Thursday, March 31, 2011

Into the great white open

Why does this make me so happy? Why do fire-singed spruce trees and wind-swept fields of snow rend my heart the way they do? What makes these northern latitudes so unique to me that I can pedal a bicycle to the base of a nondescript mountain and let myself believe I have found the edge of the world? Why do I follow a misfit community of athletes deep into these places I don't belong, and why do these difficult efforts make me feel so awake and alive? Why does this make me so happy?

"Fairbanks is a strange place," I told Beat. "I think you'll either love it or think it's super weird." Even though I've never spent much time there, and certainly not in the 40 below months, I love it. My long-term goal when I moved to Anchorage last year was to someday afford to buy a cabin on the domes above Fairbanks and spend my winters writing and cycling and my summers adventuring in Denali and the Brooks Range. Perhaps that's still my goal. "So hopefully," I said to Beat, "you'll like Fairbanks, too (wink, wink.)"

One of the things I love about Fairbanks is the tight-knit community it engenders. Cold, hard places foster that kind of neighborly goodwill — you have to help each other to survive. Last year, the community surrounding the White Mountains 100 embraced me with open arms, and this year showed almost baffling generosity to the token "Outside" contingent (Beat, me and a man from Los Alamos, New Mexico. All of the other 62 racers were from Alaska.) My friend Carlene came and picked up Beat and me, a bike box and three huge duffels at the airport at 1 a.m. Saturday morning. She transported us to our home for the weekend — race director Ed's cabin, surrounded by birch trees and big landscape windows. Carlene showed us to our own room, which prompted Beat to call Ed the "best race director ever" before he even met Ed. (Who really is the best, by the way.)

Race morning was filled with the usual fumbling and stress. The morning was mostly clear and warm, in the high teens even before the sun came up. I walked around the parking lot chatting with all of the familiar faces from last year's race, with the ulterior motive of checking out their ultra-light fat bike set-ups. I determined that I was one of only three or four other cyclists who was grievously overpacked for a single-day, well-supported race in such warm temps. I agonized about ditching my sleeping bag bivy, down coat and a few other miscellaneous items, but at the last minute decided to just haul it all because, really, "what difference does it make?" (Later, when I felt even more embarrassed about all the crap I was carrying, I told people that Beat guilted me into it because he was also overpacked and didn't want to be the only one. Beat denies this.)

In the midst of our fumbling and dawdling, Beat and I failed to notice it was nearly 8 a.m., and had to rush to the start line only to watch the pack take off in a blur of wheels, skis and snow. I "rode" with Beat for a bit, pedaling beside him until I moved ahead, then dismounting and falling behind as I struggled to hold the runners' pace while pushing my bike. In total, there were seven runners in the White Mountains 100. I didn't even see how many bikes; they were all in front of me. It didn't really matter. It was a warm clear morning, the distant mountains were out, and I had nothing to do all day but ride my bike in the snow. The churned-up trail was fairly soft, and I expected it would only get softer, but even that didn't really matter. It would just give me longer to soak it all in. I gave Beat a kiss at the top of the mile-long hill and said, "see you soon."

On those first rolling hills, I was mostly alone. I laughed with unchecked glee as I careened and swerved down the loose descents and powered up the climbs. As I crested the top of the third or fourth hill, I had a startling realization — I was actually riding all of this. Last year, despite harder packed trails, I was frequently reduced to pushing my bike up many of the climbs. This year, I was climbing strong. Despite a winter absent of any significant bicycle training, my legs found the stamina to press into the pedals and somehow power this 55-pound bicycle with mushy 8 psi tires up hill after soft, steep hill. "Wow," I thought as a grin spread across my face. "I guess running makes me strong."

In what seemed like a short hour or two, I reached the second checkpoint at mile 38. The Cache Mountain cabin sits in a beautiful basin at the base of the White Mountains." It was so warm that some cyclists and skiers were wearing only T-shirts. I felt chilled on descents so I was still wearing my wind shell, but the hard climbing had left me more than a little damp from sweat. I didn't really mind because I was drowning in extra clothes. I honestly needed an excuse to somehow justify my 55-pound kit.

From the cabin, the course follows a 12-mile steady climb to the Cache Mountain Divide at about 3,500 feet. I remembered this as a tough section and mentally steeled myself for a long slog. Despite a 1,800-foot elevation gain with a few significant rollers, I maintained my encouragingly strong cadence. I passed the woman who had been in third position, Gail, as she and her husband, Rocky, pushed their bikes out of a steep drainage. I was in full power mode, hovering over the saddle and trying to mitigate tire slippage as I mashed the pedals. "Nice work," Gail said to me as I passed. Her verbal encouragement sparked a sort of inner competition with myself, a pressing need to ride up this entire mountain. I unzipped my coat, pulled off my hat, and grimaced with new-found resolve into the bright sunlight.

I mashed past cyclist Brian Garcia, who was munching Cheetos from a giant ziplock bag, and skier Matias Saari, who told me he was hurting. The trail lifted skyward and I continued summoning deeper reserves of power. My heart pounded and sweat streamed from my forehead and soaked hair. I was working at a solid level of high intensity that I have possibly never before tapped in a long race — that is, race pace. The high-effort bursts of energy had no reason or justification beyond the fact that they made me feel amazing — pushing so close to the edge of my abilities amid this expansive white wilderness. I finally blew up a mere quarter mile from the top, but I didn't mind. As my breathing finally calmed down and my head stopped spinning, I gazed at the snow-sculpted slopes and grinned. Matias and I stopped together at the pass and enjoyed a bit of lunch — him, a healthy-looking wrap in a wheat tortilla; me, a Snicker's Bar and an Odwalla Bar. The world was perfect, and I was happy.

Beneath a bright and blazing afternoon sun, the trail had softened up considerably. As we started down, I had to swerve around deep trenches and soft mounds left by other cyclists who also had to brake hard amid the uneven conditions. Like sporadically accelerating snowmachines, the bicycles before me had ripped up the trail, leaving it punchy and difficult to navigate even at braking speeds.

The muscles in my shoulders and arms burned as I wrestled with my squirrelly wheels. My technical snow riding skills have become seriously rusty, and several times I dipped to the side and punched my right leg into the waist-deep snow just off the trail. The third or fourth time I did this, I wrenched my knee hard, which prompted my deeper self-preservation instincts. After that, if I saw a deep trench ahead, I stopped to push my bike.

Much of my hard work on the climb up the Cache Mountain Divide was negated by downhill caution. I walked through the slushy overflow on the ice lakes and continued to gingerly pick my way around torn-up bits of trail. At my slower speeds I crashed twice — painless endos into snow banks. Brian and another cyclist passed me, as well as several other skiers. My newfound race instincts experienced bouts of frustration. As I descended, trail conditions improved, and at one point I decided just to see what would happen if I let off the brakes.

In the blur of green and white, it happened so quickly — front wheel lurched right, rear wheel jumped left, and suddenly I was buried head-first beneath my bicycle in a small tree well. My legs were tangled around the bicycle and my face was pressed against the snow beneath a barrier of tree branches. I groped for leverage with my right arm, but found nothing but bottomless powder. I pushed my left arm against the bicycle, but I couldn't muster the strength to force it off my body. "Arrrgh!" I yelled out loud. I was trapped! For several seconds I thrashed around in near panic, like a turtle on its back. Luckily, reason kicked in. I wrestled my right arm out of the snow and with both hands grabbed tree branches, using every ounce of upper body strength I could muster to pull my torso out of the snow. Then I kicked my left leg free of the bike tangle, managed to secure a foothold on the packed trail, pulled myself a little higher up the tree, and reached down to shove the bike sideways in order to extricate my right leg. For about two more minutes, I simply sat on the trail just to recover from my full-body, high intensity battle for freedom.

By the time I made it to the Windy Gap cabin, mile 60, I was feeling a little frustrated. Dea, the wonderful volunteer who made a last-minute grocery stop to ensure five meatballs for all racers because the race organization had planned for three and it "wasn't enough," served me a steaming bowl of meatball soup. "The trail is getting soft and tough," I complained in spite of myself. "You pretty much just have to power full speed to get through the rough patches, but riding fast is risky. I crashed four times." I hoped the trail would set up more with the inevitable freeze of nighttime, but at the same time, I wanted to maximize daylight to see as much of the course as possible. I packed up quickly and left.

The route followed Windy Creek down a narrow canyon surrounded by sheer cliffs and craggy ridges. The trail conditions improved, and on smoother snow I found myself swooping through the forest at 10, 12, even 14 mph. The canyon opened up, revealing bigger mountains and wider valleys speckled with the twisted silhouettes of black spruce trees. I had seen none of this scenery last year because by the time I went through here, it was dark. It was the first time that I realized I really must have been moving faster than I was a year earlier, and this new encouragement prompted me to pedal harder. Clouds sunk in but daylight remained, revealing ever more mountains and valleys. My bicycle moved seemingly effortlessly, allowing me to relish the bombardment of beauty and freedom. I climbed out of Windy Creek and dropped back into Beaver Creek, arriving at the mile 81 checkpoint a mere two hours and 20 minutes after I left Windy Gap. Last year, this same section of the race had taken me a grueling four hours and 10 minutes, and I arrived at the Borealis cabin half-frozen and nearly shattered in the middle of the night. This year, it was still light at 8:30 p.m., and I felt strong and fresh. The Fairbanks race was being so kind to me this year. What had I done to deserve this fantastic treatment?

I ate a cheese sandwich and chips at the Borealis cabin and checked out with Brian Garcia around 8:45 p.m. Twilight had descended over the sky, and the nearby domes were shrouded in a thick ceiling of ominous-looking clouds. Flurries were starting to fall on the trail. "Oh no, snow," I muttered as Brian and I packed up. "I wonder how much it's going to snow?" he replied. "Hopefully not a lot." Still, my optimism didn't flag. We were less than 13 hours into the White Mountains 100 with only 19 more miles to go. I convinced myself if I could just hold the pace, I stood a good chance of finishing the race within the 16-hour range, an almost unthinkably fast time for someone like me. As we climbed out of Beaver Creek, Brian surged ahead but I held back — I knew the big climb was coming, and wanted to save some energy. I stopped at the mile 89 trail shelter because I hoped to see my friend Robin. She wasn't there yet, but for good measure I drank a couple cups of hot Tang and ate several handfuls of Fritos as I chatted with the volunteers. By this point, snow was falling hard, at least an inch had accumulated on the trail, and the new tracks through it made for uneven riding once again.

Then, just like that, I hit the wall. Brian and I were leap-frogging each other as we pedaled toward Wickersham Creek and the looming if unseen "Wickersham Wall." The Wickersham Wall is a direct trail up the Wickersham Dome, gaining more than 800 feet in less than a mile. On already soft trails covered in a couple inches of loose new snow, it sometimes feels as unclimbable as its impossibly steep namesake, a vertical face of Denali. I could see Brian's headlamp rising like a slow elevator toward the sky, followed by that of skier B. Young. I briefly pedaled toward them but quickly hit red-line. I got off my bike and started pushing, but after only a few dozen steps, I red-lined again. My heart raced and head spun until I nearly vomited, and I was forced to stop and catch my breath. I took a few more steps and red-lined again. I took another break. Pant, pant, push. I felt dizzy and exhausted. "Oh crap," I thought. "I bonked."

I dug into my food bag, which was surprisingly depleted. I started the race with about 2,500 calories — not counting checkpoint food — and cut it down to a few bars, some dried fruit, and a bag of Haribo Brix (gummy snacks.) I tore open the Brix and started stuffing them in my mouth. They tasted like fruity bursts of joy and took the edge off my nausea, but the urge to vomit returned as I continued to push my bike up the wall. I was locked in a struggle just to reach my body's lowest gear, which was still too high. Pant, pant, push. Break, eat, push. Pant, pant, push.

Behind me, two lights slowly approached from below. I convinced myself they belonged to Rocky and Gail, and tried to use that as motivation to push harder. "You're going to lose third place," I told myself, as if that mattered. My body certainly did not care. I felt awful, dizzy and exhausted, and I just wanted to sit down for a minute or 45. I stuffed Brix in my mouth and urged my legs to push onward. When my arms became too tired to hold themselves up anymore, I leaned against my handlebars and pushed against the impossibly heavy backward force with my collarbone. Every time I thought I was near the top, the trail only became steeper, with my headlamp illuminating only an endless climb into the black void. Snowflakes fell in large chunks. A bubble of frustration welled up in my throat.

Just as the trail reached a small plateau, the headlights finally caught up to me. They both belonged to Dave Shaw. "Mind if I walk with you for a bit?" he asked.

"As long as you want," I said. "I'm pretty bonked. I'll probably have to walk the rest of the way."

"It's gotta start downhill soon, right?" Dave asked.

"Perhaps," I said. "But I'm not letting myself get too hopeful."

Dave eventually got back on his bike and started riding. I tried, several times, but the effort was just too intense. It felt like I was attempting to sprint even though I was scarcely moving. The last miles crawled onward in a bonked-out blur, tinged with occasional moments of growling frustration. I ate most of the Brix, about 350 calories worth, and an Odwalla Bar, but they didn't seem to make a dent on my empty gas gauge. I finally slumped into the finish line a full 40 minutes after Brian but only 10 minutes after Dave — so I now conclude that I limped through my bonk OK. It was 1:55 a.m., for a final time of 17 hours and 55 minutes. It wasn't even close to the 16-hour range, but at the same time, I certainly couldn't be disappointed about a sub-18-hour finish. I flashed Carlene a subdued smile as she waved pom-poms in front of her own sleepy grin.

I chatted with other finishers in the heated tent before rolling out my sleeping bag in the snow. I caught a couple hours of deep sleep and then Dave woke me up because he was heading home. I took the ride back to Fairbanks, took a shower, ate some food and returned to race headquarters to wait for Beat. I chatted with the race volunteers and mulled the reasons for my bonk. I had been eating what seemed to me to be an adequate number of calories, with food that had worked quite well for me in numerous past events. And the entire time, I felt great, until I didn't. I talked it over with others, and what I concluded is I spent much of the race working at a higher intensity than I'm used to, taking in a lot more water and sweating quite a bit more than I usually do in a winter endurance effort. I was probably low on both electrolytes and calories despite sticking to my planned food intake. Yet another one of those learning experiences. I don't regret the way I executed the White Mountains 100. What would be the point of "racing" if we didn't push and sometimes exceed our own limits?

I really enjoyed my day at race quarters, watching the behind-the-scenes action and cheering on the remaining racers. Anne Ver Hoef had an infectious grin as she wrapped up her second-place, first-woman foot finish. Then Emily Schwing came in on skis and burst into tears. "I don't even know why I'm crying," she bawled, and I think everyone in the circle could feel the weight of her accomplishment. Around 5:30 I decided to start hiking out the trail to meet Beat.

The landscape took on an entirely new look following the snowstorm. The once-green spruce trees were now a ghostly white, and golden sunlight glowed through a weak layer of remaining clouds. As the hustle of race headquarters faded and my solitude crept back in, I felt a rush of strong emotions — awe at the expansive beauty of the region, joy for my presence there, pride for Beat's accomplishment and also my own ride, and gratitude for the race organizers and volunteers I had spent the afternoon with. It all came together in a trickle of perfect moments, the flowed into a lasting impression: This makes me happy. This is something I'm certain of.

I caught up to Beat about 3.5 miles out, just as he crested the Wickersham Dome with another foot racer, Kevin Vig. Beat was smiling wide but one of the first things he said was "&#@#*%! Wickersham!" ... so I knew he had a tough time on the Wall, too. Beat said the race was much tougher than the Susitna 100, but he too was impressed with the beauty of the region. "Let's just buy a cabin in Fairbanks," he joked, and I grinned. Mission accomplished.

I walked with Beat and Kevin to the finish line, where they finished together in 35:41. The volunteers, who had been awake for more than 36 hours, showed just as much enthusiasm for Beat and Kevin as I would have expected for the front-of-the-pack. I realized that why I go to these places — stark and demanding, lonely and difficult — and why I'm so happy in these places, is because it's in these places I find greatness — in myself, in the people I love, in the people I meet, and in everything surrounding us.


(For a map of the course and my GPS stats, click here.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The White Mountains 100

At the pre-race meeting, Beat joked that our race numbers were actually the times we were expected to finish within. His race number was 47. Mine was 18. "The only way I'm finishing in under 18 hours is if something amazing happens," I replied. The White Mountains 100 took me 22:38 to finish last year. Last year contained "near-perfect" trail conditions. This year, I was told to expect more "mashed potatoes" and soft trails. Last year followed at least some specific snow bike training; this year contained single-minded running focus followed by a month of recreational mountain biking. And I was by no means in "serious" mode for this race (and my most serious race mode is honestly not even all that serious.) I was going to hang back with Beat for a bit. I was going to take photos, and enjoy my checkpoint meals, and generally just relish in my spring tour of Interior Alaska. What's the rush?

I don't have time for a full race report right now (don't worry; that will come.) But here's the Cliff Notes version:

1. I did carry my bivy kit and heavy down coat in the race, and was one of only three or four cyclists to do so. I estimate my bike/kit including food and water weighed about 55 pounds. I honestly felt silly given the conditions and support infrastructure of the race, and was audibly cursing my overpacked state for the last six miles. But, you know, whatever.

2. Despite my plan to "run" with Beat for the first mile or so, I couldn't keep up with the runners while pushing my bike and actually spend a short period of time at the very back of the race.

3. After initial struggle to pass the back-of-pack on the churned-up mashed-potato trail, I started to feel really strong and had a ton of fun on the steep rolling hills surrounding Beaver Creek.

4. It was a warm day, in the mid-30s, which did soften up the trails even more.

5. I was climbing really well. All of the hills that I was barely able to push my bike up last year, I was able to ride up this year, despite softer trail conditions. I rode nearly the entire way up the Cache Mountain Divide, a 12-mile climb to 3,500 feet. I attribute this newfound climbing strength to running.

6. The ride down the Cache Mountain Divide was more difficult and physically taxing than the climb, thanks to the churned up trails full of deep trenches, soft snow mounds and postholes. I crashed four times, once into a tree well that took me nearly five minutes to extricate myself.

7. I was really stoked to ride the third leg, Windy Gap to Borealis, during the daylight. I gawked at the gorgeous craggy canyon and zipped along the narrow, winding trail. I rode 20 miles in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Last year, this exact same section of the race took me 4:10 to complete.

8. It started snowing as I left the Borealis cabin, mile 80, at about 8:45 p.m. Despite fairly heavy snowfall, I let myself believe that continuing at the same strong pace I had been able to hold during the first 80 miles would put me into the finish around 16 hours.

9. I experienced one of the deeper bonks of my life at mile 94 as I started up the Wickersham Wall, a single fall-line climb that gains 800 feet in less than a mile. It was a strange sort of bonk - not woozy and nauseated, but rather completely red-lined in my lowest gear (pushing.) Even slow steps took me over my perceived maximum. I'd take 15 steps and feel like I was about to explode, then stop to calm my breathing and heart rate. I felt really lousy. Still, I was able to eat. During my three-hour-long extreme bonk, I was able to take in about 600 calories, and the food itself didn't upset my stomach (only the pushing.) During the race, I consumed most of the 2,500 calories I brought with me, on top of meals provided by the race organization. I have theories about this bonk that I'll delve into deeper soon, but I don't believe it was necessarily calorie-related. Still, it was awful. I pushed my bike, slowly, the entire last six miles. It was all I was capable of.

10. I still finished the race in 17:55, which is still less than 18 hours and a time I'm quite pleased with despite the end-of-race meltdown. The bonk kept me low-energy for the next 24 hours, but I otherwise have no negative after-effects from the race. I wasn't even sore. It was a fantastic experience. More to come. In the meantime, here are a few pictures:

Julie Malingowski rides through a burn area on the Wickersham Dome in the early miles of the race.

Somebody, perhaps race volunteers on snowmachines, built this awesome snow sculpture on top of the Cache Mountain Divide.

Brian Garcia approaches the top of the Cache Mountain Divide.

My favorite section of the race: Windy Gap to Borealis. Fast, fun, and fantastically gorgeous.

Beat and his new friend, Kevin, walk the final miles of the race on Monday evening. Beat finished on foot in 35 hours and 41 minutes, and awesome accomplishment. We're so grateful to the White Mountains 100 organizers and volunteers for putting on this incredible race. I really love it. More to come.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yeah, we're going down

The trip to the starting line was mostly a quiet one. Ed, who was both the race co-director and a participating skier, was at the wheel of his old truck; I was the wide-eyed passenger fixated on the thick ice covering the road. The last structures of the greater Fairbanks area faded in the side-view mirror, causing me to breathe a nervous sigh. I always get this feeling when I know I'm close to the northernmost reaches of civilization, whether I'm in central Ontario or standing on the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay — just realizing I could draw a straight line north and likely hit nothing but trees or ice all the way to the North Pole fills me with a primal sort of wonder, and fear.

Dawn was slow to approach. The whole sky was cast in a pale violet light that seemed fixed in time, as though sunrise wasn't coming. I felt anxious, but not in the ways I expected to — not really at all about the race. I hadn't really trained and wasn't emotionally invested in whether or not I finished. Honestly, I didn't care. Racing bicycles on the snow was such a trivial thing in the wider context of my life, which was in the process of turning upside down. I had quit my well-established job to strike out on my own with a rather vague plan based on travel and freelance writing. I was moving away from my comfortable routine and beautiful familiar places in Juneau to the bustling urban culture shock of Anchorage. But I had a book project I was excited about, and a sense that if I was willing to take a chance on the unknown, good things would follow. I was set to leave Juneau for good on April 1.

It was the first day of spring, March 21, but the prolonged subarctic winter defied any hope of new life. Ed nodded toward the thermometer on his dashboard, which measured the outside temperature as we rolled north. There was a thick inversion that morning, holding the cold air close to the ground. When we left the house it was just above zero degrees, which I felt OK about, but as we dipped into low-lying valleys, the gauge quickly dropped to -11, and -14 and then -17. For the first time that morning, a different sort of nervousness started to creep in — anxiety about survival. It had been a mild winter in Juneau, and -17 was quite a bit colder than anything I had experienced that season. I wasn't trained for this sort of thing, and I wasn't acclimated. I could only hope I was prepared.

The quiet persisted, along with the violet dawn. Frosted birch and spruce trees streamed past. The radio, which had been fading in an out, crackled on again for a bit, broadcasting a pop station out of Fairbanks. "All the Right Moves" by OneRepublic came on. A couple verses passed before Ed, with his own style of understated humor, sang faintly along with one of the lines in the lyrics: "Yeah, we're going down."

I looked at him and laughed. "Maybe I'm reading too much into this whole thing," I thought. "Maybe I should just stop obsessing about unemployment and Anchorage and all of the things I'll miss about Juneau. Maybe I can just sit back and have some fun."

And the race really was fun. From the steep climbs and descents, to the beautiful mountain scenery, to the challenging overflow obstacles, to the incredible camaraderie among organizers and participants, the White Mountains 100 really was the most fantastic fun I've ever had in a single race. In the later miles I struggled with the cold and a bit of knee pain, but I genuinely never felt unhappy about any part of it. I finished the race in 22 hours and 38 minutes. Afterward, I reflected on that overwhelming positive feeling in my race report:

"I could say it was a struggle, but the landscape was too dreamlike, too compelling, to be a place of struggle. The moon wedge burned bright in a sky splattered with stars, and the twisted trees carved gothic silhouettes over the snow. I did a lot of thinking about the upcoming changes in my life and felt a beautiful sense of peace. Just as I had no real control over the cold, over my fatigue, I had no control over the future. And yet I could move through it, taking on the challenges with the best of my abilities, learning from my mistakes, and growing. Even when the race got hard, like life, it never stopped being worth it."

Now I'm going back to the White Mountains 100 under strikingly similar circumstances. At lot in my life has changed and is changing, and I'm filled with positive emotions about it all. The race starts Sunday morning at 9 a.m. Alaska time; this will probably be my last post before the start, so I wanted to post the links to the race pages.

Beat created personal tracking pages for each of us, including a map of the course, comment bubbles that can include short messages from the SPOT units (I have the word "Slogarific" pre-set in mine), and adorable little icons. Beat is going to compete on foot, so his icon is a little runner. Since I'm on a bike, I get a fat bike icon:

And, if my pace slows to a speed not conducive to bike riding, the icon should (in theory) change to a little bike-pushing guy. If you see this, you'll know that things are truly slogarific out there.

What conditions are they expecting for Sunday's race? Trail reports vary widely — I've heard everything from lots of snow and soft to hard-packed and fast. To me, personally, it doesn't matter all that much. I did the entire Susitna 100 on foot so I'm arguably better trained for bike pushing than I am for bike riding, but, at the same time, I'd of course prefer to ride my bike, because that's more fun. Either way, I am really excited. I'm get to ride my bike in Alaska! For 100 miles! We're going down! Yippee!

My tracking page is located at this link.

Beat's page is at this link.

Race updates and information will be posted here.


Beat's disclaimer: The tracking sites might be buggy, I made some last minute changes. They should automatically refresh but hitting the refresh button may help. If it doesn't work with IE, try Chrome (which you should be using anyways!) or some other browser. Things might get slow - sorry I won't be able to watch and fix anything :) There's some filtering going on to remove bogus coordinates, and the site does some calculations to infer how far we traveled - that may be wrong. Go to the SPOT pages for just the locations. The regular SPOT page is at this link.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Friends

My friend Keith has been a lot of things in my life. He and his wife, Leslie, were my first "trail angels" in the 2009 Tour Divide, providing me with shelter and much-needed perspective in the days leading up to the race. He's been my tour guide, my ski mentor, my bicycle dealer, my attached-at-the-wheels partner for a week of mud and suffering in TransRockies, my Thanksgiving dinner host and part of my "second home" in the unlikely but beautiful region of Banff, Alberta. The connection runs deeper as several of Keith's friends have become my friends. I have a what feels like a second (Canadian) family these days. And Keith introduced me to Danni in Montana, who inadvertently introduced me to Beat. It's intriguing the way these simple connections, born of a casual message from a stranger (Leslie wrote me an e-mail one fateful day in June 2009 that began, "I've read your blog ..."), can touch the deepest parts of our lives.

Keith had a four-hour layover at SFO, so I made the morning trip up to San Francisco to have coffee with him. It involved a 45-minute drive in rush-hour traffic on a rain-slicked I-280, a $12 parking fee and a mad dash across three terminals because I was already embarrassed how late I was. Still, all the rushing and hubbub of the airport dissolved as soon as I saw Keith's grinning face in the booth at Peet's Coffee. We had a great visit, talking about grand plans for future adventures and my new life in California.

"I miss Missoula," I said. "But so far, not in the way I expected to. It was beautiful with great trails and big mountains, but I find myself not really thinking about any of that. When I think of Montana, what I miss are the friends I made while I was there. I miss going up to Kalispell to visit Danni and I miss planning big backcountry national park adventures with Dave. I miss the bike adventures and going to movies with my friend Bill. We still chat online. It's not the same, obviously."

In my mobile life, I've had the fortune to make the acquaintance of some great friends, but they're scattered everywhere. There's the high school and college friends that scattered themselves; the ones I still keep in touch with now span the globe. There's the Utah friends who remained — the people I try to see when I'm "home." I have several current friends from past homes — former co-workers in Tooele and Idaho Falls, a former neighbor in Homer, a best friend in Juneau, and a surprising number of "new" friends in Anchorage, several of whom I was able to sit down and laugh with in February as though I'd never left. Then there are my bike friends: my other Canadian family in Whitehorse, Yukon; the "crazy Alaskans" connected by the White Mountains 100 who mostly live in Fairbanks; the enduro-freaks of the mountain biking community — all spread across the West; my Tour Divide friends; my Iditarod friends — several who reside in Europe. And now there are new running friends, and Beat's friends. They're all great people who have helped shape my life. And with the exception of very few, they're all hopelessly far away.

Since I was up north for the morning anyway, I agreed to meet up with a long-ago blog friend for lunch, a man named Shawn. I say long-ago because he and I had quite a bit of contact in my early days of blogging, in 2005 and early 2006. He was a friendly biking enthusiast in Arizona and I was an enthusiastic new Alaskan with an admittedly terrible camera. After commenting on my posts for several months, he wrote to me and offered to send me a Canon Powershot, free of charge. I've long since lost that camera, but it cemented my hobby of photo-documenting all of my outdoor pursuits in life. Shawn had some upsets in his own life, moved to the Bay area, and we lost touch not long after he donated the camera. I wouldn't have even suspected he knew I moved away from Homer, let alone Juneau and Anchorage and Montana, but through the magic of Facebook, he recently discovered I was living in California, and contacted me again.

We agreed to meet up in San Mateo for lunch. We'd never met in person, a strange phenomenon in itself, but in the context of modern life, never having met face-to-face seems to matter as little as a lapse of five years. I remembered Shawn was a foodie, the type who always posted photos of dinners on his blog, so I suspected the lunch would be tasty. I wasn't disappointed. There was a line outside Ramen Dojo at 11 in the morning. He waited in it for 20 minutes so we managed to slip in with the first wave, for a simple but sumptuous bowl of pork and noodles. We talked about biking and sea kayaking, culture and unemployment (Shawn was laid off from his job last year; he is still mulling how to shape the balance of work and life.) Shawn critiqued my chopstick technique. ("I lived in Salt Lake and then small towns — I never had a proper place to learn," I protested.) "Did you know there are 3,500 restaurants in the Bay area?" Shawn said. "You could eat at a different one every night for an entire decade."

We finished up lunch and agreed to meet up sometime for a ride. I left San Mateo with a warm kind of satisfaction — spicy lunch, yes, but also the knowledge that I had met a friend.

I've made a solid effort to taper this week, with only short rides and rest days, but I felt a strong urge to get out for a ride in the afternoon. It was just going to be what has become my routine favorite, the Monte Bello Road and back. But on my way up the road, a mountain biker wearing a helmet cam rode past. He asked me where I was headed. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was riding all the way up to the ridge just to head back down the pavement in an effort to make it a "short" ride ahead of a 100-mile snow bike race in Alaska, so I said, "Maybe Indian Creek to Steven's Creek Canyon."

"Oh, don't ride Indian Creek," he said. "There's a singletrack route that's way better. I'm riding with my dad; he's back a little ways. If you meet us at the backpacker camp, I'll point it out."

After I stopped to put on my jacket, the man's dad caught up and the three of us rode together. They introduced themselves as Jason and Scott. Harsh wind and hail pummeled us along the ridge, and Scott, the dad, made comments about my being hardcore, so of course I had to tell them I was a recent Montana transplant, and the weather, while wet and windy and actually quite cold, was "really not all that bad."

We started down the singletrack, a sideslope path that had been ravaged by the recent hard rains. We had to dodge deep trenches and patches of sticky mud, but that added to the excitement of the swooping descent. We dropped into the lush canyon, which was strewn with debris and deadfall from the recent high winds and heavy rains. Jason sidled up behind me, running his helmet cam, so of course I had to let off the brakes and swoop full-speed around the muddy twists and tight turns. I mean, I *had* to mug for the camera — never mind that it was a fairly reckless way for me to ride mere days before the White Mountains 100. Luckily, I didn't crash.

As we coasted back into town, they gave me the info for their Saturday morning group rides and asked for my e-mail so they could show me some of the "secret stashes" in the region. Scott grinned with the irony of the statement. They're not really secret, but they're known to local mountain bikers in a way that they can only be revealed by other local mountain bikers. Discovery is only possible in the presence of friends.

Then they actually did send me an e-mail tonight. I signed up for their Saturday group. I miss my Thursday Night Ride group in Missoula, but I'm grateful for an opportunity to make new friends.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

An overloaded fat bike in California

We acquired a bike rack for transport to the airport and picked up a hard-case bike box from Steve. Beat was standing next to the Fatback with an Allen wrench in hand, anxious to dismantle the bike and make sure we could in fact fit it in the box. I knew I could no longer procrastinate this one last chore — taking the fully loaded bike out for a test ride to make sure everything was comfortable and secure. I was not looking forward to riding this behemoth of a bike on the streets of Los Altos. There were just too many details that made me feel grotesquely conspicuous: the bloated wheels, the bulging handlebar bag, the pogies — pogies for crying out loud! I feared they were all going to laugh at me, all the Californians with their BMWs and bullet bikes and 15-pound Cervelos zipping up the pavement. But it had to be done, and unfortunately I waited for Saturday

Saturday — the day with fierce wind and sideways rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. The wind was forecast to gust up to 60 mph, and the snow line — snow line! — was reportedly down to 3,500 feet in the mountains on the east side of the Bay. I didn't have easy access to anywhere quite that high, but the day did promise to be nothing if not wet, so I figured if I was going to be a geek, I might as well be a geek. I put on my favorite plastic jacket and bulky rain pants, ear warmers, and wool socks, then packed enough gear in my bike for an Arctic expedition. I was pretty sure I was the geekiest geek in Silicon Valley — not a small feat.

I packed up my bike with all of the gear I planned to take in the White Mountains 100 — including my full winter bivy bundle — along with a quart of water and a small amount of food. We dangled the bike from a luggage scale, and it came in just a hair under 50 pounds. "Most people in California pay a lot of money to get their bikes under 15 pounds. We, on the other hand, pay a lot of money to get our bikes over 50 pounds," Beat said.

"Almost," I said. "Fifty pounds is actually not as bad as I thought it was going to be." And I figured since the Fatback fell in the measly sub-50-pound range, I might as well power the thing up to the top of Black Mountain. Because, hey, why not grind a 50-pound bike up a 2,700-foot climb in the cold rain? This was going to be fun! Before I left, Beat took a photo outside the apartment as we laughed about how ridiculously overloaded I was for a 20-mile ride in California in March. He asked me if I was sure I didn't need my mittens (which are slated to be carried in the pogies during the race, but weren't packed in there yet.) We both guffawed.

Pedaling a 50-pound bike up nearly 3,000 vertical feet is indeed hard work. Luckily, the weather was so unrelentingly awful that there wasn't anyone else out to laugh at me. Only one roadie-type passed me, and I mashed into the pedals in a vain effort to keep up with him. I managed to slow the expansion of the gap for about a half mile, but by then I feared that my heart would explode.

Back to the slow grind, for an hour or so. OK, it was likely significantly more than an hour. I climbed above the ridge's treeline, at about 2,300 feet, and rose the last few hundred feet in the full brunt of a brutally strong wind. It likely was gusting to 50 mph or more. The tailwind rushed me up the last steep pitches, but the occasional crosswind gust nearly knocked me off the bike.

At the top I set up my camera on a post and took a quick self-portrait. It actually took four tries because the camera kept blowing over. The one shot I got, blurry because the camera was teetering, shows me grimacing through a shallow smile as I tried to keep my 50-pound sail from blowing me over. I was soaked through and through. I was starting to feel chilled. Time to head down.

The force of the headwind prevented much coasting, even on the relatively steep pitch. I squinted against sharp daggers of rain and pedaled hard. Not more than a half mile from the peak, I heard a horrible grinding noise through the roar of the wind, and the rear wheel stopped cold. I jumped off the bike and pulled it to the ground to inspect the damage. One of the bungee cords on my rear rack had snapped loose and lodged itself in the rear derailleur. It wound around the cassette several times; the hooks were bent, the bungee material badly mangled, and it looked like the derailleur might be bent. Arrrgh!

I knelt there, on the open hillside, exposed to the full brunt of the wind and cold rain, trying to undo the horrible tangle. And of course, my fingers became slower and more useless the colder they got. I wished I had my mittens to warm them up for a minute, but I didn't because they were the one thing I left at home! I was carrying enough gear for a full winter expedition, and I didn't have the one thing I really needed. I pulled my down coat and fleece balaclava out of my frame bag, and put on a dry pair of socks that were stuffed in the rear stuff sack. I started to feel warmer, but I really wished I had those mittens.

By the time I finally freed the bungee from the cassette, I was mostly going on sight because I no longer had any feeling in the wooden stumps that had formerly been my fingers. I checked the shifting; everything seemed to still be in working order. I removed the one working bungee from the rear rack and pulled my spare straps around the stuff sack — good thing I brought those — and started coasting down the long, long, long cold hill.

At least I now know that I won't be using bungee cords in the race. And I will most definitely remember to bring my mittens, and handwarmers, too. Finally, we did manage to fit the entire Fatback in the tiny bike box, except for the tubes and tires. Beat is a packing genius:

All in all, a good day of testing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Safety nets

It started with a quiet whisper into the thunderous void, which is usually what I feel like I'm doing when I randomly post a comment on Twitter: "To take a sleeping bag or not to take a sleeping bag in the White Mountains 100? That is the question."

I still find it hard to believe that anyone actually reads or responds to the incomprehensible babble feed that is Twitter, so I was surprised when my friend Bill fired back with a counter-question: "Well, what have you done in the past?"

The Susitna 100 forced me to carry a sleeping bag — it was part of the 15-pound gear requirement that included an emergency survival system and 3,000 extra calories of food. Unlike its sister race to the south, the White Mountains 100 has no required gear. I could show up to the frigid starting line in a jersey and shorts with a single water bottle and a couple of Gu packets, and no one is going to stop me from embarking on this remote 100-mile ride around an uninhabited, frozen swath of mountain passes and valleys north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Sure, I'd be strongly discouraged, maybe even asked to sign an extra liability release, but ultimately, these are my toes to lose. I like this about the White Mountains 100. Freedom of choice.

Last year, I didn't carry full survival gear in the race. Instead, I carried a bivy system comprised of a 32-degree summer sleeping bag, nylon bivy sack, closed-cell foam pad and fire-starter supplies, reasoning that this 2.5-pound system would probably keep me alive in an emergency situation, probably ... although I had no real knowledge because there was no testing. Last year's White Mountains 100 was cold, down to 25 below at night, and I did experience a couple hours of discomfort and deepening cold due to sweating out my base layer during the day. But ultimately, I didn't even need my lightweight bivy gear. Why bring it at all?

But Bill's counter-question also raised my defenses: What if I fall into overflow and soak out essential clothing? (as has happened to me before, with serious consequences.) What if I slip on frozen overflow and break my leg? (There were a few sections of side-sloping trails where thick ice cascaded over the slope like a waterfall. A fall in the wrong spot could have been fairly catastrophic.) What if there is a big storm I don't have the strength to push through, or that hinders my ability to navigate? In all of these admittedly unlikely situations, the ability to hunker down indefinitely could mean the difference between life and death. Not carrying my winter bivy gear will mean the difference of a less awkward packing system on the Fatback, and about six or seven pounds.

Bill's and my exchange moved to e-mail, where it promptly devolved into a philosophical discussion, probing at the existential angst of modern life and the very reasons why I might even bother to enter a race like the White Mountains 100, let alone schlep a bunch of mostly unnecessary gear across the otherwise useless, frozen distance.

"If you're teetering that much and it's pretty much a tie, just go with the bag. It's better to lose a place or two than your life," Bill wrote. "OR ... maybe without the bag you will be more in danger, which could translate to being alive and staying alive instead of just living. Did that make sense? Without the safety nets we have to struggle to live. With them ... well ... they are safety nets."

I don't always agree with Bill's methods but, to a certain extent, I do share his outlook — that modern culture and laws, population density and technology have forced us all into a comfortable corner where risk-taking in a natural setting is not only unnecessary but largely viewed as idiotic — and yet not taking risks makes for an existentially unfulfilling life. At the same time, everything in life ultimately is a risk — Bill pointed out that maybe I should consider bringing a parachute for the huge metal flying contraption that will take me to Fairbanks. What's acceptable risk, and what's not, is largely a personal and cultural decision.

"I admit the Susitna 100 scared me a bit," I wrote to Bill. "The points where it was 20 below and blowing 25 mph for a 48-below-zero windchill — those were a big confidence crusher. I was at the bottom edge of my comfort zone, and my means to control the situation were right at that edge as well. And of course the human body can endure a lot more than we believe it can — incredible survivor stories crop up every day, and prove this point. But I don't like that feeling. It's not exactly the feeling of being alive that I spend so much of my time seeking out — it's more like the feeling of being too fragile to function, of being precariously close to losing it all in a way the reminds us our lives don't amount to much. Kind of a grim outlook but that's why I try to avoid those situations as much as I can.

... That's actually also why I make a point of being so well prepared (over-prepared) for my larger outdoor activities. It's why I carry full backpacks in 50K races where there are aid stations every eight miles. I like to feel that I'm in control of my situations, of my destiny — that I don't need to depend on there being water at the next aid station, because what if there's not? Never mind that there always is."

Perhaps Bill makes a good point — that accepting risk only if it includes the security of safety nets nullifies the benefits of the journey along with the risks. Or perhaps — as has been my experience — safety nets are the greatest benefit of modern life. They enable me to explore the depths of my deeper primal urges while affording me not only comfort and longevity, but freedom — the freedom to choose, the freedom to experience my world, and the freedom to keep on living.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Finding a balance

Well, the honeymoon with California is beginning to wind down; I now have to deal with the both daunting and exciting reality of actually making a life here. I was both lucky and cursed this week when, in addition to Adventure Cycling assignments I had to wrap up, a couple editors of small publications that I've worked with in the past came out of the woodwork (one of the advantages of living a semi-public life) and said, "Want to write something for us?" Yeah, sure, why not? It has kept me reasonably busy, and helped set the base for the routine I'd really like to develop while living down here.

At the same time, if I'm not careful, I can too easily become driven by my own distraction. On Monday, I was curled up on the couch with my cat, Cady, happily typing away an article about self-supported mountain bike touring on the Kokopelli Trail in Utah, when, out of the corner of my eye, I began to steal glimpses of my Element. For inspiration, of course. Patches of peanut-butter-colored mud clinging to the bright red frame morphed into subtle but taunting messages: "Why are you wasting daylight hours indoors when you could be out there? Outside? With me?" I took a break and stepped out onto the porch. It was a dismal sort of day, for California at least, obscured in dark gray mist with howling wind and sideways rain ricocheting off the pavement. Not exactly enticing. Right? Right?

OK, maybe just a short ride, just for inspiration. I'll just climb the Monte Bello Road and ride back down, I told myself. It's mostly pavement; maybe it will even clean up this bike a bit, I reasoned. I took to daydreaming and didn't pedal up the road with the all-out effort I'd hoped to achieve, so I reached the top of Black Mountain feeling fresh and renewed. On the exposed ridge, the weather had gone from grim to borderline dangerous, with plummeting temperatures, a fierce headwind and daggers of hard rain pummeling my face with such force it was nearly impossible to keep my eyes open. I of course was only wearing a thin rain coat and tights because I was only out for a "short" ride, not exactly well prepared. It would have been all too easy and practical to turn my back on it, as I had planned to do, and retreat down the mountain. But the intensity of the weather brought with it a strange and overarching desire, to seize this moment because summer is approaching and it might not come again, to take on this fierce new world and see what I could wring out of it. And anyway, I wanted to see what it was like to ride Stevens Creek Canyon downhill.

I love Stevens Creek Canyon in the rain. It's misty, dense, carpeted in bright green moss and absolutely beautiful. I love it so much that when I was approaching the end of the trail, I saw a side trail called Grizzly Flats and thought, "Can't hurt to extend it just a bit." Grizzly Flats was not flat. In fact, the trail climbed steeply and continuously all the way to Skyline Ridge, the next ridge over. Once at the top, I gleefully skimmed the highway scoping out the new-to-me trails to the west. Unfortunately (luckily?) for me, they're all closed to bikes for the winter.

Four hours after I left on my "short" inspiration ride, I arrived at home with a whole new layer of mud, 30 miles, 4,500 feet of climbing, and a fair amount of guilt for burning up the better part of an afternoon riding my bike. Out of the corner of my eye, saw my cat and my laptop both regarding me with disapproval. "There goes another whole day."

Somewhere, at the center of all this distraction, there has to be a balance ...

I will find it.

Here's the map and elevation profile for my Monday ride.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Grant Park Growler

For most of the week, Beat's friends had been urging us to join them for their 20-mile run on Sunday. After our 18-mile Saturday run, we were both harboring a bit of late-week fatigue, and agreed it would be better to do something "mellow," like a bike ride, and then meet up with the group later in the afternoon. Beat and I decided to head up to Joseph Grant County Park, which is located on the edge of what is actually a large swath of open space on the east side of the SF Bay.

We meandered along a reservoir for about a mile, and then the doubletrack trail suddenly and discouragingly shot straight for the sky. Super-steep-granny-gear-if-you're-lucky climbs were followed by awful-steep-locked-up-wheels-if-you're-lucky descents, and it never let up. Signs even warned us of the possibility of a wet chamois on some of the scarier downhills.

There was some flat ground, but it was generally covered in mud and/or water.

We often stopped to catch our breaths and consult the map again ... "Do we really have to go up there? Really?"

Finally we gained the ridge and the roller coaster became more reasonable, complete with great views of Mount Hamilton. But my legs were running on near-empty, and I had little to combat the continuous climbs.

To add injury to insult, the final descent was so steep it required a full commitment that I failed to make. I launched over a headwall, panicked, hit the brakes — probably both of them — and lurched forward and sideways, making blunt contact with the stem in a way that hurts girls too, I assure you. I was too wrapped up in a visual bombardment of colors and stars to warn Beat that he should walk this section of the trail, but he was already off the bike when he approached the drop-off. Just as well. I joined him, walking downhill, laughing about my poor execution of this fairly terrible ride that in its own way was actually pretty fun.

It only took us two hours and 45 minutes to complete a 14-mile ride — which, according to GPS, had 2,800 feet of climbing, most all of that in the first nine miles, and none of it rewarded with any kind of reasonable (i.e. brakeless) descent. Basically, it would have been easier to run.

Live and learn. At least Beat's friend Martina made us this truly spectacular igloo cake to celebrate Steve's, Beat's and my completion of the Susitna 100. She even included our race numbers in the decoration: 4 (Steve), 60 (me) and 62 (Beat.) Very sweet of her — good to know that while some irrational actions will reward you with a groin injury, others will earn you a cake!