. It sounded like a grand time, riding the contours of a ridge high above the canyons below, taking in endless sweeping views, rolling terrain and pretty wildflowers.

My legs felt encouragingly better on the highway ride out of town, but then came the 2,800-foot grunt just to get to the ridge, at 5,900 feet elevation. I came to an intersection with five roads veering off in all directions. Four of these roads looked relatively flat and gentle, but one shot straight up the mountain on a loose, rocky doubletrack with a two-foot-deep, three-foot wide runoff trench cut right down the center. And, much to my dismay, that one was FSR 17806.

I pushed my bike 300 vertical feet to the top of the first knoll, where the road discouragingly dropped just as steeply down the other side. In daydreams of my fantasy ridge road, I hadn't deduced the obvious - that high line meant fall line, with impossibly steep, loose climbs that led to difficult steep, loose descents. There were no switchbacks, no gentle grades, no skirting around the high points. This road hit every high point in the quickest way possible, which is fine if you're a gas-powered jeep but not so good if you're a mountain biker with weakened legs. Still, I had climbed all the way up here, and GPS said I had only traveled 20.5 miles and 3,200 feet of climbing so far, so I was going to give it a go.

Even now, my memory of my time on the ridge is a bit hazy. I was sweating a lot, and pushing my bike a lot, and once my rear wheel slid sideways on a heavily braked descent and I had to bail. One guy on a motorcycle passed me. He floated up the fall line in a ethereal cloud of dust. I was beyond envious. About eight miles and two hours into FSR 17806, my legs mutinied. They've done this to me a couple of times before, and it remains a terribly alien sensation. I was struggling to ride up a hill, and suddenly, my legs involuntarily stopped moving. I jumped off the bike just in time and stood there, staring up the hill. I envisioned myself pushing my bike up it, but nothing was happening. I just stood there, and stared, and my legs did nothing. I leaned my bike against a tree and sat in the shade. I knew that however far I traveled on this ridge, it was going to be just as long and hard getting back. I checked my water supply. My three-liter Camelback was nearly empty, and I had already downed my bottle of Nuun, which meant I had already consumed a gallon of liquid and only had a two-liter reserve bladder left. I had promised myself that no matter where I was, I would turn around as soon as I was down to the reserve. So that cemented what my legs already knew. The limited water supply was my ticket out. My legs cheered and we got back on the bike. The road quickly bottomed out and started up the next 300-foot climb, the first of several just to get back to the trail junction. We still had a long way to go.

According to GPS, I finished the ride with 54.3 miles and 5,214 feet of climbing - significantly less than what Jenn and Sierra did on Saturday. (Jenn and Sierra, if you read this, you guys rock, by the way. I'm sure glad I'm entered in the mixed category of TR so I don't have to do head-to-head with you two, because I'm sure the competitive spirit would be fierce :-P) But it was a sufficiently indulgent way to end Hell Week. Sunday's was the only ride I GPS'd, so I don't know my total mileage or elevation, but I ended the week with 29.5 hours of saddle time. I'm happy with it, because my body is partially wrecked, but I found that ever-elusive reserve of strength that I can tap down the road.
Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hell week, day gone awry

We were 16 miles outside of town, rolling a flat, paved road as a stiff tailwind rushed us along, when I started to bonk.

"I thought you said this was going to be a short ride," I said to my co-worker, John, who had promised me one of those infamous "three-hour tours." We were more than an hour into it and we hadn't even hit the climb yet.

"Do you want to turn around?" he asked.

"Maybe," I said, sounding more irritable than I probably needed to. "I feel crappy."

"I didn't think you were such a wuss," he replied with a smile.

"That' a common misconception people have about me," I said. "I'm actually a huge wuss. Anyway, I need at least one easy day in Hell Week."

Still in heavy whine mode, I began to rattle off the symptoms I was feeling, all common signs of overtraining. "You know," John said, "what you're doing is probably not actually helping you much. In a way, it's probably hurting you. Now, if you were train a little more scientifically ..."

"I know, I know," I interrupted. "But this is how I like to do things. Some people are physical riders, but I'm more of a mental rider. I like to train because I like to go out and have adventures, and push my limits, and learn more about life and myself in a process. Some people ride for performance; others ride for experience. I think they're both valid reasons. Riding a lot of strung-together, long, hard days is how I trained for Tour Divide, and I don't regret it.

"Anyway, you're not going to see me doing regular hill repeats up Pattee Canyon any time soon," I continued with a laugh. "I'm too much of a wuss for interval training."

We turned off the I-90 frontage road onto a rough dirt doubletrack that looked more like somebody's driveway than a road, and started up the long ascent. I choked down a granola bar and drank a lot of water, and began to feel better. Long climbs are my favorite kind of riding, and even when I'm just a little overtrained and fighting off a bonk, long climbs are where I'm happiest. My good mood was short-lived, though, because just before we reached saddle, I slurped up the last bit of water from my bladder. I had brought my two-liter bladder to the office because I had believed John when he said we were headed out for a "mellow" three-hour ride after work. But already nearly three hours had already gone by, and we were a long way from anywhere, and I knew it.

"Crap, I'm out of water," I announced.

"It's OK," John said. "It's mostly downhill from here. There's a bar on the highway not far from where this road comes out."

"I have iodine," I said. "Are there any streams?"

"I don't know," John said. "But we'll reach the road before long."

The bonk began to creep up again so I ate a Power Bar and told John my story of the time I ran out of water on the White Rim in Utah and experienced my closest brush with dangerous dehydration. We began the descent into an entirely different drainage. The sun set to the west as we moved north into a large swath of mountains and forest. I saw no sign of a valley, or civilization, and I started to feel a little bit stressed.

A few miles down the rough, rocky road, John got a flat. He stuck in his spare tube and we continued down the road, but not more than two miles later, he flatted again, this time on both tires. He was riding a cross-bike with relatively skinny tires, and had snake-bite pinch flats in both of his tubes; one tube had snake bites in two spots. We dug through our kits and both discovered that neither of us had a functioning patch kit. I especially was cursing this stroke of bad luck, because I always carry a patch kit, but lately have been shifting my stuff between two mountain bikes on a regular basis, and sometimes things get inadvertently left behind.

We spent 45 minutes dealing with the problem. We wrestled my 2.1-inch mountain bike tube into John's tiny tire, working together to lever in the large chunks of rubber that repeatedly tried to burst free. John tied a big knot into the tube with the smallest snake-bite holes, and wrested the now substantially shorter tube into the rim. He pumped up the tire and the tube burst. He tied another knot into the second tube. This one seemed to hold air for a short time, but still had a fairly swift leak. Meanwhile, the sun set and darkness started to fall. I had lights, but only my tiny commuter headlight and a helmet-mounted headlamp whose batteries were nearly dead. John had no lights at all. A chill started to seep in. I put on my only extra layer, a rain jacket.

"How far is it to the highway?" I asked.

"Pretty far," John said sternly.

I looked out into the blackness. I could forge on ahead and seek vehicular help, but I had no idea where we were or where we were headed. We were in the middle of a veritable maze of logging roads - gated ones at that - and my chances of finding the way out on my first try, alone, were slim to none. I was dependent on John for directions, which meant we were both going to have to walk out. My throat was parched and dry. John gave me a sip of his gatorade, but he was nearly out himself. We had no water. We were down to a Gu packet and a crumbled up Odwalla Bar for food. My emotional reaction at this particular moment struck me as significant. A few years back, before I embarked on my non-scientific, experience-driven endurance training, I would have panicked, and probably started to cry and made the situation even worse. I know this, because I have reacted that way before in less daunting situations. But now, just a few years later, I felt like laughing out loud. It was the perfect storm, and the universe had smacked us hard for being complacent, because the universe does that sometimes, and we were just going to have to deal with it.

John filled the front tire again and decided we could probably roll one to two minutes at a time before he flatted, so that's what we did. We crept gingerly around the big rocks strewn all over the road, through the overgrown grass and flowers, making our painfully slow descent one minute at a time. I rode the brakes and stayed beside him, craning my neck to shine my dim helmet-lamp beam over to his side of the road so he could see at least a little. We ducked beneath deadfall. We swerved around obstacles spotted at the very last minute. A herd of elk startled and raced down the road beside us. An elk fawn darted in front of me and we nearly collided. John and I passed a stream. I announced I wanted to collect water, but John promised we were at that point less than a half hour from the highway, so I'd get water sooner if I waited (because iodine takes a half hour to kill all the bacteria in water, it can't be consumed for at least that long.) I didn't necessarily believe him, but I knew every minute we wasted not rolling would burn valuable time in which John's tube was still slightly working - time we may not be able to get back.

About an hour and many tube refills later, we reached the highway. It was 11 p.m. The bar John spoke of was closed, but there was a pump outside where we could refill our water. I drank what felt like an entire two-liter bladder worth, choked a bit, and then refilled my bladder again. I felt a sudden rush of new optimism. The bleak darkness of the evening seemed to fade into warmth and light, because I had water in my body, and all was going to be OK.

"I'm sorry I couldn't buy you a drink at the bar," John said. He was already accepting a lot of the guilt for our misadventure, although I attributed it to bad luck that just happened to hit him harder than it hit me. We were both guilty of being underprepared.

"I got exactly what I wanted from that bar. Water." I let the beautiful word linger on my tongue. Life is really so simple. Food, shelter, water. After a few years of experienced-based endurance training, it doesn't take much to make me happy.

A few miles down the highway, John's front tire stopped holding air. He tried to retie the knot in the tube, and it exploded. He tied a couple of knots in his final, double-flatted tube, and ripped it in two pieces in the process. "Well," he said, "I'm f%$@^&."

We agreed that he would continue walking down the highway and I would ride ahead until I obtained cell phone reception, where I could call John's brother, Chris, who was visiting from out of town. If I didn't get ahold of Chris, I would simply ride all the way back to Missoula, still some 16 miles away, grab my car, and return.

About six miles down the road, my phone finally caught reception. It was after midnight. I called John's home number, and Chris answered on the tenth ring. He sounded sleepy. I told him our story. "Where are you?" he asked.

I paused. "Um, that's a really good question that I'm not sure I can answer," I said. "Shoot. I'm really new to town myself. I don't even know exactly where we are. But I think John said this was Highway 200. I've seen freeway signs for Highway 200 before. I think you head east on I-90, and near the town of Bonner - that's about seven miles east on the freeway - you'll see an exit for Highway 200. Then head up the highway; I'm pretty sure the direction is east, northeast or so. Hopefully you'll see me riding down the road with my lights on. John's a few more miles back and doesn't have any lights."

Not more than five minutes after I hung up my cell phone, I heard a horrible ker-chunk, followed by a hissing noise. I stopped and watched in disbelief as all of the air quickly left my rear tire. I ran my hand along the flat tire and pulled out a four-inch-long nail, embedded all the way to the rim. Finally, I was ready to laugh out loud. My semi-delirious cackling rang out in the still air.

"No way! No %*$%&@^ way I just got a flat!" John had my only spare tube in his rear tire. I had no patch kit. I just kept laughing, because it was so perfectly hilarious, like a comedy of errors, right there, on day five of my hardest span of physical effort in more than a year. And then I did the only thing I could do. I started jogging. I decided I would jog until either Chris - this man I had never met - somehow found me, or until I reached Bonner, where I could call a cab. Bonner could have been as little as two miles away, or as many as ten. I had no idea. As I jogged, the fatigue and delirium set in hard. It's often called the "sleep monster," that overwhelming urge to crawl into a bush off to the side of the road and pass out. I fished out my iPod and turned it on full-volume, hoping a blast of raw noise would keep me from falling asleep on my feet. And I ran.

I came to an opening in the canyon and could see the lights of Bonner in the distance when Chris found me. As we loaded my bike on John's car, the flashing lights of a police car and ambulance raced by. My stress-level, long subdued, hit full-tilt, because I knew John was back there walking down the shoulder of the highway with no lights. Only a couple cars had passed me since we parted and I knew traffic was quite light, but I worried something bad had happened. Happily, we found John several miles up the road, unscathed except for a lot of scuffs on the bottom of his bike shoes. I could barely keep my eyes open during the ride home, and repeatedly nodded off for a couple seconds at a time. Chris dropped me off at home and I collapsed in bed without even bothering to eat anything, even though my stomach was so empty it seemed to gnaw at my sides.

"Wow," I thought as my eyes drooped for a final time. "Now that was a good training ride."
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hell week, day three

Some thousand or two feet up, Dave stops to look out over the valley, a collage of streets and buildings and farmlands walled in by mountains. He offers me one of his candy orange slices and I greedily choke it down through the sweat and dust coating my lips.

“No way to ride around here without climbing,” Dave says.

“Nothing wrong with that,” I reply, and we turn toward the thousand more feet in front of us.

We climb and climb and at the top of the mountain is a fire lookout tower. From its base we can see the great Mount Lolo up close, and the valley, too, although its faraway features are becoming more abstract. The lookout himself saunters up with his little dog, Sparky. He tells us the elevation of the mountain is 6,458 feet, and his room with a view is 50 feet higher. He tells us he’s worked the tower for 35 summers, and he hardly ever sees “people ride their bikes up here.” I’m hit with a spark of pride because this isn’t a special occasion; it’s just a Wednesday-night ride, embarked on after full days at the office, and the third similar ride in a row at that. I try to calculate the elevation gain in my head, with the earlier and future rollers, and come up with another night of ~4,000 feet. Just another ride. Day three.

The lookout lingers in conversation. I think maybe his job gets a little lonely up here. Dave points out that the sun is setting and we still have a long way to descend. We pedal to the top of the moto trail, all washed out singletrack and chunk and moon dust, and it’s rugged, and intimidating, and I feel more than a little bit dizzy. But I launch in anyway and hold on tight, real tight, because I have to find a way to survive this thing; after all, I have to do it all again tomorrow.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fire roads

I crested the rounded spine of Miller Divide and suddenly felt a sensation not unlike sliding my tongue across one of those giant, swirly lollipops. A vast network of rugged roads rippled along the mountains to all sides, and I had just tasted the sweet surface of the expansive bike candy in front of me. I pulled out my map, tried to orient myself and looked back up, entirely bewildered by the possibilities. I had made turns on numbered Forest Service roads that weren’t even on the map, and in turn made more turns on overgrown roads that weren’t even numbered. I left Missoula with aspirations to ride a loop, but realized that if I didn’t turn around and retrace my exact route to this spot, I would be entirely lost. I was going to have to come back here with my GPS and an entire day to burn, maybe days, and I still wouldn’t be able to scrape the surface of possibility in this region, this simple cross-section of Lolo National Forest. And even if I tried, the result probably wouldn’t be unlike trying to finish one of those giant, swirly lollipops — I’d be tired and more than a little sick to my stomach, but satisfied.

Whenever I tell Montana cyclists that I moved here from Alaska, I often get the same response — “Oh, wow, the biking there must have been incredible.” People just assume that because Alaska is big, everything that takes place there must be big. “Well,” I’d reply. “Actually, no. It was pretty limited.” Alaska is incredible for the same reasons the biking is actually quite terrible — it’s largely untouched, almost completely undeveloped wilderness. With a few notable exceptions (such as beach biking), bikes need developed surfaces to function — snow bikes need snowmobile trails, mountain bikes need cleared dirt surfaces, and road bikes need pavement. Alaska is refreshingly lacking in all of these surfaces, even snowmobile trails (although snowmobile trails are by far the most extensive of the off-road options, thus the growing popularity of winter biking in that state.) I grew my passion for cycling in Alaska — specifically mainland Southeast Alaska, which incorporates a tiny sliver of impossibly steep mountains wedged between an icefield and the sea — so the region's limitations didn’t bother me. However, I am only now starting to realize just how limited it really was.

Western Montana is, by contrast, uber-developed (at least relative to Alaska.) As an avid cyclist, this is both a good and bad thing. The road cuts in the mountainsides aren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but they do offer seemingly endless possibilities in terms of access. Instead of slogging for days over tussocks and across raging streams on foot to access the backcountry in Alaska, I can race up rocky logging roads at 8 mph and find myself fairly deep in the high country within an evening. And that’s just an evening. If I had a good reserve of energy to tap and enough time to burn, I could travel miles and miles into the “wilderness,” come across lots of wildlife and soak in vast views, and the only sign of humanity I’d even see are the logging roads on which I travel, and possibly the occasional moto (although I have yet to see a gas-powered rider on these roads.)

And though mountain bikers often decry the boringness of doubletrack, I rather enjoy it myself. It’s a more peaceful, reflective sort of riding than singletrack, it tends to offer more real travel possibilities (rather than just riding loops around a small area), and can still be technically challenging in spots. And interesting! Just before I took this photo, I saw a flash of brown fur race across the trail about 100 feet front of me. It was too small to be a bear, too big to be a rabbit, but too fast to be a beaver (and too high up on the ridge for the third possibility to be likely.) My first thought was “wolverine!” but I’m pretty sure there are no wolverines in this area. I’m still a little flabbergasted about that animal, but it’s experiences like that — small but transcendent in their own ways — that really make this kind of “training” worth it.

As far as my Tuesday training ride, I ended up with four hours and fifteen minutes of pedaling, I’m not sure how many miles and about 3,800 to 4,000 feet of climbing, based on my map and some up-and-down explorations I did along the ridge. Good day, and my legs are starting to feel it already, but I’m hoping to rally at Blue Mountain tonight. Maybe this time, I’ll even bring my GPS.