Thursday, December 02, 2010

Back to the learning curve

The loose snow churned under my tires as I ground up a nondescript logging road that’s steep in the summer, and practically vertical when smothered in winter powder. Temperatures dropped to eyelash-freezing levels as Bill pedaled behind me. We didn’t say much. I was breathing hard and concentrating harder, and both activities seemed to strain my sore muscles that weren’t exactly making the most of this “rest day.” All I wanted was a relaxing Tuesday night ride, but that was before we pushed our bikes through shin-deep powder on the Kim Williams Trail, pedaled over snow and ice-crusted railroad tracks and then climbed the packed snow on Deer Creek Road, all on a 37-pound Pugsley with a mere 8 psi of air in the wide tires. Finally at our intended destination — the logging road — we discovered the snow was deeper than we anticipated. Bill was struggling to hold my line with his skinny tires. I stopped to catch a breath amid a swirl of frosted air. “Everything is so much harder in the winter, everything,” I said.

The tables turned when we flipped around and worked our way back to the paved Pattee Canyon Road. Bill’s studded tires gripped the thick layer of ice but Pugsley skidded with a terrifying lack of restraint as my numb fingers pumped the brakes and numb butt cheeks clenched into a frozen knot. Halfway down the canyon, we saw Norm out for a hike and agreed to meet for a slice of pizza. We met up at the Bridge, where I shivered until my toes and ears went numb as well, then rode stiffly home. Bill has this habit of GPS’ing rides to gauge his effort, although his Garmin doesn’t measure the impact of snow and ice, which in my opinion makes a much bigger difference than distance and elevation. In three hours we rode 21.4 miles and climbed 2,136 feet in temperatures around 23 degrees. When I was training for the 2006 Sustina 100, a three- or four-hour ride was about the most I ever got myself into, except for a select few "long" weekend efforts. “Since when did three hours of sustained hard effort become a rest day for me?” I wondered.

I think about the 2006 Susitna 100 often these days, probably because I’ve recently been struck through the heart with similar fear, excitement and newness. Racing, for me, is a simple metaphor for life — it’s about living through a seeming lifetime’s worth of pain, joy, frustration, despair, exhilaration, beauty and happiness in the span of a day, or sometimes a week, or sometimes three weeks. Training is practice for life, and it’s a beautiful way to live. There is much to “train” for, because so much in my life is beautiful and rich right now — from these cold white winter days in the snow-drenched mountains of Montana, to spending time with Beat and rediscovering that passion really is amplified when it’s shared. Beat, like me, likes to drink life by the gallon and won’t apologize when others tell him that’s an excessive amount. We don’t waste much time worrying about the broad future that we can’t control anyway, but we do like to scheme and dream about future adventures — and in 2011, for both us, there’s a lot of untread ground.

Wednesday wasn’t a rest day. I penciled in a three-hour run, which seemed a reasonable increase given my base fitness and minimal time I have left to “practice” running before February. I invited Bill, who hasn’t even started his 2011 race training yet and thus can still tag along for strange, slow adventures. We jogged through town and clawed our way up the face of Mount Sentinel, where the snow really became deep. We ran down the other side through the thick powder, sometimes staggering as though we were mired in a bottomless pit of sand. If I shifted my stride to a walk I was able to hold about the same speed as I could running, but the point of the excursion was to run, so I lifted my legs out of the snow with all of the effort my jagged muscles would allow. “If the conditions are like this in the Su, I won’t finish,” I said. “At the same time, I’d be perfectly happy to average 3 mph in the Su.”

Still, Wednesday’s run amounted to 10 miles, not 100. According to Bill’s Garmin, we moved 10.22 miles and climbed 2,262 feet in three hours. Again, Garmin knew nothing of the deep, loose snow, which after the stacked efforts of this week made it my hardest run yet, even compared to the longer runs in Banff. I walked stiffly into my warm house and remembered exactly what it used to feel like, coming home after my 2006 training rides: fatigued, terrified, partially frozen ... and strangely — almost blissfully — content. Whereas Tuesday contained familiar hardships, on Wednesday I was back to new territory. I realize, come what may, this is exactly where I want to be. It’s all a beautiful, grand experiment, just like life.