Saturday, April 30, 2011

Berry Creek Falls 50K

It was a reason to go there — Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It's California's oldest state park, established in 1902 and now teeming with coastal redwoods, old-growth conifers, chaparral and oak trees that have been largely left alone for more than a century. It's less than 30 miles from our house on a narrow, winding road, but through the occasional openings along the thickly forested ridgeline, all we could see were green mountains and trees — no buildings, no roads, no logging scars. "Might as well be in Montana," I said, just before we caught a glimpse of the Pacific, deep blue and sparkling in the morning sun.

After a month of recovering his Achilles inflammation, Beat got a go-ahead from his doctor on Friday to "tread slowly" toward running again. I had already expressed interest in running a 50K at a mellow pace as I start to increase my own running mileage. Saturday just happened to be the Berry Creek Falls 50K. We both signed up less than 24 hours before the race start. I used it as an excuse to dress up like a complete trail-running geek, with a GPS watch, Nathan hydration pack and ridiculous-looking but "hurty-foot"- preventing Hoka One One shoes. As the perfect finishing touch to my costume, I recently acquired a hot pink running skirt. Take note — I have never been a girly girl. I was the kind of kid who tried to get away with wearing jeans to church and once did wear jeans to a formal high school dance. I thought it would be fittingly ironic to grow into the kind of adult who wore pink skirts on 31-mile trail runs. Plus, it went so well with my purple shoes.

It was simply an awe-inspiring day; 75 degrees, sunny and not a particle in the sky. When the views did open up we could see clearly across many miles of mountains and ocean. Deep inside the forest, the water ran clear and needles and leaves took on a blazing green hue, sprinkled with flecks of sunlight. The race was small — a few dozen people for the shorter distances, and only seven for the 50K. I was the only woman, which meant I automatically won by default. Or, I remembered, I would still have to finish the race first.

I felt strong. Beat was moving conservatively to be kind to his Achilles. He agreed to drop at the first sign of pain, and I was torn about whether to really try to push my pace or hold back and run with Beat. The course quickly proved to be quite difficult, with incessant steep climbs and descents on root-clogged singletrack. It felt good to run hard up the hills, but I couldn't quite master the footing on the descents. After a few miles, it became apparent that my most comfortable pace essentially matched Beat's, so we ran and hiked together.

The course was hard — a 15K and 10K loop each completed twice, each almost entirely on singletrack (with the exception of about 2.5 miles of steep fireroad on the second loop), and each with 1,500 to 2,000 feet of elevation change apiece. I emphasize the word "change" over "gain" since the descents were often tougher for me than the climbs. It was still a lot of climbing, and I soon started to feel the 75-degree "heat."

In a good indication of overall fitness, I felt strong and had no foot or leg issues for the duration of the race. Beat and I moved steady at our conservative pace, but it was by no means easy. I think we were both holding back more than we wanted to, on some levels, but we were also enjoying the scenery and relishing a long day out in the Big Basin Redwoods. I've spent this past week stressing over my book project, and this long run provided much of what I needed to balance out my mindset. Many times during the run, I'd feel a wash of peace or euphoria and think, even believe, that "this is all I need to be happy." As always, the feeling fades as soon as the run is over, but a good run — or bike ride — really is a beautiful state of bliss where those feelings are emphatically — if temporarily — true. I like it when a run goes long.

I made one tactical error when I arrived at the 25-mile aid station about three minutes before Beat and lost self control on the delicious spread of race snacks. As a cyclist I have a "feast or famine" style of fuel intake, but I am learning during running I have to take my calories in smaller, more frequent doses. I made the mistake of eating three brownies and spent the final 10K wracked with stomach cramps. Although his Achilles wasn't bothering him, Beat was feeling fairly rough too — it has, after all, been nearly a month since he's done any significant running. We mostly hobbled through the last six miles, and it took us nearly two hours to wrap them up.

I'm still pleased with how it went, even if it did take seven hours and 50 minutes. My GPS registered 32 miles and 7,900 feet of elevation change. The elevation reading may be too high by 1,000 feet or so due to thick tree cover, but the ruggedness of the course definitely added another layer of difficulty. It was certainly my most physically difficult 50K yet, of the four I've participated in. And yes, I did win. Since I signed up so late for the race and was the only woman, they didn't have a mug made up, but the friendly race director Wendell promised he'd send one my way.

Really, it was the ideal day out. Races are fun because you meet new people and challenge your limits in ways you likely otherwise wouldn't. But in the end it was just a fun eight-hour romp through the park, with soup and good conversation at the end.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flailing and awkward

It was a gorgeous day on Russian Ridge. I was out for a 10-mile run, soaking in sunshine and searching for wildflowers that haven't yet emerged. I veered down the steep trail toward Coal Creek and quickly developed the side-stitch that I often suffer from when I run downhill. I realize this is likely caused by too-shallow breathing, but running downhill honestly frightens me a little and I almost can't help myself. I slowed down and took deep, long breaths, concentrating on the rhythm of motion as the sharp pain stabbed at my rib cage. While I was locked in focus on steady steps and breathing, I planted my foot in a deep mud puddle across a particularly steep slope and slid forward. Leg kicked up, arms flailing, and just like that I was lying sideways in the mud with yet another bloody elbow, scratched leg, bruised hip and skin coated in brown sludge.

After I arrived at home, I had to explain to Beat why I was yet again coated in mud and blood. He just shook his head. "When you slide like that you're supposed to ride it out," he said.

"Well when that happens to me, I fall," I protested. "That's how I roll."

I thought back to a friend I used to hike with in Juneau, who was constantly criticizing my walking style as we picked our way down 45-degree slopes covered in mud and moss. "You need to keep your feet forward," he told me. "Keep your weight back. You always walk like you've been sitting on a bike for too long. Why do you stick your hips so far out?"

I thought even further back to rock scrambling in the canyons of Utah's redrock deserts. I'd cling precariously to some craggy ledge, frozen in place as the blood drained head and my arms and legs slowly went numb. "What's wrong?" my friends would ask. "This is an easy pitch. Class 3 tops." I could never explain; they just didn't understand what it's like to not trust your body, to truly believe there's a measurable time delay between your brain circuits and motor functions. You never really know when your body is going to do something completely erratic or clumsy and send you plummeting into the sand far below. It's scary, and that fear helps perpetuate the physical awkwardness.

I don't think it's a coincidence that upon discovering cycling at age 22, I instantly latched onto the activity with an almost obsessive zeal. It wasn't just the ease and quickness of movement that most beginner cyclists experience. I also found a method of motion that felt natural and comfortable — which, up to that point, was an almost foreign sensation. I had spent the first two decades of my life accepting the seemingly unbridgeable divide between poor coordination and an innate desire to explore the outside world and participate in intense physical challenges. Through cycling, I discovered a way to span that gap. Bikes just fit me, literally. I can ride all day on other people's bicycles and not feel even slight discomfort. I can wear big backpacks and switch from platform to clipless pedals without even noticing a significant difference. I can appreciate full suspension but I don't feel out of place riding rigid or singlespeed or fixed. I don't get saddle sores, or back and neck soreness, and even my weak knees have adapted to the strain of thousands of pedal rotations. Unlike the criticism I've received for my walking style, I've actually been complimented on my riding style — straight back, flexible arms, steady legs. I am, truly, a cyclist.

But there's still that other side of me, the side of me without a bike, the side with the weak ankles and soft feet, the side who's prone to flailing awkwardly all over the trail and sometimes slamming into the ground at the seemingly most random spots. This makes her quite bad at running, but all those years of self-discovery through cycling have also made her the kind of person who refuses to accept this. There is freedom and satisfaction in removing a heavy dependence on wheels, and finding new ways to move light and fast through exhilarating spans of open space. I want to be free; I want to run, even if my body doesn't quite cooperate, and even if I'm realizing that a large base of endurance just makes the learning process that much more difficult — because it's actually not all that difficult to run 20 or 30 miles; the difficulty lies in doing so without hurting myself.

I won't stop riding bikes. I am, after all, a natural cyclist. But I'm also a glutton for a challenge, and running long distances is truly a challenge. Full training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 has begun. If I can make it to the starting line without a cast or crutches, that in itself will be a satisfying success.
Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good weekend

Ah, Easter weekend. When I was a kid, Easter always signaled the beginning of spring. I currently live in a place that seems to have no seasons, but that doesn't mean I can't wholeheartedly embrace spring all the same. Flowers are blooming in the roadsides, hillsides are green (I have heard there are times when they are not green) and temptations to overindulge are everywhere. I binged a bit this weekend. And I fully enjoyed it.

On Saturday morning I headed out to the East Bay area to go for a road ride with a guy I met at the "Ride the Divide" movie screening, Russ McBride. Russ is signed up to ride the Tour Divide northbound this June, and asked for a few hours of my time to ply me with questions about the route. We met up in Walnut Creek for a "Tour of Mount Diablo." I didn't quite know what that entailed before the ride, but it turned out to be a full circumnavigation of the mountain with a spur to climb to the 3,888-foot peak, for good measure.

Russ also decided to use our Divide-centered social ride to test out his new GPS that he plans to use in the race. This resulted in some interesting route-finding along the way.

But we had a really fantastic ride, even if the weather was gray and the views were marginal, the hillsides were green and Russ had a whole slew of his own interesting stories. He told me he planned to race the Tour Divide in 2009 (same year I did it) after wrapping up his dissertation at U.C. Berkeley (I didn't quite catch what he got his PhD in ... we were descending a long, fast hill at the time.) But then he contracted Mercury poisoning that stole his health, his ability to sleep, and finally his sanity for the better part of six months. His stories were absolutely horrifying. They made me never want to eat fish again (his doctor speculated he contracted his case from a broken dental filling.) He also used to paraglide until he watched a friend die. That's when he took up distance cycling, and now regularly participates in randonneuring — 200K, 400K and 600K brevets. Ever since I rode the Denali Classic last May (140 miles on dirt), I've become more fascinated with the challenge of traveling long distances on a bike in a single push. Basically bicycle touring without the camping. Skinny tires and ultralight road bikes make these kinds of distances actually feasible in my mind now, so while Russ was plying me for Tour Divide tips, I was asking him about the logistics of riding 600K without sleeping. Our ride ended with 74 miles and 7,228 feet of climbing. Map here.

In the evening, Beat and I went to San Francisco for a homemade pizza party with his friend Stephan, who lives in Noe Valley. It always fun for me to take trips to the city and meet the kinds of people who live in the city — a storyboard creator for Pixar and a fairly small-stature Asian Brit who was mugged by two large teenagers earlier in the week and actually fought them off before running away with the property they tried to steal. His story, made even better when told in a British accent, continued when the teenagers chased him down the street for several blocks until an off-duty firefighter got out of his car and wrestled them down. As he related this, the woman who works at Pixar rendered his tale in a humorous illustration. Yes, interesting people live in the city. They also make incredible pizza and I ate a lot.

Today we awoke late and went to Easter brunch at our friend Martina's house. Martina has a reputation for elaborate spreads and brunch did not disappoint — Veggie quiche, ham, five different kinds of bread, cheese, smoked salmon, a massive fruit salad (prepared by Steve) and apfelkuchen. I ate a lot, again. Then we socialized until 5:30. At 6, with the massive Easter meal mostly settled, I decided to go out for a "short" training run, but grabbed my headlamp "just in case I get stuck out." Thanks to the late hour (I thrive during evenings), I felt really great going uphill and wended my way to Black Mountain. I missed my connector trail on the way down and realized it about three quarters of a mile and 600 vertical feet too late. I was on a trail called "The Black Mountain Trail." I had never seen this trail before but I thought — well, this has to go somewhere.

In truth I hate not knowing exactly where I am or feeling lost in any way, but I also feel that I don't put myself in enough situations that scare me anymore. It's good to feel uncertain and somewhat fearful once in a while. I continued down the trail feeling quite strong. I'm generally a horrible downhill runner (refer to running crash two weeks ago.) But today despite fading light and generally uneasiness, my feet seemed light and fast and always landed exactly where I hoped they would. Uncharacteristically, I didn't feel like an awkward, flailing mess trying to lose elevation. I truly enjoyed every bit of that Black Mountain Trail, until I reached the place where it went, and a sign told me I was four miles farther from my end point than I hoped to be. I was already 11 miles into my run, with six more miles to go.

There was nothing I could do but click on the headlamp and keep running. I finally reached the main part of the Rancho San Antonio park, onto to be intercepted by a stern-looking ranger. He directed me to stand in the bright beam of his truck headlights while he interrogated me about why I was running through the park after dark. (Quite the infraction here, I learned. Yes, we're not in Montana any more.) I told him the truth — that I recently moved here and that I took a wrong turn at Black Mountain and ended up four miles farther than I hoped. I left out the part about it being somewhat intentional. I showed him my Alaska driver's license and tried to play the bewildered non-urban Alaskan card (this has gotten me out of a ticket before, in Salt Lake City, when I was driving a friend's truck too slow.) It seemed to work. He was quite friendly afterward, and only gave me a written warning, attached to his stern instructions that if I get caught out after dark again, I will be in big trouble. Sigh. Not in Alaska or Montana anymore.

But besides the ranger incident, I'm quite stoked about how good I felt during the run. 17 miles and 3,227 feet of climbing, one day after a big 74-mile, 7,000-foot-elevation-gain ride with a lot of indulgent eating in between. A good weekend all around.
Friday, April 22, 2011

All we do is climb

My current training plan alternates days of cycling and running to help me transition into more focused running training, because all of my planned early summer races are on foot (yeah, I really need to find a good 24-hour mountain bike race to plan for. Summer in the Lower 48 just wouldn't be complete without a grueling lap race.)

So far my runs have been fairly unambitious and easy going, because Beat is smartly taking time off to recover from his Achilles injury, so since Sunday he hasn't been with me to crack the whip. I was planning to put in a good solid run after I finish up some projects this afternoon. But I've been feeling a bit tired all morning, and wondering why. It occurred to me that despite my lax running week, I've had a fairly ambitious cycling week. I decided to crunch the numbers:

Saturday, April 16. Road cycling. Distance: 44 miles. Elevation gain: 4,377 feet
Sunday, April 17. Running. Distance: 9 miles. Elevation gain: 1,000 feet.
Sunday, April 17. Singlespeed mountain biking. Distance: 32 miles. Elevation gain: 4,258 feet.
Monday, April 18. Running. Distance: 8 miles. Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Tuesday, April 19. Singlespeed mountain biking. Distance: 25 miles. Elevation gain: 3,401 feet.
Wednesday, April 20. Running. Distance: 8 miles. Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Thursday, April 21. Road cycling. Distance: 36 miles. Elevation gain: 5,574 feet.

Mileage: 137 cycling, 25 running
Total time: 16:47
Total climbing this week so far: 21,010 feet

Now I'm contemplating taking a rest day today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Patience is the virtue of the singlespeeder

Singlespeeders may only have one gear on their bike, but based on my limited experience, I've theorized that they more than make up for it in "cerebral gears." There's the glazed-over boredom of coasting gradual downhills, the frantic hamster-wheel spinning on the flats, the happy forgetfulness of that small grade range the bike is actually geared for, and of course the leg-ripping, lung-busting, handlebar-wrestling, "it hurts to look down" battle of the steep ascent. That last cerebral gear is the one I believe most singlespeeders strive to reach. At least, that's they way it is for me. As a lowly geared rider, I am too often guilty of shifting down to the granny and breathing with only moderate pain as my speed drops below 5 mph. Singlespeed, on the other hand, yanks my heart rate up to 180, drops my cadence to something only slightly faster than the minute hand on a mechanical clock, creates some kind of extreme electromagnetic force field beneath my knees and laughs at my pain as my overall speed continues to register in that 5 mph range. To think all this time I've been doing it the easy way. It makes me realize the importance of leg strength. I've been coasting uphill for far too long, thanks to the enabling efficiency of bicycle technology.

But I'm enjoying my singlespeed all the same, because it's a challenge, and because it forces me to spend time in the red zone that I might otherwise shift away from. The singlespeed also teaches me patience — as soon as I max out from trying to maintain my usual cadence on a steep climb, singlespeed forces me to slow my cadence and appreciate the long burn. I also had nearly forgotten how much I love rolling the big wheels downhill. I feel more natural and comfortable on my Karate Monkey than any other bike I've ever ridden — perhaps because we've been through so much together. We had a great day out.

And damn if I didn't ride that Steven's Creek loop faster than I usually do on my Rocky Mountain Element, even with breaks to take pictures of coyotes and that annoyingly spun-out crawl along the last seven miles of pavement. Maybe if I strive to become more in tune with One Gear Zen, singlespeed will show me its one true speed: Fast.
Sunday, April 17, 2011

Feeling good about fitness

After I finished the Susitna 100 in mid-February, I set aside structured training. Not that my training is ever all that rigid, but pre-Su100 I was consistently putting in miles, long-effort weekends, 50K races and of course mind-numbing slogs with my sled. After the Su100, I decided to get an early start on my "off season." I dedicated more of my outdoor time to pure fun. I did a few moderately long bike rides to prepare for the White Mountains 100, but they were fun bike rides. Except for a few fun runs, I stopped running. My fitness goals were entirely focused on discovering new trails and soaking up sunshine. March was good.

Then I surprised myself by having a fairly good race in the White Mountains 100. "Maybe I'm better when I don't train," I mused when discussing it with a friend afterward. "Maybe I should just focus on fun, and not beat myself up if I have a really low-key week or three." Beat also subscribes to a similar theory. His race training plan is comprised almost entirely of racing, surrounded by relatively low-key periods of tapering and recovery.

The past three weeks have been good weeks for a recovery period. But I admit that after my somewhat indulgent March, I was starting to feel concern that my hard-earned winter fitness had finally fallen off the cliff. This weekend, with my running crash bruises and inflammation finally starting to settle a bit, I felt ready for a good "moderate" effort. Beat is still recovering from a micro-tear in his Achilles, so I set out for a "short" road ride on Saturday.

I picked a 43-mile loop that I guessed would take somewhere in the range of three hours. However, I didn't yet realize that this loop also included more than 4,000 feet of climbing and not a small number of gut-bustingly steep grades. I felt strong the entire time, if a little tentative on the road bike, but managed to keep my heart rate near or above 170 for most of the climbing. Even with slow and careful descending, I still wrapped it up in 3:03. GPS track here.

Sunday morning, Beat decided he wanted to try a "short" run. I geared up in the appropriate body armor for the jog. (Just kidding ... but really, when you think about it, padding isn't a wholly horrible idea for a klutz like me.) Our intention was short and easy and we didn't even take any water with us, and ended up running nine miles on the Rancho trails at our usual pace, in the heat of mid-day. I was pretty blown when we got home, basically woozy from dehydration, but I downed about six glasses of water and geared up for my next adventure.

During his own downtime this weekend, Beat overhauled my singlespeed with a brand new chain, grips, pedals and hydraulic brakes. He even managed to fix the busted zipper on my frame bag and switch out the studded tires for my Nanoraptors. My Karate Monkey hasn't been in this good of shape since last spring. I promised him I'd take it out to test the new parts, but the ulterior motive was, of course, to go for a late afternoon bike ride. The singlespeed is geared well for gradual climbs and really not much else, which is sort of the rub of singlespeeding. But I picked a gradual climb for testing — Steven's Creek Canyon.

Despite having felt quite tired since returning from the run, I really started to perk up again as I rode up the canyon. I veered onto Redwood Gulch Road with hopes of continuing the good climb. I forgot that the road gains more than 1,000 feet of elevation in two miles — pretty steep for my one gear when I haven't ridden more than a handful of commutes on the singlespeed since autumn. What followed was about 20 minutes of pure pain — gasping and gulping for oxygen as my heart rate shot to 180 and my all the fibers in my leg muscles threatened to burst under the strain of simply turning the cranks. I don't think I've spent that much time in zone 5 all year long. At the top I decided I deserved a reward, so I continued moderate-intensity climbing to the singletrack of the Saratoga Gap Trail, which was so stunningly fun that I continued rolling along Long Ridge, which dropped me off in unfamiliar terrain until I meandered my way over to the tip top of Steven's Creek Canyon and dropped down the long and winding trail. By the time I reached the gradual road descent, the sun had set and I was spinning the crank furiously in a futile bid for speed to beat the darkness. I ended that ride with 32 miles, 4,258 feet of climbing and fairly fried legs. GPS track here.

And still, I feel pretty good. And even after six weeks of "downtime," I feel like my body has maintained an encouraging level of both strength and endurance. Which is great, because it's just about time for me to really focus on summer goals ... and right at the top, the intimidating Tahoe Rim Trail 100.
Thursday, April 14, 2011

Finding my place

Six months ago, if you asked me how I felt about the idea of moving to coastal California, I would have cringed and made a sour face. In fact, six months ago, I did exactly that when I was visiting Utah and my sisters asked me about possible future scenarios with Beat. "I like him," I told them. "But California ... I don't know. There's just so many people, so much sprawl. I have this sense that it's not my kind of place."

What is my kind of place? It's a place where I can go outside every day, where I can walk out my front door and wander into the mountains, to quiet places where I can listen to streams gurgle down narrow gulches and watch wild animals sprint across open meadows. It's a place that sometimes pummels me with drenching rains and stiff winds. It's a place with steep roads to climb and narrow trails to ride, and enough of both that every day has potential for new challenge and discovery. It's a place where I can find solitude, and also enjoy time with friends. It's a place where I can take photos I appreciate and have experiences I cherish. There are of course a lot more attributes that might make a place absolutely perfect for me, but these aspects are the basics, the aspects I need to be happy.

I went for a bike ride today. It was a low-key, "short" ride, because I am still in downtime mode. Even though I've only lived in California for just over a month, I've already scoped out my comfort places — the places I seek sometimes to challenge my physical limits, and other times to spin easy and think. But even in this secondary mode, I can still plan a two-hour ride that includes 2,700 feet of gut-busting climbing, strenuous enough that my "time to think" thoughts soon dissolve into gasps and whimpers. Today I rode to Black Mountain. At the top of the climb, I met up with a small group of mountain bikers who tempted me onto the singletrack. We descended into the green rolling hills on a narrow ribbon of trail, dipping, weaving and grinning like children. After several hundred feet, the jolting on my bruised arm and knee became too pronounced and painful to continue riding downhill. I waved goodbye to the mountain bikers and turned back up the trail, back to spinning smooth and climbing — my favorite mode of travel.

Back at the top of the mountain, I startled a large herd of deer. I stopped as they darted away and listened to the strange zipping sound of dozens of hooves tearing through the grass. Just as the sounds of the stampede faded, I heard other, even more eerie sounds ringing out from the crest of the next hill. Low moans and yips preceded a long, drawn out howl. I squinted into the low sun and realized there was a pack of coyotes prowling the ridge. I could see their slender bodies silhouetted against the golden evening sunlight.

I stood there a while longer, listening to their yipping and smiling at the sun. I have found my kind of place in a lot of places, but I honestly never dreamed I'd find one here.

Quiet week

I've had a fairly quiet week since I fell on my face on Sunday. I had been looking forward to getting out for some road rides and runs this week, but swelling and bruising on my arm and knee has limited me to minimal-impact activities, like taking my mountain bike on smooth-as-possible pavement rides. Even slight jarring from potholes on my bouncy bike has been enough to bring a few tears to my eyes. I feel battered. It really is humorous in a pathetic kind of way, especially when it comes time for the nightly cringe sessions needed to clean and redress the road rash, which is finally close to the point of scabbing over. I'm taking this silly running crash as the final sign from the universe that I was meant to take some real down time this month. OK, universe, you win. I'm taking down time. No more signs, OK? Because at this point I'm really itching to get out for a good long effort.

In the meantime, I really wanted to bump down those disgusting road rash pictures, so I'm posting a mid-week news update. In the week's most exciting news, Beat was accepted in the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational — 350 miles to McGrath on foot. I am super excited for him, and also excited for myself and potential opportunities to train with him during long backcountry hikes in the snow. Training well for this race is of upmost importance, so as far as I'm concerned, Beat's sacrifice in signing up for the 2012 ITI means I get to enjoy all the spoils of winter adventure without actually having to go through with the race.

It's true — I did not attempt to sign up for next year's race. When asked why, my short answer is that my mom would kill me if I ever entered the ITI again (ha ha.) But the truth is, I did some soul searching about it and decided it wasn't the right time. As I said, I really look forward to participating in Beat's training adventures. I also have dreams of putting together short, solo bike tour on the Iditarod Trail, possibly from Point McKenzie to Finger Lake or Puntilla Lake and back, which I could plan during the week that Beat is racing the ITI. I really wanted to plan a solo tour this past winter, and probably would have if I had stayed in Alaska. Since I'll be doing a lot of foot training anyway, maybe I can fly out a week early and try to crush my Susitna 100 foot time. Oh, the possibilities! Next year's race does promise to be an exciting one. There are 20 people who signed up to race on foot, including Geoff Roes and Dave Johnston, who has won the Susitna 100 twice.

When I wasn't cringing through my short and "too bumpy" mountain bike road rides this week, I was deeply immersed in Great Divide projects — editing photos, writing book promotional materials, playing with cover design ideas, and writing an essay for the second edition of the Cordillera. Even simple design work prompts vivid memories of those three weeks in 2009, and that's where my head has been for much of the week. Because of this, I was fairly amused to receive a fortuitous e-mail from a promoter for the movie "Ride the Divide," a documentary about the 2008 Tour Divide. He had set up a showing in Oakland and he wanted me to attend as a "special guest" to answer questions about the race.

I coerced Beat into joining me on the long Wednesday rush-hour drive to the northland. The showing was held at the Grand Lake Theatre, a quirky old movie house with ornate decorations and a balcony. I expected a low-key event, and was a little shocked when I arrived to a sold-out crowd at a big theater. I've already seen this movie four times, but it was fun to watch it on the big screen, not only for the beautiful cinematography, but also to listen to the crowd's reactions to different scenes. It found myself becoming surprisingly choked up during relatively benign scenes that depicted race leader Matthew Lee quietly riding alone through areas of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. I realized that I am still deeply attached to not only my experiences in the Tour Divide, but also the regions it traverses. For the first time in two years I found myself truly believing that *perhaps* I really do want to go there again someday, in that same context. But not this year. Like the ITI, it's just not the right time.

The Q&A session was fun, but I was not prepared and didn't know how to answer questions like "why did you do it?" ("Uh, well, I had some time off and it seemed like a fun way to spend a summer.") and "who sponsored you?" (Well, I guess the Juneau Empire sponsored me, because they employed me beforehand and gave me paychecks that I was able to stash away for race funds.") A question about my "most vivid experience" resulted in a really long story about interacting with another racer after a serious truck collision on Indiana Pass. But for the most part it went well. It really is rewarding to see how other people react to images and stories from the Tour Divide, because the experience means so much to me.

And hopefully, there will be more mountain biking in my future. Sooner would be my preference.
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Running crash

After two weeks of feeling rougher than normal, my string of illness and minor maladies were finally starting to clear up. Finally, for the first time since Fairbanks, I felt strong. I joined Beat on his long Sunday run that he unfortunately had to cut short due to lingering Achilles pain. But we were still in it for 13 miles, climbing 3,000 feet of dusty trail, wending through a tight corridor of chaparral and descending on steep, root-covered singletrack. With the hard part completed, we were coasting home on the smooth, wide fireroad, running fast enough that I could feel a strong breeze on my sweat-drenched face, when suddenly ... thud.

My body slammed into the dirt and skidded several skin-scorching inches to a dusty stop. It was a full-body superman crash without even the dignity of handlebars to launch over. I had heard of such things happening — runner crashes — but I can't say I believed in them. Aren't people just inherently supposed to know what they're doing when they're on their feet?

But apparently, I don't. There wasn't even a discernible obstacle sticking out of the ground. I had simply tripped on my own foot and hit the deck, hard.

The remaining three miles of the run were rough. I was wearing thick nylon pants that prevented road rash from tearing up my leg, but my left knee had taken the brunt of the impact and was swollen and throbbing with pain. The road rash on my hands and left arm started to sting something fierce, and I could actually see little bits of gravel still lodged in some of the larger wounds. My left elbow was swelling, too, and I could only hold my arm limply at my side. Just like that this relatively easy, strong run turned into a difficult challenge, with blood smeared on my face, skin shredded and confidence blown.

But you gotta be tough if you're gonna be klutzy.
Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bikes that do the work for you

I'm being honest when I say that the number of times I've ridden a "road" bike can probably still be counted on two hands. My first two bikes were "touring bicycles" — lower-end Ibex Corridas that I rode over thousands of miles of pavement, but they had flat handlebars and relaxed geometry and couldn't really be called road bikes. I have a fixed-gear commuter that is also a hybrid of a road bike, but my experiences with drop-handlebar, high-tire-pressure, lightweight road bicycles are still limited to a few borrowed and rented bicycles on a few random rides.

I do ride pavement. I just ride it on a mountain bike. This has always worked just fine for me in the past because I lived in climates where the weather turned roads to debris-strewn obstacle courses for much of the year, and on the rare days that they were clear, I was probably out pursuing high-country dirt anyway. For my style of riding, a road bike just seemed excessive — a boutique bike, like a high-wheeler or a unicycle ... fun to play with but ultimately unnecessary.

Only now I'm living in the Silicon Valley, covered in a seemingly endless maze of smooth and winding pavement. While there are trails and open space areas here, this is decidedly roadie country. I see them everywhere — when I'm walking to the store, when I'm sitting at the coffee shop, when I'm ambling up the road on my bouncy bike. They always look so graceful and effortlessly fast, and strangely overdressed in their matching neon yellow jackets and tights. I make a solid attempt to chase them with the bouncy bike, but it usually isn't long before the gap grows larger. Since I didn't know any better, I blamed myself ("I'm slow. Oh well. Hey, is that a singletrack trail on that hillside? I better check that out!")

Beat has been telling me that I need to try road biking. He has a beautiful carbon Calfee that he doesn't really ride either, at least not since he saw the light and gave up triathlons for ultrarunning. Beat could tell you more about its wheelset and components — all I know is that it's black and weighs about as much as Pugsley's seatpost. I had been eyeing it enviously all month. Finally, today, we went to Sportsman's Basement to buy a pair of shiny white and silver road shoes, and Look cleats. Equipped with the proper attachments, I no longer had an excuse not to try out the Calfee. Beat had to ride his own bouncy bike, a Santa Cruz Blur. We decided on a route that Beat remembered as "short" from his triathlon training days, and set out.

Road bikes make me nervous. I always feel so squirrelly, teetering on those tiny wheels while I obsess about getting my foot in and out of the clipless pedals (which is always humorous because as soon as I stop thinking about it, it becomes second nature and clipless attachments have never actually caused me any problems.) We set out on Foothill Boulevard, spinning super easy. At least I thought we were spinning easy. When I looked over at Beat, he was working up a solid sweat.

At mile 11 we hit the top of a rolling descent and Beat said I should surge ahead because it would be more fun for me. "OK!" I exclaimed and clicked up the shifters. I put a little extra power into each stroke — not enough to really raise my heart rate, but just enough to power up each roller. After about what seemed like five minutes, I dropped back into the valley. I stopped on an overpass above a roaring Interstate 280, quite bewildered. "This doesn't look right." Several minutes later, Beat caught up to me, wheezing. I had overshot the turn by three miles. Yes, three miles. Beat seemed really annoyed about it for some reason.

We made it back to Old La Honda Road and started up the narrow, winding corridor. This too was an easy spin so I took photographs and said hello to other climbing cyclists who did not seem inclined to chat. The Calfee climbed so effortlessly that I started to suspect there was in fact a small electric motor attached to the frame somewhere. I looked for it but could not locate it. A few more relaxing minutes passed and we were inexplicably at 1,800 feet on Skyline Drive. We put on arm warmers and launched into the most physically taxing and difficult part of the ride, the steep descent. I clenched my teeth and throttled the brakes, never quite trusting those tenuous tires to actually stick to the road around each tight corner. Finally, I held my pedals parallel and pushed my butt behind the saddle. This mountain bike pose did help a bit with my confidence.

Then we rode home. It was like a few more minutes. Beat rode beside me and said he felt knackered. Really? I looked at my GPS. We had ridden 41 miles and climbed 2,700 feet. On my mountain bike, even on pavement, that would be a tough afternoon ride. No wonder Beat was tired.

Beat asked me how I liked the road bike. I had to admit it was fantastically fun, but also kind of boring, too. Beat enjoyed a good, solid ride on his knobby tires. He got to work twice as hard while I meandered along on his light, fast road bike. I mean, what's the point of a bicycle that does all the work for you?

"The point is to go faster and farther," Beat said.

"Oh," I said. I get it now. Faster and farther. Next time, I'm going to try that.
Thursday, April 07, 2011

The rough stuff

I've had a trying week of working around a couple of minor medical maladies — unrelated to cycling and running, but a disconcertingly consistent source of fatigue and pain all the same. My mind is also swimming with seemingly dozens of project ideas that I am overanxious to dive into, and the result during my "workday" is near-constant distraction — I sit down neatly at 8 a.m. to start up one thing, only to jump to another, and then another, until suddenly I look up and it's inexplicably 4 p.m. and I wonder if I've actually done anything productive at all. One thing I am actually accomplishing is that I'm nearing completion of a Tour Divide manuscript I feel fairly good about. I still need to comb through it to incorporate a few more of my editor's very good ideas, flesh out a few areas and cull others, but it's close.

I've been mountain biking and running this week as well, but in shorter blocks of time with limited intensity. Thursday was the first day I felt healthy enough to embark on a longer ride, so I set out to find a trail near my house that I haven't yet tried, the Table Mountain Trail. Beat and I had tentative evening plans and I told him it would be "two, two and a half hours tops." About eight miles into Steven's Canyon I was hit with yet another medical malady — monthly hormone poisoning, which for me usually results in two or three hours of semi-debilitating waves of nausea. Bad timing. It wasn't terrible at first, so I pushed the cramps to the back of my mind and started up the singletrack.

The Table Mountain Trail is designated uphill-only to mountain bikes, which means unless I want to break a law, I'm committed as soon as I enter it. I should have known better when the first quarter mile involved a knee-deep creek crossing and a near-vertical push 100 feet up the muddy bank. But from the top of the bank, the root-clogged trail looked fairly rideable, so I continued. The steep trail only became more eroded as I climbed, until I was trying to keep my tires out of wheel-eating trenches as I mashed up a 15-percent grade on a trail surface about as wide as a pencil. All the while, the nausea kept hitting in blinding waves. Several times, I had to stop and take swift gulps of air to mitigate what felt like an urge to pass out. (Note: These episodes are normal for me but are so short-lived that they almost never hit when I'm working out. The strenuous nature of the trail also seemed to make it worse than usual.)

I walked and then trudged, and all the while the Table Mountain Trail just kept reaching for the sky. I don't know why I expected the trail to top out at 1,800 feet before veering onto the Saratoga Gap Trail, because that is not what happened. I continued to attempt riding the eroded mess between my nausea episodes, until I really did feel physically spent. I had no choice but to trudge up the trail as it rose to 2,600 feet. Two hours had already passed when I was only halfway around my loop on Skyline Boulevard. That's when the building thunderstorm finally opened up. A stiff wind drove the chill of the already 45-degree air (that's spring in California for you, I'm told. Eighty-six degrees one day and 45 the next.) Suddenly these harsh, tiny shards of hail started pelting from the sky. If I didn't know better I would have sworn it was sleet or freezing rain. Either way, it hurt. Stinging and cold. I was not happy. Not happy. I beat a quick retreat down the road.

Beat, who also has been sick all week (we think it's the infamous Fairbanks Plague that was going around up there) couldn't understand why I was so shattered when I walked in the door. "You were only out for three hours," he said. True, true. But sometimes you just need a really rough ride after a rough week to put things in perspective. I'll remind this to myself when I'm finally back to normal and the summer heat has returned. Being healthy in the sunshine really is pretty darn awesome.

Beat's WM100 report

Beat just finished up his White Mountains 100 race report, with a spot-on observation about the competitive dynamic of these crazy winter races:

"65 racers collect at the Wickersham Dome trailhead to participate in the White Mountains 100. About half are bikers, half skiers and then there are the crazy seven, the foot people, “walkers” as the local news article had called us. That term is a sad mix of insult (at least in a 100 miler) and omen, evoking visions of elderly with walking aids that reflect just how we would feel in a day or so, when we would be reduced to just that — walkers.

The dynamic among the groups is interesting. From what I can tell, Bikers are here to compete most and foremost with other bikers, and to make sure the skiers know their place. Skiers come here to race each other, upstage bikers and hope for soft trails that would give them the edge to do so. Both think walkers are crazy and stupid for choosing such a poor form of winter travel, but there is a spark of admiration, an acknowledgement that indeed, walking is the most pure, the hardest, the most painful, the most mentally challenging. We, on the other hand, simply enjoy the fact that we get the most fun per dollar of our entry fee. Twice as much, usually."

Read the rest of Beat's report here.
Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Facing the fuel

Since the White Mountains 100, I have been giving more thought to exercise nutrition. I realize this is a complex issue and I personally believe that everyone has different needs and inclinations that they largely must discover for themselves. The personal philosophy I have developed over years of trial and error is fairly simple: If I am out and about for the better part of a day, I need calories. Salt, too, but mostly calories. My method for getting those calories mainly involves listening to my body, and when that fails, cramming in whatever is available.

In my early days of cycling, I was constantly battling with low energy. I carried gels and energy bars because I believed those to be the "right" foods, but when it came time to stuff one of those smashed, waterlogged, half-frozen chunks of tar in my mouth, I decided I would rather pedal around in a daze than eat my food, so I didn't eat. Some suggested I try liquid nutrition, so I sampled all kinds of milky syrupy nutritional supplements: HEED, Gatorade, Perpetuem, Cytomax, the list goes on. These products all made me feel vaguely ill after a few sips, and since my water supply had been contaminated, I refrained from drinking as well. Yes, there was plenty of low-level bonking in my early days of cycling.

As the years went by, I found energy foods I vaguely enjoyed, but often they turned on me at inopportune times. These include Shot Blocks, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Honey Stinger Bars, Odwalla Bars, etc. Tasty one mile, and foul the next. Because of increasing warnings about the importance of electrolytes, I continued to contaminate my water with products such as Nuun and CarboRocket. These were tolerable sources of electrolytes, but during long rides they revealed my weakness: I really don't like drinking flavored water when I am working out. It's not just the sugar, nutrients and calories; I don't like my water to taste like anything but water. To the point where I will avoid drinking it if I can.

While training for the Tour Divide, I made my first real breakthrough. I understood that three-plus weeks on the trail meant I would probably be running a calorie deficit no matter what I ate. I also understood that I would often have to carry two-plus days of food in my small pack, necessitating calorie-dense options. Finally, I understood that food availability would be limited to mainly convenience stores, and I'd have to learn to digest whatever I could get, whenever I could get it. In short, I would have to become an opportunivoure.

In all my years of cycling, I have found one thing that I have always been able to eat, enjoy, and process into energy, every time, without fail — Candy! Gummy snacks, peanut butter cups, Snickers bars, M&Ms, jelly beans, chocolate, various nuts and espresso beans covered in chocolate, and quite possibly my favorite, Sour Patch Kids (OK, these technically count as gummy snacks, but I felt they deserved a category of their own.) I'm willing to acknowledge that heavily processed sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) is a dubious source of energy, but it was energy all the same. I'm not exaggerating when I say that candy, brownies and other processed sweet foods probably supplied as many as 60 percent of the calories I consumed in 24 days of the Tour Divide. I didn't die. I lost 15 pounds, developed two cavities and became severely addicted to sugar, but I didn't die.

These days, I try to adhere to a happy medium. I continue to use natural energy bars, Shot Blocks, unsweetened dried fruit and occasionally gels, because these reportedly utilize a better combination of carbohydrates and nutrients for longer, cleaner-burning energy (high octane fuel). I also often bring candy bars on rides, just in case the natural energy bars morph into unappetizing bricks, as they often do in my mind. (Because any fuel is better than running on empty.) I do eat (mostly) healthy at home, with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and grains (I prefer the old food pyramid diet. It seems to work well for me.) I supplement my lack of electrolyte-supplying liquids with Endurolytes, but in all honesty, I rarely take them. I acknowledge that I live in a warm climate now, and will probably need to start paying more attention to electrolytes. But they haven't been too much of an issue in the past, not in my typical exercise weather and moderate levels of intensity.

But now I'm back to questioning my nutrition strategies. The big bonk in the White Mountains 100, the fact I now live in a warmer climate, and my ambitions in trail running have left me wondering if I need to sample new sports nutrition strategies. I still buy into the "Calories in, calories out ... it really can be that simple" philosophy (note that my views are largely influenced by the fact I was able to continue turning pedals for 24 days of subsisting on absolute crap during the Tour Divide, therefore I believe many of our bodies aren't as choosey as we'd like to believe.) However, I acknowledge that there are levels of efficiency and effectiveness within the simple act of stuffing food in my face. I'm not necessarily looking to get X-percent faster. I'm just looking for new ideas. I'm going to spend some more time thinking about it. And yes, I am asking for advice. But if anyone tells me to try Hammer's new Perpetuem Solids, I am going to go out and buy a case of peanut butter cups.
Saturday, April 02, 2011

And the next day, it was summer

Bike shorts, short-sleeve shirt, sunglasses, 70 ounces of water, SPF 45 — all things I needed for my first "recovery" ride following the White Mountains 100. It was 86 degrees in Los Altos, California. Sweat beaded on my arms and streamed down my face as I pedaled up Steven's Creek Canyon. Even the thick green tree canopy seemed to provide only weak shade beneath a blazing sun. I squinted at the electric blue sky with the same kind of excitement and trepidation that many Alaskans feel during the first snows of October: "Six more months of this? Really?"

Yes, I already miss Alaska. Flying over Denali on Wednesday morning, I felt a tinge of homesickness when I realized that for the first time since I left, I have no solid plans to return to the state. Perhaps Juneau in June? For now, it's time to gear up for the long summer. There are places I want to mountain bike, local trips I want to plan, and of course I need start training for the Tahoe Rim 100. That's my next planned race, in mid-July, although I suspect there will be several 50K training races and possibly even a 24-hour-solo mountain bike race thrown in as well. I'm excited to start running again. I actually miss doing it on a regular basis, and I still have so much to learn now that snow-running is over and heat and hills are replacing it.

Recovery from the White Mountains 100 is going well. I struggled a bit on Thursday when it was 86 degrees and I had a few symptoms from a post-race cold, but today I went back out at 63 degrees and felt really strong for the duration of a 10-mile, 2,700-foot climb, and even better on the descent. I'm very pleased that I have no post-race knee pain, which I expected given my light bike training and the fact I had knee issues for nearly a month following last year's race. I think a lot of the credit for my lack of post-race soreness goes to the Fatback. Despite that fact it's Beat's bike (it still is), the Fatback fits me quite well. It rides more comfortable and feels more natural than my Pugsley. The Pugsley was a fantastically innovative bike when I purchased it in 2007, but the Fatback designers really improved on the fat bike geometry with a symmetrical design and sloping top tube. I'm also a big fan of the carbon fork. I compare the Pugsley to driving a diesel truck while the Fatback is more like a regular car — that is, more agile and maneuverable. This isn't to say I'm selling my Pugsley. As long as snow biking remains only a distant recreation possibility, I don't see any need to upgrade. (Plus, well, Pugsley and I have just been through so much together.) But as long as Beat stays interested in snow-running, I'll probably continue racing with his Fatback.

As I've said before about my gear, I carried too much. No need to dwell on it. As for what I used, I started the race with a massive foot system that included liner socks, vapor barrier socks, winter boots and overboots (in my opinion, feet can't be too warm.) I wore wind-tights and soft-shell pants (neither can legs), and vented through my upper body by wearing only a base layer and a Gortex shell that I unzipped in varying degrees to vent heat. I also had a balaclava/hat that I removed frequently. When it got colder at night, I added a fleece balaclava and gloves. That was the only extra clothing or gear I used. Yeah, I could have carried everything I actually needed in a Camelback. But, like I said, no need to dwell on it. There is of course good reason to be prepared, but I don't think being over-prepared is the smartest course of action. If I get into the White Mountains 100 next year, I hope to develop a "smart" kit based more on reality than the absolute worst-case-scenario.

People have asked me how riding a bike in the White Mountains 100 compared to running the Susitna 100. My reply has been that they really don't compare. They were night-and-day experiences — quite literally, since the Susitna 100 took an often-gruelling 41 hours and the White Mountains 100 was a fairly comfortable 18 (with the exception of the 2.5-hour grumpy bonk thrown in to keep me honest.) Cold weather was a big factor in the Susitna 100 and a non-issue in the White Mountains 100 (I had a thermometer on my bike that I occasionally checked, and would guess the temperatures ranged from 10 degrees to 34 degrees with light winds during the WM100.)

I feel satisfied with the effort I put into the White Mountains 100 — I gave it everything I had on those climbs and without serious intensity training wouldn't have the strength to go harder. With more snow biking practice I could improve my descents. But all in all I had a great race, and think it would have been perfect with a little tweaking in the nutrition department. I appreciate that my winter was capped with dynamic challenges. I think it's good to have a well-rounded mixture of goals — intense and soul-crushing like the Susitna 100, and fast and fun like the White Mountains 100. I suspect the Tahoe Rim Trail will be more like the former, so I hope to find a light-hearted mountain bike race to round it out (24 Hours of Light, anyone?)

For now, I have a long summer in front of me. It's going to be tough, but I plan to do what I can to enjoy it.