Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So much white

Less than 24 hours after we arrived in Anchorage on the winter solstice, it started snowing and hasn't really stopped. What looks to be at least three feet of new fluff has fallen at our friend's house near Hilltop Ski Area. Combine that with temperatures in the teens and single digits, December's dearth of daylight, and the fact that all of this new snow has fallen on a base of what appears to be a solid sheet of ice. Our friends around town greet us with a partly sympathetic, partly gloating "welcome to winter."

I reply with a smile, "We came here for winter." But I don't mask the fact that this has been an adjustment. This kind of winter makes even small efforts feel huge. On Christmas Day we went out for a "run," breaking trail with the snowshoes. We covered about six miles in a little over two hours (and yes, we did "run" some), did a lot of sweating in our minimal layers at 11 degrees, and came home exhausted. Some of that exhaustion was caused by heavily working a lot of muscles we're not used to working, and some by fighting off a chill we're not used to fighting. People who train their bodies in winter conditions have an advantage over people who reside where the livin's easy. It's simply a different game.

We were driven to get out as much as possible, if only to adjust our bodies to Alaska's harsh environment. But after several days of such efforts, it became obvious we would have to taper if we expected to have any energy for our big trip. We went to visit my long-time friend Craig in Palmer and planned a quick and easy hike to Hatcher Pass. We climbed the exposed slope in single-digit temps with a stiff wind, resulting in a windchill factor of about 15 below. The hike itself was short and sweet, about 90 minutes. But its meandering nature, followed by a leisurely two-hour lunch in a wood-heated lodge that was not very warm, left my whole body deeply chilled. The sedentary battle for body heat completely drained me of energy. It was a useful reminder about the paradox of winter travel — the more one moves, the less one's body has to "work" to stay warm. You're tired and it's cold? Just keep moving. Stopping will only make the overall fatigue worse.

Beat and I are both feeling nervous but excited about our three-day trip starting Wednesday morning. The plan is to leave from Deshka Landing and follow river trails toward Shell Lake, about a hundred miles away, over three days. We'll be dragging all of our supplies in sleds, including stoves and fuel, but will likely utilize a couple of backcountry lodges for some water and food. This is the "luxury" section of the Iditarod Trail, where a few outposts of civilization remain. But it's still "out there" in every sense of the phrase, a roadless region through a vast swath of mountains, swamps and boreal forest, with only a spattering of log cabins. In most Californians' understanding of remote, it might as well be the moon.

I savor these stark landscapes with a palette of emotions that remain difficult to describe with words, but the closest one is "love." I love being out here, even if it's a terribly difficult place to be. All of this new snow, which is still falling as of nine hours before our planned departure, is supposedly going to be followed by a cold snap. That's right, it's not quite "cold" yet. The current weather forecast indicates a likelihood that we'll see temperatures below -20F on the rivers as we stomp over all this soft new snow. Beat and I have both seen this before, and we're preparing for it, but the possible scenarios remain intimidating. Traveling an average of 35 miles a day is, by comparison, quite easy. In fact, it's the easiest way to stay warm.

Way back in January 2008, when I was preparing for my first Iditarod 350, I wrote this paragraph to sum up my feelings about a winter camping experience. I was referring to endurance racing, but it fits just as well with an expedition-style tour of backcountry Alaska in December:

"This multiday winter endurance racing thing is completely crazy. On the surface, it looks hard. Then you peel back its rigid veneer only to find an inner layer of hard. And even as you chip away at its core, you continue to find layer upon layer upon layer of hard. Every part is hard.


And I love it."

I still do. I may never be able to adequately describe exactly why, but I do. And I continue to try.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Just a Lazy Christmas Eve

Twas the morning before Christmas, and deep in the Mat-Su Valley,
Six intrepid sightseers were getting ready to rally.

Their snowshoes were packed in the truck with great care,
Knowing thigh-deep fresh powder awaited them there.

The hikers were nestled snug in the cab with their coffees,
While the thermometer on the dash dropped below zero degrees.

But with mittens and balaclavas and frozen gumdrops to snarf,
The group set out in the frost for a long winter's march.

When out of the fog they arose with surprise,
To see a whole world emerge beyond ice-crusted eyes.

Up Lazy Mountain they trudged like molasses,
Sweating in frigid air and fogging their glasses.

The low solstice sunlight on new-fallen snow,
Gave a luster of summer to the fog bank below.

When what between two layers of clouds should appear,
But a spread of Chugach Mountains, brilliantly clear.

And a peak in front, so wind-swept and crazy
They knew in a rapid heartbeat it must be Lazy.

A strenuous 3,500 feet they had climbed,
To stand in the wind and breathe something sublime.

They didn't stay long lest their toes become frozen,
But were ecstatic with the Christmas gift they had chosen.

They sprang down the mountain on cold pillows of fluff,
Wondering if one Lazy Christmas could ever be enough.

And they wanted to say, before the frost numbed their lips,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all awesome trips."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Testing sleds

Before we go on our big Alaska trip, which looks like it will be taking place next week (beginning Wednesday), we wanted to conduct several test runs of the sleds. Since we returned from Nepal, Beat has been in a frenzy designing and building Sled V.2, which has been fortuitous for me because it means I can use V.1 without actually having to build my own sled (given my usual lack of success with even simple projects such as cooking or adjusting my bicycles' derailleurs, I think it's better I avoid building my own crucial pieces of gear.)

I tried out a few of my own new winter things on our first trip out: A down skirt to combat cold-butt syndrome, and the trekking pole pogies that Beat sewed for me out of a cheap synthetic sleeping bag. This all began when I was digging through my winter bike stuff, saw my Revelate Designs pogies and said to Beat, "I wish someone made a small version of these for poles." Unlike me, Beat loves to build gear and is actually pretty good at it, so he made a couple pairs in time for our Anchorage trip. The reason I prefer pogies over mittens and gloves is because pogies allow me to remain bare-handed or wearing only a thin pair of liner gloves down to fairly low temperatures. Free fingers are better for taking pictures, pulling my Camelback hose out from under many layers of clothing, and feeding myself.

We arrived here just in time for what our friends have told us was the largest snowstorm all month, and it started cranking just as we set out for our afternoon run. Beat got some good testing in with Sled V.2, which he purposely made larger, more water-resistant and more robust for the 350-mile Alaska backcountry race in two months.

The storm ended up dumping more than a foot of snow, so when we went back out this morning with Anne, we had no choice but to strap on our snowshoes. This filled me with a warm Christmas spirit because I love a good uphill slog in knee-deep powder, especially when towing all of my winter survival gear (I am not being sarcastic. I really do love this.) Beat thought four hours of this didn't sound like a difficult enough workout, so he filled his sled with a few Anchorage phone books on top of his winter camping gear.

He probably regretted this decision when the route started twisting through the trees and tipping the sled over, forcing him to test V.2's backpack mode (V.1 is more narrow and didn't have the disadvantage of the poor weight distribution of phone books, but I still had to carry it over blowdowns and around the hairpin turns.) We traveled from Anne's front door, up Hillside singletrack trails and into Prospect Heights. This is a region where I often rode my mountain bike during my very short stint as a resident of Anchorage (April to June 2010.) It was fun to relive these memories amid the ice and snow through the power of nostalgia. Janice's Jive! This trail is so fun; it's a steep rooty bruiser in the summer. Now it's just kinda ... soft ... and slow. (Slog, slog, slog.) ... (Note: To the Anchorage snow bikers who get to ride these trails once they're nicely packed down — you're welcome.)

Temperatures this morning started out in the teens and never rose above 21F. But even fresh from California, and purposely minimizing layers knowing the work we were in for, I still felt overdressed in a single layer of tights, a thin long-sleeve shirt and a soft-shell jacket. No hat or gloves until we started down. This is good, hard work, and after four hours of sled-dragging snowshoeing, my quads are feeling it.

I am seriously excited about our trip next week, which we had to organize around the weather and the schedules of Anne and her husband (our pilot for the flight back.) But the current plan is to leave from the Mat-Su Valley on popular (and hopefully nicely packed) snowmachine trails and trek toward Shell Lake over three days, give or take a long night. That's about 110 miles on the Iditarod Trail, on foot, bivying outside in the cold for at least one night and possibly two. (We are hoping to utilize a backcountry lodge during the first night, if we make good distance.) Considering the context — self-supported snow run — it's a pretty ambitious plan that's probably going to end up being more demanding than the actual race I'm training for, the Susitna 100. It's also probably going to be even more fun, of both the Type 1 and Type 2 variations, so I am quite excited.

But for now, we're going to enjoy a weekend of holiday food celebrations and winter play. Let it snow!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Home for Christmas

These short days have a way of creeping away from me. I'll work for what feels like an hour, look up at the clock and realize it's 3 p.m. and if I don't get outside right now I won't get a ride in at all. Headlights I have, but you can only do so much with trail closures, traffic, and headlights. I'll throw some kind of mixed winter/summer ensemble on my body on and hope it's warm enough. The sun is usually already slipping behind the mountains by the time I race out the door.

Daylight is tight, but I can't really complain about being able to road bike in December. I can move faster in this cooler air. And even though the pavement is just as dry as summer, and the sky just as clear as ever, there's something quieter ... more contemplative ... about these early winter evenings, even in California. Or maybe that's just a vestige of the winters I spent in colder climates — an expectation that there has to be a time when everything quiets down.

I struggled with the decision about whether or not to return to Utah for the holidays. I've been lucky enough to enjoy several opportunities to go home in the past year. I was just there last month. As my family grows older and more dispersed, we've shed many of our former expectations in favor of more open-ended traditions. My large extended family still gathers in my grandmother's church building for a quirky celebration of summer food (fried chicken and potato salad) and a talent show by the grandchildren, a tradition that has shifted to the great-grandchildren. There is that. But my immediate family has been more open to the year-round welcoming of togetherness, without an implied demand that it has to take place on or around December 25. Of course, they wanted me to come home for Christmas. And I wanted to be home. But home isn't as much of a clear-cut proposition for me these days.

Beat had an extended work holiday and asked me where I wanted to spend the last week of December. In my heart I wanted to go home, but this desire didn't reach for the home of my childhood. Of course guilt crept in, and my mind rushed forward with justifications. Beat has a potentially dangerous adventure race coming up and needs to train in real-world conditions. I wouldn't mind getting in some snow miles for the Susitna 100 since my California training will definitely be lacking in this regard. Good friends invited us to to join them on a tempting range of adventures, from a weekly Thursday night "epic" run, to a multi-night trek from sea level into the shadow of the Alaska Range. That last proposal left my heart buzzing with anticipation. Back out there. Really out there. Alaska.

Just before the plane touched down in Anchorage, Beat and I watched the sun set over the frozen swamps of the Susitna Valley. The last strips of orange light gave way to the longest night of the year — nearly 19 hours of darkness in this part of the world. I would miss my family, and the forecast 70-degree Christmas weekend in California. But an electric sort of warmth filled my heart, because I was coming home.

Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 in races

Singletrack and smiles during the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. Photo by Crawling Spider Photography
This past year stands out as my "racingest" year ever. Although I love to train (which, as many of us know, is just an adult excuse to go play outside), I have generally limited my competitive efforts to two to four (usually completely outlandish) races a year. Beat, on the other hand, has no time for training but he loves to race. So he just races into shape, then races to recover, and generally just races a lot. Now I've found myself sucked in to the allure of near-constant racing. I enjoy the community and challenge. Racing fuels my competitive drive to "best" myself by completing something that a larger part of me feels I have no business completing. (This is why I generally aim for long and tough events that are a challenge just to start, let alone finish, and then don't concern myself with the smaller details, like getting faster.)

Anyway, this was a great year of racing. Since December 18, 2010, I've completed eight ultramarathons, one half marathon, one 100-mile snow bike race and one 25-hour mountain bike race. Today, I look back on my year in racing: The numbers, the results, and my favorite part: The long-winded, photo-heavy race reports.

Pirates Cove. Photo by Beat
Rodeo Beach 50K
December 18, 2010

Trail run, 31 miles, 5,900 feet of climbing
Finished in 6:58
Tenth woman, 45th overall

Race results
Race report: 
"I wasn't a runner.

... I knew I liked hiking, but had more than one hiking companion tell me I "walk kind of funny." I knew I was strong on climbs but clumsy everywhere else. As I stumbled down Thunder Mountain in Juneau earlier this year, one friend finally told me, only half jokingly, "you know, some people just aren't good on their feet. Maybe you should stick to wheels."

I wasn't a runner, but I don't like to be told what I can and can't do."



Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
Crystal Springs 50K
January 8, 2011

Trail run, 31 miles, 4,500 feet of climbing
Finished in 6:13
First woman, 17th overall

Race results
Race report:
"The director doled out medals to age group finishers, and then handed me a mug. The mug said, "First Place Finisher." I looked back at the race director, confused. First in what? He must have sensed my confusion because he said, "You're the first woman. Congratulations."

The girl in the cute shorts ... the woman in the black shirt ... there were several females that finished just a few minutes after me. But they were all behind me.

Huh.

Beat, who officially finished one second behind me, jokingly pouted. 'I never win anything.'"


Photo by Beat, from a hike on the race course two weeks earlier
Pacifica 50K
January 23, 2011


Trail run, 31 miles, 7,550 feet of climbing
Finished in 6:38
Seventh woman, 34th overall

Race results
Race report:
"Since when did I become the kind of person who ran three 50Ks in a month? I would have never foreseen it a year ago. Then again, I wouldn't have foreseen much of what my life has become. This is a good thing. I have always found my greatest rewards hidden far outside my comfort zone."


It was 20 below zero and 2:16 a.m. when I snapped this self-portrait
Susitna 100
February 19-21, 2011

Foot race on snow while dragging a 30-pound sled, 100 miles, 3,700 feet of climbing
Finished in 41:16
Fifth woman, 15th overall

Race results
Race report:
"Over the past few days, I visited with many of my friends in the Anchorage area, and always got the same question — "Why are you running it this time?" My simple answer was to see if I could. In my mind, the Susitna 100 itself wasn't the journey I sought. I was looking for a more internal experience, amid a daunting and unfamiliar physical challenge, with the knowledge that unlike many of my more epic adventures, I would be sharing this experience with somebody else, somebody I was in love with. What would the dynamics of that be like? For me, all of those aspects were more intriguing than the simple act of traveling to Alexander Lake and back. And for that reason, even when I was at my lowest moments of the race, I never found myself wishing that I was on a bicycle instead."



Photo by J. Rose, www.whitemountains100.org
White Mountains 100
March 27, 2011

Snow bike race, 100 miles, 8,800 feet of climbing
Finished in 17:55
Third woman on a bike, 32nd overall (bike and ski)

Race results
Race report:
"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."


Trail running at its finest. Photo by Beat
Berry Creek Falls 50K
April 30, 2011

Trail run, 32 miles, 7,900 feet of climbing
Finished in 7:50
First woman, fifth overall

Race report:
"I made one tactical error when I arrived at the 25-mile aid station about three minutes before Beat and lost self control on the delicious spread of race snacks. As a cyclist I have a "feast or famine" style of fuel intake, but I am learning during running I have to take my calories in smaller, more frequent doses. I made the mistake of eating three brownies and spent the final 10K wracked with stomach cramps."



At the top of Rose Peak. Photo by Ohlone 50K volunteer
Ohlone 50K
May 22, 2011

Trail run, 31 miles, 8,700 feet of climbing
Finished in 7:27
20th woman, 111th overall

Race results
Race report:
"I was feeling extremely good today. Honestly, I felt fantastic. This was strange as well because I purposely loaded my training in the days just before this race. We rode 40 miles on Saturday, ran nine relatively fast miles on Friday, and time-trialed a 2,600-foot climb on Wednesday, to say nothing of my Banff/North Dakota week, which, on top of the 105 road miles and 15 hours of mountain biking, included 46 miles of trail running. The reason was to start the Ohlone on slightly tired legs. That's how you learn how to run 100 miles."



Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
Canyon Meadow 50K
June 4, 2011

Trail run, 31 miles, 5,300 feet of climbing
Finished in 6:10
First woman, tenth overall

Race results
Race report:
"Wow," I thought. "I'm actually racing! This is what it feels like to race!" Honestly, during all of the competitive events I've ever participated in, I've never had to face an outside competitor so directly (since I'm usually mainly "racing" myself and there's no one else around for miles.) I fluctuated between worrying that this woman thought I was an deluded aggro type, and strategizing my attack if she managed to pass me again. But the sprinting itself felt amazing. All of the soreness in my legs drained away and a warm rush of adrenaline filled my blood. This must be the beauty of a sprint finish — all of the fun of running fast without having to pay for it later."



Smiles come easy before mile 20. Self-portrait
Tahoe Rim Trail 100
July 16, 2011

Trail run, 100 miles
DNF at mile 80

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


You'd never know Beat just ran for 200 miles straight
Internationaler Greifenseelauf 
September 17, 2011

Half marathon, 13.1 miles
Finished in 2:07
1,338th woman, 5,589th overall

Race results
Race report:
"I admit I was surprised when Beat got out of bed at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I expected him to pass out after his shower Saturday night and not wake up for days. Or maybe I was hoping for this. Either way, despite his apparent inability to walk without a pronounced limp, he was still all-in for the half marathon in Switzerland that afternoon."


Photo by Dave Nice
25 Hours of Frog Hollow
November 5-6, 2011

Mountain bike race
13 laps, 169 miles, 13,950 feet of climbing in 22:03
Second solo woman

Race results
Race report:
"The Jem Trail is actually the first piece of singletrack I ever rode on a mountain bike, on a borrowed Cannondale 12-speed way back in 2002. The trail is still every bit as thrilling and fun to me as it was back then. It flows across the plateau like a ribbon in the sand, contouring the rolling landscape with banked turns and a smooth surface that promotes high speeds. I could ride it fifteen times in a row happily, and ambitiously hoped to log this many descents."



The Long March: 45 miles on Thanksgiving Day
Racing the Planet Nepal
November 20-26, 2011

Trail race, six stages, 136 miles, 29,500 feet of climbing
Finished in 48:05
16th woman, 109th overall

Race results
Race report:
"Beyond all the small details of the race was the simple yet deep satisfaction of having completed one of the toughest — and yet most culturally and personally enriching — journeys of my life. In time I would reflect on the thresholds I had crossed, but for now it was time to simply celebrate and bask in the warm sunlight. We hugged new friends and toasted glass bottles of soda and beer to a race well run. I hoped in time my body would forgive me for the relentless struggle through weakness and pain. Pizza was a good place to start."


Coyote Ridge 50K
December 10, 2011

Trail run, 31 miles, 7,130 feet of climbing
Finished in 6:50
Fourth woman, 21st overall

Race results
Race report:
"My training over the last six months means there's not an ounce of speed in my legs, and I was purposely conservative, so I didn't come close to setting a PR. But out of the seven 50K's that I've completed, the Coyote Ridge 50K felt like my strongest, most consistent run yet. I didn't have side-stitches. I didn't get hurty foot. I didn't experience the sensation of my stomach turning inside out and purging its contents all over a rice paddy. I just ... ran."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 in photos

Each December, I pick a crop of photos, one for each month, that I feel best illustrate the events of the year. These aren't what I consider my "best" photos; they're simply my favorite. For various reasons I'm posting my Year in Photos blog earlier than usual. The above photo, which I took in the early hours of the 2011 Susitna 100, is possibly my favorite of the year — and not because I believe it's a great photo. I'm not posting to nitpick technical details, so I'll just tell you why I love this photo. It was a gorgeous frosty morning — still a few degrees below zero after warming up from -12F — when we turned off a postholed mess of a trail and onto this road. Freed from the mire of mush, the three of us — Beat, Danni, and I — suddenly took off running at a brisk pace. As it turned out, these few miles of road would be the only easily runnable section of that entire race, but we didn't know that at the time. What I remember from this moment was how amazing I felt, completely blissed out by the simple act of running in Alaska in the frosty sunlight, and also by the realization that I was actually attempting this utterly mad thing, this plan to drag a sled 100 miles across the Susitna Valley with Beat by my side. I love the way Beat's mitten shells are flopping around playfully, and the random dude's determined posture, and of course the expression of exhilaration on Danni's face. It was an awesome moment, captured by point-and-shoot pixels.

January, "Out of the Fog"

During January, Beat and I were still working through the long-distance phase of our relationship. I was in Missoula, he was in California, and the travel between to two pretty much defined our lives at that point. We'd wring another long weekend after our already overwrought schedules, and as soon as we unpacked, it was time for one of us to pack again. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of anxiety in January because of the strain on both my and Beat's jobs, and also because I knew change was inevitable. Accepting this change was initially difficult for me. In 2010, I took a lot of risks in an effort to declare my independence, so to speak — to work toward becoming a full and free version of myself. My "independent self" was exactly who I left Alaska for (because "independent Jill" didn't need Alaska to be happy.) In just six months, I had formed a rich and dynamic life in Montana. I had a good job, fantastic recreational opportunities, and truly great friends. But my life didn't feel full yet, and I knew what I was really missing was the connection I felt with Beat, and also an occupation that held more personal meaning (even if it was less lucrative) than what I was doing. It was going to be heartbreaking to move away, yet again, from a place I loved. But I knew I had to do it.

I took this photo during the Crystal Springs 50K in Woodside, California. I chose it for January because it illustrates a lot of what I was doing at the time — traveling to California to visit Beat, training for the Susitna 100, using focused training as a coping mechanism for some of the anxieties I was feeling, and also simply learning how to run (looking back, I struggled so much more with the physical demands of running than I do now, just a year later.) The image holds some symbolic meaning, too, with streams of warm California sunlight just beginning to break through the fog.

February, "Night Ride on Mount Sentinel"

If I had to pick an image to illustrate how I remember Missoula, this would have to be it. Although I spent an entire beautiful summer living in Missoula, my mind is now filled mainly with memories of frosty darkness, pedaling or plodding through a black-and-white world. Sometimes I was alone, fully absorbed in the stillness and silence, but more often I was with friends. Missoula is home to many adventurous souls, and I unsurprisingly connected with one of the craziest of them all, Bill Martin. Bill and I both had day jobs, so our adventures always went down after dark, when temperatures hovered near zero. Bill was constantly half-frozen in his homemade mittens and mountain bike kit, but we pressed on for miles anyway, sometimes late into the night. We enjoyed some great adventures, and he's been a good friend. Whenever people ask me what I miss most about Montana, I always answer without pausing — the friends I had there.

I took this picture during a ride I planned with Bill. I left about a half hour before him on my Pugsley, and expected him to catch up with me on the steep climb, being that he's a sponsored mountain bike racer and all. But he was on his studded-tire mountain bike, and after a few miles the trail looked like that (narrow and soft. I could ride downhill on the fat bike but had to push the climbs.) Bill never caught up to me, and I somehow bypassed him on a different trail while descending, so we never actually rode together. We laugh now about our "Sentinel co-solo ride," but in a way this illustrates how I feel about Missoula. Our paths never fully intersected, but it was a fantastic ride all the same.

March, "Wickersham Dome"

Although I shot dozens of photos while riding my bike for 18 hours in the White Mountains 100, this one is my favorite. After I finished the race, I napped in my sleeping bag on the snow for several hours, drove an hour back to Fairbanks, took a shower, napped for several more hours in a bed, did some laundry, ate a Subway sandwich, drove back to the Wickersham Dome trailhead, chatted with volunteers, and hiked three miles down the trail. I remember watching Beat and his friend Kevin cresting the Wickersham Wall nearly 18 hours after I did the same, and thinking that this whole long day had passed while he was still out there, dragging his sled across the frozen north. The White Mountains north of Fairbanks are one of the most incredible regions I've had the privilege to visit, and I was excited to share one of my favorite spaces — and races — with Beat. But 36 hours is a long time to be out there in the cold, and I felt nervous about how I'd be received.

I needn't have worried. Even though his Achilles was hurting and he was exhausted, he had a smile on his face to match the expansive white rolling hills beyond the dome. It had been just a few weeks since I made the move from Missoula to California, and I also had worried how I'd be received in this new phase of our relationship. Again, I shouldn't have worried so much about it. Beat welcomed me into his everyday life without the slightest hint of reservation. Well, there's one. He seems to blame me for coaxing him into the "craziness" that is Alaska winter racing. However, I have this feeling he might just love it as much if not more more than I do.

April, "Coyote Strolls Up the Street in the Sunlight"

April was all about shaping my new life and exploring my new space. I started on several writing projects that I was excited about, took on freelance jobs that at least kept some income flowing in, and took advantage of my flexible hours to ride and run on the roads and trails near my new home in Los Altos. Before I arrived here in early March, I held the attitude that I might ... someday ... at best ... learn to tolerate life in the Silicon Valley. I did not think I would like it. I couldn't even imagine how I could ever love it. Life here was worth trying for the sake of Beat's and my relationship, but in my view, compared to Alaska and Montana it was a big sacrifice.

And then I actually came to California. I moved into a apartment that was mere minutes away from an expansive open-space system that flows across the Santa Cruz Mountains. I could leave from my front door on foot or bike and soon be immersed in oak-lined trails, or lush redwood forest, or rolling grassy hills, or even a manzanita maze. These weren't wilderness trails but they were extensive, surprisingly not too crowded, and teeming with wildlife — including regular appearances by coyotes and bobcats. I adopted Beat's road bike and spent hours tracing the steep contours of Skyline Drive or time-trialing a close-by scenic climb that never gets old, Montebello Road. I discovered the old-growth redwood forests and cool little communities hidden deeper in these mountains. And I could do all of this without getting in a car and facing the urban traffic and strip-mall sprawl that I had so feared — although even this, in truth, isn't so bad. I was truly enjoying myself, and it was cool to suddenly be immersed in a tech community at the cutting edge of the cutting edge. Plus, the San Francisco Bay area has a large and active trail running and racing community. You could run an organized 50K nearly every weekend of the year if you were so inclined, and yet the Bay-area trail-running community still feels small enough that you get to know the regulars quickly.

May, "Across the Badlands"

I realize that it seems ironic to write about how much I was loving my new life in Northern California and then proceed to post pictures from elsewhere for the entire rest of the year. But beyond my new life with Beat, the year 2011 was defined by a vast expansion in my travel horizons. I did a lot of traveling this year, often to places I never even dreamed I'd visit, and it definitely worked to shift my perspective. This photo is from a May mountain bike tour of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. I joined a group of friends from the Great White North — as I explained to others, it was "me and nine crazy Canadians in middle-of-nowhere North Dakota." I thought it humorous that so many outdoor friends from the Canadian Rockies would come to a famously bland U.S. state like North Dakota — which is not a warm place in early May — to vacation. Dave and Brenda from Banff, both who admit to being staunch singletrack snobs, organized the trip because it's one of the few places on the continent where you can ride a hundred miles of uninterrupted singletrack. We got more than we bargained for with record-breaking moisture, mud, river-crossings and landslides. But it was a fantastic, good-humored group, and the badlands of western North Dakota were more stunning than I even anticipated (and I am a big fan of wide-open desert spaces.) I am a lucky person to know so many great people, even if my friends are spread out across all corners of the world these days.

June, "Struggling Toward Sunrise"

I snapped this shot of Beat on a ridge of the Pacific Crest Trail, just after sunrise during the second morning of the San Diego 100. It was a time of struggle for both of us. Beat was struggling because he was 86 miles into a 100-mile race that he never trained for, as he had spent two months recovering from a bad case of Achilles tendinitis that flared up during the White Mountains 100. (But Beat, being Beat, didn't let that stop him from starting and finishing anyways.) I was struggling because I was just 35 miles into the same effort, and in a lot of foot pain myself. I agreed to pace Beat through the night, starting at mile 51, solely for my own benefit. I was training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, which was just a month away, and wanted to complete a long-distance night run at hundred-mile pace.

I knew that experiencing that much pain on the bottom of my feet after 35 miles did not bode well for a hundred-miler the following month. The pain also slowed me down enough that I had to drop myself as a pacer at the next aid station, because I just couldn't keep up with Beat's stride any longer. I was frustrated, but at the same time, pacified by the serene beauty of these desert mountains. This year has been full of growing pains as I've worked to develop my distance capabilities on foot. But I believe the struggle has been worth it, and that "worth it" is what this photo illustrates.

July, "On the Road"

I snapped this shot after a moment of serendipity, as I was driving toward Salt Lake City on I-80. For most of the trip across Nevada, the air had been shrouded by thick brown haze (it was a dirt storm stirred up by the 35 mph wind.) After I passed Wendover and dropped onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, the air began to clear. In my rear-view mirror, I noticed the sun setting behind the distant mountains. It was a beautiful scene, and it stirred up an overwhelming desire to run. I veered into a rest stop, stepped out of my car into the gale-force wind, and started sprinting across the salt in my flip-flops and jeans. I ran a couple hundred yards until I was fully winded, then turned around and stumbled against the cross-wind back toward the car. On the way back I did stop to shoot a few of these jumping self portraits, in an effort to capture the perfect feeling of freedom I was experiencing. (Which I immediately sent to both Beat, who was preparing for a race in France, and my mother, who expected me in Salt Lake hours earlier.)

It did feel good to be on the road. I had just spent a stunning night sleeping high on the Pacific Crest Trail during a 24-mile fastpack trip, and was heading out to Utah to visit my family and hike in the Wasatch mountains and southern desert. I was still processing my experience in the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, which was affecting me more than I thought it would. I went into that race expecting a challenging and fun experience, but not too grueling, being that it was "only" 100 miles in the warmth of summer, with tons of aid. Unsurprisingly, I started to feel my now-familiar foot pain at mile 40, and by mile 58 I was locked in a full-on death march. I remained determined to see it through, but I slowed down to such an extent that by mile 72 it became clear I was not going to make the next aid station before the cut-off. My blind determination, which had really been the only thing that kept me going, completely shattered. I all but crawled to mile 80, arriving nearly two hours after they shut down the aid station. It was tough for me to accept that I could try so hard, and endure so much pain, and still fail. This affected me deeply enough that even now, five months later, I still feel ambivalent about ever participating in a 100-mile trail-running race again (a steep, mountainous foot race that encourages power-hiking and has a fairly generous cut-off, however, is another story. Snow trails, for my own weird reasons, are also exempted from this ambivalence) But it was nice to have a care-free week of hiking in Utah to let go of my disappointment.

August, "Zion Narrows"

Although it was still July when I drove to Utah, I was in Utah in early August, thus the use of two photos from the same trip. Back in the late 1990s, when I was still a teenager, I ordained Zion National Park my favorite place in the world and made it my goal to hike every trail in the park. (Note, I was only aiming for established trails sanctioned by the park, not technical canyoneering routes.) I traversed the whole park during a 2001 backpacking trip, and in 2002 hiked the Subway, thus completing every trail on my list but one — the Zion Narrows. That was just about the time I discovered cycling and all but abandoned every single one of my hiking ambitions, which at one time included all of Colorado's 14'ers and the high peaks of the western United States. (Yes, I was once a goal-driven hiker. I find myself turning in that direction again.) Anyway, until this year the Zion Narrows were still on my bucket list.

My dad secured a hard-to-acquire summer permit and invited me along. The hike was both more beautiful than I imagined, and more challenging. Even with 104-degree heat hovering just a few dozen feet over our heads, the Virgin River at the time was deep and cold. I struggled to navigate the rocks in the swift-flowing current, and also became quite chilled at times. But it was a fantastic walk/swim, and fun to finally see through one of my teenage ambitions (because I've pretty much failed in nearly every other one. Meet Eddie Vedder? Yeah, that hasn't happened yet.)

September, "Tour of Giants"

Before September, I had never even stepped outside the North American continent (unless Hawaii counts.) This was my first foray into the outside world — a two-week trip to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. The European tour was centered around Beat's participation in the Tor des Geants, a 200-mile, 80,000-feet-of-climbing foot race in the Italian Alps. I only served in a support and spectating role, but I had a fantastic time driving a tiny European car all over the Aosta Valley and ascending several of these beautiful mountains myself. I was blown away by the sheer scale and ruggedness of the Alps, and also the culture therein.

I took this photo of Beat when he was just four miles from finishing the almost unfathomably tough race, five days after he started. He's traveling one of the very few "flat" sections of trail with a towering ridge of Mont Blanc in the background. That he was still smiling at this point says a lot about his drive — that despite all appearances and social norms, he really is enjoying himself. One of the many reasons I love him.

October, "Fall in the Grand Canyon"

October in many ways felt like a catch-up month pressed between two big trips, but I did squeeze in one whirlwind desert tour that included pacing my friend Danni for 43 miles in the Slickrock 100, and 24 hours before that, hiking across the Grand Canyon with my dad. Crossing the Grand Canyon with my dad has become a near-annual tradition, and I cherish it.

This year was particularly enjoyable, because for the first time it was just my dad and me. My mom came along for the ride and thankless shuttle duty, which I shared with her on the way back to the North Rim while my dad completed his first-double crossing (I couldn't join him because of scheduling conflicts with the Slickrock 100.) The weather was also dynamic, with three inches of fresh snow on the rim, temperatures near 20 degrees and ice at the trailhead, and vibrant fall colors across the canyon. I actually took this photo the evening before our hike, in a brisk 25-degrees and 15-mph wind at Imperial Point. I slipped on that thin film of ice and felt myself briefly skidding toward that closer-and-steeper-than-it-appears ledge, but I recovered my balance before I fell and snapped this image. My family probably wishes I was more dedicated to a more traditional tradition (like, say, coming home for Christmas.) But I'm grateful my dad and I have the Grand Canyon to share.

November, "Nepal" 

Anyone who has made it this far in this blog post probably also read my Nepal novel, so I won't rehash too much of the experience. I took this photo during the 45-mile "Long March" of stage five, of Beat descending into a village above the Pokhara Valley. I picked it as a good representation of the experience because it contains a piece of nearly everything: A stone trail, a tiered farming field, a remote mountain village, the Annapurna Range in the distance to the left and a sweeping view of the foothills. As I've said before, visiting Nepal was an amazing experience, one that will probably take me more than these few weeks since to truly process.

I'm purposely leaving December out of the mix because not only is it still mid-month, but the adventures (and potential photo opportunities) are far from over for 2011. More on that soon.