Monday, August 30, 2010

Lone Peak

On Tuesday, I received the call that I had been expecting, the call that I had been hoping for but also dreading.

“Your grandfather has decided to go on hospice,” my Mom told me as I ducked outside the office with my cell phone.

“And his treatments?”

“Those are going to end,” she said.

It meant my grandfather had made the most difficult decision of his life, the decision that meant his life. It meant that one thing that none of us were willing to voice, but we could say enough to acknowledge that there wasn’t much time. It meant that weekend plans and a few tanks of gas didn’t matter so much. I wrapped up my work at the office and hit the road Friday evening.

In my memory, my Grandpa Homer will always be a robust 60-year-old, swinging an ax in front of a massive pile of logs. I admit I cannot recognize him at 80, pale and gaunt, with scabbed skin stretched across his bones as he struggles to sit up in his chair. Disease stole his strength but not his spirit. I still see it in his eyes, sparkling with the peace of acceptance, but also flecked with fears for the unknown. My grandfather lived a good life, but a good life can never be complete. He reaches out and lets me wrap my arms around his thin shoulders. I’m so happy his pain has subsided enough that I can hug him, perhaps for the last time.

Grandpa Homer owned property in the mountains. As a child I would skulk through the aspen groves and marvel that my grandpa could actually own a place as wild as this. At camp he built massive fires. He doused a giant stack of logs with gasoline and ignited the inferno with the flick of a match. The 10-foot-high flames filled me with wonder, and a tinge of pride, because going big was the Homer Way.

On Sunday, asleep in my old bedroom, I don’t want to wake up. My mind swims with memories — some wistful, others sad. The alarm goes off 7 a.m., and again at 8, and then again at 9. At 10:20 I finally roll out of bed. I open the front door to a chilly blast of wind and look bleary-eyed at the towering massif that looms over my childhood home, the most prominent feature of a hundred memories of walking to school — Lone Peak. The previous night, I had thought a lot about climbing that mountain, but my late start precluded what promised to be a daylong adventure. Still, I think I can hike part of the trail. Perhaps to a cabin near the halfway point.

I drive two miles to what can best be considered a trailhead — a park located on the edge of the city of Draper, but still in town, elevation 4,500 feet. Far above the park, at a distance so close it can’t be seen from the bottom, the 11,250-foot peak rises like a giant startled from a long sleep — abruptly and angrily. I follow a trail that cuts a deeply eroded scar up the hillside. Charcoaled skeletons of scrub oak rise from the yellow grass; they’re all that remains of a forest recently scoured by fire. Absent trees, the trail is washed in views. I glance over my shoulder and take note of the many pieces of my past — there’s Indian Hills Middle School. There’s the building that used to be the Albertson’s where I bagged groceries. There’s the grassy bluff we used to tumble down after school. I glance at my watch. 11:35 a.m. I really should be home by six because my sister is coming to dinner, but perhaps … perhaps. I push harder, taking faster, longer steps up the slope. My heart rate skyrockets and my head spins. I’m completely maxed out, moving as fast as I physically can, even though I’m still walking. Between ragged breaths I catch glimpses of the Salt Lake Valley, with the pieces of my past fading into the abstraction of distance.

From the seat of his idling motorcycle, Grandpa Homer scooped me up off the ground with one arm and plopped me down in front of him. “Keep your feet away from the engine,” he told me, and I held my bare legs like rigid poles in front of me. Grandpa gunned the throttle and motorcycle's wheels spun forward in a cloud of dust and gravel. The aspen groves blurred beside us as we rocketed toward the sky. I grinned and sharp wind needled through my missing teeth until it pierced my throat. The sensation tickled and I squealed uncontrollably, because I knew, really knew, what it felt like to fly.

The elevation disappears behind me. My leg muscles throb with acid and hot blood, but I feel so strong and alive that I can’t imagine slowing down. I come to a trail junction and turn left, dropping into a cool, forested canyon. About three quarters of a mile down the trail, I meet a man who tells me I won’t find the Outlaw Cabin in the canyon, so I turn around and return to the open hillside. I cut my own route because the only other way is down. I crest a broad knoll and the granite spires of Lone Peak suddenly rise into view.

My parents went out of town for a week and my sisters and I went to stay with my grandparents. I came down with the flu, so sick I couldn’t even stand to go to the bathroom, and I writhed on the couch with sweat-crusted hair stuck to my cheeks. Grandpa brought me a glass of Sprite. “Is it medicine?” I asked him. “It’s better than medicine,” he replied, “because it tastes like candy and will make you feel better.” I took a tiny sip and felt the cold liquid crackle in my throat. Grandpa was right.

I start jogging toward the mountain, taking thick breaths full of yearning. I have no idea how much time it will really take to reach the peak. It looks close enough to touch, and far enough to be a jet in the sky. The trail butts up against a granite wall and fades in the rocks. I follow scattered cairns along the rocky drainage, but lose track of them amid a sea of stones. I keep my eye on the peak and head straight toward it. There's no route like the most direct one. I scramble up a tiered pile of massive boulders — a staircase fit for a sleeping giant.

I hoist myself up the final pitch and crawl into the giant's shadow. I have climbed thousands of feet and it's still as massive as ever, more massive than ever, blotting out half the sky. In front of me, the cirque is filled to the brim with jumbled boulders. Some are the size of houses, with crevices that could swallow a human whole, never to be found. I groan. This is clearly not the right way. I begin scrambling across the boulder field like a clumsy spider, rolling my ankle on razor-sharp rock edges and creeping around the human-eating crevices. At this point, I'm just looking for a way out, but there's not one in sight — only the towering fortress and its minefield of obstacles. "Why do I always have to get myself lost?" I grumble. "Why am I so completely inept?"

I have to climb over a couple of minor ridges, but I finally reach the base of the mountain at 3 p.m. I try not to think about the time. Even if I turn around now, it's still unlikely I'll make it home by 6, but I'm so close now, so close. "I can run down," I justify. I launch myself up the wall as fast as my arms can lift me. My biceps burn from an afternoon already full of scrambling, but at least this final scramble was expected. I've been breathing so hard for so long that my throat burns, and it hurts to swallow, and the air is getting mighty thin, but I'm so close now. Closer than I ever expected to be. Endorphins course through my veins and my heart sings. I am free, independent and strong. I never feel so alive as I do when I am alone and elated.

The wind that has been howling all day hits gale force at the ridge. Gusts up to 50 mph tear around me and I drop to my hands, moving like a monkey over the narrow knife-edged ledge. Fear starts to gurgle up. I scramble up the final ramp rock and barely touch the table-sized peak before scrambling back down. I scoot along the exposed ledge as my heart beats louder and louder. My head spins faster, my vision begins to blur and the edges turn black. My breaths become short and a wave of nausea sweeps over me. I drop to my knees, clutching at nothing on the smooth face of a chair-sized rock and staring in horror over the precipice. The sea of boulders appears to be churning in the cirque, a thousand feet directly below. I can't move. I'm paralyzed. Vertigo. "Not now," I whisper. "Not now." I try to recapture my breath. I remind myself this fear is irrational. I appeal to humor, that I certainly didn't inherit my vertigo from the Homer side of the family. Grandpa used to say, "When it's too tough for everyone else, it's just right for the Homers." I scramble a few tentative feet, then a few more, until my back is pressed up against the chimney-sized spire of the false summit.

I was 12 when Grandpa built his cabin. He started from nothing, dug a foundation, poured the concrete, erected the framing. My grandpa could do everything, and never asked anybody for anything. My aunts and uncles had to practically beg him to let us help. I went up one day to help lay the floor. He showed me how to use a caulking gun. I vowed that one day, I would learn how to build a house. I hoped my grandpa would teach me.

Tears fill my eyes. I know the worst is over, but I can't help myself. I never feel so lonely as I do when I'm alone and afraid. I just want to see somebody, anybody, just so I know I'm not the only person perched on this wind-blasted vertical moonscape. But it's 4 p.m. and no one is left on the peak. I haven't seen anybody for hours. I think about the notepad in my backpack. I carry it with me sometimes to write down thoughts. I take it out and rip a corner off a sheet of paper. On the scrap, I write a note to my grandpa.

"Dear Grandpa Homer,

Thank you for your love, your example and your kindness. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I love you. ...

I stick the pen in my mouth and in nervousness chew the end right off. Then I remember to add, "Please don't be afraid.

Love, Jill."

I muster up the courage to stand and face the full brunt of the wind. It roars in my face as I hold the note to my side and release it to the gale. I turn around quickly but I don't see it go.

Grandpa Homer comes from a long tradition of fierce independence. His parents toiled in the fields of Cache Valley during the Depression. One set of grandparents crossed the Atlantic from Sweden; others before them walked across the Great Plains when there was nothing on the other side. Grandpa started working at age 11; he had a high standing in his church, raised six children, cultivated a large garden, rebuilt motors, raised cows. He had several dozen grandchildren and treated us all like we were special, like we were somebody, like we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. I never really imagined what it would be like, the day my grandpa stopped being Superman. I wonder if he ever imagined what it would be like, himself.

It's after 4 p.m. when I start making my way down. I realize losing more than 7,000 feet of pure elevation in less than two hours is a near-impossibility, but I have to try. I scuttle down the ridge using the small, quick, feather-weight steps I've been trying to practice, and increase my stride to a loping jog in the cirque. I find the right drainage and plunge down a smooth granite chute. I remember my Dad's stories about dropping too low too soon and do everything I can to hug the wall, scrambling over and down minor ridges. I see a faint trail and follow it along a ridge until it begins dropping into the next canyon. The wrong canyon. Gaaa! I don't know where I am. Was I supposed to drop sooner? How much sooner? How will I hook up with the right drainage? What if I end up in American Fork, in the entirely wrong county? Why am I always getting lost? Why am I so completely helpless when left to my own devices? I start sprinting down the rock slope. I suck in erratic gulps of air. I can't help it. I hate being lost. I run and run, and every time I hit the mildest of upward inclines, my heart shoots to the redline. I am becoming very tired. Very worn down. I was too ambitious. Too selfish. But I can't stop now.

It's too hard now, not to think about the end. I can believe that my grandpa isn't afraid, but I have to admit that I am. Everything that makes me who I am is wrapped up in the people, and the moments, that all seem to slip away before I'm ready. Life sometimes moves in fast-forward motion, spinning in a blur of color and noise. In my dizziness I look to the past for clarity, only to acknowledge that those moments are gone.

I bee-line in my preferred direction until I find a trail, and take it until I find familiar landmarks. Back on known ground, everything that was holding my effort together seems to disintegrate. I climbed too hard, too fast, for too long, and I didn't eat enough, and I didn't drink enough, and now my body no longer wants to listen to me. I eat a Honey Stinger bar and slow back to a walk. The Salt Lake Valley is bathed in golden evening light, and behind me dark clouds gather around Lone Peak. The wind finally sputters and fades, and the air becomes eerily calm. It's 6:45 as I approach Draper City - late but hopefully not too late to see my sister. My iPod clicks over to a sad song. I feel a tear gathering beneath my eye. I think about letting it go, but as soon as I notice it, there's nothing left. I left it all on the mountain.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Already with the guilt

It's been a simple week so far: Work, arrange apartment, bike, run, late dinner, arrange apartment, upload more photos to the Shutterfly archive, sleep. Yesterday I didn't get out of the house until 7:30. I rode my Karate Monkey 10 miles up to the Ravine Trail, parked, and began running. I knew I'd be out after dark as it was and planned to only run for 20 minutes or so. I turned on my iPod and started up the trail, wheezing a bit as I rounded the steep switchbacks. On a steep grade, the simple act of running at all, even slowly, calls for surprisingly exhaustive bursts of energy. I gulped air but kept my motion fluid, floating along the edges of the pain cave as flickering sunlight and shadows put me deep in a meditative trance. I can't even say how it happened but, just like that, I was suddenly at the SnowBowl overlook, two and a half miles and 1,000 feet into the run. A little farther than I planned. Whoops.

But the run down felt great, the ride home even better, metabolizing an overabundance of endorphins as a blur of city lights streamed by. I felt a tinge of guilt about going longer and probably harder than I should have, but holy cow is BikeRun fun.

Today Dave and I set out for our weekly Wednesday night ride. We both agree that heat is the downfall of all things fun, and today was another scorcher, 90 degrees with smokey hints of barbecued forest in the air. We went in search of shade on the Deer Creek Sneak, a loop ride that's a healthy distance in its own right, but then we worked our way up the Crazy Canyon singletrack and plunged down The Gut of Mount Sentinel. Probably more than 2,000 feet of climbing in total, and 20+ miles. (I really need to start GPS-ing these rides, or at least purchase a working odometer once again.) I should also mention that I'm bike commuting daily on the fixie now. It's only about five miles total, but these things add up.

Anyway, it was a good ride, made great toward the end as we descended back into the valley with the smoke-filtered sunset casting eerie light across the hillside. Then we stopped for pizza, and lounged around The Bridge until well after dark, musing about winter and adventure. As I rode the empty bike path home, full and happy, that nagging thought came into my mind ... "Ugh. I didn't run yet today."

I know I don't need to run every day to get in shape for running. I know I shouldn't run every day to get in shape for running. But right now, when I am still very early in my resolve to do this, I really feel like I need to make a solid effort to add it to my routine - form a habit to prevent me from falling quickly off the wagon. And as long as I don't feel any negative physical effects from running, I feel like I should make a regular commitment.

I call this photo "The August Sun." Anyway, I had to make a quick phone call before it got to late, and by the time I set out it was 10 p.m. At least the pizza had time to digest. I cued up my iPod and turned on the red blinky I clipped to my bike jersey. Into the dark neighborhood streets, I listened to music and blinked against the sporadic flickering of street lights. With nothing to see and nothing to focus on but the movements of my own muscles, I again fell into a quiet, meditative state. This is one thing that really sets running apart for me - I'm not operating a machine, not dedicating intense focus to my movements or anticipating the obstacles ahead. I'm simply moving, body and mind focused only on itself, and it allows me to quickly reach that peaceful place that I sometimes spend hours seeking on a bike. I value that place. It's certainly not the only reason I ride, but it is, for me at least, one of the best reasons to run.

And before I knew it, my quads were on fire and my feet were pounding into the pavement. I was running fast again. Whoops. I slowed down and drank in all of the smells surrounding me, the stale dew, the smoke, the dusty sweetness of August weeds and cool air that ever-so-slightly hinted of autumn. I finished my wide loop in 28 minutes - probably about three miles. Short but consistent. For now, that's the goal.

And the unexpectedly serene trip around the neighborhood after dark? That's just a bonus.

Monday, August 23, 2010


For my 31st birthday, I resolved to get more serious about running. Not only for reasons of fitness, but because of the opportunities it will ultimately open up (there are so many places where bikes can't go, and I can't go nearly as far as I'd like.) Every fall for the past three years, I've attempted to increase my running from near-nothing to at least something, and every fall I've failed early and often. I think this is because it's so difficult to motivate to be a beginner at something. Obviously I have to start short and slow, and it's lame to jog 5K around my neighborhood when I know I could spend two or three hours tearing up singletrack on my bike instead. So this year, I came up with the perfect idea - I'm going to combine them. In these early weeks, each time I plan a run, I'm going to meld it with a ride, and that way I can get my exercise and fun fix while building up necessary running stuff like stronger joints and feet of steel.

Today I planned a ride/run up Mount Sentinel, which from my house is about 18 miles round trip and 2,200 feet of climbing. Pedaling through town, I felt vaguely ill and even a little sleepy, and I struggled mightily once I started up the sun-drenched face of the mountain. My physical activity has been on the low side since TransRockies. I was so busy moving that I only got out for one ride last week, and then there were the hikes with my dad. But by all accounts I should have felt recovered and rested, and instead I felt like I was coming down with some kind of bug. I even had to stop halfway up the fireroad to catch my breath, which I've never had to do before. But I was resolved to do my run, so I kept at it. By the time I hit the singletrack, the sluggishness seemed to flush itself out. New strength pumped through my legs and I pushed harder, trying to clean everything, just to see if I could. I was having so much fun that I was almost disappointed when I reached the road junction, which meant it was one mile and 500 vertical feet to the summit, which meant it was time to run.

But I was resolved, so I stashed the bike and set out. My legs still felt singletrack-light and fast, so I upped the speed. The road jutted skyward and I continued running, with lungs searing and lactic acid pumping hot flames through my veins. Dust swirled around my feet as they shuffled up the gravel; but I was going to run that mile, I was going to run that whole damn mile, at least in motion if not in speed. By the time I reached the summit, I was so close to the puke zone that I had to briefly kneel in the dirt before I could stand up again. I never, ever get that close to the red line when I ride. I don't let myself get that close to the red line because I worry about embarrassing uphill crashes. But on my feet, there is no such danger, and I am free to max out in peace.

As soon as I caught my bearings, a sudden rush of endorphins coursed through my blood. I jolted off the ground and began taking long strides across the grassy knoll, drinking in a wash of golden sunlight that cast stark shadows across the city, and fighting off strong urges to spin in circles and sing Showtunes. I snapped a few quick shots, called up a new song on my iPod and turned my long strides toward the descent. Downhill running is my nemesis. I tend to run downhill in the style of a brick - throwing the full weight of my clunky body to the relentless mercy of gravity until I crack and chip around the edges. Today, I decided to try something new. Instead of behaving like a brick, I tried to imagine myself as a feather, drifting slowly down the mountain. I took humorously small and light steps, skittering down the gravel and letting the loose surface absorb a bit of the impact. By the time the grade evened out, I felt amazing; I felt no impact, like my legs were just floating over the rough surface. I felt like I was riding.

And then my planned two-mile run was over, and it was time to ride. I was actually a little disappointed about it, because I felt so awesome during the run. But that's why this plan is perfect - it prevents me from throwing caution to the wind and embarking on 10-mile runs that will surely leave me injured. And my reward was a ride down "The Gut" on my smooth-flowing Rocky Mountain Element.

That's right. I said "my." This bike is no longer a demo bike. I officially financed it, and I officially brought it home from Canada, and it is officially mine. The deal was too good to pass up, and after two months of riding it, I had fallen in love with it, all 25 pounds of bouncy, well-tuned goodness (yes, even after the mud-fest that was TransRockies, it is still in good shape, thanks to the tender love and constant care of Banff mechanic Dave Williams and friends, and a few new goodies.) I hope my old girl Karate Monkey will forgive me for buying it.

And I hope the Element will forgive me for running.

Dad comes to town

There's something about having a parent come to visit the place you choose to call your home that can make a person so much more ... on edge ... than usual. You want your life choices to be validated, so you want your home to put on its best face. Even if you fall far outside the mold and your parent has already accepted this about you and still loves you, you want to prove that you are a functional adult who has valid reasons for living in a place that's not your natural home.

Every year, my dad takes a week off to go on a hiking vacation with his friend, Tom. This year, they planned to spend their holiday in central Idaho, but decided to swing a bit northeast first just to visit me. Their schedule just happened to put them here mere days after I moved into my new apartment, which put me in the embarrassing position of entertaining guests with only the possessions I could fit in a 1996 Geo Prism, four of those being bicycles, the rest being clothing and miscellaneous outdoor gear. I'd probably spend several weeks eating cold cereal out of plastic bowls in my camp chair had it not been for their visit. Instead, I put myself on a frantic track to acquire as many household possessions as I could within a span of days, aiming mostly for the ever-elusive appearance of normalcy. I went so far as to spend a fair chunk of my birthday driving around looking at Craigslist furniture before buying a couple of dressers from a place in Bonner - only to realize I'd have to enlist the help of my dad just to move them. Oh well. At least the house wouldn't be completely empty.

I also really wanted to show my Dad that the hiking in Missoula was every bit as spectacular as it should be, given that I live in the spectacular place that is Missoula. Problem is, I spent my first two months here almost exclusively riding my bicycle, because I was training for TransRockies, but it left me in a position of having no idea where to go for a hike. I asked friends and co-workers for advice. I did numerous Google searches. I thought I was well-prepared with knowledge, which I decided would more than make up for my lack of experience. Saturday's hike I decided would be Lolo Peak. It's a Missoula classic, I told my dad. Lolo's false summit is the most prominent feature you can see from town. Surely it would be a fantastic hike.

Skepticism began to trickle in on the drive up. My dad and Tom live in the Salt Lake Valley. They are used to 20-minute drives on smooth pavement taking them to trailheads where they can follow well-engineered, scenic trails to 11,000-foot summits. Lolo's trailhead requires 20 minutes on pavement followed by eight miles of gravel road that I assured them was "good" because I had ridden my mountain bike up there. But perspective is a bit different inside a vehicle, and they thought the approach was a bit rough and slow. But the annoying drive was quickly brushed from our minds as soon as we started up the shaded, soft trail.

After about four miles the trail dropped to a series of lakes, which we followed until the path petered out a fair distance below the summit bowl. We returned to the bowl and picked our way around the largest lake, looking for any sign of a trail. By the time we realized a trail to the summit probably did not exist, we had lost too much steam and mojo to begin the arduous task of route-finding. Another day, they declared, and we spent an hour lounging in the sun by the lake. Dad and Tom declared it a good, fun hike, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed, because I failed to deliver what I promised.

I really wanted to make up for it on Sunday, but had a tough time deciding where to go. As we discussed options, nearly all of the questions centered on what the drive would be like. The one hike I had done before, St. Mary's Peak, was nixed because it involved 14 miles on a rough gravel road. Trapper's Peak was much too far south. I suggested Stewart Peak just because the trailhead starts only six miles from town, but finally admitted it had taken me six hours to do with a mountain bike (from town), and would likely take nine or more hours solely on foot. We finally decided on Ch-paa-qn, mostly because the gravel road mileage beforehand was indeterminate, but I suspected it would probably be as significant as the others.

Here's why: Missoula is at 3,100 feet. The high peaks that most hikers covet stand at 9,000 feet. Most hikers aren't looking for 6,000 feet of vertical relief in their trails. So the U.S. Forest Service routes them up rough, narrow logging roads with poor signage until a trailhead unexpectedly appears somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 feet elevation. Dad and Tom seemed to dread these drives, and toward the end I could tell they wished we had just parked on the pavement and walked up the road. I thought Ch-paa-qn was a safe bet because it seemed like a popular hike, but I am learning that Montanans do not care where they drive their cars. (Note: Utahns do. The state is full of SUVs that have never been off pavement.) For six painful miles we inched up a road that became increasingly rockier and narrower. I'm pretty sure we never broke the 5 mph barrier. In the back seat, I developed serious carsickness and thought frequently about asking if I could just get out and run the rest of the way to the trailhead, but I kept my mouth shut. For five of those miles, I was convinced that there was no way we were on the right road, and we were going to come to a dead end and I was going to be in big trouble. But amazingly, the road arrived at a trailhead with a brand-new-looking trail sign.

And then the trail itself was gorgeous, well-maintained, well-marked, with a fun scramble at the end and fantastic 360-degree views of everywhere from the south end of Flathead Lake to the Missions to the southern Bitteroots - a 100-mile spread. We saw three other groups hiking on the trail. Tom and Dad asked all of them about the road and they just shrugged it off. One of them had driven a white Saturn to the trailhead. Dad and Tom seemed to be more impressed with that feat than they were with the difficulty of the eight-mile, 3,000-foot-gain hike. As soon as we returned to the trailhead, and it was time to drive back down, Tom said, "Now comes the hard part."

Still, I tried, and I think for the most part they enjoyed the hikes and had a good weekend. And since the hiking itself was so easy, Dad had plenty of energy for an afternoon ride. We took out the Karate Monkey and my new fixie on gravel rail trails, and much fun ensued. I think next time my Dad comes to Missoula, I'm going to take him riding.
Friday, August 20, 2010


Today's my birthday.
It seems as I learn and grow,
There's less that I know.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010


"There were times - especially on stages 3, 4 and 5 - where I was in the depths of a personal hell. Not exactly a pain cave, something different. I was desperately despondent and unhappy."

My friend, Jenn Roberts, wrote this phrase in her race report about TransRockies, which she and another friend, Sierra, completed in the Women's Division. I first met Jenn in June 2007, during the 24 Hours of Light, while I was trying to pound out as many laps as possible with a bad knee and almost no training, because I had been injured for the past four months. Needless to say, riding solo in a 24-hour race was an abysmally bad idea, and by the 1 a.m. "twilight lap" - my 12th - I was struggling mightily. Jenn was taking photographs at the base of the short, steep descent into camp. Since even 12 times around the block hadn't given me enough confidence to ride it, especially while I was being observed, I stepped off my bike and walked toward her.

"This lap is going to have to be my last," I said. "I don't want it to be, but my knee is locking up."

Jenn shook her head. "I don't know how you do it," she said.

"It's easy," I said. "You do one lap, and then you do another, and another. You just keep going until you can't."

"Well, I did one lap and that was enough for me," she said. Jenn was riding the race in with a team of eight women.

"You're not going to ride any more?" I asked.

"If they need me in the morning, I might," she said. "But I'm really more of a one-lap kind of person."

Jenn lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, and I only see her once or twice a year. So I don't know what her journey has been like during the past three years, but it landed her at once of the more difficult endurance mountain bike races in the world, TransRockies. Jenn was an inspiration to me during the past week, because every stage managed to throw out more and more challenges, and every night she was clearly at her limit of stress, fatigue and fear, but every morning, come rain, wind and bitter cold, she toed the starting line and started the suffer-fest anew. She went from a "one-lap kind of person" in 2007 to riding 400 kilometers and 39,000 vertical feet of muddy, rooty, rocky trails in TransRockies 2010. And in her transformative journey, I can't help but see reflections of my own.

I'm sure there were innumerable times during the week when Jenn asked herself the question, "What in the #$%& am I doing here?" It seems from her race report that even now, with the glow of finishing the race still fresh, she continues to wonder about that ever-present question - "Why?"

"Why?" Personally, I have never been all that interested in getting on a podium. I'm sure I would enjoy it were I ever to achieve it, but instead I continue to seek out races that are way over my head and glean satisfaction from simply surviving them. It would be logical for me to choose shorter, more surmountable goals, then work on my speed, work on my skills, perfect my strategy and finish knowing I did the very best I could do. But that whole approach seems so mechanical to me; not that there's anything wrong with it, but it's just not who I am. I view my cycling not as mechanics, but as art. I don't want an instruction manual. I want a blank canvas, as white and wide as the summer sky, that I can imprint with my joy and sorrow, and color with my blood, sweat and tears. Then, long after the race is over, and long after the race results have been relegated to the deepest regions of the Internet and the instruction manual has been rewritten, the experience is still permanently rendered in my heart with abstract shapes of knowledge and beauty.

"Why?" It's easy for me to say I race for fun, but I don't. Yes, I do think biking is fantastically fun. But if I was purely interested in fun, I would spend my holidays on fair-weather joy rides, taking in front-country scenery and sipping cold drinks on a beach. Instead, I take the hard way into the back-country, purposefully experiencing a wide range of discomfort along the way.

I could say I do this for my health, but battering my muscles and bones amid physical extremes, not sleeping and stuffing my craw with refined sugars isn't doing my body any favors.

I could say I race for personal challenge, but that's not entirely true either. Trying to build a bicycle or learning Spanish would be challenging for me, but I don't spend my time immersed in challenges that are actually useful. Instead, I go out and destroy bicycles, and grind my body into the dust, and cry out in pain and frustration and get back on the bicycle and do it again. I pay a lot of money to do this. I allot a large chunk of free time and vacation to this. All because of these beautiful works of art. These works only I can see. These works that I can never forget. And I cherish the hard moments, the moments of despondency and unhappiness. I cherish these moments because they're so intense and real, like bold, red brush strokes through a life of placid beige. And then, when the placid beige gets me down, as it sometimes does, I close my eyes and see the flickering green aurora that filled the sky the night I bonked on the Iditarod Trail ... the night I was so scared and weak that no movement before or since has been as difficult ... the night I was so overwhelmed and uncertain that I wasn't entirely sure I would live. And the green waves of northern lights were so bright that they still reflect warmth and joy in my heart, two and a half years later.

"Why?" I want to take the image of something impossible to me and make it real, make it possible, just for the sake of creation. In that, I feel a glimmer of what it's like to fully live.

And then I see others do the same, and it fills me with hope:

"It was hard - as I knew it would be - but what was hard about it wasn't what I expected. And I suppose that's a good thing. It's almost enough to make me want to try it again. Which is crazy."
Monday, August 16, 2010

TransRockies, last days

My expectations going into TransRockies 2010 were admittedly much too small. Before I started, finishing the race seemed to be a non-issue. Even though the elevation profiles were off the charts for a bicycle ride, the distances seemed short and I was pretty sure I could jog them within the time cut-off (and a couple of the stages, I nearly had to.) The nature of the race meant I would be riding the entire thing with a partner and our only objective was F-U-N, which was, in my mind, an ideal way to approach this race. My largest concern was that the race course was mostly singletrack, which, despite my massive amount of mountain biking enthusiasm, I have relatively little experience with. (I didn't even take up mountain biking until I moved to Homer and then Juneau, both places where summer singletrack is almost nonexistent. So my historic biking experience is largely comprised of snowmobile trails, foot-packed snow trails, pavement, dirt roads and doubletrack.) The obvious way to challenge myself in this race would have been to focus all of my training efforts on technique and speed, but neither of these things interested me. To be honest, I haven't been able to generate all that much enthusiasm about racing since the 2009 Tour Divide. Thus, both of my racing experiences since have been eye-opening, from starting the 2009 Soggy Bottom 100 in a precariously fragile state and scratching from the race at mile 90, completely shattered, to riding the White Mountains 100 essentially off the couch. I cherish these experiences and the way they tore me from my comfort zone and jostled me around, proving that I can't be invincible just because I want to be. But from TransRockies, I didn't know what to expect. I guess I was focused on bike camp and fun. I packed whimsical jerseys and Snickers bars.

Which brings me to stage 5, which hit shortly after I rolled out of my sleeping bag with less than three hours of sleep because somebody set off several bottle rockets over tent city after 1 a.m. Bicycle riding turns me into an insomniac; I notice it every time I embark on a couple hard rides or hikes in a row. My heart rate spikes and I struggle to bring down my adrenaline enough to fall asleep. Add a few more days of sleep deprivation, and I become a pedaling zombie, increasingly annoyed with people who comment, "Man, this is tough. I'm going to sleep well tonight." In the Tour Divide, I used Ambien every night, and I don't regret it one bit. If you're a one-speed plow-horse like me, sleep is often the only barrier between strength and shutdown.

So I started stage 5 feeling crappy. We left our mud-bogged camp site and the Anchor D ranch and headed out into the rolling foothills of Alberta. Horse country. Which means horse trails. Soft, mulchy singletrack quickly gave way to a deep bog of horse and cow-stomped mud. It was similar to the 17 kilometers of cow trail we had slogged through in Stage 4 - almost completely unrideable even to the strongest pros, and difficult to even walk through for the rest of us. It took us four hours to slog the first 21 kilometers. They nearly pulled us from the course because we almost missed the time cutoff. I was exhausted. Turns out those time cutoffs aren't so easy to make.

After checkpoint 2, the mud gave way to black wetness from the sky. Keith became cold shortly after it started raining, and his mood soured a little, probably closer to the level of my own mood, although it was difficult to discern. (I'm usually skeptical of people who stay positive all the time, but Keith really is genuine in being an "up" person. He finds the best in every situation, and won't complain if he can't.) As the rain and wind beat harder on us, we cowered beneath a small stand of aspen trees to put on the remainder of the clothing we were carrying. As we applied balaclavas and fleece gloves, a couple dozen cows trotted in from the surrounding fields and joined us beneath the trees. Keith said, "You know it's bad when even the cows take cover."

My core temperature held strong but my muscles weakened more and more over the course of the day. I held my pace because that's what my body does best, but I was struggling. We finally rolled into the finish after seven and a half hours. We had traveled 54 kilometers. A flutter of volunteers surrounded us because many of the teams who finished right before us suffered from mild to moderate hypothermia. I was fine, and I knew it, and I vowed to go to bed earlier and ride stronger for stage 6.

Stage 6 was the "Death Stage," 76 kilometers and nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. We woke up to steady rain and temperatures barely gracing the 40s. A solid coat of fresh snow clung to the higher peaks, though they were scarcely visible above the clouds. I put on the skull-and-crossbones "Death Jersey" that I had saved for this stage, and then proceeded to cover it with what I think of as my "Juneau Super Suit:" Polar polypro tights under regular chamois shorts, knee braces, polypro under-armor shirt, thin fleece layer, "waterproof" nonbreathable rain jacket, balaclava, fleece ear warmers, two pairs of wool socks with a vapor barrier between them, shoes, and neoprene booties. Yes, I do sweat like crazy when climbing in this thing, but it keeps me warm even when it's soaked inside and out, which in my opinion is inevitable no matter what you wear if you spend more than an hour riding in steady rain and splashy mud puddles. I actually managed a decent amount of sleep the night before. Also, the night before I had a somewhat surprise visit from my ex, Geoff, who is temporarily moving from Juneau to Boulder, Colorado. He dropped into the campground on his way south, had dinner with the whole crew and spent the night so he could see the race off the following morning. It was the first time I saw him since I left Juneau in April, and for several reasons I'll probably eventually describe in this blog, his visit filled me with a lot of new confidence. Combined with my Juneau Super Suit, I felt like I could do no wrong, biblical weather and Death Stage be damned.

We finished the first tough climb and fun descent and rolled toward checkpoint one, still feeling strong. Five kilometers of gravel road into the checkpoint were completely exposed to the weather with a stiff headwind, and Keith announced he planned to change into dry clothes at the checkpoint. By the time we got there, we found at least a dozen teams huddled in trucks and vans, shivering. The race organizer was there and informed us that there was snow and heavy wind on the pass and they had rerouted most teams up the road. Teams who chose to take the road would be given an unspecified time penalty, so if we were bent on completing the whole course, we could opt to wait at the checkpoint until they received a better report about the snow, at which point he "might" let us go forward. I looked at Keith and felt a tinge of both gratitude and regret. I knew I didn't want to face the pass, but at the same time, I had a sense that I could face the pass. If we took the opt-out, I would never know. I could feel a chill building in my core. I knew the steep ascent would be a warm hike-a-bike but the descent was equally rocky, steep and wet, and I would likely have to walk much of that as well. I was afraid. My will was being fiercely tested. Keith was starting to shiver. We took to opt-out and followed several teams down the road. I later found out we were the last team to even be given a choice.

We arrived at checkpoint two at the same time as the second place team, who had just descended from the pass. These were the hard men of the race, the Rocky Mountain Factory Team - the "Rocky Boys." Both were violently convulsing, and one man broke out in tears as he huddled beneath the tent canopy, where a woman helped both of the men remove their jerseys and arm warmers and put on dry clothing, because they couldn't move their fingers. I thought it might be the end of their race. The race volunteers had set up a warming tent nearby, and Keith and I briefly joined the 10 or so people huddled inside. But it wasn't all that warm in there, even though half of the people had already stripped off much of their wet clothing to dry next to the propane heater. "We need to keep moving," I told Keith, and we took off quickly. Two miles later, the Rocky Boys passed us, mostly unresponsive. I was amazed at their drive, the hard-man "race drive" of a true athlete, fear and extreme discomfort be damned.

Keith and I finished the "Death Stage" in just over five hours, right in the midst of many of the pros. Of course, the huge difference is they went over the pass, and we did not. Our ride was just under 60 kilometers and cut out nearly half of the climbing, not to mention the epic struggle with the weather that the leaders had to endure. I started the stage feeling strong and finished feeling stronger, and felt guilty about that - survivor's guilt, maybe. There is something to be said about starting a race prepared for everything, even when it means pedaling in a swirl of humid heat up climbs and carrying 20 pounds of extra gear on my back. Those who chose to travel light take their chances, but in a race like TransRockies, where many decisions are made for you (and in this case, rerouting the mid- and back-pack was absolutely the right decision), there remains a small sense of disappointment, the absence of having one's inner strength truly tested.

Stage 7, the final stage, arrived in a pleasant rush of amnesia. It was a beautiful morning in the Bow River Valley, warm, mostly clear and framed with chiseled mountains so dramatically rendered that they looked like paintings on a blue backdrop. I felt as strong as I did on day one, and felt a bit of competitive guilt about that, because I was in a race and I clearly had a lot left in the tank that was mostly going to go to waste. But Keith was struggling with tendonitis in his right Achilles, very similar to the injury that contributed to my Soggy Bottom meltdown one year ago, so I could strongly empathize. Plus, the shortness of the 46-kilometer stage kept everyone clustered tightly together, and I got caught up in a couple of trail-rage incidents (where people nearly mowed me over to get around me, even though I was doing my best to hug the right side and even pull off the trail let people by since I am so timid and uncertain on rooty, narrow singletarck.) But the cluster of aggro-riders left me feeling stressed, and I couldn't add much cheer to Keith's struggle with heel pain. Eventually the pack strung out and I started to have more fun. We kept the pace slow and took lots of breaks - a somewhat subdued end to our race, which is fitting.

In all, TransRockies 2010 lived up to the world of challenges and fun this "summer camp for adults" promised. I had a great time with Keith, and we made the perfect pair. If I could go back and do it again, I would spend much more time working on my technical riding. I would also probably do an interval or two to increase my strength; because while I could go all day at the pace we kept, it was difficult for me to push much harder without blowing up. And I would take the race organization's promises much more seriously. The Canadian Rockies contain some truly spectacular and difficult terrain. The next time it takes me seven and a half hours to travel 54 kilometers, I better not have a bike with me.

Finished TransRockies

Keith and I finally rolled into Canmore on Saturday afternoon to finish the seven stages of the TransRockies in 46 hours and 32 minutes, which is only about 20 hours slower than the pros up front. We finished 11th in the Open Mixed division. I had loads of fun and learned a lot of valuable lessons, such as playing nice with others (not just my partner, but the 400 of my closest friends who were clogging up the trails.) I also learned that I have much I need to improve on regarding my technical riding skills - either that or become a runner and leave the anchor on wheels at home, because I walked way too many downhills this week. But everybody in this race did some bike pushing, from a little to a lot, thanks to biblical weather and more than 30 kilometers of shin-deep, cow-stomped, manure-flavored mud. (I talked to a few of leaders and they did those sections cyclocross style, running with their bikes on their shoulders.)

I'll try to write up an overview of the last three days when I have more time, but for now I should try to get some sleep. Keith and I did the race and a mellow, fun pace, and right now I feel like I've simply had a good week of riding, rather than a hard week of racing. But I've been a horrible insomniac all week (my best night of sleep was probably about six hours; some were closer to three or four.) Strange, but I still have so much trouble with long days of biking and sleeping. That alone was probably my biggest physical challenge, and the technical riding was my largest mental challenge. But the best experiences in life are just as challenging as they are fun, so in that regard, I had an awesome week.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

TransRockies, Day 4

Computer battery almost dead. No time for words. But here are a few pictures from Stage 4 of TransRockies, middle of nowhere Alberta to middle of nowhere Alberta, traveling 65 kilometers in a rocking 7 hours and 34 minutes. This is epic stuff out here, more adventure racing than mountain biking, which is, you know, my kind of race. Photos ahead. You tell the story.