Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Gear junkie

"If you always use a compass to draw a circle and a ruler to draw a square, you will always remain a slave."- Song Zijing

"Next life, trail runner. One pair of shoes. Maybe one of those water-bottle holder fanny packs," Eszter Horanyi, talented endurance mountain biker, adventurer and skier extraordinaire, musing on the paradox of gear geekery.

I like to say it was the inspiration of the Swan Crest 100 that did it — but really, it was the frustration of TransRockies. With a mountain bike dangling precariously on my shoulder and my legs buried to my knees in mud, I resolved then and there to take up trail running.

The mountain bike stage race in the Canadian Rockies last August was a ton of fun, but after four and a half hours of dragging the bike through foul-smelling, cow-stomped sludge to gain a mere 25 kilometers of ground, I had an epiphany: I carried this bike over mountain passes. I carried this bike down headwalls. I carried this bike across rivers and up impossibly steep trails. I carried this bike through a seemingly endless bog of mud. This race would be a whole lot easier without this bike.

I love riding bikes. I like the flow of smooth trails, the quickness of pavement, the crunch of gravel, the challenge of climbs and the exhilaration of descents. But there are times that bikes feel like anchors — riddled with mechanicals, demanding endless maintenance, clogged with mud, limited by skill and strength and the restrictions of wheels. During the Bear 100, Beat asked me about the farthest distance I had traveled on foot in one day. I started to cite my Grand Canyon hikes, at 26 miles, but stopped myself when I remembered the Iditarod. “I pushed my bike over Rainy Pass,” I said. “About 50 miles in the deep snow. It took me 27 hours.” And the whole time I was dragging that heavy, suddenly useless anchor.

I had this fantasy about being free from all of it — free from gear, free from responsibility, free from expensive and highly breakable bike parts, free from trail restrictions and rules, free to just lace up a simple pair of shoes, fill a simple bottle with clear stream water, and just run. There would be nothing to break down, nothing to maintain, nothing to hoist over awkward obstacles, no restricting myself to staying within the lines if I didn’t feel like it. There would just be me, running up the mountains, down the mountains, wherever I felt like running. Free.

And then I entered the Susitna 100.

I couldn’t have picked a more gear-intensive trail run. Sleeping bag. Bivy. Closed-cell foam mattress. Down coat. Wind shell. Fleece socks. Gortex shoes. Hydration vest. Sled. And on and on. The list is quite long. When I throw it all together, it’s downright shocking. I scour my list for things to cross off, but I can’t. I need it, I tell myself. All of it.

(Click on image if you want to actually read it.)

The other day, Beat accused me of being a gear junkie, because I always manage to choose the most gear-intensive versions of the outdoor sports I enjoy. I had to concede. Once, way back in a far-away but simpler life, I was just a hiker. I owned one pair of hiking boots. Then I started multiday hiking with grotesquely heavy loads of camping gear on my back. Then I got a road bike, panniers and a bunch of extra gear so I could go road touring, followed by yet more bikes and yet more gear for mountain biking, working my way up to the most heavily laden of them all, snow bike touring, along with snowshoeing and mountaineering … then GPS units, small and large backpacks, bike bags, poles, crampons, ice ax, clothing layers, coats, mittens, shells, socks, more socks, boots, trail-running shoes, more shoes, and finally all of this Susitna 100 crap.

“But I need it,” I reasoned. “I’m a frail human who wants to run across Alaska’s Susitna Valley amid the ghostly beautiful scenery of winter. I need it to survive.”

And deep down, I am grateful for everything my gear has enabled me to do. It’s opened my freedom of exploration to realms I could have never dreamed to venture otherwise. Traveling 350 miles across Southcentral Alaska, over the Alaska Range and into the Interior in February? I wouldn’t have survived a night without my gear. 2,780 miles from Banff to Mexico in 24 days? I certainly needed my bike to help with that. Running the Susitna 100? I can’t wait for that challenge. If I need the stuff in my sled, so be it.

But in my next life, I’m going to be a barefoot runner in the Montana mountains. One water bottle. Huckleberries for food. Maybe some bug spray.

Either way, life is good.