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.