Thursday, December 30, 2010

Snow makes everything tougher

The weather threw Missoula some curveballs this week — 35 degrees and raining followed by refreeze and snow, four inches of new snow, blowing blizzard and 35 mph wind gusts. Despite the ever-shifting conditions, Beat and I were able to get out on his new Fatback twice, with an evening snow run that added up to three genuinely difficult and long workouts. The interesting thing is I've been using the Garmin Forerunner he gave me for Christmas, and the numbers are a bit demoralizing. But I'm not sure what I expected. Snow adds an impressive amount of resistance to any effort, plus cold, extra weight of gear, etc. Either way, I used to come home and say things like, "That was hard! That felt great!" Now I come home and say, "19 miles? In four hours? Really?" Either way, I'm having a lot of fun with the Garmin, and even more fun with Beat's Fatback.

Beat actually let me ride the Fatback the entire time on its inaugural ride Monday, around the Deer Creek Loop. My first impressions: The Fatback's steering is incredibly nimble compared to my Pugsley, I like its more upright stance, and it's light. And beautiful! And somehow faster. I can't prove that it's faster, but I motored along effortlessly on Monday as Beat struggled. Then, when we switched back for our Wednesday ride, Beat was the one powering far ahead as I gasped for air. We may have to go for a few more shakedown rides before I can be certain that Fatback is really that much faster than Pugsley, however.

On Tuesday we went for a three-and-half-hour, 13-mile run that nearly put me on the floor due to sheer exhaustion. On Wednesday the combination of blizzard, wind chill and high wind speed made the simple bike commute to work and walk to the grocery store seem epic. On Thursday, the clouds cleared and the temperature dropped to the single digits. It seemed like a great night to get back out on the bike.

We went to check out the Rattlesnake Trails which are multi-use, but mainly used by skiers.

I have to say, skiers make lousy bike trails. ;-) OK, before I get reamed by too many skiers, I want to emphasize that there are trails in this area where only skiing is allowed, and if skiers want a perfectly smooth surface, they can go there. There were snowshoe tracks on this trail but they were faint. If I were going to be in town this weekend, I would be tempted to go for a long back-and-forth snowshoe run and "improve" the Stuart Peak Trail for snow bikes. As it is, narrow tracks on top of soft snow make for tough, technical riding.

The mantra of snow biking on soft snow: When in doubt, let air out. That is, until all of the air is gone, then you have to put more in.

Then, when you have ridden 10 miles and less than 1,000 vertical feet in two hours at a moderate to strenuous effort level, you should reward yourself with Fizzy Cola gummy snacks. Hits the spot every time.

Beat tried a vapor barrier shirt and ended up with a huge block of ice on one wrist, where most of his sweat moisture found a way to escape through one sleeve. Fun with gear in the cold! It wouldn't be the same if you didn't try something different every time.

And here are the numbers. They're not pretty. :)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 in photos, part 2

The year 2010 started for me on a clear, strikingly cold night in downtown Juneau, Alaska, as a small group of friends and I walked out of the Alaskan Bar and Hotel shortly after midnight. As the chill bit in to my meager layers, I gazed up at Douglas Island ridge; its sharp edge loomed beneath an explosion of stars. I remember thinking about the possibilities that might lie beyond that ridge — a life less constricted by geography, job obligations and the shadows of personal failures. I thought about the world to the northwest. I thought about the rest of Alaska, about Anchorage. I wondered if that world would reveal itself to me in 2010. I did not yet have any concept of the adventure I was about to embark on — an incredible journey through an incredible year.

January, "Winter of Discontent:" Through the scope of the year now behind me, I view January as a desert I had no choice but to cross. January was a difficult month. I was ambivalent about my life in Juneau, busier at work than I had ever been, and finally starting to really process the failure of my relationship that ended seven months earlier. I fell into what I can only define now as a bout of depression. I came down with the flu and used it as an excuse to essentially stop riding my bike for more than three weeks. I forced myself to get out when I could, but my loss of interest in cycling was a revelatory symptom of my state of mind, and the dose of reality I needed to start thinking more clearly about making changes in my life.

February, "Toward the Light:" A ski vacation to Banff and strategically-placed bouts of warm weather and sunshine helped lift my spirits, but my professional life remained difficult — more draining than challenging — and I continued to feel isolated by Juneau's remote location and the fact that most of my local friends were also mutual friends of my ex-boyfriend, making uncomfortable situations almost impossible to avoid. For his part, my ex maintained a friendly relationship with me. We even occasionally got out for fun hikes in the mountains, although the honesty of hindsight has helped me see how this was also unhealthy for my state of mind. February continued to dole out one amazing mountain outing after the other, which only conflicted my conviction that I needed to make significant changes.

March, "Leave the City:" A breaking point finally came when my employer laid off yet more co-workers and my boss held me on the edge of his own extreme stress as both our work loads became unsustainably excessive. Early in the month, with no real plan for the future, I put in my 30-day notice at the newspaper and announced to my friends that I planned to move to Anchorage in the beginning of April. My last month in Juneau was satisfying if a bit unproductive. I went into a frenzy — trying to leave my job as smoothly as possibly, attempting to experience everything I loved about the region, and continuing to ignore my need to train for the White Mountains 100. Over the spring equinox, I traveled to Fairbanks to ride my Pugsley in the incredibly scenic but frigid 100-mile snow bike race. I finished with a decent time, but undertraining left me with knee pain that lingered for weeks.

April, "Go Anchorage:" By April 7, I had moved my cat, four bicycles, a Geo Prism-full of clothing and gear and myself into a friend's apartment in Anchorage. Thanks to purposeful "funemployment," I had plenty of time to explore the city by bicycle, hike in the Chugach Mountains and work on my Tour Divide book. I spent most of the month visiting my family in Utah and California. While in Utah, not even a full week after I moved to the big city, another friend sent me the online job listing for Adventure Cycling Association. I consulted my friends and family about the prospect of moving to Montana before I even sent in a resume, and for the first time considered the prospect of leaving Alaska altogether.

May, "Return to Homer:" Having applied for the job at ACA, my mindset shifted from "I really need to work to make a go of it in Anchorage" to "I might actually land a job outside Alaska." Thus, instead of buckling down and working on writing projects as I promised myself I would do, I dedicated the entire month of May to traveling and exploring different parts of Alaska. Early in the month, I returned to Homer for the first time since I lived there in 2006. It was a gratifying trip — I believe I never see myself more clearly than I do while examining the pieces of my past. I realized that I loved Alaska but I did have the ability to leave it behind. I traveled to Denali National Park, biked the Denali Highway, and visited Fairbanks, where I learned I had received the job offer in Montana.

June, "Warm Welcome:" My last weeks in Anchorage were as crazed as those in Juneau, as I tried to visit all my Southcentral friends one last time, pack, ship my belongings south, travel to Cordova and hike as many Chugach peaks as I could squeeze in. I loaded up my Geo yet again and drove 2,700 miles to Missoula, arriving on the summer solstice. After a record-breaking wet spring in Southwestern Montana, the sun peeked out the day after I arrived and stayed that way for most of three months. My first 10 days in Missoula were jaw-dropping in their progression — the pieces fell into place very quickly and effortlessly. I got started at my new job, met new friends, cultivated new riding partners, discovered fun mountain biking trails and an expanse of logging roads, explored amazing and hard-to-access places like Blue Point and Stuart Peak, and enjoyed 10 spectacular sunsets while riding or hiking in the mountains. Montana was incredibly good to me in the early days.

July, "Flowing Over:" My spring indulgence in all things Alaska didn't even skip a beat as I submerged myself fully into outdoor life in Montana. My weekdays were marked by a routine of quick morning coffee and bike commuting, eight hours at the office, three- and four-hour evening "training rides" in the mountains surrounding Missoula — often with new friends — returning with the 10 p.m. sunset, late-evening dinner and collapsing into bed after midnight. I was often too exhausted to even realize how blissed-out I was. My need to train for TransRockies brought on long bike explorations on the weekends. A friend of a friend who I had never before met, Danni, invited me along for stunningly beautiful weekend in Glacier National Park. We instantly connected and I knew I had found a good new friend despite living two hours apart. Danni also immediately did two things that had a monumental effect on my life: as a self-proclaimed "lazy ultrarunner," she convinced me that I might enjoy long-distance running; and as a race director for the Swan Crest 100, she invited me to volunteer for the ultramarathon at the end of July, where I met a California runner named Beat.

August, "Lone Peak:" August brought the TransRockies mountain bike race, where my friend from Banff, Keith, and I rode together in seven increasing gruelling but beautiful stages across the Canadian Rockies. The stage race was a fun vacation — a fully-supported mountain bike tour from Fernie, British Columbia, to Canmore, Alberta, with the added bonus of challenging riding and enough hike-a-bikes to fill a year. After TransRockies, I immediately started a routine of trail running along with biking, in an effort to introduce my legs to the impact of running. The failing health of both of my grandfathers also prompted the first of several trips back to Salt Lake City to be with my family. I hiked to Lone Peak and contemplated my relationship with my grandfather, the ever-expanding scope of our lives, and our tendencies to return to our beginnings, in the end.

September, "Long Roads:" September was filled with fun adventures: Traversing a high mountain ridge in Glacier National Park, a Labor Day snow ride in the Swan Mountains, hiking with my sister in Utah, and climbing the highest mountain in Idaho with friends from Missoula. In the middle of the month I traveled to Las Vegas for the national bicycle industry conference, Interbike. This was a startlingly negative experience for me — the combination of long hours, bad food, no exercise, no sleep, smog, heat, crushing crowds and other pressures left me feeling frazzled to the point of mental exhaustion by the end of the week. I all but stuck out my thumb to find an early exit from Vegas, as part of a convoluted scheme to meet Beat in northern Utah during the Bear 100. The daunting maze of logistics fell serendipitously into place and I showed up at the mile 50 checkpoint in Logan Canyon mere minutes before Beat arrived. Having no idea what to expect and no real plan, I agreed to join him for the remainder of the race as a "pacer," although the real intention for both of us was a chance to share engaging conversations, a physically challenging effort and heart-rending mountain beauty as we got to know each other. Running and hiking 50 miles and nearly 12,000 vertical feet in the process would have felt effortless had I not developed semi-debilitating pain on the bottom of my right foot. Regardless, I still view it as the most romantic first date ever.

October, "Autumn:" October was a blaze of warm colors and light. I can truly appreciate a Rocky Mountain autumn now that I've spent four autumns in Juneau, where October brings an average of 16 inches of rain in one continuous cold, gray, month-long drizzle. (Southeast Alaskans don't measure their hardiness by how many winters they survived, but in how many autumns they've survived.) Beat and I worked to develop a weekend relationship, where our weeks were still filled with regular life obligations, work and training, but weekends provided opportunities to explore each other's worlds. I took him for night bicycle rides in Montana, a climb to Lolo Peak and a run in Blodgett Canyon. He introduced me to the Silicon Valley and planned a backpacking trip in the very rainy Yosemite National Park (a small taste of autumn in Southeast Alaska, and more than enough of a reminder.)

November, "New Ground:" Beat and I started the month by signing up for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, a mountain bike race in Hurricane, Utah. Despite having even less experience on a mountain bike than I have as a runner, Beat put in an impressive six laps and 78 miles for Team Swiss Miss; I rode 10 laps and 130 miles. I cemented a admittedly misguided resolve to participate in the Susitna 100 on foot, and shortly after began more focused running training. My early efforts were dogged by small injuries, and I struggled. Beat continued to visit Missoula on weekends as temperatures dipped below zero degrees, a harsh inception for Beat's first real experience with winter in more than a decade. We traveled to Banff for Thanksgiving, marking my seventh visit to my third "home" (behind Salt Lake City and wherever I happen to live at the time.)

December, "Runaround:" December was a crazed month, with six-hour training runs, a trip to Seattle, traveling home for Christmas, and my first official ultramarathon, a 50K trail run in Rodeo Beach, California. Busy at work, busy for the holidays, busy packing and unpacking, and preparing for whatever comes next. As December draws to a close, I'm struck by how markedly different this last month of the year has been from the first — January was quiet, contemplative and sad. December has been a whirlwind of new experiences, emotions and possibilities, with scarcely enough extra room to breathe let alone process events as they happen. If I used a single word to describe 2010, it would be "Change." I had at my fingertips a life that I knew, beneath the darkness, I really did love. But in an effort to move away from the darkness, I chose to leave it all behind and strike out into the unknown with no plan or insight into how it would all turn out. I loved Juneau and Alaska but I don't regret leaving. 2010 taught me that as long as I open my heart to change, beauty and love will follow wherever I wander. 2011 can only bring more change, more new adventures, and I'm excited about the endless possibilities. To the new year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 in photos, part 1

Each December I have a tradition of picking my 12 favorite photos of the year, one for each month, as a year-in-review exercise. This year was particularly difficult because 2010 has been such a dynamic year that simply picking pretty photos to summarize each month doesn't really achieve the reflection I'm looking for. So I'm doing a two-part series. Part one is simply my favorite photos of each month. This doesn't mean these photos are technically or aesthetically the best (as I begin to dabble with better equipment, I'm finally starting to understand just how limited my scratched-lens Olympus Stylus camera really was.) No, these photos are simply my favorite for various reasons. For part 2, I picked photos that I believe best represent the events of the month — the photos that capture my thoughts and impressions now that the year is done. Look for that post soon.

January, "Hell Storm:" A fierce winter gale whips a fury of snow near the wooden cross on Mount Roberts in Juneau. I like this photo because it reminds me of the incredible windstorms I often experienced during my mountain excursions in Southeast Alaska.

February, "Summer in February:" My friends mull whether to ascend West Peak again or drop over the cornice to the right while hiking on Juneau's Hawthorne Ridge during a warm 50-degree afternoon in late February. I like the snowshoe prints down the face of the peak, as well as the highlights on the snow that betray the balmy nature of the day despite the wintry landscape.

March, "My Back Yard:" My last residence in Juneau was perched near the shoreline of Fritz Cove, so this scene was literally the view from my back yard. I took this photo in the late morning just as the fog started to lift over Auke Bay, revealing this floating dock and the tip of an island ridge.

April, "Moving North:" While driving from Skagway to Anchorage, I made a spontaneous stop to hike Gunsight Mountain. I took this photo from a saddle below the peak, overlooking the Chugach Mountains and a frozen river to the south.

May, "Bold Ptarmigan:" My stay in Southcentral Alaska was brief but rich with experiences. By May I was already grappling with the prospect of moving away from Alaska and often went on long solo excursions to process my thoughts. I took this photo of a curious ptarmigan on Bold Ridge near Eklutna Lake during a long afternoon of mountain biking and ridge hiking.

June, "Cordova:" I took this photo of a stream near the Copper River during a solo bike trip to Cordova. I like the textures in this photo as well as the dramatic sky (in fact, most of these photos I picked for the skies.)

July, "St. Mary Fire Lookout:" Evening descends over St. Mary Peak during a quick after-work hike with Dave. This photo represents everything I loved about my early days in Montana: the truly big skies, dry trails, rich light and warm summer nights.

August, "TransRockies:" Keith rolls over the Continental Divide, crossing from British Columbia into Alberta during stage three of the 2010 TransRockies bicycle race. Again, fun mixture of shadows and light on the alpine tundra, in a truly incredible place to ride a bicycle.

September, "Glacier Traverse:" Danni is dwarfed by the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park during a huge 25-mile, 12,600-feet-of-climbing, cross-country traverse of a ridge in the southeastern corner of the park. This hike with my Kalispell friends (Danni, Dave and Brad) ranks as one of my top five favorite excursions of the year, with the 50 miles of the Bear 100, bike trip to Cordova, 140-mile Denali Highway Classic and White Mountains 100.

October, "The Last Day of Summer:" Beat descends Lolo Peak into a blaze of autumn-gold larch trees on an unseasonably warm day in early October.

November, "Golden Hour in Frog Hollow:" One of the best things about participating in a 25-hour race is that you get to see the dynamic ways light and shadows change the landscape over the course of a day. This is the sunset lap during the 25 Hours in Frog Hollow, near Hurricane, Utah.

December, "Dressed in White:" Beat hikes down the frost-coated University Mountain during an afternoon run. Missoula, like Alaska, doesn't see all that much sunlight in the winter, so any rare appearance of the sun has a tendency to bring on a blissful sort of outdoor mania.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Home for Christmas

The last time I spent Christmas with my family was 2004. Six years ago. Distance in Alaska and jobs in the newspaper industry created an insurmountable barrier to traveling home for the holidays ever since, so I was extra excited for the opportunity to head back to Utah for a long weekend this year — even though it meant coaxing Geo on yet another thousand-mile I-15 trip through intermittent whiteouts and nearly getting stranded on an onramp near the Continental Divide during my late-night trip south.

A lot has changed in my life in six years. But as it turns out, nothing has changed about Christmas. My large extended family still gathers in the primary room of an LDS church to eat Fourth-of-July picnic food (fried chicken, potato salad and ice cream), play silly games and sing off-key. My immediate family still exchanges the same gifts (Old Spice and Twizzlers for my dad, "normal" (non-outdoor) clothing for me), eats individual game hens for dinner even though no one, not even me, can finish one, and pops "A Christmas Story" in the DVD player even if it's already after midnight because all of the other Christmas Eve activities took so long. Ah, tradition.

This year I also conned Beat into flying into Utah for the holiday by telling him the running was great in Salt Lake County. Actually, he seemed genuinely excited to meet my family, and the meeting went well. We did get out for a couple runs in the Corner Canyon area even though family visits dominated the weekend by a large margin. The weather was warm and dry although foggy on Christmas Eve. We ran for three hours only to have clouds cut us off from the viewpoints on the south side of the Lone Peak ridgeline.

Christmas Day I only had an hour to spare for a run before heading to Ogden for more family stuff. It only seemed fair to give Beat a break or at least spare him from full submersion into my very large Mormon family right out of the gate, so he planned a longer run with snowshoeing in the higher elevations. Temperatures were in the low 40s with full sunshine. We ran fast up the dry trails, soaking in the most summer-like weather I have felt since September. After a half hour Beat continued up the Ghost Falls loop and I turned around, dropping to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail so I could run a wee bit longer in the full-sun exposure of the open mountainside. My legs moved with rare fluidity down the hard-packed singletrack. I was dripping sweat and completely blissed out. I wouldn't have minded having eight hours to spend in that perfect space, moving with purpose among the dirt and snow and sunlight. But I was happy to have a chance to see my fam before returning to the great white northland.

Beat continued up to 8,000 feet through heavy breakable crust (should have warned him about that south-facing slope) but for his hard efforts he did get to enjoy all the views of the Wasatch Mountains and Utah Valley that we missed on Friday.

Beat and I drove together back to Missoula, and the first thing we did after stumbling in from yet another 10-hour stomach-clenching Geo epic was put his Fatback together. It's a truly beautiful bike — aluminum with a nickel finish, fat carbon fork, Speedway rims, one Larry and one Endomorph tire, and pogies from Dogwood Designs. I can't help but be filled with envy even though this bike currently lives with me. We're planning to take Pugsley and the Fatback on a night ride tonight, and I'm filled with excitement. One great thing about diversifying my outdoor activities is that the cycling excursions have become truly special, almost indulgent. Yeah for bikes.

P.S. Beat wrote a sweet commentary about my first 50K on his blog. Link here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The picture just keeps getting bigger

(Photo from my lunch run on Tuesday, during the only spare 90 minutes I could find to get outside so far this week.)

“You’re leaving again Wednesday?” an acquaintance asked in an incredulous tone.

“I’m driving to Utah to spend Christmas with my family,” I said. “I haven’t been home for Christmas since 2004.”

“Didn’t you just get back from California?”

“On Monday afternoon,” I said. “I went to San Francisco to run in a race, and to see my boyfriend.”

She gave me the same raised-eyebrow stare that I’ve seen frequently lately. I got it from co-workers when I told them I had to make an early exit from the office Christmas party — the one I helped plan — so I could grab a little sleep before it was time to fly to California to run 50 kilometers in a trail race. I got it from members of the local bike club during my Tour Divide talk, when a friend in the audience forced me to admit I was training to run a winter 100-mile ultramarathon in Alaska. I got it from casual friends when I told them I would have to miss a weekend gathering because I was flying to Seattle — why Seattle? Well, because it’s … there. It was too difficult to explain that we wanted to check out trails in the surrounding area, and visit friends, and also chose Seattle because it’s a simpler destination for Beat than Missoula.

Much of it is difficult to explain. I’ve boarded a lot of planes in the past three months. I’ve limped around with various running injuries. My weeks are all but full with packing, unpacking, working, cleaning, errands, shoving whatever random food is on hand in my mouth, and — less frequently than I’d prefer — getting outside for exercise, usually running. My bikes hang from my wall rack like limp rags, gathering dust. An editor gave my Divide book a full read and recently returned it with all kinds of valuable criticism and suggestions, but I can’t fathom where I’ll find the time to return to that project. Even my blog, my last refuge, looks neglected these days. There’s a brand new Fatback in my front room that I haven’t even bothered to put together yet. That last sentence makes the least sense of all. But I can’t help it. Life is happening much to fast.

But how can I explain it succinctly? Yes, I am dating a man who lives 1,100 miles away. Yes, our relationship is quite serious. And yes, it’s complicated. Serendipity and the staggering reach of modern life brought us together despite incalculable odds. Really, what were the chances of us meeting — a Swiss ultrarunner from California and a new-to-Montana cyclist, neither of whom were looking to get into a relationship at the time?

Neither of us took it seriously until suddenly we did. I think the potential hit us both at the same time, in mid-September, about a week before our first official “date.” Beat was running a six-day, 200-mile epic in Italy called the Tor des Geants, and I was in Montana, obsessively refreshing the race update Web site. We were completely out of contact for the first time since we met at the Swan Crest 100 in July, and that step back gave us both a lot of time to consider how we felt about each other. When we converged in northern Utah to run the last half of the Bear 100 together, all of those thoughts and emotions were perfectly aligned, although neither of us knew that about the other quite yet.

We still laugh about the moment we figured it out, as we jogged along a high mountain ridge as the moon cast rich blue light across the grassy slope. After hours of regaling me with stories about the Tor des Geants and the structure of quantum physics, Beat handed me the rock he carried for me a the TDG and finally asked, “Are you interested in going out?”

“Sure, that would be great,” I said in a deeply fatigued monotone that struck Beat as humorous. “But, um, the Montana-California thing is a little complicated.”

“It’s a minor complication,” Beat said, and we let the words soak in amid the stark mountain silence.

And it is just a minor complication. How to you place value on a relationship with a person who, less than one week after a 200-mile soul-crushing race, flies halfway around the world to a remote outpost in northern Utah to run another 100 miles, just to meet up with you? And then, when you crack 40 miles in to your own 50-mile run, gives up finishing well in his own just to help you hobble to the finish? How do you quantify a person’s willingness to fly out to far-away Montana nearly every weekend just to spend time with you, and put in long hours during the workweek so he can afford it. How do you express appreciation for a person who not only shares your passions for the outdoors, but who relishes in big challenges and distances, with emotional and intellectual goals that align perfectly with yours. And it’s not just about short-term adventures and long-term goals — this person is funny and sexy and smart and has enough fantastic ideas and outlandish ambitions to fill a couple lifetimes. How do you not fight for that with every ounce of energy, every resource you have?

So my lifestyle is a bit complicated right now. And there probably will be more plane trips, more packing, more running. For Beat and I, the little annoyances, the details of it all, are already fading into the bigger picture — drawing widening circles around that moment of perfect serendipity, in ink.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rodeo Beach 50K

I wasn't a runner.

My first foot race was part of a spring triathlon called the Homer Sea to Ski, in 2006. I put in a just-shy-of-30-minutes 5K, crushed the mountain bike climb and then proceeded to stagger around on cross-country-skis for a 45-minute 5K ski. My next race was the Veterans Day 8K in 2007, when I came in at 43:26 after a 7-year-old boy breezed by me in the final mile. If I am honest with myself, I really didn't run any of the 4 miles of the Mount Roberts Tram Run in 2008 or 2009. I knew I liked hiking but had more than one hiking companion tell me I "walk kind of funny." I knew I was strong on climbs but clumsy everywhere else. As I stumbled my way down Thunder Mountain in Juneau earlier this year, one friend finally told me, only half jokingly, that "you know, some people just aren't good on their feet. Maybe you should stick to wheels."

I wasn't a runner, but I don't like to be told what I can and can't do.

This spring, during my short-lived tenure in Anchorage, I decided to aspire to be a mountain runner. I trained briefly, maxing out my heart rate up 40-degree slopes and slumping back down them, physically spent after a mile. In Montana I met runners who helped me realize that I should aim where my strengths lie — endurance. After my big summer bike race (TransRockies), I began to dabble in run base building. Very soon after my training began, I kicked a rock into my foot and had to stay off it for two weeks. Then came the ill-advised (but extremely well-motivated) 50-mile pacing effort at the Bear 100, which I finished with something similar to plantar faciitis. After a few more weeks of no running, I completed another bike race (25 Hours of Frog Hollow) and during my first training run back, sprained my ankle. Different variations of "Hurty Foot" continued to crop up until about three weeks ago, when I became painfully aware that I was going to have to complete the December 18 50K I had signed up for as a still-almost-complete non-runner. I got some advice and coaching from Beat, did a few training runs in the snow and Seattle rain, and hoped for the best.

The Rodeo Beach 50K is a trail run in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. It was to be my first ultra-marathon — and, who am I kidding, my first foot race over 8 kilometers long. My goal was run it at my endurance pace, which is what I'd consider my "hold forever" pace, and try to finish under the nine-hour cutoff without contracting Hurty Foot yet again. It was a bold goal, and the conditions did not cut me any slack. Thick fog and light rain greeted us at the race start. The forecast called for temperatures in the low 50s and heavy rain — tough love for California. Only 57 people showed up to run the 50K, quite a few less than had originally signed up for the race. Of course the only people who would show up to race on a cold, rainy day in December where all "real runners" — thin and tan Californians with sinewy legs and tiny hydration packs. I felt the person holding the proverbial knife at a gun fight, waiting to be laughed at. But then again, racing wouldn't be nearly as fun for me if I wasn't always in completely over my head.

I got tangled up in the mid-pack and went out too hard at the beginning. The course climbs 1,000 feet in the first three kilometers, so the pack's fast-hike uphill felt like the perfect pace for me. Beat, having decided to stick with me rather than run his own race, followed behind and warned me about bonking after I announced my heart rate had bounced to 186. But I felt great. Even though I know I can't sustain that kind of heart rate all that long, I do know I could climb and climb and climb almost indefinitely if ever given the opportunity. Of course, that doesn't mean I can run.

And, inevitably, the downhills came with a vengeance. I handled the first couple OK and even put in an eight-minute mile at one point, but the mud became deeper and more slippery, and my confidence began to erode alongside the deteriorating conditions. I started to tense up and slowed to a walk, but the tension wouldn't let up. On the big descent into Tennessee Valley, I was gripped by a sudden, sharp cramp in my right side. It wasn't a side-stitch, it was more akin to a stress cramp, a single abdominal muscle below my ribs that tightened with such strain that I could scarcely breathe.

I tried a lot of different things. I took salt tablets and drank more water. I ate some gummy snacks. Beat theorized it cropped up because I went out too hard, but the cramp didn't seem at all effected by my breathing. In fact, the lower my heart rate, the worse it felt, as long as I kept running. Pretty soon I was walking a good portion of the downhills, or gingerly jogging at a slower rate of speed than my climbs. If I tried to run, the sharp pain would rip into my side like a large knife.

Meanwhile, fog masked Headlands, obstructing the views and casting an eerie tint over the lush green ground cover and occasional yellow flowers. I couldn't help but be a little frustrated. I knew I felt strong and energetic otherwise, but that cramp was really irking me, because I couldn't get at it to rub it away with my hands, and it wouldn't ever completely leave me alone. It lingered as low-level pain on the hard climbs, and became somewhat debilitating pain on the descents. Beat tried to help me by rubbing my side and reasoning through it — after all, it was just a cramp, not an injury. If I could push through that pain, maybe I stood a chance of coming out the other side. I knew he was probably right, but I struggled, because it constricted my breathing so much when it flared up that I felt like I wasn't getting any air. I also still don't feel much confidence on my feet, so I had the added stress of finding the right footing on top of the cramp that was probably caused by stress. Other runners started passing us. They made comments about the steep climbs. "Are you kidding?" I said. "The climbing is the easy part."

During the second loop into Tennessee Valley, I had finally had it. "Screw this cramp!" I snarled under my breath and increased my stride down the muddy trail. Beat followed close behind and shouted a few encouraging words as I wrestled through the pain, with inhibitions faded just enough to allow myself to gasp and gulp and groan like a dying animal. I can't say the cramp exactly went away, but I made enough noise that Beat insisted I take a few Advil pills at the aid station at the bottom of the hill. We started up the last long climb and low-level dull pain began to dissolve. My energy spiked again and I could feel a new resolve seeping into my admittedly sore legs. Rain fell harder and I finally began to come out of my funk. Twenty-six miles in, already an official marathon even without the steep climbs and mud and narrow trails, and I was finally starting to feel like a runner.

The last five miles were a breeze, literally. I realize there are ups and downs in any endurance effort, and many ups and downs in truly long one, but I felt like I had surmounted a major hump — the "sophomore slump" that creeps into many of my larger efforts, like the fourth lap of a 24-hour race. I got through it and finally felt like I could go forever, at least in theory. I looked at my watch and did a bit of math, and realized that we actually stood a chance of finishing in less than 7 hours. I increased my speed to comfortable 10-minute miles and coasted into the finish in 6 hours, 58 minutes, feeling strong and wondering how possible it would be for me to do another 50K right there.

Which is how I actually like to finish endurance events. I like to find that stride; I don't necessarily like to leave it all out on the trail. But I do appreciate challenges and the battle to overcome them. In that way, the Rodeo Beach 50K was the perfect first ultramarathon, and despite the strange cramping issue, it went considerably better than I thought it would. I'm still not really a runner, but I can't wait to tackle the next one with actual experience in my arsenal.

Garmin stats here.
Race results here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tour Divide presentation

Tonight I gave a presentation for our local bike club, Missoulians on Bicycles, at their annual holiday party. My photo presentation highlighted my experiences in the 2009 Tour Divide. I rarely deal in public speaking, so I stumbled through the introduction but loosened up after that.

There was a really good turnout, which was surprising. I was told to take about an hour and ended up blabbing on and telling stories about the photos in my slideshow for nearly two, but no one left and a lot of people complimented me afterward. I had a lot of fun. My Tour Divide presentation and I are available for bicycle club meetings, corporate retreats, motivational conferences and other events as long as travel expenses are covered. :)

I brought a section of the book I am working on but didn't even have a chance to read it. As for that long-standing book project, an independent editor is currently reading through it in order to give me feedback about it. I want to go forward with publishing but not yet sure how I want to go about it. I don't have a lot of time to devote to publishing a book. I'd really just like to jump straight to the book tour part where I could travel around and give slideshow presentations. I should probably cull down the blabbing first. But it's hard to condense a lifetime-in-24-days' worth of experiences into a single hour.