Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lone Peak

I am starting to fall behind in my blogging. Sometimes I just like to update my digital scrapbook before it's too late. On Wednesday I joined my dad and his friend Tom for a trek up Lone Peak. The Lone Peak massif is an icon of my childhood. It was the mountain I looked up toward every day on my way to school. I'm not sure when I began to fantasize about climbing Lone Peak. Probably as soon as I was old enough to dream about climbing mountains. I finally did for the first time when I was 17 years old. What looks like a moderately tough hike on paper - 12 miles, 6,000 feet of climbing to an elevation of 11,250 feet - is in reality a relentless taskmaster of a mountain that starts out mean, adds an obstacle course into the mix, and wraps it all up with some butt-cheek-clenching exposure. After 14 years and a not-too-shabby endurance resume, this route has seriously not gotten any easier. And yet, it's still just as beautiful and fulfilling ...

The stairway to heaven, Jacob's Ladder.

Hanging with my dad. I'm sporting my best ultrarunner geek chic, - arm warmers (I believe runners call them "sleeves"), Dirty Girl gaiters and a neon green hat. The knee brace is just a precautionary thing. My "bad" right knee has been feeling particularly weak since the TRT100. The brace seems to help stabalize it.

When I was 17 years old, this meadow is where I wanted to build my house. Lone Peak is the far mountain in the center.

Marching up the mid-summer snowfields.

The final traverse on the knife ridge above a 1,200-foot sheer vertical wall. A few moves involve swinging wide over the void while clinging to precariously perched boulders.

On the peak overlooking Bell's Canyon.

Heading back toward Corner Canyon, with Utah Lake in the background.
Friday, July 29, 2011

My night on the PCT

Simplicity. To pare life down to its basic necessities. This is the very reason I love backpacking and bicycle touring so much. And, paradoxically, it's also my largest obstacle to embarking on overnight and multiday excursions. I don't particularly enjoy poring over gear options and I'm especially resistant to the planning part of any trip. In my perfect world, a backpack full of gear and food would materialize and I would just pick it up and wander off into the mountains with no clue where I was or where I was going. Of course, if you want to return in good condition or at least alive, a plan-free trip is simply not realistic. But on Monday morning, as I tapped away at my computer and contemplated a hiking binge week, I wondered about the real possibility of an overnight, nearly-plan-free backpacking trip.

Keep it simple. I wrapped up my work and went to my gear closet to pull out my summer sleeping bag (down, rated to 20 degrees), Thermarest and bivy sack. A down coat, hat and mittens for the evening, headlamp and flashlight, sunscreen, bug spray, toiletries and a paperback ("Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl.) For food I simply went to my kitchen and grabbed what was available - a bagel, a packet of tuna, some smashed and resolidified candy bars left over from the TRT100, and some fruit bars. I had two liters of water and knew for extra I could simply stuff handfuls of snow into the bladder. Twenty minutes later, I had everything I needed, crammed into my little Osprey pack. (At the trailhead I realized that I was backpacking for fun, not suffering, and decided to bring my tent, which is why the Thermarest is strapped to the outside.)

Since I was headed toward Utah, it seemed most simple to connect up with an iconic backpacking trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, where it intersected with I-80. Beat and I hiked in this area several weeks ago. I remember looking over at a nearby, broad ridge and saying, "I bet that's an awesome ridge to hike." I didn't even know it at the time, but the Pacific Crest Trail follows that very ridge.

High ridge walking, sweeping views, mountains, solitude, snow and the golden light of evening. I was in Jill Heaven.

I didn't begin hiking until quarter to seven, so the light began to fade quickly. No matter. This is backpacking, where you travel with everything you need and you're not in a hurry to get anywhere. No stress about the hours or the destination or the mileage. It's a beautiful way to travel.

The hike was complicated by lingering swaths of snow that masked the trail in the trees and swept across slopes that were often perilously exposed. Traveling alone as I was, I had to gulp down surprisingly large hits of courage just to punch in my poles and tiptoe across the ramps, knowing that no one was coming to save me if I lost my footing and slid into oblivion. As darkness fell, the temperature plummeted and the snow developed an icy sheen. I came to a snow field on the bald face of Anderson Peak that sent shivers right to my core. It wasn't that steep - about 35 degrees - but it was at least 200 meters long, nearly as slick as a slip-n-slide, with a long run-out into rocks or trees that either way could only end badly. There were steps frozen in and I knew I could do it, but fear gripped me and I turned around. As I hiked back down the trail, already half sure I was just going to retreat all the way back to my car before the snow I had already crossed hardened up any more, I realized that this was one fear I could confront, and should. Danger yawned from the void below but I knew it was doable, and careful steps were all I needed. "I need to do more things that scare me," I said out loud, and marched back toward the snow. As I tiptoed onto the slope, the last hints of crimson sunlight reflected on the speckled ice. I focused in on my tiny section of the world until all I could see was snow, quiet snow, tinted in eerily warm light. It made me think of Alaska, which made me happy, and before I even realized it, I was on the other side.

Here is a section of the snowfield the following morning, slushed back up and looking decidedly less scary. But that brief night crossing was in itself a powerful experience, and I'm glad I did it.

I followed the yellow light of my headlamp two more miles to a perch just below Tinker Knob. Even though I was a mere seven miles from the trailhead, the ridge felt eerily remote, and I felt very much alone, in a good way. I opened up my small pack and set up my tent, rolled out my warm sleeping bag, and donned my down coat, hat and mittens. I walked to a high point on the ridge and sat with my back to the gusting wind, willfully oblivious to its cold bite as I munched on my tuna sandwich. The white stream of the Milky Way soared over my head as the lights of Auburn twinkled a world away, far below me. I thought about Beat, who is racing a crazy tough and technical foot race in the French Alps. I pulled out my cell phone to send him a text, just to let him know that I missed him.

I nested deep into my sleeping bag, where I listened to the cold wind and read my paperback until 1 a.m. - just because I could - but I was up with the sun anyway at 6 a.m. I climbed Tinker Knob to eat my candy bar breakfast and enjoy the views. I already knew I didn't want to hike back over the snow in the real freeze of early morning, so I decided to go for a run, continuing down the PCT toward Squaw Valley. The run turned out to be surprisingly difficult - not so much because of foot pain, which I'm still experiencing to some extent, but because I had a surprisingly strong reaction to the elevation. I started sucking wind almost immediately, and quickly became dizzy. Breathing proved difficult at even a moderate pace. Luckily, the trail dropped far into a valley, which spared me both the oxygen deficit and more snow fields. I ran 4.5 miles, and attempted to run but mostly hiked the steep return to camp.

Nine miles, and I was quite tired, but grateful for the opportunity to traverse the ridge in full daylight. The snow fields did prove to be much less intimidating in the heat of the day. Endurance mode kicked in and I really perked up after the scary snowfield, actually running most of the way back even with a pack. I didn't see a soul on the trail until two miles from the finish, where after the trail was quite crowded. A couple of hikers assumed I was a full PCT "fastpacker" and actually stopped me to ask questions. (I had to disappoint them by admitting my trip was less than 24 hours, although I'd love to go much longer with minimal gear someday.) I burned through the rest of my food and water with less than a mile to spare. 23 miles total, lots of challenging terrain, incredible scenery, and a bit of sleep, all in less than 18 hours. The perfect unplanned trip.

The afternoon was filled with the long drive across the desert, which I actually really enjoyed (those huge, open spaces inspire me.) I crossed the Salt Flats right at sunset, where the remnants of a dust storm muted the light to a deep bronze, saturating the blank landscape. Even though I was running about two hours late, I stopped anyway to soak it all in, and took a few silly jumping self-portraits. On closer inspection, I think this one turned out better than the one I posted earlier. It's sharper and I like the sun twinkle at my ankle. It was, simply, a beautiful day.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When it pays to not stay put

Beat flew to Europe on Sunday, leaving me with a full week of solo time. I had one deadline to hit and always other things I should work on, train for, or otherwise make good use of my time trying to finish. But then my dad acquired a permit for the Narrows in Zion National Park for this coming Friday. I've never hiked the Narrows; I've always wanted to, and I thought - why not make a whole trip out of it?

I worked hard and late all day Sunday and early Monday to finish up my one mandatory project, and hit the road at 2:30 p.m. Leaving California is always a chore. I basically sat in traffic for 150 miles. But once I cleared Auburn, I was free.

I will write more later but I thought I'd post a few pictures of the trip so far. I embarked on an amazing spontaneous overnight trip on the Pacific Crest Trail near Truckee, Calfornia. I started hiking from Donner Pass at 6:30 p.m., camped seven miles from the trailhead, hiked/ran nine more out to Granite Chief Wilderness and back in the morning, and then hiked back to my car for the 550-mile drive to Salt Lake City. Big day, and it's only just the beginning of this whirlwind trip. But so far, so worth it. So worth it.

Sunset last night on the PCT.

Woke up here early this morning.

Breakfast and a view on Tinker Knob.

Sunset on the Salt Flats.

Tomorrow ... Lone Peak!
Thursday, July 21, 2011

Recovery binge

How does one recover from an 80-mile, 28-hour, pain-soaked mountain running odyssey? I woke up early Monday so stiff that I had to summon my last remnants of courage just to roll out of bed. I spent a fair portion of the morning lurking near my overturned luggage, stockpiling motivation and energy just to haul my laundry downstairs and clean out my race gear. I spent the afternoon muddling — no, flailing — through a sleep-deprived fog in a futile bid to try to get some work done. On Tuesday, I was slightly more productive until I tried to ride over to Google to meet Beat. My still-swollen feet throbbed in my bike shoes and my right IT band was stiff and painful, to the point where I opted to pedal most of the last six miles home with my left leg only. On Wednesday, I dozed off for a morning nap that dragged on until 1 p.m., and by the time I emerged from 11-plus hours of sleep, I could almost walk with a normal stride again.

When I woke up on Thursday, I felt the strangest sensation. It was so familiar, so invigorating — like I was strong again, not just searching for courage; like I had actual energy, not just a caffeine headache; like I was really excited about the upcoming day. I just had to go outside, just had to, in any way I could. I grabbed my road bike. I promised myself I would take it easy. I vowed to turn around at any hint of IT band pain. The afternoon sun was hot and vaguely draining, but it felt so good to feel the wind on my sweat-streaked face, to breathe thick, moist air, and work up a solid effort doing something that didn't hurt like hell. Yay for bikes! Yay for recovery! I somehow ended up at the 3,000-feet high point on Skyline Drive for 29 miles and 3,600 feet of climbing. Not a bad recovery ride.

I returned home just as Beat was contemplating an evening recovery ride of his own. My blistered feet and oversensitive toes couldn't handle another minute in my bike shoes, but I agreed to join him on any bike that had platform pedals. We ended up on our snow bikes, Pugsley and the Fatback, grinding the fat wheels up Montebello Road for the sheer fun of it. We were going to turn around after an hour, but I hinted that a hundred more feet of climbing would net me 5,000 feet on the day. The evening was so nice, and the ridge so enticing that we overshot my goal for 16 miles and 2,150 feet of climbing, for a total of 45 miles and 5,750 feet of climbing on the day. It feels fantastic to not be a stiff, sleep-deprived robot once again.

I didn't have any IT band pain at all, interestingly enough. And although I wasn't pushing any high levels of intensity, I didn't even feel especially fatigued afterward, thanks to four days of rest. Bikes on pavement are nearly impact free, and after the beating my body took on Saturday, riding feels nearly as relaxed as rest. I'm not sure when I'll try running again, but I admit the thought of it still terrifies me.

As for my "hurty foot" problem, it does seem the pain has mostly abated. I can still feel a vague soreness on the bottom of my feet when I walk on hard surfaces, almost as though the bottoms of my feet are slightly bruised. But there doesn't seem to be any tissue damage or any hint of plantar faciitis. I've gathered many theories about my foot pain since my race ended. My mom mentioned that she had a similar issue a decade ago, and her doctor sent her to physical therapy for excessively tight hamstrings, which solved her problem. My friend Harry speculates that because my entire running career encompasses all of 10 months, the first five of which I spent running almost exclusively on soft snow and the next five on my heavily cushioned shoes (Hoka One Ones), that my feet just haven't had a chance to toughen up yet. My friend Steve also thinks I need to just run more. My friend Robin, a distance skier and hiker in Anchorage, recommended Tuf Foot to help thicken my skin. Other friends think a trip to the podiatrist and possible orthotics or physical therapy are a good idea. My boyfriend Beat thinks I should just HTFU. (I kid, I kid.)

I'm inclined to believe that a combination of most or all of these could help. I do think many if not most ultrarunners started the sport with a decent base of running, including shorter trail distances, road running and marathons, so they probably never had to cope with completely "new" feet in quite the same way. It's similar to the way I secretly roll my eyes when people not accustomed to riding bicycles start complaining that their butts hurt after five miles. I just can't relate to their pain at all, because it's been so long since I had "new" sit bones.

Either way, now that the foot pain has abated, I find myself fantasizing about going for a hundred again, like signing up the the Bear 100 in September, which for many obvious reasons would be completely idiotic. I really should focus on staying healthy, getting to the root of my body issues and building my running base before I swing frantically at goals that are still quite likely beyond my physical capabilities. But bikes have this way of making me feel invincible.
Monday, July 18, 2011

TRT 100: When trying isn't enough

The short story of my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 experience is that I missed a late checkpoint cutoff and timed out at mile 80. I was unceremoniously swept from the course after a night-long battle with sore feet — about 15 percent of the pain was caused by blisters and 85 percent by a deeper soreness that made every step feel like I was hitting the bottom of my feet progressively harder with a hammer. I really wanted to finish this race and I tried to gut it out. The ginger-stepping slowed me down too much, and by the time I realized my pace wasn't going to cut it, it was too late. But I genuinely tried, and I think that's what makes the DNF particularly disappointing. I ate well, I felt strong, I loved the course and I ran as smart of a pace as I could maintain. I gave this race my best effort, and that simply wasn't good enough.

But that's the short story. The long story is a richer and more variable journey that I'm grateful to have experienced. The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 started at 5 a.m. Saturday near Spooner Lake. Years of trying to make better use of mornings and several 24-hours-plus endurance races have taught me that it really doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing — anything between the hours of 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. is just not my time to shine. But I was buzzing with excitement about the mammoth undertaking in front of me. Not only was I going to attempt this 100-mile effort, but I was going to attempt it alone. Beat and I agreed to run our own races. We shared a good-luck kiss at the start and joined the 100 or so other runners pressing into the pre-dawn darkness.

Because it was so early in the morning, the first hours of the race are pretty much a blur. I followed a long line of people into a bank of mountain fog high on the Tahoe Rim. Trail runners are unique in that I think most prefer to be in the mountains alone or with one or two friends, but we seek out races for the community and socializing.

You might wonder why one would want to go into the mountains with 100 other people, but the support network becomes a hugely enriching part of the experience. The course consisted of two 50-mile trips around a braid of three loops, which meant I met the leaders a few times. They were always red-faced and moving at a pace I could scarcely conceive, but without fail, even in the coldest, loneliest parts of the night, they all looked up and offered words of encouragement. Ultrarunners are good people.

My morning fog continued until about mile 10, when the first competitors of the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 started to pass me. The race started an hour later, but of course my own conservative pace meant many of the 50-milers would eventually pass me. Constantly disrupting my rhythm to let runners go by proved to be surprisingly demoralizing. I let it get to me more than I should have, mostly because most who passed me did so while I was gingerly jogging down a descent — I struggle the most with descents — and they flew by with enviable ease. Just before the second aid station, about mile 12, I moved over to let one of the 50-mile leaders fly past. I caught my foot on a rock and careened toward a table-sized boulder where I knocked my left shoulder and knee cap hard. The knee bashing was particularly painful and throbbed for the next 10 miles, which also threw my mojo off a bit.

But there was no denying that the course was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and smiles came easily in the first 20 miles. I started meeting and chatting with friends who were competing in the 50-miler. I was really digging the turkey-and-mustard sandwiches and fruit at the aid stations, so I was taking in a lot of useful calories. I also maintained a good intake of fluid, because my required checkpoint weigh-ins consistently came in with only a pound or two lost or gained. I've never participated in a race that had weigh-ins and thought it entertaining to watch how my own weight fluctuated during a race. Once, a racer in front of me weighed in at five pounds higher than his starting weight, which in my understanding is fairly typical during an ultra-run. Alarmed, he asked the medic what he could do to keep his race weight down. "I hear running is a good way to lose weight," the medic replied.

A few times, I purposefully disrupted my slow pace to charge uphills for the sheer joy of it — climbing steep alpine terrain is my favorite kind of running. Even in the early miles, I did notice an big heart rate spike and shortness of breath on my harder climbs, no doubt a result of the sustained high elevation, which averages 8,200 feet and never drops below 6,800 feet.

Beat had a strong first half and I never saw him on the course after the race start, but I did leapfrog a bit with my friend Steve, who was struggling with the elevation but still crushed my pace on the descents. We left the luxurious Diamond Peak aid station (a ski resort lodge) and started together up the climb to Diamond Peak. The race officials had warned us that it was a direct ascent up a ski slope, but I really had no idea how brutal it would actually be. We gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles on a 25-percent grade with no switchbacks. It was absolutely grueling in the direct sun at mile 31 (and 81!) of a 100-mile race, just mean, but we tried to keep good humor about it. I started referring to the climb as "Wickersham Wall Nevada," — my own esoteric reference to the killer steep climb right at the end of the White Mountains 100 — and occasionally mumbled "@#$! Wickersham." Of course I was the only one who found this funny, but it did improve my mood during the hour-long, Achilles-burning grind.

I was amazed how well the race seemed to be going. Even with the Wickersham Wall, I completed my first 50K in eight hours, which was my goal, and felt great. But I've participated in enough long races to know that they haven't even started until at least halfway in, maybe even 70 percent. I still had a long, long way to go.

And of course, just when you think something is going great is usually when it starts to fall apart. During the descent into the Hobart aid station, near mile 40, I started to notice the familiar blunt pain, which I refer to as "hurty foot," that has dogged me on all of my longer runs. I knew this pain was likely, even inevitable, but I still took it as an extreme blow to my morale. It's difficult to describe this pain because I haven't pinpointed the cause exactly, but as I mentioned before, it seems to press right down to the bones and feels like a broad hammer slamming against the bottom of my foot. It is an overuse injury but experience has also taught me that it's largely superficial. It doesn't seem to cause any long-term damage, and so dealing with it becomes an exercise in pain management. This has so far proven to be an insurmountable mental obstacle for me. Sure, you can slap yourself endlessly without lasting physical harm, but at what point does the pain become intolerable?

I was not looking forward to finding out just how long I could endure the beating. I started up the gradual climb to Snow Valley Peak and tried to mitigate the pain by consciously landing on my forefoot rather than my mid-foot, which is my more natural stride. Of course, doing anything that doesn't feel normal throws off my already precarious sense of balance, especially after 40 miles of running. Eventually I tripped on nothing and face-planted into the dirt, again. Frustration started to bubble to the surface.

The Snow Valley rim contained my absolute favorite kind of running — a smooth dirt trail along high alpine tundra, with patches of snow, wildflowers and stunning views on all sides. Sadly, this did little to improve my mood.

Just below the peak, elevation 9,000, a group of volunteer boy scouts from Carson City had set up a surprisingly well-stocked and organized aid station. The only other access point was a very rough and steep doubletrack, and I was amazed they were even able to cart all those supplies up there, let alone organize them in individual wind-protected containers. The volunteers had lined the trail with playful signs and waved flags as a couple other runners and I approached. All of these fun details should have made me feel better, but the awesome aid station only made me feel annoyed with myself for being so grumpy.

It still surprises me how childish and irritable I can become when I am physically tired and in pain. A man who caught up with me after I stopped to take photos of flowers said, "You know, I bet we'd both be a lot faster if we didn't stop so often to take pictures."

"Then this race would be even less fun," I snapped humorlessly, and instantly felt bad about my snippy retort. What was wrong with me?

I crested the ridge in a gust of cold wind. I stopped to put on more layers and felt a rush of trepidation as I gazed over the seven-mile, 2,000-foot descent in front of me. This was going to be hurty and hard and I was only halfway through the race. After I found my arm warmers, mittens and windshell, I fished out my iPod as well. It was definitely time to begin employing coping techniques. Headphones are a controversial topic in any endurance sport, and more often than not they're explicitly discouraged. But for me, music isn't just a diversion, it's a meaningful part of my experience. And sure enough, less than ten minutes later the Shuffle dredged up a song from a new album I just downloaded and hadn't heard yet, "St. Peter's Cathedral" by Death Cab for Cutie. The song has a joyful tone and the lyrics imply a message about living life to the fullest, repeating the line, "There's nothing past this." The words struck a deep cord as I rounded a corner and caught my first glimpse of the stark desert mountains and Carson City on my left, sparkling blue Lake Tahoe and the snow-capped Sierras on my right, and this whole alpine paradise drenched in color by the saturated light of early evening. One of the aspects I cherish about hard endurance efforts is the way they strip me down to the simplest version of myself, exposing strong emotions and vibrant memories that normally linger too far below the noisy surface of my life. I was filled with a strong sort of love for this place, these mountains, and wanted to do anything for it, to express my love through the steps I took, pain be damned. "There's nothing past this," I whispered as I picked up speed, covering up the pain signals with music and light. Seven miles seemed to pass in an instant.

I returned to the start/finish to find Beat waiting for me at the halfway mark. He felt strong during the first 50 miles of the race but also developed some foot pain. He has a bigger and much more daunting race in France coming up in just 10 days, so he had already decided he would drop at even a hint of a problem so as to not risk injury. I was excited to see him and proud of him for making a smart decision. We compared bloody knees and I told him about my moment on Snow Valley peak and the surprisingly incredible run downhill. I also told him I planned to slow my pace down quite a bit in order to persevere to the finish. It had taken me 14 hours to run the first 50 miles, and I had just over 20 more hours before the finish cutoff. "Fast" running dealt proportionally harder hammer strikes on my tender feet, but walking and ginger-step shuffling seemed achievable, and I only had to average 2.5 mph to make the cut-offs.

I set out alone as darkness descended, working to push the foot pain to the back of my mind. A nearly full moon rose over the tree tops and I relished in the quiet and solitude as I moved through my tiny tunnel of light. I love night efforts; I've said before that they're my favorite part of endurance racing — all of my senses sharpen and I feel a heightened awareness for the world around me even as I further detach from my own ego and physical limitations. Still, pain is a powerful distraction, and my foot soreness was not going away. On top of this, both of my feet had become quite swollen, and because of this I had developed a multitude of blisters in unexpected places, such as the bottoms of my toes and along the sides of my feet. I took long breaks at aid stations to try to cover the blisters. My hasty methods were remarkably ineffective, and the blisters caused an electric shock of pain when they popped a few more miles down the trail. For a while I tried to take the ultrarunning advice to just ignore my blisters and their superficial pain because ultrarunning is all about pain management. I started down the Red House loop, a six-mile spur that was by far my least favorite section of the course because it contained a very steep and muddy descent, several stream crossings, a boring flat run through the trees and a very steep ascent back to the aid station. I dreaded this section and moved slower than molasses through it, partly falling asleep on my feet and partly just mitigating my pain by slowing to a near-stop. I wasn't fully conscious of any of this, or of the vast amounts of time that were passing beneath my sore feet and labored breaths.

When I made it back to the Tunnel Creek aid station, mile 67, I decided that I was going to spend some time working to mitigate the pain I at least had some control over, my blisters. I removed my shoes, washed my feet with alcohol wipes and set about the complicated effort of applying effective coverings. Still, my mind was terribly foggy and the well-meaning race volunteers were distracting me, chatting about my shoes and cold weather gear until I could no longer focus on the very specific list of chores I had planned during my crawl around the Red House loop. Other back-of-the-pack racers milled about, some who had already dropped from the race and some who the medics were essentially trying to talk into dropping, either because their hydration levels were worrisome or their oxygen levels were too low (I felt short of breath as well and was curious to find out what my own oxygen level was at, but then thought better of asking to be tested because I didn't want to be pulled from the race.)

One volunteer, obviously an experienced ultrarunner, observed how long I was taking to wrap my blisters, understood I was already running close to the cutoffs and took on the noble role of trying to hustle my butt out of there. "Where's your pacer?" he asked as he approached me.

"I don't have a pacer," I said. (Interestingly, a majority of the 100-mile runners in the TRT race had "safety runners" with them.)

"This your first hundred?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. (In small talk, I usually told people that the TRT100 was my first 100-mile run attempt, even though I've completed the Susitna 100 on foot. Like snow biking and mountain biking, I view winter and summer trail running as essentially two different sports, and it was simpler just to call the TRT100 my first rather than try to explain this viewpoint.)

"Better to have a pacer if it's your first," he said. "They keep you moving."

Even with my foggy mind, I understood his implication. "I know," I replied. "I'm leaving soon. I just wanted to try and fix my feet a little. They're really sore and they're causing me to move really slow. Pacers can't really do anything about your feet."

"No," he said. "But training will. How has your training been?"

"Well," I drew a breath. Confession time. "I'm really more of a cyclist. I do both cycling and running, but probably mostly cycling."

"What's your weekly mileage?"

More confessions. "I probably average 20 miles a week or so, in training. I've done a few long runs training for this race, 50K races and such."

He shook his head. "No way can you run a hundred on 20 miles a week. Riding a bicycle won't do anything for you in a 100-miler. You want to train for an ultra, you have to build a base. You have to run and only run."

I nodded miserably. "Maybe this wasn't worth it to me," I said. "But it was a grand experiment all the same."

The volunteer's words of wisdom weighed heavily as I started up the next climb. What kind of egotistical delusion made me think I could fake my way through a 100-mile trail run? Beat runs 100-mile races on similar weekly training miles, but he also runs a lot more races essentially as training runs, plus he has a vast running base to fall back on. I have a solid cycling base, an iron butt and a strong back, but my feet are as soft as a cashmere. And the only way to fix that is to train on my feet — and train patiently. Attempting two hundred-mile foot races in my first year of running at all really was overly ambitious.

But I was frustrated by the fact that I still felt strong and relatively fresh. I wanted this TRT finish, I really did, and I wanted to believe my determination and endurance could get me through it. Then I would have that trail 100-mile finish and I would know I could do it. I wavered between hard determination and raw dread at the prospect of 30 more miles of foot pain. But I also grasped for optimism, for the perhaps misguided belief that things can always get better.

Whenever I didn't focus intensely on forward motion, my pace slowed to an extreme plod. My daydream phases were a nice mental relief, but I often snapped back to alertness only to find myself gasping for air and barely moving. I reached the bullwheel aid station to find everyone asleep, so I continued up to the peak. With a new view of the horizon, I noticed for the first time the streaks of red lining the horizon. Was it really almost morning? I pulled out my GPS and felt an adrenaline rush of dismay as the screen flashed the time, 5:11 a.m.

I was only at the top of Diamond Peak, which meant I still had nine more miles to reach the next aid station. Although I had been avoiding the math all night long, I did remember that the mile 80 cutoff was 7:35 a.m., which meant I had only two hours and 24 minutes to make nine miles of mostly downhill trail. Four miles per hour would require actual running, which I hadn't successfully coaxed my feet into doing for some hours. I started down the hill at a run, holding my Garmin handheld device so I could watch my miles per hour. A painful shuffle only netted three miles per hour, and trying to walk fast did the same with even more general soreness. When I tried to gut my way into a solid running stride, the pain actually brought tears to my eyes. If I raced this cutoff, I'd be racing cutoffs for the rest of the race. I couldn't manage that level of pain for thirty more miles. It was impossible.

I sat down on a rock and indulged in feeling sorry for myself, letting the crocodile tears run down my cheeks. Just then, Steve ran up behind me. This surprised me because I had already deduced that I must be at the very back of the race at this point, and also because I was sure Steve was in front of me. As it turned out, he took a wrong turn in the night and ended up on a four-mile detour. Now he was racing the cutoffs as well. He was struggling with the elevation, but he's also a strong downhill runner.

"I don't think I can make it," I said. "But I bet you can."

As Steve took off down the trail, I tried one last-burst effort to keep up with him. Every step was like an electric shock coursing through my feet. It was impossible to think about anything else but a white curtain of pain. I went blind to my surroundings and lost track of Steve almost immediately. I checked my GPS and even this seemingly monumental painful effort was only scraping the 4 mph barrier. Even my best effort was not going to be enough. My thoughts were numbed enough by the pain that I had to slow down to let the reality soak in.

More crocodile tears. Sometimes you just have to let it all leak out. And sure enough, I started to accept my failure and feel better about my situation. The sun was rising over the Nevada desert, casting more gorgeous light over the Tahoe Rim. It was a beautiful morning, I was alone in the mountains, and I had just run farther on dirt than I ever had in my life. There was nothing else past this — except for the nine-mile walk of shame I still had to make to the 80-mile cutoff.

I walked painfully slow because even slow was becoming painful. I was enjoying the scenery and I didn't even really care how long it took me, I didn't want to endure any more pain than I had to. The minutes crawled by and I took frequent breaks just for a chance to emerge from my mind's gray cloud into the beautiful morning. I was still three miles from the finish when the 7:35 a.m. cutoff came and went. Another runner and his pacer passed me at 7:30 a.m., startling me completely because I was sure I was alone out there. "Is this downhill fun or what?" he exclaimed.

"I can't run," I replied miserably. "And we're too late to make the cutoff."

"I know," he said. "But at least we can finish in style." And with that, he continued flying down the hill. I envied his attitude, and tried to work on improving my own.

Beat met me about a mile and a half from the checkpoint. Seeing him made all of my disappointment rush to the surface. "I'm so sorry," I blubbered. "My feet hurt."

"I know," he said. "But you did great. Really." He had a huge smile on his face and didn't look at all disappointed in me. "I hope you had a great time anyway."

"I did," I said. "I really did."

And that was the truth of it. I had a fantastic experience and I learned a lot. I set out for these outlandish goals knowing that failure isn't just possible, it's likely. But I learn so much more from my failures and I gain so much more from my successes during these far-reaching ambitions. My feet are still tender but the pain is already fading, and along with it the disappointment about my DNF. What remains is love for the mountains that I traveled and memories of the great moments.

Here's a map of the course. My GPS watch battery died after 18 hours. My handheld recorded 14,000 feet of climbing in 80 miles.
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sleeping is giving in

I had planned to turn around at 45 minutes, but that was before the wind really picked up speed. Erratic gusts buffeted the bike from all sides, whistling through the vents in my helmet and causing the wheels to teeter ever so slightly in the midst of the uphill grind. I admit it was kind of exciting, so I continued climbing. The wind carried a surprisingly strong chill. It was 65 degrees in the valley, probably high 50s up here, and the wind made it feel like something closer to 45. A spark of cold realization made me think about the upcoming weekend; I shivered with anticipation and tried to push those thoughts aside by shifting up a few gears and cranking a little harder. As I approached the ridge, a jet stream of fog tore across the hillsides seemingly inches from the top of my helmet. The wind, having finally chosen a clear eastward direction, howled with the intensity of a sonic blast as seemingly benign white clouds streamed past at astonishing speeds. It was a strange sort of storm, and it caused me to shiver even though I knew it was harmless. This was just wind and fog from the Pacific. The skies overhead were crystal blue and the valley below was warm and calm. This was just a microburst of a windstorm, and I purposely rode farther than I should have to find it. But the personalized pocket of exciting intensity made me smile all the same.

On Friday I make my way toward Lake Tahoe for my first attempt at a "summer" 100-mile trail run, the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. I could ramble on and on about how nervous I feel, about the consistent jolts of reality that I'm actually *not* a very good runner, how I realized that a 100-mile race is not the same thing and probably not nearly as fun as a long leisurely hike through the wilderness, or how I'm pre-emptively mourning for my feet — but those things aren't relevant now that I've accepted that I'm setting out into the Sierras early on Saturday morning. I know I'm not going to come close to winning and I know it's going to hurt, a lot, probably more than I even understand despite my extensive feet-mourning period. I know I'll be ecstatic if I finish in something close to 30 hours, pretty darn happy if I finish at all, and I know I won't feel any of these emotions until well after the pain has finally stopped, which, even at my most optimistic won't be for a very long while. So why go? Why indeed?

Maybe, once the pain has finally abated, I'll be able to expound on that ongoing internal debate. For now, I just have to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and let those fleeting moments of clarity sort themselves out in the midst of the micro-storm that I sought out on purpose.

There may be updates during the race at this Web site, or possibly on the Twitter at this feed or hashtag #TRT100. I don't really know. I considered carrying a SPOT, but that's really quite silly given I'll be plodding along a fairly tight and well-marked course at, well, plodding speeds. So updates during the race may be few. Wish me luck, and if you really want to make me smile when I'm wallowing in self-inflicted hurty-foot pain, you can buy my book while I'm gone or, if you already read it, leave a review on Amazon to tell me what you think. For those who purchased signed copies recently, I'm hoping to receive my latest order on Tuesday and will try to get those out next week. Thanks again!

As for me, I'll probably be humming through the ear-worm of what I've already made my 100-mile-plod-through-the-night theme song, "Rebellion" by the Arcade Fire:

Now here's the sun, it's all right (Lies! Lies!)
Now here's the moon, it's all right (Lies! Lies!)
But every time you close your eyes (Lies! Lies!) ...

Good times.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Simply perfect

I wasn't going to ride tonight, taper and all, but during the late afternoon I found myself caught up in a spiral of unproductivity and decided there's really only one way to break free of a spiral like that.

I only had time for the usual road climb, the one I do so often that I find myself racing myself ("Last time I reached the gate in 53 minutes. Have to hit sub-52 this time. Crank! Crank! Crank! Shoot, I'm under 8 mph again. Crank! Crank! Crank!") So, of course, I purposefully left my GPS watch at home. The weather was beautiful, 70 degrees and sunny. Of course, it's always sunny here. I have to scold myself for not appreciating the persistently blue skies more than I do, especially because I was sun-deprived in Alaska for so many years. But today I was genuinely grateful. The afternoon sunlight tinted the trees and pavement in rich, almost metallic colors, and there were vibrant summer flowers everywhere. How come I never noticed these along to road before? Oh yeah, because I'm usually going too hard.

Today, I just pedaled and smiled. It was simple in the most perfect way.
Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tapering just means more time to panic

Beat and I did a couple simple taper efforts this weekend. They were simple, but in a strange way not easy. I was sucking wind for most of the hour-long climb during our 30-mile road ride, and again today during our eight-mile trail run in Berkley (we had brunch with my dad's friend in San Francisco and decided to visits Beat's former haunts from the two years he lived there.) Beyond the fact that I ate three chocolate chunk pancakes, an empanada, a fritata and a slice of berry torte and then ran eight miles ... I'm still a bit baffled as to why I didn't feet more stellar. I've been taking it easy all week and the weather has been mild. I should be in full taper manic mode by now. Beat and I have been conducting an altitude-acclimating, hypoxic training experiment with a specialized face mask for 60 minutes each evening for the past few weeks, which might explain while my lungs felt so tired while my legs felt strong. But still, there's less than a week now until the Tahoe Rim Trail 100.

It's probably just time for me to contract all sorts of phantom pains and illnesses, not to mention a creeping suspicion that I'll never actually be able to run and I might just currently be in my worst shape yet. The usual, you know. But truthfully, I'm not really one to worry excessively about things I can't control. Meanwhile, Beat's uber-preparedness habits are making me feel guilty about having not even glanced at the TRT elevation profiles yet. I just want to sing "Que Sera Sera" and procrastinate more by blogging instead of making a drop-bag list.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Tour Divide is now drawing to a close, for the most part, as the last original-start riders roll into Antelope Wells. It was a sad day for me as a sports fan when one of my favorite riders, "Red Lantern" Justin Simoni, crashed his bike and dislocated his collar bone just outside Silver City with less than 130 miles to ride to the finish. Justin was the only competitor who braved all of the snowy passes from the start, when they were still so snow-choked that he had to employ snow shoes, an ice ax, and a mountaineering skills to get through them. He was so close to becoming the only non-ITT rider to complete the entire GDMBR this year when the crash forced him to scratch with only the "milk run" left. In his final report, he confirmed his disappointment but mused about the "romantic" way it all ended. I couldn't help but smile, since I'm sure I would draw the same admittedly unique conclusion ... "Sure, I had to DNF with one day left in the ride, but wow, what a fittingly poetic ending. A hard but ultimately enlightening reminder that our only rewards come from within, in the end."

Cricket Butler, the woman who set out from Banff on June 30 with the seemingly almost single-minded focus to ride for "the women's record" on the main course (which happens to currently be my 2009 finishing time) held a solid pace for the first 700 miles of the course but decided to stop outside Wise River, Montana, because of debilitating knee pain. Since she dropped, I've received a couple of congratulatory e-mails for "keeping" the record for another year, but I really was rooting for Cricket. I love that more women are getting involved in the Tour Divide and really want to see them all succeed. I enjoyed watching the women battle it out in this year's race. I've even heard from a couple of them since the race, women with whom I hadn't had any contact before they finished the TD.

The women's race winner, Caroline Soong, wrote me a thoughtful e-mail that I hope she doesn't mind my sharing: "I wanted to let you know that while racing the Tour Divide this year I somehow got the name of your new book "Be Brave, Be Strong" stuck in my head. It was during the Gila section that I would chant it in my head like some kind of mantra. It was just what I needed to get my mind off the heat, wind, brutal terrain and fear of running out of water. After having crashed a few times already in the race I became frightened of descending so I also chanted it my head on descents. I haven't read your book yet but look forward to reading it soon."

I also heard from Tori Fahey, whose real-time race reporting kept me glued to her progress from the start. I commented a few times on her blog posts and she recently wrote me an e-mail offering to buy me lunch or a beer if I ever travel through Calgary, as well as her sincerest respect for a Tour Divide finisher (which I also share. I think that in many ways this race is more difficult than anyone who has never participated in it can really understand.) In her latest blog post, Tori wrote that "The simplicity of riding and eating and sleeping is wonderful. It is only in the depth of such simplicity that the true intensity of emotions can come out. When it gets down to a matter of basic survival, that's what it is to be alive. ... I want to continue to experience life with such intensity. And I *know* that I will be stronger next time."

At the end of her message, Caroline commented that "The Divide was a great adventure, different than anything I had done before and in the end looking back after only a few days, I loved it. Not sure if it is in my future to race it again but the race was a great experience. I'll be rooting for you next year when you give it another go."

I actually laughed when I read Caroline's last sentence. When I give it another go? When? Since I finished that race two years ago, I've notoriously become one of those people who will decry "Hardest three weeks ever! Never again!" in one breath and then, in the next, spout off all the ways I could "easily" ride "at least three days faster" in the next go-around by racing smarter and sleeping in the dirt. The Tour Divide, like the Iditarod Trail, has this strange pattern of working its way into your blood, haunting you with images and memories and fantastic, unrealistic ambitions. A larger part of me realizes that, for the same time investment, I could ride a bike across Mongolia, or fast-pack the Pacific Crest Trail, or embark on a Brooks Range trekking trip. In other words, I could go out and experience new adventures. And yet, a desire to go back to the Divide calls to me like a siren in the mountains. Whether or not I ever heed it, well, that still depends on whether or not I survive the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 next weekend.