Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Gears disability"

"Sorry for your gears disability," Bill said as he pulled up on his bike in front of my office. "Would it be better if I only rode in one gear?"

I looked down at my newly singlespeed-converted Karate Monkey. "Well, it couldn't hurt," I said. "At least then there's a chance I'll keep up with you on the road."

Bill observed my cadence as we pedaled down the street, then shifted his gears to match mine - 32x20. "This is pretty low," he observed.

"Tell me about it," I said. "It's downright tedious on flat pavement." We spun and spun and spun, until we hit hills that suddenly seemed to throw the pedals backward. I stood and strained and grunted and sometimes I made it, but sometimes I didn't. The ride hadn't even started yet.

At the trailhead, I made a point to remark to the other Thursday Night riders that I was singlespeeding today - not because I've suddenly become one of those boorish one-gear sandbaggers (though I may have come off that way), but because I didn't have a clue what I was doing and needed to warn potential wheel-suckers in advance.

We started up the trail. I struggled to find my cadence amid a paceline of geared riders. Bill stayed up front, chugging away at the 32x20, although Bill is a much stronger rider than I am. I churned, then faltered, then churned again. The grade steepened. I stood up and wrestled with my handlebars like they were fighting back. I mashed the pedals until my abs burned. My abs! "This is a really good core workout," I said to the woman in front of me. She shifted into granny gear and suddenly I couldn't keep my own bike from tipping over. I set my foot down, and just like that I was walking. Other riders spun past and regarded me with quiet pity. It was a really easy hill.

I coasted the entire descent, except for when I forgot to coast and laid into my pedals until the egg-beater motion spun my legs out of control and spit my feet forward. After experiencing steep climbs and leg-throwing descents, I vowed to put clipless pedals on my singlespeed. I dislike clipless pedals and haven't used them for a year, but you basically can't get away with platforms when you only have one gear.

On the way home, Bill, Norman and I passed a speedometer. Bill and I frantically spun our tiny gear, legs pounding like overheated pistons, until we coaxed the radar to 25 mph. "Yeah, 25 mph!" I called out. I slowed my legs. That's when I realized that every muscle in my legs hurt, every single one, throbbing with an alien sensation that must arise when one's RPM rises above 200.

"What do you think of one gear?" I asked Bill as we ambled toward home.

"I like it," he said.

I smiled. "Me too."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Back to reality

This has been a strange process - trying to recover from last week. And I'm not talking about the 50-mile trek across Northern Utah, although there is some backlash there as well. But, no, Vegas and the way I felt there, and subsequently reacted while I was there, is still troubling me. By Thursday I was pressed against a hard edge of my personality. I was anxious, stressed, disconnected and really not myself. Now that I'm past it, and trying to pick up a few of the pieces, I'm still confused about why I reacted so badly. I think there is a lot to be said about sleeplessness and the mental turmoil that alone causes. But my experience there was somewhat enlightening - in showing me that I may not have as much control over my mental landscape as I'd like to believe.

Still, I am back, and I am fine, and hopefully not that much worse for the wear. A few of my co-workers think I went off the deep end with that 50-mile run, and that is perhaps a somewhat fair assessment. I came home Sunday and crashed hard. I was sick and non-functional on Monday. But after about 22 hours of sleep in 36 hours time, I felt almost completely normal. My friend Bill and I went out for a Tuesday night ride that we both intended to be "mellow." We ended up climbing 3,500 feet to a high ridge above town called University Beacon. We reached the top right at sunset. An steady 40 mph wind howled through the radio towers as we stood against the gale and talked for half an hour. It was one of those incredibly cathartic discussions where two people who don't know each other all that well realize they actually have a lot in common.

Then, suddenly it was dark. We rode a gravel road up, but Bill wanted to take the singletrack down. I switched on my meager headlight, having no idea what I was getting into, and launched in behind him. With a amber and orange sea of city lights spread out below us, I watched Bill's thin silhouette disappear over a horizon line like a roller coaster plunging into an abyss. Seconds later, my own wheel dipped into the headwall and plummeted toward city lights that were still thousands of feet below. I grabbed my brakes but it was too late. I was slipping, skidding down the steep gravel, wide-eyed and half-panicked as my locked-out wheels carried me toward certain doom. All I could see was the blurred sparkle of city lights. I felt like I was crash-landing a plane into Missoula. I braced for impact. The grade lessened and the wheels caught traction. I skidded to a stop. Bill was a few yards ahead, walking his bike. "Yeah, this trail kinda sucks at night," he said.

But it was a fun ride, and turned out to be fairly ambitious - nearly three hours of ride time, and for the most part I felt great despite everything last week. Today my friend Dave and I got together for a mellow hike. I wanted to test my progress on my right foot, which is still sore from running, but not to a level that I think I have plantar faciitis. Still, there is something weird with my arch. I can't quite pinpoint it. Bruise? Sore muscles or tendons? After about two miles it started to feel sore again, and then it began to tighten up. Luckily we kept the walk short. But it was a good reality check, because I was all set to start running again this weekend.

Instead, we came back early, where Dave set to fixing my Karate Monkey. I've wanted a singlespeed mountain bike for a while now, not even quite realizing that I had one all along - it just had too much crap stuck on it. Dave mentioned that singlespeed conversion is as easy as tearing all that crap off and adding a couple of rings. So we set to the project - or, I should say he set to the project. I stood there and tried to learn, I really tried. But teaching me bicycle mechanics is like trying to train a cat how to sit and stay. In theory, they should be smart enough, but in the end all they do is stare off into space and remain perpetually useless.

But Dave did good work, and now KiM is set up the way Surly intended - well, except for the Reba fork. But I'm excited to try out singlespeeding. I already got cold and bored while spinning the simplified bike slowly home, and I imagine I'll be redlined and walking on most of the climbing during my trail ride tomorrow, so I'm well on my way!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The life of Geo

Today I took what feels like my last step away from my status as an Alaskan. I registered my car in the great state of Montana and acquired new license plates. The process was so painless it was almost surreal. I walked into a completely empty DMV, where six smiling employees all waved me over at the same time. I handed the smiliest guy my title and a check for $68, and five minutes later I had new plates, good for the next year.

The car also hits another milestone this month, in that I've owned it for 10 years. In October 2000 I paid the car's first owner $5,100 in cash for a 1996 Geo Prism. It had 29,000 miles, manual transmission, a tape deck stereo, no air conditioning, no power steering and a sweet tomato-red exterior that screamed "take me home!" Since then, Geo has set wheel in 29 states and six Canadian provinces. It's been smashed by a sycamore tree in New Jersey and broken into six times. It's climbed rugged jeep roads in southern Utah and plowed through feet of snow on a high bluff above Homer, Alaska. It's made four full trips between the states and Alaska, three on the Al-Can and one on the Cassier Highway. It's been as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, as far west as Anchor Point, Alaska, and as far east as Bar Harbor, Maine. And in that entire time, I never had to put anything into it besides insurance, tires and brakes. In order to make the trip down to Montana, I had an Anchorage mechanic install a new clutch. I received a lot of crap from my friends for doing this. Geo has 186,000 miles on it now, an interior ravaged by years of hauling bicycles, a motor that gets grumpy in the cold, a blue book value of about $400, and a flaking, faded paint job that makes it look like one sick tomato. But it still gets 35 miles to the gallon, runs, and, well ... I can't help myself. I love this car. We've been through so much together.

Somewhere out there is a photo of Geo surrounded by police tape in a New Jersey campground, with a sycamore tree resting on top of a smashed roof. I eventually got that problem fixed, along with the body damage I caused when I side-swiped a parked car in March 2001, not to mention smashed windows from the break-ins. I don't know whatever became of the sycamore photo, but there at least a few images that remain of our good times together.

Geo and I after a backpacking trip in Sweat Canyon, Utah, sometime in early 2004. This was the go-to vehicle for an uncountable number of weekend trips to the desert. Geo has trawled a lot of rocky, sandy, rugged back-roads in its time. I even still have that hat.

Moving from Tooele, Utah, to Idaho Falls in October 2004, with the help of my (recently departed) grandpa, mom and dad. The bikes on top of the car are my Ibex Corrida and long-ago-sold Trek 6500 mountain bike. Also note the can of Pepsi on the hood.

Geo fresh upon arrival in Homer, Alaska, after I moved there from Idaho Falls in September 2005. All of my belongings where either wedged in the car or that canvas car-top carrier. The bicycles are my ever-present Ibex Corrida touring bike on the left, and my long-ago-sold Gary Fisher Sugar on the right.

We lived at 1,200 feet on a bluff above Homer, which is the coastal Alaska equivalent of living in a mountain town. Our house received upwards of 300 inches of snow that first winter, and Geo took it like a champ, plowing through the worst storms and gravel road ascents with nothing more than front-wheel drive and questionable studded tires.

There it is! Go, Geo, go!

In August 2006, I packed all of my worldly belongings into the car again and moved to Juneau. As an Alaskan, I received a lot of crap for not owning either a Subaru or a truck, but Geo and I made it work. It was especially good at hauling yard sale finds and hideous couches.

Geo spent three years not seeing much use in the city of Juneau, which is why its mileage is still comparatively low for all of the traveling it's done. In April 2009, I loaded it up again, this time with camping and biking gear for my summer on the Great Divide. This is the car outside Vancouver, British Columbia, during a road trip I'd rather have washed from my memory. My and my ex's Karate Monkeys are mounted to the roof rack. This is the last time they'd see each other.

In April 2010, it was time to pack up again and move out of Juneau (holy cow, was that just six months ago?) I mounted my summer car tires, Roadie and the Karate Monkey on the roof - a Beverly Hillbillies-esque junk show that also seemed to receive smiles from the friends in Juneau who were continuously pressing me to get rid of that car already (you know who you are, Brian.) This is Geo at the top of White Pass on the Klondike Highway: 3,200 feet of elevation gain in a mere 10 miles, on a narrow, icy road. I was so happy that it actually made it.

Then, in June 2010, it was time to make what was hopefully be Geo's last trip down the Al-Can, moving from Anchorage to Montana. This is Geo in front of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. I had four bikes along for the ride on this trip, with Pugsley and the Rocky Mountain Element stuffed in the back seat. Since I moved back to the "states," there have been a lot of trips to Utah and northern Montana. I'd like to say we're going to settle down someday, but who knows what the future holds?

My relationships, my bicycles, and my homes come and go, and through it all Geo remains. I think there's something to be said about unyielding loyalty, even in a car.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living intensely

I fixed my thousand-yard stare on a radio tower, perched on a featureless mound of rock many miles across the sun-baked desert. The interstate rolled away at a rate of 80 mph, and still the gleaming tower lingered in a far distance that seemed to never grow closer.

"This is exactly what Badwater is like," said Evan, who this past summer paced the winner of the Badwater 135, a 135-mile ultramarathon through Death Valley. "You're just out in this flat, open desert. Tons of hours go by, and nothing changes."

"It looks beautiful right now," I said. I glanced in the side-view mirror to see if any traces of Las Vegas remained on the horizon ... the scorched pavement, the seizure-inducing lights, the belligerent crowds and the cigarette smog. Vegas had gotten under my skin in a way I couldn't even mitigate, let alone reverse. I was in Las Vegas for a trade show, putting in long hours of exhaustive socialization, soaking in the glistening edge of an industry's excess, fighting through crowds in the fake empire of the Las Vegas strip, over-eating unhealthy food, not exercising because there was literally no time or space to do so, and not sleeping. I can trend toward mild insomnia, but the past week was beyond anything I had endured before. Many days had passed and I was unable to get more than an hour of sleep at a time, sometimes only an hour in an entire night.

I was slowly losing my mind, quite genuinely going crazy, when I came across a random Facebook status update by my friend, Evan, who was "trying to mentally prepare myself for my nonstop drive to Salt Lake in two days." Evan is an ultrarunner who used to live in Alaska, but now lives outside Los Angeles. I was crewing for Geoff in the 2009 Hurt 100 in Honolulu when Evan stumbled in to the checkpoint at mile 78. His face was a zombie color of gray and he slurred most of his words. "I have never done anything so stupid in all of my life, never," he told me then. "But I can't $%#@ stop now!" Evan came out to visit before the start of the 2009 Iditarod Invitational, and I hadn't seen him since. That was before I got frostbite. That was before a lot of things. I knew Evan had to drive through Vegas to get to Salt Lake. I wrote to ask if I could join him.

"Why are you going to Salt Lake again?" Evan asked.

"I'm headed up to the Bear 100," I said. "It started this morning."

"That's cool," Evan said. "Are you going to pace someone?"

"I'm going to crew for someone," I said. "Maybe pace a few miles. I'm not much of a runner."

"Neither am I," Evan said, and I snorted. Evan runs often, and fast. He had just completed a 100-miler in California under cold, wet conditions that no sane person would endure.

"It was the worst night of my life," he said, possibly forgetting about the 2009 Hurt 100. "I wish I never finished the thing. There is nothing healthy about running 100 miles, nothing."

I took his words to heart. Recently, ultrarunning - or long-distance travel by foot - has captured my imagination in a way it never has before. I can't even really explain why here, why now, given all of my exposure to the sport in the past five years. But it has trickled into my thoughts in the way random ideas sometimes do, and I've learned the less I do to fight those random thoughts, the more interesting my life becomes.

That unchecked curiosity is what compelled me to participate as a race volunteer in the Swan Crest 100 in July, and that's how I met this guy, Beat (pronounced Bay-ought.) Beat is a Swiss-German software developer who works for Google and lives in the Bay area, as in California. In his free time he invents things, like a satellite-enabled remote control for his espresso maker so he can fire up the machine from a half-hour away. He also runs. A lot. He's completed seven 100-milers this year alone, eight if you count his last race twice. That one was more than 200 miles.

Similar to Evan, Beat and I started conversing via Facebook after a race. He was registered for another 100-miler one week after the Swan Crest 100 - the Headlands 100 - and mid-week posted graphic pictures of all of his blisters from Swan Crest. I wrote him an e-mail to berate him for "being crazy." As the conversation evolved, I asked him to describe why he felt compelled to endure all of the abuse and distress, week after week. "I just want to experience the intensity of life," he wrote back.

Beat's last race was the Tour des Geants, a 330-kilometer, nonstop, largely self-supported race across the Italian Alps. The race features mostly technical terrain and an unreal 80,000 feet of climbing. For Beat, it was six days on the bleeding edge of intense living, and during that time he slept less than I did in Vegas. He finished the race a week before the start of the Bear 100. One week. We joked about meeting up at the Bear 100 on my way back from Vegas. I didn't think he was serious. I didn't believe he would show up. And anyway, I had a lot going on. But as Beat recovered from the TDG and my week deteriorated, Beat vowed that he was going to at least show up for the race. And then I saw the too-serendipitous-to-ignore status update from Evan.

Evan dropped me off at the interstate exit. His son had a dentist appointment and they were already running late. He was guiltily apologetic, and I assured him it didn't matter. "You got me out of Vegas. That was everything I needed." I shouldered the meager luggage I had brought home and began walking the two miles toward my parents' house. My parents have been on vacation in Germany for the past two weeks. My plan was to borrow (steal) their truck and drive two and a half hours to Logan Canyon, Utah, where I hoped to intersect Beat at a race checkpoint. Just in case I actually ended up running, I scoured my parents' house for supplies. I borrowed (stole) a knit cap, a neck warmer, a thin long-sleeved base layer, cotton gloves and rhinestone-bedazzled sunglasses. Then I drove to REI and bought sunscreen, a headlamp and assorted energy bars.

As I trickled through thick Friday evening traffic, my thoughts dissolved in a haze of sleep deprivation, a week's worth of sensory overload and the whole surreal silliness of what I was doing. In Logan I checked Beat's SPOT track and saw he was still moving, and located the next checkpoint he would hit. I just happened to score free wi-fi in front of a tiny bakery, wherein I found 50-cent fresh bagels, 93-cent giant cookies and brownies, and a $4.99 meal of homemade sourdough and turkey sandwich, chips, cookie and Diet Pepsi. For less than 10 dollars I had an entire ultra event's worth of homemade food, and the score seemed an auspicious start to the evening.

Just after sunset, I rolled into a place called Tony Grove, a beautiful mountain lake ringed with gray cliffs and golden aspen trees. I parked, circled the parking lot once, and just happened to arrive at the checkpoint just as Beat was checking in. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He looked at me and said, "Well, are you running?" At first, I just gaped at him. The Tony Grove checkpoint was located at mile 51. Which meant there were 50 miles left in the race. If I paced him at all, my plan was to sleep first and start later, perhaps even between two checkpoints that would allow for easy shuttling. I scoured my brain for a smidgen of wisdom, but none of the neurons were firing anymore. "Um, well ..." I stuttered. He just looked at me with these piercing cola-colored eyes. "Ok, give me a minute to change my clothes," I said.

Twilight had set in deep by the time we started up the trail. I turned on my headlamp and focused on the black shadows of the rocks and roots that littered the route. I stumbled and righted myself. It was already difficult and dark and I was just starting. Of course, Beat had already done 50 miles on almost no recovery from a six-day run. He still had deep blisters and shredded muscles from the previous race.

"How are you feeling?" I asked him.

"Oh, you know," he said with a resigned sigh. "How about you?"

We had only jogged a mile. I couldn't admit that I was already feeling far out of my element and nauseated on top of that. The giant brownie and sandwich I had eaten less than an hour earlier churned in my stomach. "It's Vegas," I said. "I feel like I spent a week soaking in toxins, and now they're trying to leave my body."

The night sky opened up with a splash of stars and a nearly full moon. The weather was close to perfect, cool and dry with absolutely no breeze. If we stopped and held our breath, I swore we could hear water trickling down a creek a mile away. We alternated running and walking, because Beat was feeling downtrodden. We didn't say a whole lot in those first few miles. As my stomach began to settle, I perked up and started telling my favorite ultra-cycling horror stories. Finally Beat asked me to stop mentioning anything involving food or cold, which all of my cycling horror stories do. I laughed and asked him to tell me about the Tour des Geants. He painted a vivid portrait of extreme beauty, suffering and wandering so far outside himself that he wasn't even sure he was still alive. It was a week ago. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

We came to the next checkpoint after eight miles. "It sure takes a long time to go eight miles when you don't have wheels," I said, a sentiment I would go on to repeat multiple times during the night, likely much to Beat's annoyance. But the truth is, the Bear 100 is a burly course with babyhead-studded singletrack and tons of steep climbs and descents. There's a good chance I wouldn't fare better with a bike. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

The night trickled along the way night does, in a flickering reel of shapes and shadows. My sleeplessness rounded a corner and my thoughts became just a little less blurred. Beat and I came to a high alpine meadow and turned off our headlamps. The moon burned so bright that our bodies cast sharp shadows on the trail. "Oh," he said, "I brought something for you." He dug through his pack and pulled out a golf-ball-sized rock, with veins of shale and quartz. "I picked it up on the second pass in the Tour des Geants, and I carried it the whole way."

"The whole way? All six days?" I said with a hint of incredulity.

"And now 60 miles in the Bear 100," he said. "I'll carry it the rest of the way if you want."

"No," I said. "I can carry it." I held out my hand and accepted the rock with a rush of warm-fuzzy feeling. I used to be the kind of kid who frequently picked up rocks, carried them for hours in clenched hands and deposited them in a special drawer in my room. Beat's simple gift evoked a powerful sense of nostalgia and exciting newness, all at the same time.

The night trickled along the way night does, drifting between near-unconsciousness and ultra-alertness. I kept seeing black cows that I mistook for bears and yelping loudly. But I couldn't believe how great I felt for, you know, not being a runner. Twenty miles passed, and then 25. We climbed high into the night sky and descended back into the sparse and scattered lights of the canyon. Beat admitted he didn't care about his time or even whether he finished. We spent long breaks lounging at the checkpoints, eating Dutch oven rolls, chicken soup, strawberries and melons. We followed glow sticks but still got lost and laughed away two and a half "extra bonus miles."

The temperature continued to plummet. First we could see our breath, and then frost on the ground. Soon the frost was thick and my cotton gloves and thin sleeves did little to ward off temperatures that dropped as low as 23 degrees. Running, even slowly, generates good heat, but we took the downhills gingerly to preserve Beat's shredded quads, and I couldn't halt a few periods of uncontrolled shivering. We passed people and exchanged simple words. The trail often seemed crowded, but sometimes remote. Right before sunrise, we began our last long ascent into the alpine. Beat fought the cold by moving faster than I could sustain, and frequently swore in Swiss German to vent the pain in his feet and legs. But it was humorous, and we were both laughing, giggling really, like little kids at a sleepover party. He teased me for my bedazzled sunglasses and stylish hat, and said I looked like I was going shopping at the mall, not participating in a 50-mile run. I teased him for "doing it wrong" on all of the great mountain biking terrain we were trudging over, because yammering about bicycles probably never gets old to runners.

It all started to fall apart for me at mile 40, just after sunrise. Physically I felt strong, but my soft and weak cyclist's feet became wracked with pain. Blisters and a deep soreness in my right arch made every step annoying, and then difficult, and then mildly excruciating. I could tip-toe uphill without too many problems, but there was nowhere to hide on the descents, and pretty soon all we had left was downhill. I looked out over the glistening Bear Lake, 3,000 vertical feet below us, and felt like crying. Beat tried to be upbeat and joked about "being so hardcore that I broke my pacer." "You really need to go on without me," I said. "You can run this, but I'm probably going to take all day."

"No, I can stick it out with you," he said. "I've been there before. It's not a fun place to be alone."

It hurt to set my right foot down on any surface, even gingerly, so I tried shuffling, until I stubbed my toes in a veritable rockfall of baseball-sized stones. I continued my attempts to convince Beat to leave me behind. "You'll finish two hours sooner," I said. He continued to refuse, and I didn't say much else, settling into that gray corner at the edge of my pain cave. Meanwhile, Bear Lake glistened in the sunlight, ringed with the brilliant golds of fall, and it never grew any closer, just like that radio tower in the desert, one day and a lifetime before.

When we finally reached a trailhead, we still had another 500 vertical feet downhill to the finish. Beat took the race course and I took the road, hoping it would be faster. But the pavement struck the bottom of my right foot like hot nails, so I hopped on my left leg until I couldn't see straight, then walked until I couldn't stomach the soreness, then hopped again. It was ridiculous, and I had tears in my eyes because I was so frustrated, walking down a road, while the lake just glistened and taunted me. But I was laughing, too, because it was inevitable. You don't go out and travel 50 miles on foot without training for it. You just don't. I could have easily predicted my injuries right down to the swollen toes. I deserved them. But as the lake glistened with an new, almost otherworldly beauty, I was thinking it was worth it.

I hobbled into the finish with ~51 miles on my battered feet. The Bear 100 has 22,000 feet of climbing, so it's probably fair to say that 50 miles of it has close to half that. I was out on the trail for about 15 and a half hours, with the last 10 miles taking more than five hours on their own. Beat finished his race in 29 hours and 29 minutes. He earned a grizzly bear belt buckle for a sub-30 finish, but I still feel guilty for slowing him down as much as I did. But he did know what he was getting for a pacer before he coaxed me out there. Beat congratulated me on finishing my first "ultra." I hadn't thought about it in that way before, being that it was just half of the Bear 100, but it was my first ultramarathon.

It was still before noon and the shuttle bus wasn't set to leave the finish line until 7 p.m. There was nothing for us to do but wait, so we settled into a shady spot on the grass, where the lake glistened and gold and green leaves rustled in the wind and wisps of clouds streamed through the bright blue sky. The pain in my feet faded into the background, my mind settled into a pleasant fog, and the only thing I understood was that I was in Fish Haven, Idaho, and I could scarcely comprehend how I got there, but I lived every mile of it, intensely.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Snow bikes in the desert

I am in Vegas for Interbike. Being surrounded by bicycles isn't a bad way to spend a week, but if I were to list my "10 places I'd be least likely to visit under my own free will," Vegas would be near the top. It's a terrible place. I'm sorry, it just is. Huge crowds ... smoke everywhere ... traffic ... no winter ... flashing lights ... casino mazes ... long lines ... strangers yelling at me ... too intimidated by yelling crowds to go out for simple evening runs after dinner ... unbearable heat ... everything costs a fortune ... no winter ...

I try to make the best of it by reminding myself that I'm here for Interbike, which is kind of cool. Today we attended the Dirt Demos, out at Boulder City. The high temperature was 102, with a constant 20 mph wind that steadily cranked up past 30 mph as the afternoon wore on. Shade is just a bad joke here in the sun-baked valley. I sucked down my two liters of water within about an hour and went on to down two big lemonades and all the free liquid I could get my hands on - three 20-ounce water bottles, a 24-ounce sports drink of some sort (name forgotten but it tasted like a vitamin pill), and several shot glasses of some kind of recovery drink (also gross.)

BUT ... I got to ride awesome bicycles.

The Salsa El Mariachi: A hardtail 29'er full of rock-gobbling goodness. This bike was super comfortable and a great climber, and had this strange ability to float up rock headwalls ... not even sure how, because I certainly wasn't helping it along. But it was a fun bike to ride on the rocks, even if you're not a particularly huge fan of riding in the rocks (I'm not. Another strike against Vegas in my book. I'm a native Utahn who still prefers forested trails of the roots and mud variety.)

Grag Matayas of Speedway Cycles came all the way down from Anchorage with brand new Fatbacks. It was fun to catch up and ogle the new offerings in the snow biking niche.

My co-worker, Josh, and I took high-end BH cross and women's-specific road bikes on a fast spin down the bike path. The wind tossed us around and I ran out of water, which even on a shortish ride made me feel a little woozy. It was a fun spin, though. I think if I were ever forced to live in Vegas, I would become much more of a road rider, because pavement offerings here are superb, and the trail riding is, well, full of rocks.

But if you're going to ride rocks, I really think fat bikes are the way to go. Forget huge travel - skinny mountain bike tires still force you to pick a line. With fat bikes, you just point your monster truck in the general direction of where you want to end up, and hold on tight, because you're in for a wild ride. Then, when it's time to ride uphill, you can plow through the loosest gravel and weeds, just for fun. Josh and I did a long demo of the Salsa Mukluk today - the latest addition to the rapidly expanding snow bike genre. I love my Pugsley, but I have to admit that Salsa made several big improvements with the Mukluk. For starters, I can actually maneuver this bike without feeling like I'm trying to steer a tractor. It has a lower bottom bracket which allows for more comfortable pedal stance, and feels more like a "normal" mountain bike that just happens to have huge wheels. The jury is of course still out on how it performs in the snow, but I have to admit ... I have a little crush. Hopefully Pugsley doesn't find out.

Meanwhile, Interbike continues to be a spectacle. I can't wait to see what the actual show is like.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Return to Mount Borah

I think everyone needs a nemesis mountain. A mountain that has gotten the better of you at some point ... a mountain that drug you down to the base of your weaknesses, scraped away the shallow facade of your identity and exposed those deeper cracks in your soul, the ones you hope you never have to peer into. But after this happens, and you survive it, you want to go back, again and again, just to see whether those cracks have filled in. For me, this mountain is Mount Borah.

It's the highest peak in Idaho. 12,662 feet. It used to be seven feet shorter, but in 1983 a powerful earthquake thrust this massive mound of rock even higher into the sky. I didn't mean for it to become my nemesis mountain. I discovered it by accident, in July 2001, as my friend and I were making our way home from a two-month road trip across America. While we were driving down Highway 93 in central Idaho, we came across a sign that said "Borah Peak Access Road." And in the way we made most of our decisions at the time, we both looked at each other and said, "Let's climb that!"

Now, in all honesty, Borah is not even close to the hardest or scariest single-day effort I've embarked on. It's not even the hardest or scariest peak I've climbed. But it caught me in a perfect storm of weakness. We arrived at the trailhead at 1:30 p.m. - a bad time to start a hike that logs about 6,200 feet of total vertical gain and descent in seven miles round-trip. I was already fatigued from the long road trip, anxious to get home, and not in the best shape of my life. The route was all-business to 11,000 feet, and I was full-on dizzy when we reached the saddle, but still we kept climbing.

We came to the knife ridge - which is called Chicken Out Ridge - and Geoff pressed far ahead as I grappled with the exposed scramble on my own. I was rattled and physically shaking by the time I crawled, on my hands and knees, across the narrow snow-covered saddle. As I began to pick my way up the face of the mountain, dark clouds steamrolled in from the west and began to drop large quantities of snow. I was wearing a cotton tank-top and shorts, because it was July. I had no jacket or gloves. I did not want to cross Chicken Out Ridge in a snowstorm. I was convinced I would either slip off the mountain, or freeze to death avoiding that fate. I completely lost it. I sat on a rock and indulged in a full-fledged panic attack. Eventually Geoff came back to look for me and gently talked me down. Neither of us made it to the summit that day.

That was my first battle with Mount Borah - a sweeping defeat. I didn't go back until August 2005. I was working as a copy editor at the Idaho Falls Post Register at the time, and some co-workers were planning a hike on the mountain. The mere thought of it dredged up bad associations, and at first I told them I wasn't going to join them. But as the date neared, much in my life was beginning to change. Geoff was moving to Alaska. I was trying to decide whether to follow him there. I decided to dedicate the month to seeking out situations that scared me, and facing them head-on. I went on a whitewater rafting trip down the Snake River. I took my then-nearly unused mountain bike on several intimidating rides. And I asked my co-workers if they still had room on the Mount Borah trip. I did not want to go. But I did believe up there, I'd find the perspective I was searching for.

We camped at the trailhead the night before. I hardly slept at all, tossing and fretting as though I were psyching myself up to climb Mount Everest. We left the next morning at 5:30 a.m. Even though I wasn't in particularly good endurance shape at the time, I charged up the steep slope with single-minded purpose. I quickly left most of my co-workers behind, and climbed into the rising daylight with an almost gleeful sense of doom. As I picked my way across Chicken Out Ridge, it was tough but not nearly as deadly as I remembered. The sun was hot as I made my way up the peak, and I stood on top for the first time beneath a perfectly clear sky, so blue and bright that it cast far-away mountain ranges in startling clarity. It was the clarity I had sought, but as I squinted into the distant desert, I felt a strong sense that I should stay in Idaho, and let Geoff slip out of my life for good. Strong enough that it felt like a decision. I bit my lip, let the one co-worker who caught up to me take a picture, and headed down.

Returning across Chicken Out Ridge in August 2005, I got vertigo again. The sensation wasn't as bad as I had felt in July 2001, but it was still enough that I had to hunker down until my head stopped spinning. The physical reaction echoed the deeper feelings of confusion and frustration I had been feeling all month. The act of doing things that scared me wasn't working. It only seemed to magnify the fact that I was weak and helpless. I didn't know what to do about Alaska. I knew I didn't have a lot to lose by leaving Idaho. I returned as indecisive as I had ever been. The mountain showed me nothing I came to see, but later, after moving to Alaska and reflecting on what turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, I think that Mount Borah showed me what I needed to see.

I hadn't really planned on ever returning to Mount Borah. It's hidden in the Lost River Range, not particularly close to anything, and there are hundreds and thousands of amazing, accessible mountains that I will never find the time to climb. But my friend Bill in Missoula has recently developed an interest in elevation, and Borah is the closest "12'er" that's fairly accessible to non-climbers. He was the one who brought it up. I was headed south anyway this weekend, for a trade show in Vegas. "Let's do it," I agreed. On Friday Bill and I set out with our friend, Norman, for a weekend road trip and mountain climb in Idaho.

It was interesting to return here, nine years after the meltdown and five years after the big decision, to experience Mount Borah as the person I am now, with the people I know now. The route is still all-business and I still harbor irrational fears, but I now carry a modicum of strength that goes deeper than a facade. After the first 30 minutes I looked at my GPS and said, "Wow, we already climbed 1,000 feet!" Everyone shrugged. We blazed up the talus, gaining another 1,000 feet, and then another. We cut across Chicken Out Ridge and I didn't even get the shakes. Norman and I started to feel the elevation above 12,000 feet. We had to take more frequent breaks to bring down our screaming heart rates, but we made it to the peak less than four hours after we left. We held the Idaho and U.S. flags and enjoyed a full half hour as the highest people in Idaho. We crossed the fields of recent snowfall and dropped down Chicken Out. My bruised ankle's soreness reached a level that aroused involuntary grumpiness, so I took a handful of Advil pills, leaned hard into my trekking poles, and plowed downhill until the pain went away. We lost 6,000 feet in 3.5 miles. There was a time when something like that would have wrecked my quads, but not anymore. Mount Borah is just a walk these days, a stroll, and it's beautiful and physically stimulating, but it's just a small piece of the grand scheme of adventure, and of the world.

Have I filled in my cracks? Not even close. But I see them now for what they are, just cracks, and like the fault line on Mount Borah, they remain as beautiful scars of the upheavals that have made me who I am.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good ol' Monkey

I have a confession to make. I don’t really enjoy being the owner of five bicycles. They’re large. They’re cumbersome. They take up a lot of space in a one-bedroom apartment. And, most irksome of all, they all require a lot of maintenance. It’s like having five dogs, when really one is all the pet you need. Five will pull a sled more effectively than one — and my five bikes all have a particular function that I *Can Not Live Without.* But, like dogs, at home they just crowd you in and require a lot of care.

I own a touring bike that hasn’t been without some kind of mechanical problem since 2006. Right now, it has a broken brake lever, a sticky headset and both derailleurs in need of replacement. The broken brake lever prevents me from riding it, but I have been reluctant to pour any more money into new parts, because I just had a bunch of stuff repaired earlier this spring, and still more stuff before that, and I had the wheels rebuilt before that, and this was only a ~$500 bike to begin with, seven years ago. I think about donating it to FreeCycles, but I reason that I can’t give it away because it is the only “road bike” I own. The truth is, I can’t give it away because I am seriously emotionally attached to it.

My snow bike, Pugsley, has a flat tire. I can’t fix the flat tire, because I need to buy new tubes, which I can only order online. In the mash of life, ordering tubes online has somehow managed to fall low priority list, even though it would only take about five minutes and cost about $30. Meanwhile, Pugsley sits in a closet, gathering dust.

My fixie commuter was built with the intention of being “Jill-proof,” but I still managed to crack the top cap and have been riding it without one, which can’t be good for the headset. (Yes, I know, it's only another five minutes online and $5. I am so lazy.) It seems whenever I have finally settled on the decision to get rid of Roadie and make the fixie my “road bike,” I take the long way home from work and hurt my knees during the piston-like beating of a long downhill. I think the fixie is perfect for commuting, but I do not think I am cut out to be a long-distance fixed-gear rider.

Then there’s the Rocky Mountain Element. I love this bike. I’ve been riding it for three months, and made it mine about a month ago. But I have to admit, this bike is a bit of a princess. It was almost new three months ago, and I feel like I’ve done a fair job of keeping up-to-date with the basic maintenance. But the rear tire has several slow leaks and the rubber is worn almost through. I can’t replace the tire myself because it’s a tubeless system, so I need to take it into a bike shop for mounting and sealant. Then there’s the rear brake, which is rubbing randomly and the brake lever is sticking. I can’t fix this, either, because I don’t understand hydraulic brakes. I don’t understand tubeless tires either. I don’t even understand the through-axle fork, except for that it prevents me from mounting it on my car rack, and that I am terrified of stripping the threads. I am not wise in the ways of bicycle technology, or bicycle mechanics, or even bicycle riding for that matter. Taking the Element to the bike shop hasn’t worked its way up the priority list. Meanwhile, it hangs from an indoor bike rack, gathering dust.

If there’s any bike I can get rid of, it should be my Karate Monkey. I mean, I just bought a new mountain bike. This is just the high-mileage version of something I already have. But right now, it’s the only “non-broken” bike I own, so it’s the one I’ve been riding all week. And I have been reminded how much I *love* my Karate Monkey. I have put this bike through all kinds of indignity (skinny tires and fenders for two 370-mile tours of the Golden Circle) and abuse (two full winters perpetually coated in grit and slush on the icy streets of Juneau.) Oh, and there was the time I rode it 2,800 miles down the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, through all manner of rain and dirt and wheel-sucking mud. The only maintenance I did myself during the race was put lube on the chain and pump up the increasingly swiss-cheese-like tires. I had the bike almost completely overhauled once, but only once, about 1,500 miles into the ride. (As opposed to Princess Element, which enjoyed three overhauls during the mere seven days of TransRockies.) The Karate Monkey still has its original wheels. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had something close to 13,000 mostly dirt miles on them — with only one broken spoke in that time and one replacement of the freehub. I’ve also had the Reba shock rebuilt, a few drivetrain, brake pad and cable replacements, bottom bracket replacement, saddle replacement, and front brake and rotor replacement. The rest of the parts also have ~13,000 miles on them. And while the rest of my bikes fall victim to my ignorance and neglect, the Karate Monkey keeps plugging away — rust-coated, heavy, and completely reliable.

No, I can’t get rid of the Karate Monkey. Which means I’ll just have to justify her place in the kennel by turning her into a singlespeed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Evening ride

Sometimes I like to go for a solo ride. A purposeful solo ride. One where I’m all but certain to not see a single other human being, even by fluke or chance. Such was my mood Tuesday night. I had planned to join the Dirt Girls for their weekly singletrack jaunt, but my ankle was feeling extra tender and I was feeling extra de-motivated. I didn’t want to risk hike-a-bike or anything even steep enough to necessitate out-of-the-saddle pedaling. I opted for a quick trip to the store and maybe a logging road spin … something mellow but high in the mountains … above the flow of traffic and beyond the frenzy to capture every fleeting hour of the fading summer … somewhere alone.

I started at Snowbowl, ducked under the gate, and turned ginger rotations up the gravel road. The air at 5,000 feet was already steeped in the complex aroma of autumn — sweet with decaying leaves and berries, bitter with smoke and dust. I babied my ankle until I forgot about it, just as the grade steepened, and I rose breathless into the cold wind and mindless passing of time. There were no thoughts, no obervations, only fleeting snapshots — the flicker of sunlight and shadow, the rustle of yellow leaves, the ever-thinning pine forest, the deepening saturation of pink light.

At 7,600 feet, my cell phone rang. I jumped as though awoken, blinked toward the setting sun and answered it. It was my friend John, who is out trying to set a record on the Great Divide right now, and was searching for perspective during a low point. The ride had been hard. The easy days had been difficult, the difficult days almost unbearable. The clock had reached its breaking point, and so had his resolve. How do you keep grinding through something when it ceases to have meaning for you? Is it best to stop? Cling to an impossible goal? Rewrite the meaning?

I furrowed my brow and fumbled for an answer. I had nothing to offer. My mind was still far in the distance, left somewhere far below, in the hustle and traffic of the city. My body had traveled here independently, and I didn’t want to say so, but I probably shouldn’t have answered the phone.

“If only you could see this sunset. It’s incredible …” I started to say, but I had forgotten he wasn’t far away and probably already could. That doesn’t stop the questioning of purpose, the relentless search for meaning.

I listened some more, and mumbled empty words of encouragement. The cold wind sank into my core. I started to shiver. He could hear it in my voice.

“I should probably let you go,” he said. “I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow.”

I put away the phone and looked toward the horizon. There was nothing to see anymore, no snapshots to take. It was dark. I flicked on my headlight, pulled on the meager layers I had carried up the mountain, and rode toward home.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The reality of running

My friend Danni turned me on to a blog called “Hyperbole and a Half,” where a cartoonist combines MS Paint-type drawings with witty commentary to describe real-world situations. There’s a particular post that cycles through my mind every time I embark on an adventure or workout, called “Expectations versus Reality.” “This discrepancy between the way I imagine things unfolding and how they actually happen is most dramatic when I overestimate my ability to perform a pointless feat of athleticism,” she writes.

So on Monday evening, I went for a run. I need to preface this story with a couple of qualifiers. First of all, I am purposely training to run right now. I have a couple of fall and winter goals that may include pacing an ultrarun if all goes well. So while there will still be much bike riding in my future, with the possible exception of riding Pugsley in the Susitna 100 and/or White Mountains 100, my winter events may center around running. Because of this, I feel strong motivation to improve as a beginner runner. Secondly, I woke up before 5 a.m. Monday in Sandy, Utah, drove 530 miles to Missoula, worked six straight hours, and then set out for my run. So I was quite tired.

I changed into shorts at 7 p.m. and started running from the back door of my office. I jogged aimlessly around the streets of downtown Missoula, which eventually landed me on the bike path, so I picked up speed and headed toward the university. In the distance, I could see a steady train of students working their way up the switchbacks to the famous “M” on the mountain. Through my already runner-addled train of thoughts, some kind of spark crackled in my mind. “I should run up Mount Sentinel!”

I cut through campus and started up the trail. I purposely took the direct (steep) route just to avoid the congestion on the switchbacks. I have to say that so far, I have really enjoyed my runs. They tend to progress at a significantly higher intensity than I am accustomed to, and my cycling-forged endurance and hiking-forged impact tolerance allows me to go a fair distance without negative effects. So I am engrossed in “runner’s high” for upwards of 90 minutes to two hours. Even though my lungs are burning and my head is spinning and my heart is racing and I am fighting off an urge to puke, I am really enjoying myself. I have yet to go for a run longer than two hours, so I haven’t yet had to deal with the dreaded prospect of eating whilst gasping for air, but for now, I am convinced that running is “super awesome.”

Mount Sentinel rises to 5,200 feet from Missoula’s 3,200 feet, so climbers have to gain 2,000 feet to reach the summit. The direct route can’t be more than a mile and a half. It’s steep. It’s not very conducive to running. Similar to my failed “mountain running” attempts earlier this spring in Anchorage, I always try to run until I physically cannot function, and then I fast-hike just below the level of blowing up.


I still consider this running, because the intensity level is so high, generally several notches higher than what I experience while actually running on solid ground. And I was feeling great on Monday evening. Heart was pounding, head was spinning and endorphins were coursing through my blood. Elevations disappeared quickly below me, deer bounded along the ridgeline in front of me, and a beautiful sunset blazed in the sky. A couple of times, my body sent out overwhelming pleas to stop and rest, which I acknowledged with the excuse that I needed to take photos of the beautiful sunset. But I kept those stops quite short, and only made two.


I crested the summit and started down just as twilight started to sink in. I didn’t have a headlight, but didn’t need one as the shimmering city lights of Missoula cast an orange glow on the mountain. Downhill running is still very difficult for me, but I have listened to the advice of friends who tell me to trust my feet and just keep moving, with generally positive results. I felt like a mountain goat, dancing down the rocks as college students perched on a boulder cheered me on.

Halfway down the mountain, with my speed about as high as I can maintain without losing control, I kicked a large, sharp rock with my left foot, hitting my right ankle squarely and painfully. I cried out and slowed my pace, hobbling as I tried to find my rhythm, but I didn’t stop. “Running is all about pain management,” I told myself. “This is nothing.” I continued gimping for a bit until the pain subsided. I veered over to the concrete M and took the mellow switchbacks the rest of the way down, just for good measure.


As I ran through town, the pain started to return. By then it was dark, close to 9 p.m., and I was starving. I kept up the pace back to my office, then went home. Once at home, I looked at my foot and noticed that my sock was smeared with blood. Removing my shoe induced a few tears, and then I peeled off the bloody sock to see a swollen, bruised ankle. I think I must have kicked the sharp edge of the rock into my ankle, resulting in the cut and bruise, and continuing to run on it probably didn’t help things. It’s certainly not a bad injury, but stiff, and it may prevent me from running for the rest of the week.

Pedaling my fixie gingerly into work this morning, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Hyperbole and a Half: “As I'm lying there, crumpled and broken from my most recent attempt at meaningless success, I feel complete bewilderment at the motivation behind what I just did. There was no point. I'm sure that the decision was based on some scrap of reasoning, but in retrospect it seems that chaos and unbridled impulsivity just collided randomly to produce a totally unexplainable action with no benefit and all consequences.”

At least I can still ride a bike.