Sunday, January 30, 2011

This weekend on my run

My last blog post probably made it sound like the Susitna 100 is the most dreary race in the world and I'm training for it in the most dreary way possible. The truth is, I don't believe that in the least. The only reason I race is so I have a valid — or at least good — excuse to train, all the time. A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in Time Magazine about a scientist who is working to develop a pill that gives mammals all the benefits of exercise without actually having to go to the trouble of exercising. I asked myself if I would take such a pill, and decided with confidence that I would not. In all honesty, the supposed benefits of exercise fall far behind the simple fun of pursuing an active-adventure lifestyle. I mean, really, how many adults have an "excuse" to strap a 20-pound sled to their hips and press into blinding white-out with illusions of Shackleton and South Pole exploration swirling through their endorphin-buzzed imaginations, and not be labeled as crazy?

I was busy all day Friday with work obligations, so there was only time to squeeze in an 80-minute run up the south summit of Sentinel at sunset. Missoula has been mired in a prolonged January thaw, which completely decimated the snowpack. Most of our run to 5,100 feet elevation was on mud and ice-crusted dirt. The temperature was 43 degrees. It wasn't California warm, but it wasn't Montana cold. It was this strange, in between place that made me think a lot about spring.

It didn't help that it looked like early spring, with warm light reflecting off snowy peaks that seemed impossibly far away.

On Saturday we wanted to do a test run with our sleds, so we had to go looking for snow. Lolo Pass crosses the Montana-Idaho border along the Bitterroot Divide, and is notorious for capturing snow. It's only an hour away from Missoula and yet I've never been there, another sign that I don't really travel locally in Montana. We eschewed the popular cross-country ski trails for a nearby Forest Service Road with what turned out to be minimal snowmobile traffic.

The "run" was amazingly difficult for me. The surface was soft and we were climbing at a rate of about 500 feet a mile. With every step my quads and hip flexers burned, like I was doing an endless series of squats, or walking through deep sand with weights attached to each ankle. Despite warnings that Lolo Pass would be crawling with snowmobiles, we were the only ones who had cut tracks in the trail since the storm, and only saw one group of snowmobilers in the entire four hours we were out, right near the end.

The road cut through several clear-cut areas. The thick fog and blowing snow created a bewilderingly blank moonscape. When I wasn't grumbling to myself about my wimpy muscles or obsessing about pizza and coffee, I lived out my Shackleton dreams.

On Sunday, the snow found us. A blizzard hit the Missoula area, turning our nice brown lawns and dirt-covered trails into new sheets of white. We waited around all morning in hopes the weather would clear up. When it didn't, we reluctantly left the house at 2:30 p.m. for our favorite Sentinel Loop. The first two miles felt downright dire, with heavy snow blowing right in our face and constant stops to adjust gear as the subzero windchill needled into our clothing.

I'm getting pretty close to zeroing in on what I'm going to wear in the Susitna 100 — weather dependent, of course — but it's pretty light given what I'm used to (on a bicycle, I feel a need to wear a lot more layers.) Today it was just a light polyester shirt, a light Gortex shell, a single pair of windstopper tights, a fleece balaclava, fleece gloves, a polypro liner sock, a wool sock, hiking gaters, and Gortex running shoes.

The storm cleared up ever so briefly and a few suckerholes appeared, giving much cause for celebration.

The trail surface was really slippery, with fresh power on top of a solid sheet of glare ice. Beat proclaimed his micro-spikes to be his favorite piece of winter gear, though with my too-light fleece gloves I was greedily eyeing the mitten shells dangling from his wrists.

Top of Mount Sentinel, trying to choke down food before the chill really set in. In this kind of "training," miles count for very little. It's all about gauging conditions, making good choices, staying warm and fed, and when all of that has been completed, maybe marginally increasing fitness. We ran 13.5 miles in just under four hours, which is only a little bit less time than it took me to run a full hilly trail marathon last week in the Pacifica 50K. Today's run was harder, and more satisfying. I love training.