Monday, January 24, 2011

Freedom of the hills ... and wheels

"Wait, the race is on Sunday?" I asked.

"Yeah, it says right here. Sunday. Good thing I checked," Beat answered.

"Huh," I said. "So what are we going to do on Saturday?"

I had returned to California for yet another warm January weekend. It wasn't that I was avoiding Montana's winter, it's just that Beat had a really busy month at work, and it meant I had to briefly switch places with him on the frequent flyer airport circuit. I do a lot of my blog reading at MSO these days. I have become a connoisseur of the different varieties of packaged sushi at Sea-Tac. I breeze through Salt Lake City International more often than I'm willing to admit to my close-by family. I'm starting to understand just how hard Beat has been working for the past three months. It's a strange, sort of detached existence where I fall asleep in a white and gray night and wake up to a moist green morning. And on Saturday, the first thing I noticed was Beat's mountain bike.

Is there anywhere around here to ride?"

"A few places," Beat said.

We walked to a bike shop and purchased a mountain bike map, and decided on the trail system around Black Mountain, which is within running - and therefore pedaling - distance from Beat's apartment. He rode his old steel rigid mountain bike and let me ride the Santa Cruz Blur, a smooth and light beauty of a bicycle. As we pedaled into the bright light of early afternoon, it occurred to me that it was already January 22, and this was my first non-commuting bike ride of the new year. In fact, if I added up my total riding miles for 2011 to that point, the number probably wouldn't have surpassed 50. A flush of shame filled my cheeks when I thought about my own neglected bikes back home. I become so one-track-minded when I get a goal in my head. Susitna, Susitna, Susitna. And, of course, there's the importance of spending as much time as I can with Beat, and the travel necessary to do that, and working, and other life stuff. The all-encompassing schedule doesn't even carve out a handful of strung-together moments for joy-riding. But then this race we had entered wasn't happening until Sunday.

We climbed nearly 3,000 feet on a narrow, low-traffic strip of pavement, with sunlight shimmering and vineyard leaves rustling in the wind. The temperature was in the high 60s when we hit gravel. The crunchy sound of wheels on dirt was almost strange, so different from the squeak of cold snow or crackle of studs on ice. We started downhill in a rush of warm wind. I couldn't help but giggle out loud. We climbed and descended again, spinning easy on the smooth double-track, before descending a narrow, winding road on the other side of the mountain. I was nearly beside myself with glee, just to experience again what it was really like to ride a bicycle in the summertime, when the living is easy and the miles are effortless. Twenty-four miles and 3,200 feet of climbing fell away all too soon. I wanted to keep riding, to spin my overworked and undertrained bike muscles into the long, warm night ... but we had that race on Sunday.

Sunday morning came painfully at 5:30 a.m. True to his Swiss heritage, Beat likes to arrive at events early, which is a good balance to my "10 minutes late is practically on time" Utah upbringing. But mornings never agree with me, and I could not wake up. We drove to Pacifica, and for the first time in California I noticed the morning wasn't foggy - it was clear. That didn't bode well for the heat factor later in the day. Beat walked around greeting his friends and I slumped in the passenger's seat of the car, trying to stay awake and cranking the volume on my iPod ... listening to "Sleepdriving" by Grand Archives ... Swirling round, the light above .. Outside the crows were waking up ... It's nearly dawn ... Motel home was nearly gone ... No sleep at all.

Pacifica was a large race - more than 250 people lined up for the 21K, 30K and 50K races. Beat and I were registered in the 50K, despite the fact he just finished the grueling HURT 100 a mere week before. It was to be my third 50K ever, and also my third 50K in just over a month. Since when did I become the kind of person who ran three 50Ks in a month? I would have never foreseen it a year ago. Then again, I wouldn't have foreseen much of what my life has become. This is a good thing. I have always found my greatest rewards hidden far outside my comfort zone.

We joined the bottlenecked-hoards on the singletrack of North Peak Montara Mountain, starting what was to be our mere first 1,800-foot climb of the day. The Pacifica 50K - with 7,500 feet of climbing and descending on technical, exposed-to-the-elements trails - has the reputation of being one of the more difficult ultramarathons in the Bay Area, and thus attracts a large number of people. As we neared the top, we were passed by the leaders on their way down. Among them, already a mile ahead of me, was a super-fit woman with biceps the size of my quads and a fierce look on her face. "I don't think you're going to win this one," Beat said.

"You think?" I laughed. As it was, I doubted in my ability to even make the race cut-off, which the day before had been bumped from nine hours to eight hours due to early park closure. I was worried about the technical downhill and my physical reactions to it. Not to mention this 50K wasn't worth jeopardizing anything about Susitna ("Susitna, Susitna, Susitna") which is less than a month away. So I was going to be careful, and I wasn't going to push any boundaries, but I was going to see what I could do.

In an effort to combat my side-stitch issues, I took two Advil before we started our first descent. Although I felt a bit of mid-section cramping, it seemed to hold back, and allowed me more freedom to lengthen my stride and try to eat up some hard-earned miles. At one point I passed Beat waving my arms in the air and yelling "Eeeeeeek" because I was only just barely in control. I was having a great time.

We started up the second and third climbs just as the day really began to heat up. I sucked down water like they were giving it away for free, which they were. The double-loop nature of the race placed an aid station after every 7 miles or so, and despite my 70-ounce bladder, I was refilling on a regular basis. I had a few annoying issues. My angry knee flared up much as it had on New Year's Eve - I instantly blamed the Black Mountain bike ride the day before, probably unfairly - and the low-level side cramping continued. But for the most part, I felt good. I really enjoyed the downhill running, and thought the climbing was easy because, well, I power-walk climbs. But I know I have little to gain by running uphill. It's the difference between a 14-minute mile and a 16-minute mile for me, and the effort to run the steeper uphills would blow me up before I ever finished 50 kilometers. But the 4 mph walking can carry me 100 miles or more if I want it to, at least in theory.

There was lots more climbing. The sun burned hot and high. A lot of the people who had originally signed up for the 50K decided to stop at 30K, telling the race directors that "they didn't want to go back up there." "There" was North Peak, a second time. 1,800 continuous feet of climbing, again. The high temperature was 76 in the town of Pacifica, which is right on the coast. Where we were, in the heat-trapping oven of the canyon, at higher elevations, it was easily in the 80s. We passed runners whitewashed in their own dried sweat. The mostly clear sky burned almost white. The ocean shimmered a dark blue to the west, while to the east the San Francisco Bay was a bright aqua-green. The marine scenery was gorgeous and I was really annoyed that my early-morning haze had caused me to forget my camera. I was so annoyed with myself that even though Beat let me borrow his Droid, I still didn't take any pictures. But it was beautiful. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Beat teased me because I was wearing tights. "Which tights are you wearing?" he asked me.

"My running tights," I answered. "The ones from REI."

Beat laughed. "You wear only those at 0 degrees and you still wear them when it's 80 degrees."

I smiled. "They have a wide range. They're good tights. Anyway, they're the only piece of running clothing that I own."

Despite the heat, and my non-acclimatization to it, I didn't feel too bad. I took two more Advil to hold off the cramping a bit longer. I massaged my angry knee as we climbed to work out the pressure. And I flailed the downhills, taking purposely careful steps but waving my arms carelessly because the downhill running was too fun to take too seriously. It was hard and strenuous, unlike the effortless joy of a freewheeling bicycle, but it was fun all the same. I was really glad I had decided to race the Pacifica 50K. This past month has held large glut of races for a newbie like me. But I like Beat's strategy of using "short" races as training runs. Even at a slower endurance pace, racing still challenges me to push myself harder than I otherwise might. I have not yet been disappointed in the results. If you have a big goal and a short period of time to get there, pushing your limits is the only way to go.

We ran to the finish at 6 hours and 38 minutes, easily making the eight-hour cutoff that I had been so nervous about. The Pacifica 50K was my hardest race yet, and I also think it was my best performance of the three. I was able to catch my small issues before they became big ones, and gain yet more confidence in the ability of my feet to carry me for long periods of time.

My Garmin stats are here.
The race results are here. Beat and I were 33rd and 34th overall. I wasn't even close to the first woman this time around. But I will point out that I stuck it out while a fair number of people opted out at 30K.

Then, when I returned to Montana on Monday, the air was refreshingly frosty. This was my last trip south for a while. But that's OK. It's kinda pretty here in the north.