Monday, October 31, 2011

Feeling the 24-hour stoke

Looking a little shell-shocked after the 2006 24 Hours of Kincaid.
In my last blog post, I mentioned that I've been working on a book that is partially exploring my unlikely path into endurance sports during the winter of 2006. I'm specifically writing about snow biking, but there's an epilogue to the story that's directly related to my race this coming weekend. As winter melted into spring and dirt started to emerge from beneath the snow, I shifted my newfound passion to mountain biking. Before I moved to Alaska, I was not a mountain biker. I owned a mountain bike (a 2003 Gary Fisher Sugar), but I only used it occasionally and considered myself a complete beginner. Riding a bike on snow required a mountain bike, and it only made sense to continue using it during the summertime.

Lacking experience and thus any sense of propriety, I chose for my first mountain bike race (and second race ever) what was then and probably still is considered the pinnacle of endurance mountain bike racing, the 24-hour-solo. I signed up for the 24 Hours of Kincaid, a now-defunct race in Anchorage, Alaska, held the first weekend after the summer solstice. The dirt and minimal trails around my home in Homer didn't melt out until mid-May. So I had about five weeks to train, and even then most of my accessible terrain were gravel roads. But I wasn't all that worried about Kincaid. It had taken me 25 hours to complete the 2006 Susitna 100; how different could this be?

Le Mans start. This may technically count as my first foot race.
My plan for the race was simple. My then-boyfriend Geoff agreed to serve as my pit crew. After every lap, he would make me a half of a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of whatever horrible electrolyte drink we were experimenting with in those days, and remain "on call" in case I needed bike repairs. My job was simply to continue riding my bike for 24 hours straight. Easy peasy.

Only, discouragingly, it was not easy. I forgot where I left my bicycle before the Le Mans start and waited until nearly every other bike had been collected before I started way off the back. I lost the course markings within the first mile of singletrack and backtracked, twice. After about three miles the course became technical, with thick roots braided across the singletrack and steep, muddy drops laced with wet rocks. I slid and laid the bike down at mile four, and did a slow endo into some devil's club less than a mile later. After six miles of struggling, I decided I had no choice but to walk — walk — my bike along the more rugged sections. It was humiliating.

This is how I once raced a world-class elite ultrarunner.
I finished the first 10.5-mile, 1,100-feet-of-climbing lap in one hour and sixteen minutes. Geoff assured me this was not terrible as he dutifully recorded my time in his training notebook, fed me a half a sandwich and a swig of horrible awful sport drink, and ushered me into lap two. My riding and my outlook continued to improve until lap four, when my stomach randomly decided it no longer wanted to remain in my gut and started jostling all over the place. I only just made it to an outhouse and stumbled into my pit utterly strung out. "I'm sick," I gasped to Geoff and proceeded to lay on my back on the grass for nearly half an hour. Geoff plied me with food and drink but I couldn't ingest anything. "My stomach is churning," I whined. "And my back hurts. And my arms hurt."

Geoff, who was looking to get a run in anyway, tried to coax me back out by offering to "race" me for a lap — with him on foot and me on my bike. That sounded like an awfully unfair race to me, so after he suited up and headed out I continued to lay in the grass for another five minutes or so before reluctantly remounting my bike. I passed Geoff shortly before the technical section, and he passed me again as I was walking my bike through the roots (He snapped the picture above.) That was the last I saw of him. He beat me solidly; he wouldn't even tell me by how much.

I was completely demoralized. How was I so bad at mountain biking that even my stupid trail runner of a boyfriend was faster than me, on foot? (*note: Now that there's more evidence about just how fast he really is, I don't feel nearly as bad about that defeat. Still, would it have been so bad for him to let me win?) Twenty-four-hour racing was stupid. I just wanted to crawl into my tent and go to sleep even though it was only 7 or 8 p.m. But the northern summer sun was still high in the sky, and I knew it was too early to give up.

One of the things I love about 24-hour racing is the way familiar landscapes develop a surreal quality, as though everything was happening in a dream. As midnight approached and the sun sank below the horizon, the sky filled with iridescent pink light. Spruce needles turned purple and the roots and rocks disappeared beneath the deepening shadows. As my fatigue grew, so did my confidence, and I found myself riding more of the technical sections I had previously walked. I bounced over roots, leaned into tight corners and steamrolled up the steeps with previously untapped bursts of power. In my memory, I was fully awesome, a mountain biker without limits. Who knows, maybe I was. I was a still a beginner. I didn't yet know what I couldn't do.

Porcupines sauntered through my peripheral vision. Just before sunrise (which happens about four hours after sunset in Anchorage in June), a bull moose decided to bed down near a blind curve in the trail. The first time I came across his massive brown haunch, I nearly laid the bike down out of a knee-jerk conviction that I was about to launch off a grizzly bear. But a bull moose is nearly as scary, and I slammed on the brakes before I passed him. I froze in fear as he regarded me with droopy-eyed disinterest, completely bored and yet undeterred by my or the other 75-plus cyclists' presence on the trail. He remained in that exact spot for another two hours, until the morning sun was high in the sky.

That was about the time I lost nearly all fear. Instead of slowing down to appraise the current mood of the moose, I accelerated around corners occupied by him and other unpredictable animals (porcupines). I launched into root-clogged descents at blind speed — according to my odometer upwards of 30 miles per hour — just so I wouldn't have to pedal as much when the trail shot back up the equally steep other side. Riding the same trails over and over again made me almost proficient at their specific obstacles, and I began to feel invincible. My lap times were becoming steadily faster instead of slower, although my pit times were much longer. Geoff was snoozing at this point and I felt justified in taking ten or fifteen minutes to nibble on one of the sandwiches he left in the cooler as I laid down in the cool grass and watched the wheels of team racers zoom by.

My second big low point came during lap sixteen. After more than 160 miles of body-jarring roots, my arms and hands hurt so badly that I could no longer grip the handlebars. During one super-steep root descent, my finger joints locked up and I actually had roll the bike to a stop on the ascent so I could pry them slowly, painfully off the grips. I haven't admitted this before, but I was so discouraged by thoughts of even having to use my hands to push my bike back to the finish that I cried a little bit, making sure to adjust my sunglasses so the team racers couldn't see my tears. I stumbled into the pit just before 11 a.m., cheeks still stained with tears, as Geoff urged me to go out for another lap. "You can get third place!" he said. "Third place! You just need one more."

As it turned out, this wasn't true. Another guy was already out for his 17th lap and the best I could have done was fourth. But it didn't matter. I was done, so done. I laid back down in the grass, and stayed that way through the awards where the guy with 17 laps stood on the podium. I finished with 16 laps in fifth place. I was the first solo woman. I had ridden my mountain bike 168 miles with 17,600 feet of climbing. That 168 miles remains the longest distance I have ridden in a single 24-hour period to this day. Even laying horizontal in the grass with my hands frozen in a painful hook, nothing could wipe the smile off my face. I was irrevocably hooked.

After I wrote about it on my blog, a guy named Brian left this comment. His final sentence sums up the sensation perfectly — the reason I'm so excited to return to 24 (well, 25)-hour solo mountain bike racing five years and a seeming lifetime of changes and new experiences later:

"Congratulations, Jill! I attended the last 3/4ths of the event in support capacity for a group of my friends and co-workers who were participating, and saw how amazingly well you did! Not only the fact that you kept rolling, nearly non-stop, the entire 24 hours, but also in that you seemed to be genuinely enjoying yourself and the challenge of the event! Each time I happened to see you go through the gate, you had a grin on your face that only certain endurance-junkies can appreciate — a mix of satisfaction, amazement and a pinch of wry incredulity. ;)"
Friday, October 28, 2011

Making progress

Today I headed out to the city to visit Jen, another long-time friend, former housemate and partner-in-crazy-adventures, who was staying with our mutual friend Monika and only in town for a day. I fought rush-hour traffic so I could squeeze in a morning run with Monika, who is training for a couple of half marathons. Her training plan called for six miles today, which sounded easy, but then we hit the streets of San Francisco. Our mainly road run (this photo shows trail but it was all of a half mile through a park) fluctuated between quad-crushing steep climbs and ouch-my-knees concrete descents, literally rippling through city blocks. On top of that it was 80 degrees and neither of us brought any water. So much for "easy." Nothing a slice of Indian curry pizza and three hours of reminiscing can't cure.

Driving home, I felt more than a little guilty about all of the hours of "work" I've been cutting recently. The readers of this blog (and most of my family and friends) probably think I spend all day running and riding my bike, posting photos on the Web, and traveling to other places where I can run and ride my bike. Okay, this is sometimes true, but it is not *always* true. I wrapped up most of my pre-assigned freelance work early this month, so my latest efforts have involved (admittedly half-hearted) attempts to seek more freelance work, shopping out editing and design services to other independent authors (while acknowledging I really can't take on any big projects until after the holidays), outlining a few nonfiction book concepts, and working on one memoir.

The memoir is what I consider the big project right now, and also the most frustrating. Just to make a clarification — a memoir isn't necessarily a life story. Usually the genre describes a piece of one's life, written as an autobiography. I've written two already, but these fell more into the genre of adventure journalism. This one is a true memoir, and that's what makes it so challenging.

Basically, I am writing about the first winter I lived in Alaska. The project allows me to: a) share funny stories about a cheechako (that's an Alaska-ism for newbie) living in the quirky town of Homer, Alaska; b) share funny stories about life as a small-town journalist; c) explore in greater depth how and why someone who was essentially an occasional recreational weekend warrior suddenly decided to become an aspiring athlete in an extreme endurance sport, randomly and almost overnight; and d) delve into a concept I once scraped the broad surface of in my "Modern Romance" posts during winter 2009-2010: falling in love with a place, and the effects of these unexpectedly strong emotions.

If this all sounds convoluted and/or uninteresting, I guess that's my challenge, to prove that snapshots of my early experiences in Alaska can fit together in a unique and engaging story. It could also be a huge disaster and a waste of time. I have good days in which I'll work a solid six hours without even coming up for air, and emerge on the other side of the tunnel mentally exhausted, more spent than I would be after a six-hour run. Then I'll have days like Monday, when, after realizing that I had veered in a wrong direction, I decided to scrap nearly 10,000 words that I had worked so hard to mine from the depths of that tunnel. Bad days.

And I realize that the hope of making something like this actually become financially viable is almost laughable. Book sales and freelance projects have kept me in the positive thus far, but that will dry up if I don't generate new work soon. And regardless of what blog readers (and probably friends and family) might believe, I do want and need to maintain some level of financial independence. Thus I maintain more realistic side projects. But it's been a struggle to put real time into these efforts, because I've gotten my heart invested in this memoir. Some days — okay, many days — it's easier to just put the computer away and go out for a ride.

This post certainly isn't meant as any kind of complaint – just an explanation about what I've been doing. I'm thrilled I have the opportunity to do this right now, and I love all the time I have to "work," (as opposed to the days when I was working 50 hours a week at the Juneau Empire and writing "Be Brave, Be Strong" on the side. There was much too little actual fun in those days.) I just need to accept that, for me, writing is incredibly rewarding but genuinely difficult work, and if I want to make real progress, I need to invest more sweat equity. It isn't all going to fall into place just because I have more time and freedom.

Sometimes I feel frustrated, but it's nothing a two-and-a-half-hour evening mountain bike ride can't cure. (Maybe I do get out too much.)
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peak training ride

I wanted to do one last long ride ahead of the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, so I picked Tuesday as a good day to forgo "work" in favor of riding my bike all day long. I know, I have it tough. With my sights set on something around eight hours, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try something I have wanted to do ever since I moved here — ride a mountain bike from my house, up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains, to (near) the sea. While playing with Google Maps last night, I realized that I could make a loop out of such a ride, and it could still feature a lot of dirt and trail. Google Maps set the route at 85 miles, which seemed a little too ambitious, but I decided to set out with my set of printed cues and see what happened.

Of course, I slept late and didn't get out the door until 10:30 a.m. I started up the steep Montebello Road feeling downtrodden. Even a couple of hits from my bag of Sour Gummy Lifesavers couldn't perk me up. I was feeling the effects of my recent heavy exercise loading — my heart felt like it was racing even though it was beating at a slower rate than normal, and my legs felt like I had lead blocks strapped to my calves. Plus, I received a flu shot yesterday, so my immune system was probably running full throttle, fighting off dead flu bugs (and then I did a 31-mile, 3,400-feet-of-climbing road ride on Monday evening.) But I reasoned that feeling rough was a good thing; getting right on the verge of overtraining and then resting usually boosts my endurance, and it's always good mental training to ride while feeling less than strong. But it didn't bode well for the 7.5 hours still in front of me.

I rode an always-fun network of singletrack off the backside of Black Mountain — Bella Vista, White Oak, Skid Trail and Alt Ridge. Rolling fun singletrack put a little spark back in my legs, and I launched down Alpine Road hungry for adventure.

Camp Pomponio Road — one of the many roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was once paved, decades ago, but has since been then left to deteriorate in the (admittedly mild) elements. The section shown in this picture is nice and smooth, but below the gate this "road" became a minefield of broken pavement and massive craters that actually made for somewhat technical mountain biking, or at least required focused maneuvering. I bet roadies ride these "roads" and they are crazy.

Further down in Pescadero Creek County Park — the deep, dark, disconcertingly remote redwood forest. I made a couple of wrong turns in here, and then made other turns I wasn't sure about. I began to feel nervous about committing myself to a loop that I had no real maps for, only a set of Google cues that were already off in mileage because of my trail diversions on Black Mountain. I thought of a mantra I used to repeat to myself when I felt bewildered and lost on mountains in Juneau, which is, "if all else fails, I'll just find a creek and follow it to the sea." Of course it's a ridiculous plan, especially with a bike in California, and yet it still makes me feel better.

I popped out in Loma Mar, thrilled because I knew where I was and because I was on a real adventure. I'd never been down this way before. It was mostly rolling farmland. I went by one store, which was closed. It was the only commercial business I passed on my entire route. Good thing I packed plenty of water and Sour Gummy Lifesavers.

I came within about two miles from the coast at 100 feet elevation, and I regret that I didn't turn right at the junction just for a quick view of the sea. But at the time I knew I was facing a huge climb on more potentially difficult to navigate fireroads, and it was becoming a matter of "I don't want to have to do any of that in the dark." My adventure ride was becoming a race with daylight.

And sure enough, the Gazos Creek Road, on the edge of Big Basin State Park, was devoid of signs of any kind and threaded through a bewildering network of logging roads. After the initial steep climb, the "main" road (indistinguishable as such) started rolling along a broad ridge, and the endless side roads caused me to stop at every intersection and scrutinize the one map I brought, which was a rather poorly detailed mountain bike map. Yes, next time I go adventure riding, I will buy a real topo map. But for now, I knew I had about two hours of daylight, and if I got lost on logging roads outside Big Basin, I was going to be really lost. If this wasn't bad enough, I passed a sign that said "Warning: Controlled Burn." It didn't say anything about the road being closed, so I continued climbing. I started to see small fires smoldering in the undergrowth near the road. A few still crackled with flames, smoke was billowing up everywhere, there were freakin' gas cans left unattended along the side of the road, and there wasn't a soul around. No firefighters, no trucks, no hoses hooked up to water containers, nothing. Hailing from Utah as I do, I know how dangerous it is to approach a wildfire, even if it is a "controlled" burn. However, retreating back to the coast was an extremely inconvenient option at this point, and the smoldering fires did look fairly benign among all that green. I decided to continue climbing in the direction I *guessed* I should go, promising myself that I would retreat to the sea (always my solution) at the first sign of trouble.

The burn, which was in fact contained to piles of mulch on the forest floor, actually smelled quite wonderful, like piney incense. And when I popped out on top of the ridge (again elated because the cratered but downhill China Grade Road was a place at least heard of and it wasn't yet dark), the smoke created a beautiful mist over the mountains, turned golden by the waning sunlight.

Sunset over the Santa Cruz Mountains as seen from Saratoga Gap. I switched on my powerful headlight and blinkie lights, pulled on a light jacket and pedaled home in the growing darkness. Amid my stress about route-finding, I didn't even really notice the physical demands of my ride. So I was almost surprised when I rounded Steven's Creek Reservoir and thought "You know, I feel more tired than I normally do at this reservoir." As it turned out my adventure route covered 75 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, in 8 hours and 15 minutes. Perfect. After the first hour I actually felt healthy and strong the entire time. I consumed one 5-ounce bag of Sour Gummy Lifesavers and two Nature Valley granola bars — about 900 calories — and just under three liters of water. These numbers may seem low but they're pretty typical for me for "only" eight hours on a cool day. It was a great time. Now I just need to triple it. Eeeep! (Ride map here.)
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Three rides

"Maybe sometime we can all have a relaxing pack or bikepack trip with camping, swimming, and soaking. Something relaxing. Jill, when you visit your friends it usually involves some kind of hell walk or ride," my friend Bill wrote to me. We have been exchanging e-mails and scheming our plans for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. I wrote that I was secretly (or not so secretly) looking forward to disassembling myself completely over 25 hours of mostly darkness in the Southwestern Utah desert.

"I don't think I'm going to win but it's been so long since I really tried to unravel myself," I wrote. "Tahoe Rim Trail was the last time, really, and that was a painful disaster. I'm optimistic that I'll be able to turn Frog Hollow into the soul-crushing experience I desire without too much specific physical pain." It was a declaration of anticipated suffering that I thought would even impress "Missoula's endurance mountain biking champion."

But my former Montana adventure-partner-in-crime could only laugh at me, and wistfully dream of a peaceful, friendly reunion that we were throwing aside for a purposeless quest in adversity and solitude. Still, I know that Bill, who has already enjoyed a long successful summer of bicycle racing, is going to show up for our parallel solo battle ready for pain. Even though I spent my summer either running slowly, injured, or hiking, I too wish for battle-ready fitness. The race is in two weeks. Cram session.

On Thursday I had to go into the doctor for a second rabies shot as part of my Nepal vaccinations. I figured I could squeeze in a couple of hours on the road bike afterward. I'm not sure if I ate something bad for lunch or if I had an adverse reaction to the shot, but soon after I left the doctor's office I did not feel well, not well at all. I had to backtrack down Mount Eden Road, twice, to the bathrooms at Steven's Canyon. Normally I would just give up and go home, but the Frog Hollow devil sat on my shoulder and told me to "use the pain." "Gotta practice feeling bad on the bike," I told myself, and continued pumping the pedals. I managed to motor through decreasing waves of nausea to the 3,000-foot "top" on Skyline Drive. 28 miles (plus four from the initial commute) and 3,600 feet of climbing. It felt like a victory. One Frog Hollow demon slayed. (GPS track here.)

On Friday, Beat and I were planning an evening run with our fully loaded packs. There's nothing like focused training for two wildly different events at the same time. I didn't want to overdo it so I planned a lunchtime "spin class," using the fastest bike in the house (Beat's Specialized S-Works Roubaix) for a higher intensity ride up Monte Bello Road. Due to accumulating fatigue I couldn't even engage my high gears, but I still set a PR on the 8.7-mile, 2,600-foot climb at 51:50 from my house. The exact same climb usually takes me 1:15 on my mountain bikes (it's the access point to my local trails.) I swear the S-Works pedals itself. Despite giving most of the credit to the bike's prowess, I still felt fast. Two Frog Hollow demons down. (GPS track here.)

On Saturday I conned Beat into joining me on a "moderate" mountain bike ride; you know, only five hours or so. He wanted to ride the singlespeed so I took the Fatback in an effort to better match his bike's energy demands. We did a fantastically fun loop of trails that ended at the bottom of Grizzly Flat, near 1,300 feet elevation. I declared that I wanted to head back up the ridge on the Table Mountain Trail, a route I have only climbed once and remembered vaguely as "steep." Beat took the smart route, which was the trail toward home.

The initial singletrack threw in challenging obstacles that I powered up with glee. When it comes to any kind of technical trail, I've found I'm actually the most comfortable on a fat bike, because I don't even have to pick a line. I just point the huge wheels that fill up nearly the entire trail and monster-truck my way to mountain bike awesomeness. I ground over boulders and steamrolled across roots and even successfully lifted the monstrous front wheel onto a particularly eroded ledge, something I usually wouldn't even attempt with my much lighter Element.

I reached the end of the singletrack at elevation 1,759, mile 22.5, and proceeded to climb to 2,555 feet at mile 23.7. That's 800 feet in one mile, up a rocky, loose-gravel fireroad, on a fat-tire bike that weighs well over 30 pounds. I planted my butt in the saddle to keep the rear Endomorph from spinning out (those tires have the worst traction; I'm sorry, they do) and cranked the quad-burning granny gear at a blazing 3 miles per hour. The Frog Hollow angel sat on my shoulder and said "use the Zen." I zoomed all of my focus on a tiny patch of gravel and thought of Hurricane's Jem Trail, weaving a red ribbon through the sagebrush, cast in silver by the light of the moon. It's a beautiful, blissful descent that a lap race such as Frog Hollow affords many visits to. As many as I want. As many as my legs can handle. Go, legs, go!

Yes, bliss is 80 degrees, sunshine and five hours on a Fatback. Who knows how the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow will turn out? But the training sure is fun. (GPS track here.)
Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I have been working on choosing and packing gear for my seven-day stage race in Nepal next month. This trek will only be semi-supported. The Racing the Planet organization will provide tents, water, and hot water for cooking in camp, but everything else I want or need for seven days in a remote region of a foreign country I will have to carry, including seven days worth of food. The key issue in packing is the fact we will be covering a marathon-length distance or more each day, with a lot of climbing, so a typical large backpack with a frame isn't an appealing option. These Raidlight Runner R-Lite backpacks are popular with adventure racers because they're light — 7.1 ounces — but sufficiently strong. This pack holds 30 liters, which is about the size of a single large bicycle pannier.

How to live out of these packs for a whole week in a dynamic climate? It's been a fun puzzle to work on, and I'm not sure I've even come close to solving it. But today I gathered nearly all of the pieces of the solution I've come up with so far, shoved it in my pack (it's a fairly loose fit. Shouldn't be too complicated to repack when I'm shelled) and took it out for a run.

The crux of the problem has been food. Seven days requires a lot of food. Based of my memory of the first week of the Tour Divide, I'm fairly certain that my calorie intake will remain on the deficit side no matter what I bring, so I'm planning on about 2,500 calories a day. That number will put me in fat-burning mode, so I'd like a fair percentage to be carbs, which have half the calorie density of fat. I have extremely limited space for food, plus I have to make sure the food is something I will actually be able to force myself to consume. My solution is an assortment of dehydrated breakfasts and dinners, with bars for the daytime. The bars include Clif Builder Bars, Luna Bars, fruit bars, and granola bars. I'm supplementing the bag-food and bar diet with a plastic jar each of peanut butter and strawberry preserves. When I was riding the Tour Divide, one of my favorite foods was crunchy Nature Valley granola bars dipped in peanut butter. The strawberry preserves will serve the function of a sugar shot when I need it the most, in the most calorie-dense and portable form possible (like a big jar of energy gels, and so much cheaper.) Really, you can't get a more calorie-dense yet palatable package of carbs, fats, and proteins than good ol' PB&J.

As for the rest of the gear, I packed a 25-degree RAB down sleeping bag, Thermarest Ridge Rest, Patagonia micropuff, rain jacket and rain pants, mitten shells, gloves, hat, thin balaclava, buff, sleeves, base layer for running, base layer for camp, socks, underwear, flip-flops, headlamp, flashlight, space blanket, foot fix kit, med kit, multitool, compass, GPS, spare batteries, spork (the only utensil I'll need since I can eat out of the dehydrated food bags and make cups out of water bottles), coffee powder, toiletries, tablet towels, electrolyte tablets, vitamins, drugs, wet wipes, sunscreen and 100% DEET, camera, and probably a few other small items that I am forgetting. I also packed a thin Tyvek suit, pictured right, which was Beat's brilliant idea. These suits, which are designed for handling hazardous materials, basically serve as a full-body vapor barrier for warmth during down time in camp. They may also be useful for sleeping in the down bags if the weather is really cold or wet.

Add 18,000 calories and three liters of water, and the pack came in at 27.3 pounds. I took it out for a six-mile test run (more like a power-hike/jog) this evening. I spent the first five minutes making little adjustments. One thing I really like about the soft pack is the fact I can mold it into something somewhat comfortable by lining the back with my dehydrated food packets. The pack actually felt pretty good, at least for my 90-minute test run. I've never been an ultralight type of person so I'm somewhat used to carrying big loads — maybe not 30-pound loads, but regardless, the main issue I had with all the weight was increased fatigue on the climbs and knee strain on the descents. There are a lot of muscles around my knees that need strengthening, and my shoulders and back could probably use conditioning as well. It was a reminder that I will definitely need to continue training with weight until November, which seems decidedly unfun but necessary.

At least it will give me an excuse to run slowly for the next month. I do enjoy slow running.

Singlespeed Zen

I took this photo of the San Francisco skyline from a ferry on Monday afternoon. I went to the city to meet my college friend Anna and her 3-year-old daughter, who were visiting from Utah, and this is what they wanted to do — "boat ride." It's humorous how stressed out I become about these sorts of activities. Anything involving large crowds, confinement and schedules causes anxiety. (I've long believed my own private Hell would be a lot like a Vegas-themed cruise ship. Or the Badwater Ultramarathon.) But I rallied, and it was great to see Anna again. Visits from long-time friends is one of the benefits of living near a big city. And a beautiful city at that. I'll probably never be a city person (see causes of anxiety above) but San Francisco would have to rank as my favorite urban area. Seattle and Vancouver B.C. are up there as well.

Today I went mountain biking with my singlespeed. It wasn't a structured ride, nor did I attach any agenda to it. I was just going to ride and see how I felt. I should know myself better than this by now — that if I set out for an open-ended ride it is probably going to turn into a long ride. I actually had a long list of things I was going to do today, but ...

I have a dynamic relationship with the Karate Monkey; one might call it a love-fear relationship. I love this bike because of our history, because of its blingy new parts, and because, for reasons that are mostly unknown to me, I really am a better rider on this bike. (My theories attribute the 29" wheels and the long history that increases comfort levels.) I fear it because it weighs more than a modern snow bike, retains a few old parts that have more miles on them than the average Prius, and has this frustrating singlespeed tendency to turn difficult climbs into pure pain.

And yet, there is something about this pain that is so, well, purifying. I began the ride with a ten-mile climb on pavement and gravel. I pounded up the first several steep sections until hot blood was coursing through my entire body. My legs begged for rest but the singlespeed would have none of that whining; the grade steeped and I had no choice but to respond with even more intensity. At the crux of the climb, about halfway up the mountain, I could only manage a rotation every two seconds or so. I was out of the saddle and hunched over the top tube in perfect L form, death-gripping the handlebars, gasping and sweating and probably even drooling. A roadie pedaled beside me several seconds later, took one look at my twisted face and sped up. I showed him, though, as I ended up shadowing him about 200 feet back for the entire rest of the pavement climb. I didn't chase the roadie on purpose; I was already cranking my slowest possible speed. The only way to achieve a lower gear was walking.

Similar to my run two days ago, I arrived at the top of Black Mountain feeling physically spent. But as I launched into the singletrack, a strange sort of relief washed over me. My mind went blank, my fatigue subsided, and I simply flowed with the trail. I can understand why Beat enjoys singlespeed riding so much, and also why I both love and fear it — singlespeed mountain biking is similar to running. By removing the mechanical advantage of shifting, I find myself using my body more dynamically to respond to the terrain. Huge bursts of power on climbs give way to high-cadence "speed" movements on flatter ground, which give way to gravity relief on descents (however, singlespeed bikes actually coast, as opposed to runner coasting, which runners seem to enjoy but I haven't found it to be much like coasting at all.)

I became caught up in the moment, almost mindlessly moving with the landscape. When I came to the end of one trail, I crossed the road and linked into another, which then linked into another, and before I even realized it several hours had passed and I had connected a surprisingly large loop around Skyline ridge, almost entirely on trails. And if I hadn't run out of daylight, which is what finally chased me home, I could have expanded even farther. I ended with 37 miles and 5,286 feet of climbing. Just a short ride. Oops. (Map here)

But I have a feeling the Karate Monkey will be receiving much more love in the near future.
Sunday, October 16, 2011

Life on the run

To casual readers of my blog, it probably seems like I've had a busy year so far. But everything has just been build-up to my big crescendo for 2011, which happens to be most of the month of November. In the first week of November I'm traveling back to Utah for my sister's wedding and also to compete solo in the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. Then on Nov. 16 Beat, myself and two friends are traveling to Nepal for a six-day, 155-mile stage race through the Annapurna Foothills with Racing the Planet. And right now, October, is when I have to get my body ready for all of this.

How does one train for a 25-hour solo mountain bike race followed by crazy travel sandwiched around a 155-mile, week-long run, and still be at least partially productive in other aspects of life? I wish I knew the answer to this question. For now I'm just trying the strategy of ride, run, write, ride, visit with friends in town from Utah, send-emails, write, run, blog, and maybe occasionally sleep and eat. For an unstructured person my days seem surprisingly busy.

I actually rallied for a fairly full week of training directly after my 68-mile weekend. So I settled for a more "moderate" schedule this weekend, which means I only did a 4.5-hour mountain bike ride and 3.5-hour run. On Saturday Beat and I linked up a network of trails along Skyline for a solid 35-mile ride with 5,300 feet of climbing. He rode the singlespeed to test the new shock, so he really had to work hard for every foot of elevation gain. I enjoyed the relative ease of my geared bike, but I was still encouraged by how painless the ride felt through 35 miles of steep grades and loose descents. "Riding a mountain bike is easy," I thought to myself. "This doesn't even feel like work. Just float up and coast down. I am so going to rock the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. This is going to be awesome."

Then, on Sunday, I paid for my shameless hubris. I wanted to complete a "long" run in preparation for Nepal. I planned to climb Black Mountain, a 17-mile loop with 3,600 feet of climbing. Beat, who is still recovering from the Slickrock 100 and our ambitious singlespeed ride, joined me for the first four miles. Even when he's tired, Beat is still a significantly stronger climber than I am. I had to push hard to hold his pace up the steep trail. As I sucked down ragged gulps of air through my congested sinuses, I took small comfort in the idea that as soon as our four miles were up, the trail would get "easier" and I could run "slower."

But I was wrong. After four miles the trail does not get easier, it turns to singletrack and becomes even steeper. If I wanted to run at all, even just to shuffle at a pace only slightly faster than walking, I had to push my effort to the redline. My ragged gulps of air turned to desperate gasps, sweat streamed from my pores in full shower mode, and the 74-degree air felt unbearably hot. But I was going to *run* the *whole way* because I was *running* so just harden up and ...

I'm not sure how I actually made it to the peak. I'm suspicious that I may have even blacked out for a half mile, but when I staggered onto the final crest I had a strong urge to just curl up in a fetal position next to a rock and maybe if I was lucky I would die quickly. I'm only exaggerating slightly; I really haven't felt that bad during a workout in a long while. I was six miles into a 17-mile run.

This is the part where I knew the learning experience would begin, and I knew it would be painful. I began shuffling down the steep trail and developed a side stitch almost immediately. I was already breathing badly through my congested nose; the side-stitch made oxygen even more scarce. I continued to gasp and shuffle on a downhill grade that I can normally almost coast. It was bad. I was in pain. Running is hard.

It took four slow miles for the side stitch to finally loosen its grip. By then I had reached a rolling section of trail, gentle climbs and more steep descents. This is the part where my IT band started to tighten and hurt. By now, I was just angry. Running is hard. Why is running so hard? When I ride a bicycle, even if the ride is long and difficult, it's almost never painful. Running, even when my route is short and easy, almost constantly is. This is the part where fellow cyclists nod their heads in agreement and say, "Yes, this is why humans invented bicycles, so they wouldn't have to run." I'm inclined to agree. And yet — in my own strange universe where struggle and pain travel arm-in-arm with reward and bliss — this is what makes trail running so appealing to me. Running is difficult. It's so disproportionally difficult that I can't simply accept the difficulty at face value. I want to accept the challenge, embrace it, and run with it, so to speak.

So today I suffered for the entirety of 17 miles and I wasn't even fast, even relative to myself, nor did I take a single photograph. But I did it, and I learned some things. And perhaps when I'm in a really amazing place like Nepal, I'll be able to take what I've learned and run that extra mile, the one I didn't think was even possible. After all, that's what running is about.
Friday, October 14, 2011

The many makeovers of Kim

After the sun set, the entire sky turned a pale shade of pink. I made it home just before darkness set in, after another lap around Steven's Creek Canyon. The numbers are good for a solid mountain bike workout — 25 miles, 3,200 feet of climbing on a mixture of pavement, gravel and singletrack. I've been aiming for intensity during climbs this week, but my head cold and its accompanying congestion has made that difficult. I've also found I have no confidence on the descents. I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever get that back.

I was using a rag to peel off chunks of dust-and-grease paste from the drivetrain of my Rocky Mountain Element when Beat rolled outside on the Karate Monkey, sporting a brand new Rockshox Reba XX fork. "You already put that on?" I was surprised. He only told me yesterday he even ordered it, and when I left for my ride it hadn't even arrived. Beat's been talking for a while about putting a new fork on the Karate Monkey. The old Reba Race, which I bought used on eBay before putting untold thousands of my own miles on the thing, had finally given up all together, and no rebuild was going to save it. Beat seems to prefer singlespeeding to all other types of cycling, so he wanted to fix what is becoming his bike (which is fine, as I've commandeered a couple of his bikes for my own.) Still, the Reba XX looked almost comical on the rusty old steel singlespeed. Sort of like putting a souped-up new engine in a Geo Prism (RIP, Geo.) Beat promised that someday we'd put the fork on a better 29'er. And yet I think I prefer my Karate Monkey. She's been such a good bike. And she's been through so many incarnations in the past three years.

She was just a wee frame when she arrived in Juneau in March 2008. I didn't really want a new mountain bike. I had been perfectly happy with my Gary Fisher Sugar. But my then-boyfriend coerced me into a Surly Karate Monkey, reasoning that I'd need a hardtail 29er if I ever wanted to ride the Great Divide Race (to which I just laughed. "Like I'm ever actually going to do that.")

I mined eBay and Performance Bicycle for parts, trying to build it up as cheaply as possible. The Reba fork, which cost about $400 used, was my one conceit. The rest of the components were fairly low budget. I think she came in under $1,500. Karate Monkey seemed like an unwieldy name, so I shortened it to Kim. This picture was taken just before her test run in April 2008, through a typical Juneau drizzle. She would never be so shiny again.

Kim and I hit it off immediately, and she proved to be a capable mountain bike. Here we are at the 24 Hours of Light in Whitehorse, Yukon (first woman and second overall. One of our proud moments together. There would be many more to come.)

As autumn approached I decided the swap out the Reba for the rigid fork that came with the frame, switch to skinny tires, slap on my Surly Pugsley's bike bags and create a touring bicycle for my 370-mile ride around the Golden Circle. The set-up worked beautifully. Nighttime temperatures dropped into the teens on that trip and I was grateful for every stitch of warm clothing and the winter sleeping bag that I brought.

As winter deepened, the studded tires went on, and Kim became an ice bike.

Then, in 2009, we set out to do what what Kim was born to do, which is ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route during the 2009 Tour Divide. I can't really gush enough about how beautifully Kim performed throughout that 2,740-mile race, despite weather-caused mechanicals (failed freehub, worn brake pads and general drivetrain wear and tear were my only immediate problems. I didn't even have to change a flat tire.) I realize this mostly had to do with luck more than it had to do with Kim's build or (lack of) maintenance. But wow, lucky me!

During my short-lived stint in Anchorage, Kim served a short-lived stint as a rigid mountain bike-slash-randonee bike. Here we are during our first (and only) randonee, the Denali Classic —a gravel 200K that actually was 145 miles.

After we moved to Montana, I acquired my Rocky Mountain Element, but continued riding Kim on a regular basis when I deemed the ride called for 29" wheels, which was fairly often.

Several months later, my friend Dave stripped off the aging drivetrain and converted Kim to a singlespeed. I continued to ride my Karate Monkey nearly as often as I rode the Element, when I deemed the ride and/or workout called for a singlespeed (and then throughout the winter, when all rides called for ice.) The Element hung from my wall unused for five months but Kim just kept chugging along.

Here's Kim the Singlespeed getting some redwood singletrack action in California. Before I moved here, I considered selling the bike but couldn't bring myself to give her up. I'm glad I didn't, because she seems to have become Beat's favorite bike, and now with a brand new fork and relatively new brakes, she's all ready for another trip down the Great Divide. Long live Kim!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall in the Grand Canyon

My dad and I have created a tradition around hiking across the Grand Canyon in one day during the second weekend in October. Our first trip together was in 2004, with a group of my dad's friends. Back then, rim-to-rim was a daunting prospect — 25 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing under possibly intense heat. I trained specifically for the outing, mostly by hiking to peaks in the Stansbury Mountains and riding my touring bike up a canyon in the Oquirrhs (I lived in Tooele, Utah, at the time.) The night before, in our hotel room on the North Rim, I was so anxious I hardly slept. We started more than an hour before sunrise. It was a hot day, unseasonably so. A few people in our group showed early signs of heat exhaustion near the Colorado River. A thermometer at Indian Gardens read 105 degrees. But by the time we emerged, I was sore, fatigued, and wholly absorbed by the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon. We've made a solid effort to go back nearly every year since.

The great thing about traditions is that you can return to them with expectations unchanged, even as every other aspect of life shifts and evolves. After seven years, 25 miles isn't such a daunting distance anymore. The other R2R hikers in the original group have mostly dispersed. My dad and I have experienced absolutely perfect weather, torrential rain and even minor flash flooding in the Grand Canyon. Much has changed, but I still love going back and making the annual crossing with my dad. It's my favorite tradition.

And the great thing about our Grand Canyon tradition is that no two crossings are ever the same. You never know what the Grand Canyon will dish out during the second weekend in October. During our first hike, we experienced triple digits. This year, there was snow.

The massive cold front that rolled over the West last week dropped a couple of inches of powder on the North Rim above 8,000 feet. I prepared for winter conditions, even nearly packing my microspikes before I decided that amounted to excessive preparation. On Thursday, we left Salt Lake City and drove through several wet blizzards and icy conditions across central Utah. But by the time we hit Jacob Lake, the clouds were beginning to clear, and the emerging sunlight revealed golden aspen leaves and pine needles dusted with snow.

That evening, we watched the sunset from Imperial Point, where I slipped on a patch of ice and nearly fell into oblivion while walking along the rim to take photographs.

Temperatures were in the mid-20s when we started our hike from the North Rim on Friday morning. I love that I'm wearing all my high-tech winter stuff — Patagonia micro puff jacket, Goretex shell and windstopper gloves, and my dad is wearing work gloves and a cotton sweatshirt that I brought home from girls' camp in 1992. That white towel is his sweat rag. He never had to use it.

It was such a gorgeous morning. I've walked down the Grand Canyon five times now, and it never ceases to stun me.

The North Kaibab Trail. Dad and I had to cancel our trip last year after my grandfather died, so this year was my first trip down the Grand Canyon with any experience as a trail runner. I can understand why the rim-to-rim-to-rim run is such a popular thing in ultrarunning circles. Beyond the stunning scenery, the trails themselves are well-built, wide and runnable, almost to a fault. I'd love to try a R2R2R run someday but I have a lot of work to do before my feet are in that kind of shape.

Ribbon Falls. This little spur trail ends at a sparkling, mossy waterfall and is entirely worth the side trip, although in the past we've had a tough time convincing our hiking companions of this. We actually timed the hike this year. Six minutes off the main trail.

This was actually the first year that my dad and I hiked rim-to-rim alone, just the two of us. My dad is a no-nonsense hiker. He likes to stay in motion, and because of this we covered ground quickly. I tend to take more breaks, even when I'm racing, but I enjoy keeping up with my dad's steady motion and solid pace. He can out-hike me any day, and it's always been this way, no matter how much I improve my fitness or how much closer to 60 he gets. (He's 58 years old, and in incredible shape.)

At Phantom Ranch we filled up on water — all 20 ounces or so that I had consumed so far — and enjoyed our annual "lemmy," which is what they call lemonade at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There's a whole resort-style compound down there, with cabins and a dining hall and indoor plumbing. I used to think that kind of thing had to be an anomaly in such a remote setting, but now that I've been to the Alps I no longer think of it as strange.

We marched up the Bright Angel Trail under mostly clear, cool skies. The thermometer at Indian Gardens read 60 degrees, if even that high. I was pleased that for my first time in five Grand Canyon crossings, my feet actually didn't hurt on the final switchbacking ascent. My mom waited for us at the top, where we emerged just before 4 p.m., for a total time of nine and a half hours and a moving time of 8:05. Not bad.

That night, my dad debated hiking back down the canyon to the North Rim the following day. He wanted to wait and see how he felt after the first rim-to-rim crossing before deciding. I would have loved to join him but I had already made prior commitments to pace my friend Danni at the Slickrock 100 on Saturday night, and I needed the day to travel to Moab. (Plus, rim-to-rim-to-rim followed immediately by 43 miles of an ultra-race is just craaaazy.) He wanted to try it but was struggling with very sore feet. During long runs, I often experience agonizing foot pain that goes away completely after just a few hours off my feet, so I speculated that he would feel better in the morning. Sure enough, he got up early Saturday, felt fine, and headed down the South Kaibab Trail. He wrapped it up feeling even better than he had at the end of the day before. It was my dad's first (intentional) dabbling with a kind of "ultra" experience. I wish I could have been there to experience it with him, but he had a great time going solo. Instead my mom and I woke up early and headed back around to Jacob Lake, where I began my drive north into the long night ahead.

A great tradition. It requires early commitment and a lot of planning and arrangement on my parents' part, so I'm not sure if we'll plan a trip for next year or not. But I have no doubt we'll be back again, someday.