Monday, October 29, 2012

Go with the Flow

Shortly after I finished my Kokopelli Trail ride in Utah last weekend, I found myself in a position I land in frequently — trying to explain to skeptics what it is about long bike rides that I find so appealing. When attempting to verbally describe this concept while my mind is still fried from the physical demands of the ride, I often hem and haw and mutter buzz words such as "pretty" and "mountains." One non-cyclist friend speculated that she would become "crazy bored" on a six-hour solo ride; another mountain biker friend called this particular redrock canyon route "cheesy" because it lacked the necessary amount of adrenaline-pumping singletrack. "I can't really explain it," I finally concluded. "But long-distance rides are one of the few activities I can fully immerse myself in. Sometimes when I'm on my bike, I get so caught up in the movement that I let go of everything else; nothing else matters. It's liberating, really, to lose myself so completely."

A couple of days later, while chatting about music on our way home from Moab, my friend Craig shared similar sentiments as he described improvising on his saxophone. After his wife and daughter go to bed, he sometimes slips into his garage and lets the whole world disappear into the music. He's playing the instrument, but the harmony seems to be creating itself, an independent energy that pulls him along for the ride. As the conversation continued, I realized that Craig wasn't just describing the same emotions I feel during long bike rides. He was describing the same experience.

When I pointed out the similarities of our reactions to these two otherwise unrelated activities, Craig recommended I read "Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This was a fairly popular pop psychology book written in the 1980s that I had never heard of before this past weekend; strangely, as Csikszentmihalyi's theories bolster the same ideas I have been forming — and writing about — for years. "Flow" proposes that optimal experiences are formed when people focus so fully on an achieving a goal that they shed all excess distractions, and in the process experience energized attention, enlightenment, and joy. He proposes that the happiest people are those who consistently enter this kind of "flow" state, funneling all of their energy and emotions into the singular satisfaction of the moment.

"I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it," Csikszentmihalyi wrote in "Flow." Later, when describing his clinical research, he explained, "What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy."

And another quote that will resonate with endurance junkies everywhere: "The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."

It's a compelling concept that can obviously be applied far beyond the simple acts of riding bicycles or playing jazz music. A painter creating a mural, a lawyer building a case, two friends engaged in an engrossing conversation, and a worker on an assembly line are among examples of flow states described in the book. I just started reading "Flow" and am only a quarter way in (27 percent according to my Kindle), but it's been quite illuminating reading. I considered some of the times in my life during which I've entered into a fully immersive state, and the activities that generated this flow:

1. Long-distance cycling, especially in wild and scenic landscapes
2. Hiking and running, especially in physically demanding conditions or on difficult terrain (i.e. climbing steep mountains)
3. Piecing together all the components of a daily newspaper under tight deadline pressure (i.e. editing and designing newspaper pages — sadly not a high-demand skill these days.)
4. Writing

In fact, flow is exactly what has been missing from my writing lately. Reading this book has sparked consideration as to how I can get this back. For the past year, my strategy has largely consisted of aggressively pursuing the first two activities. This has kept me saturated in flow experiences and subsequent feelings of contentedness and happiness, but admittedly at the expense of more traditional productivity. Still, I feel grateful that I'm healthy and secure enough to have regular access to this enriching state — even if relatively few can understand what's so great about riding a bicycle. It means something to me — and in an existence formed by inner experiences, that's what matters.

I'll continue reading this book and working harder to apply this satisfying singular focus to other aspects of my life. But I'm blogging about it now because I believe the concept of flow can be an effective shield in the widespread battle against anxiety, depression, and discontent. It's something worth reflecting on — What activities bring you to a state where you forget about time, hunger, exhaustion, even fear? How can these activities become more of a central focus in your life? I think these are important questions. 
Saturday, October 27, 2012

Love, Utah

Sunday afternoon after the half marathon, the California crew headed into Arches National Park to do some sightseeing. We decided to treat or tired legs to an easy walk, so Delicate Arch became the destination. At three miles with 500 feet of climbing, it's not nothing — but the rewards are much greater than your average three-mile hike. Despite all of my excursions into Southeastern Utah as a youth, I haven't ventured inside Arches National Park in many years, and have not hiked to Delicate Arch since I was a teenager.

Admittedly, visiting Delicate Arch is on the cheesy end of the outdoor activity spectrum. The iconic landmark has been so exploited to death that now it's most common to hear things like, "Wow, that's what's on the license plates!" from fellow hikers while standing in the presence of this wholly unique entrada sandstone formation. Still, being there made me feel like a little kid again. The weather was gorgeous and we sprinted out onto the sandstone bowl beneath the arch, climbing boulders and basking in the sun.

I'm pretty sure I have a similar photograph of me and other friends sitting on this exact same rock that was taken when I was seventeen years old. I wish I could find it for comparison's sake. The whole excursion was a relaxing and satisfying addition to nostalgia weekend.

On Monday, I headed back to Salt Lake with Craig and Jen. It was Craig's daughter's fourth birthday that day, and he wanted to take her to Sand Dune Arch to play in the sand. I took advantage of the Arches stop to go for a quick six-mile sandy trail run. It was, in a strange way, my most satisfying outing of the week — even moreso than my long mountain bike ride on Saturday or half marathon on Sunday. The weekend crowds had gone home and I seemingly had the trails all to myself, revving my high gears to make good time in the sand and experiencing truly breathtaking surprise when I encountered a new arch around nearly every corner.

The Colorado Plateau is a magical place, and for me rivals the Alaskan tundra in its intimidating expansiveness and bewildering beauty. And like Alaska, the desert can be unforgivably harsh, not the kind of place many people seek to venture very far off the beaten paths. I certainly didn't venture out this weekend, but returning to these spots and looking out over these horizons reminds me that I want to come back, someday, and trace the hidden contours that have been permanently seared in my imagination. I love Moab.

By the time I returned to Salt Lake, winter had arrived, including the first real valley snowstorm of the year. On Tuesday morning I had a few hours to kill before my flight, and found myself standing near the window of my parent's house in Sandy, watching drizzling raindrops hit the sidewalk. "I want to go for a run, but it's really too cold," I told my mom. Then I had a had a moment of self-awareness when I realized that 43 degrees and raining was exactly the kind of weather I went out in nearly every single day when I lived in Juneau. The deep shame of being California-wimpified pushed me out the door, and I had a fantastic 7.5-mile power-hike/run with 3,000 feet of climbing on the Bear Canyon trail, also signed as the Orson Smith and Cherry Canyon Logging trail. Basically, I was working my way up the lower slope of Lone Peak and daydreaming about scenarios in which I had both the time and hardcoreness to ascend above snowline all the way to the summit. I love the Wasatch Mountains.

I did see a little bit of sleet above 7,000 feet elevation, which made me very excited as that's my first hit of snow this season. Winter is my favorite season, even though these days I see so little of it that I've lost nearly all of my cold-weather street cred and even tolerance (see above.) But it was a great end to a very full and rewarding last-minute trip. Thanks, Utah. 
Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Other Half

When Monika started planning our big reunion in Moab, she centered it around a half marathon event, reasoning that a lot of us, herself included, were all into running now. Back in the D Street days, there was actually a whole group of runners that did not include Monika or me: Geoff, Bryan, Curt, Tricia, Anna, Micah ... But despite the appearance of converging interests, Monika hadn't convinced anyone from the original crew besides her own husband, Paul, and another friend, Kati, to sign up for the race this weekend.

Luckily she was bringing a large contingent of her own running friends from California. And just before the race, Geoff and Bryan's girlfriends, Corle and Monica, signed up as well. Then we learned there were a few extra bibs floating around. Kati's sister forgot to train, and Paul had injured his ankle and couldn't run. After some grappling it was decided that Jamie would run with Kati's sister's bib, and I was going to be Paul. Thankfully for me and my anxieties about breaking rules, Monika had registered Paul under the name "Bubu," which I presume is a Slovakian-type spelling of the pet name "Boo-boo." Still, it was better to run as "Bubu" than "Paul."

Monika called me out of my tent in the frosty twilight of 6:05 a.m. I admittedly felt groggy and grumpy about the prospect of racing. After all, I had convinced myself I was finally going to partake in a completely lazy, sit-by-the-campfire kind of weekend, and now I was waking up before dawn, with a stiff neck and sore legs from churning through the sand with a mountain bike for 52 miles and 7,600 feet of climbing the day before, just so I could pound my poor shredded quads through another 13.1 miles on pavement. Why do I do this to myself? Even when I vow to relax, I can't.

As we huddled around the picnic table shoveling in instant oatmeal and coffee, two rather strange women — strange to the point of being creepy — walked up to us holding hands. They offered to "stretch" Corle and became insistant when she declined. When I asked if they were running with us, one replied in the most sing-song voice possible, "No, we don't like to run. We like to drink tea." Turns out they were friends of friends of friends who someone invited out to our camp late the night before, and were still up after apparently "drinking tea" all night long. Rudeness of inviting them aside given how loud they were all night and how many children there were in camp, it was reminiscent of the kinds of encounters that used to happen with humorous frequency when I was 21. I had to laugh about it.

The Other Half Marathon begins at the Dewey Bridge, north of Moab, and continues contouring the Colorado River corridor on Highway 128 for 13.1 miles to Sorrel River Ranch. Of all of the highways I've traveled, Utah Route 128 is one of the most scenic. Thirteen miles of desert scenery, combined with the silly fun of running with friends, tempered my reluctance to run so far on pavement. The more serious California runners lined up with their pacing groups, but six of us started off the back near a guy holding a 3:00 pacing sign. "Just stay in front of that guy, and you'll be fine," I said to a couple of the newer runners who were nervous about finishing. The gun went off and we started fresh at about 12 min/mile pace, still joking and giggling.

My original intent was to stay with my friends, shoot photos, and take it easy on my tired legs. But after a couple of miles I lost them in the crowd and gradually got a little more caught up in the running part of the half marathon. I picked up my pace until the mile-long climb at mile eight, and struggled a bit because quarter-filled paper cups of Gatorade every two miles do not provide that much liquid for a desert race, and I was slightly dehydrated. Near the top of the climb was the access road to our campground, and I admit I considered veering off and either heading back to camp or waiting for the others to catch up. As I approached the gravel road, I saw Kati running in a tutu, and as I pushed to catch up to her I noticed a large contingent of friends standing next to the road and cheering runners on. They were so busy cheering for Kati and her tutu that they didn't even notice me, even after I made a full stop directly in front of them and took their photo. Ah, well.

The headwind picked up speed until even the downhills felt more like climbs. The short-but-steep climbs and wind-blasted descents continued all the way to mile twelve. The final mile was downhill but directly into that fierce wind, and I was sorta done having fun with this half marathon. I'm glad it wasn't a full marathon. I rolled into the finish at 2:06, having come within a few minutes of catching up to some of the California crew. I was 501st out of 1,459 finishers, and 46 out of 83 in "my" class, which was males age 30-34. Monika also told me that this is Paul's half-marathon PR now. Since my only other half marathon was the Greifenseelauf in Switzerland one year ago, and my time there was 2:07, I think it's my PR too. Yay!

Beat, however, told me that because I'm a "runner" now, I really need to get my half marathon time under two hours. Boo. I really enjoyed myself in The Other Half, and I doubt I would have enjoyed myself as much if I made a concentrated effort to shave a half minute off of every mile. When Beat asked if I *could* have shaved at least a half minute off of some of those miles, the answer was emphatically yes (certainly in the first 8 miles, but not in the last five.) "So you're not really trying," he replied. "It doesn't count if you're not trying."

This gave me an idea for a future blog post — examining the emphasis on getting faster solely for the sake of getting faster, and why this value has to be a prerequisite to being a "runner." I'm never going to win and sometimes wonder why it's so important to pick my way up through the middle of the pack. I do understand the satisfaction of personal improvement and the competitive spirit, but I feel the need to examine just how much these increments mean to me, as an individual, before I commit to something like training specifically for a faster 50K, for example. Sometimes I wonder if I get caught up in the peer pressure of "faster is always better" without acknowledging which aspects of the running experience really mean the most to me. Or maybe, as Beat says, I'm just being lazy. :-)

Either way, I had a great time at The Other Half — excellent scenic-yet-challenging compliment to the rest of the weekend. Thanks, friends.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Strange steps take us back

I was just a hair over 19 years old when I decided I hadn’t made enough new friends during my first year in college, and opted to rectify that by joining the University of Utah’s environmentalist club, Terra Firma. Yeah, I wanted to save the environment, too, but I was working two part-time jobs to buy myself the luxury of not living at home, taking a full load of classes, and I had little time for extracurricular activities. So my primary motive was making friends, but when I walked into that first meeting full of young men with hairy faces and women in sun dresses, I had no concept of how deeply this single action would shape my future. 

Just another typical evening at the D Street House. Photo from May 2003. 
I was just a hair over 22 years old, and had been out of school for more than a year, when I moved in with them. “They” were a loosely organized household of ten students, an unwieldy group stuffed two-plus to a bedroom in a small house in the Avenues of Salt Lake City. We called ourselves the “Terra Firma House,” and later the “D Street House.” We've since speculated that more than thirty people called the place home for at least a short time. The rent payers were in constant fluctuation, but we were bound by our love of living cheaply and traveling to the desert whenever we got the chance. The drama level was about what you’d expect from a co-ed group of twenty-somethings crammed into a small living space. Flings sparked and faded, wild parties drew police crackdowns, couches were willfully destroyed, people moved in and moved out, but Terra Firma House lived on. 

I was just a hair under 24 years old when I left. Ironically, the "wild" period of my early twenties was also when I took my career as seriously as I ever have. I commuted seventy miles a day to my job at a small-town newspaper so I could spend long hours editing articles, driving out to accident sites to shoot photos, and interviewing local artists and businesspeople. Returning home every night to a different party ultimately proved to be more frustrating than fun. One day, I arrived at the D Street House after a long day at work to find several of my roommates dismantling a thrift-store-purchased arcade "Skill Crane" with a sledgehammer. I loved these people, and one in particular, but enough was enough. I told my boyfriend at the time that I was moving to Tooele to live closer to my job. For a time, I believed I’d never look back. 

But one thing I’ve learned about myself since that time is that I always look back, and the views are often cathartic and rewarding. For all of the tangents our lives have taken since the Terra Firma days, some things never change: We still laugh about the time a rat crawled into Bryan’s car and died a week before anyone discovered it; we still bond amid the flickers of orange light and sage-scented smoke; and we still love the Utah desert. 

For the last six months, my friend Monika, the “Rockin’ Slovakian” of Terra Firma days who now lives in San Francisco, has been planning a big reunion of friends in Moab. For a number of reasons I was on the fence about going, and as recently as one week before the trip wasn't planning to attend. But as the gathering reached a critical mass of old friends, including several traveling from as far away as Alaska, I decided to make it happen. I bought my plane ticket so late that I checked in at the same time, and made last-minute arrangements to join the group at a campsite next to the Colorado River. 

Friday night was a whirlwind — more than forty people had gathered at the group campsite, and we visited several others who opted to stay with their families in condos back in town. Children played barefoot in the sand while the rest of us huddled next to a small fire, trading the rapid-fire versions of our life stories and laughing at inside jokes. As an introvert, this kind of manic socialization is fun but extremely exhausting. By Saturday morning, while the group made plans, I started looking for an excuse to steal some solo time. 

Most of the California contingent planned to rent bikes in Moab and ride the Slickrock Trail. I looked into this possibility only to find that seemingly all the bikes in town were already rented out for the busy fall break weekend. Other friends were taking their children swimming, or going to town to pick up bibs for the half marathon the following day. Most plans had been made before I latched onto the trip, so I figured I'd just be the odd person out, stuck in camp. But as everyone was packing up to leave for the day, I noticed a bike that I recognized mounted to the top of one of the cars. My ex-boyfriend Geoff and I only had a few short minutes to catch up the night before, so I took the opportunity for an easy icebreaker — "So, you still have the old Karate Monkey?"

Somewhere in our conversation about old bike components, life in Colorado, running, and how few miles he's ridden since the 2008 Great Divide Race, I asked Geoff to let me borrow his bike for the day. We were camped more than thirty miles outside Moab and I had no way to transport the bike by vehicle, so the Slickrock Trail group ride was still out of my reach. Instead, I took off from camp by myself in search of a "touring" adventure, something that would take me to scenic and high places. I found the Onion Creek jeep road, and consequently access to one of the prettiest sections of the Kokopelli Trail.

Riding Geoff's Karate Monkey on the Kokopelli Trail put me in a nostalgic mood, and for long periods of time my mind left the sand-spinning present to travel to desert places in the past. I found myself in Coyote Gulch, anxiously searching for ways to scale a twenty-foot waterfall in Sketchers and jeans, with a forty-pound backpack. Then it was late at night in the San Rafael Swell, sitting in silence around an extinguished campfire as a rare display of northern lights streaked across the starry sky. Then it was a single-digit morning in Robber's Roost, hopping up to breakfast still wrapped in my sleeping bag after a shivering night that I half-believed I wouldn't survive.

Nostalgia is a powerful and double-edged emotion — at once uplifting and sobering, happy and sad. For me, nostalgia is a way of creating continuity with the past, an acknowledgement that everything I do holds a direct line to everything I’ve been through. It’s the reason I can sit down next to a campfire with people who I haven’t seen in as many as five years and pick up stories we left dangling back in 2004 as though no time has passed at all. 

But time does pass. Later that night, back at camp, my friend Jen would lament that our group "doesn't do stuff together anymore. We just talk about the stuff we used to do." It's true. Even during our reunion, we took off on our own tangents before reconvening around the campfire at night. Still, to this group of friends, my own tangent — embarking on a six-hour solo bike ride — seemed to make the least sense. With all the fun activities going on that day, why would I choose to go off by myself and burn up my quads on a long, sandy climb into the La Sal Mountains? At dinner we discussed our plans for the following day, and I jumped at an opportunity to take a friend's bib and run the half marathon in the morning. Some friends joked about my agreeing to a "short" run while others teased me about going on a fifty-mile mountain bike ride while most of the runners tapered on Saturday. My friend Tricia, who effectively hasn't seen me since the days of house parties, Sketchers and jeans on hikes, and vocal disavowals of all structured fitness training, asked me whether I could have foreseen any part of what my life is like now ten years ago.

"Not at all," I replied. "I guess it's just the strange the way life works. One thing builds onto another, so slowly that you don't even notice until you look back and realize that your perspective is dramatically different."

Perspectives keep on shifting, and it's rewarding to maintain connections to the past. These people — and places — have made me who I am, and continue to help me keep sight of where I'm going.
Thursday, October 18, 2012

First (and only?) training ride

Dropping into the Big Blue
My friend Jan recently took a job at a small biotech company in Seattle, and is leaving the Bay area this Saturday (booo!) It's always a bummer to lose good riding partners, but the upside is that he wanted to squeeze in one last big ride during his last week in town. Great timing, because I needed to squeeze in a long training ride for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow before taper time encroaches. I effectively haven't ridden a mountain bike more than a handful of times since mid-August. Training for a 25-hour solo that begins in seventeen days? No time to start like the present.

Coast View Trail
Jan mapped out a big loop of trails, fire roads, and pavement around the Marin Headlands. On paper, or original route looked ambitious — but even then I thought, "Yeah, we can knock this thing out in seven hours" and even made early dinner plans with a friend in San Francisco. Ha! I should know better by now. Of all of the regions where I've dabbled in longer distance riding, the California coastline has been, by far, the most deceptively difficult. I *think* the dirt is all smooth and the elevations are all small, but I'm wrong. Somehow, I'm always wrong. A thousand feet of altitude is a huge energy drain if you have to gain it in two miles or less, on freshly graded trails. And cow-trampled, sun-dried mud is more jarring than any rock garden I've ridden. And redwoods can roll out some surprisingly large drops with their well-camouflaged roots. The California coastline is also a place where temperatures can push into the high-80s in October, but any clear day in Marin is a beautiful day.

I think it was mile eight or so when Jan and I looked at each other and both silently wondered if we were really going to go through with this. His face was already streaked with white salt and my sit bones were sore. My sit bones haven't been sore in six years, but it isn't easy to reconcile months of relative inactivity with persistent hard pressing, while climbing, just to keep the rear wheel from spinning out. Still, it was intriguing to finally link up all of these trails I've ridden and run in shorter fragments. We started at the Golden Gate Bridge and climbed up and over the steep ridge into Rodeo Valley, then Tennessee Valley, then Muir Beach, then climbed a fire road to Mount Tam before dropping down the bone-rattling spine of Bolinas Ridge. After five and a half hours, my arms were completely numb and both Jan and I were deeply fatigued. We had traveled 38 miles, it was 4:30 p.m., there were only two hours until sunset, and were still at the furthest point on our loop.

Coyote Ridge Trail
In the interest of not riding until midnight, we decided to nix a few of the trails we were going to hit on the way back, and made a dash for home on the pavement. Marin County has a nice bike route system, but I am not a big fan of urban riding — the constant stop and go, the traffic, the knee-jarring tendency to sprint away from stop signs in the big ring, the wonderful smells emanating from all of the restaurants when I am so hungry. Still, it was nice to make good time for a change — thirty miles in 2:15 including a Gatorade stop when both Jan and I ran low on water. By the end of the ride, the restaurant smells had tempted me into eating three energy bars, my sit bones had gone numb, and I was feeling great. I could have gone out for another 67-mile lap. At least, that is what I will tell myself, so I don't feel as much dread about Frog Hollow in two weeks.

Alcatraz Island, the Bay Bridge, and San Francisco
We ended up with 66.4 miles and 8,083 feet of climbing (map here.) This likely will be my only big training ride before Frog Hollow, as I made a last-minute decision to purchase a cheap plane ticket and fly to Utah for yet another weekend. A bunch of my college friends have been planning a big reunion in Moab. I was originally not planning on going, because my fall travel schedule was already loaded, most of those trips involve Utah, and because I felt guilty about neglecting my work and spending less time with Beat, who also wanted to plan a long training ride this weekend. However, the Moab gathering really started to fill out, and now it looks like most of my good friends from college, as well as several people I haven't seen in eight-plus years, are going to be there. It should be a great reunion; it's always fun to reconnect with people who knew you when you were 20 years old.

Several of these friends are running a half marathon on Saturday, but biking isn't part of the plan. I'm sure I'll do some hiking with my friends and maybe grab a trail run or two, but yeah — here's to another weekend of not training for Frog Hollow. At least I got one good ride in.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Winter of discontent

Cache Mountain Divide during the 2012 White Mountains 100: So bonked, so tired, so having the time of my life
In late February 2013, Beat is going to load up his sled and set out from Knik Lake, Alaska, and walk toward Nome — 1,000 miles on the Iditarod Trail. For many reasons, such an ambitious undertaking is well beyond my scope right now, and yet the desire to find an Alaska adventure of my own burns deep. On the whole, I'm an adaptable person who could happily change a lot about my life — but, as of yet, I feel unwilling to let go of my annual winter "pilgrimages" through the wildernesses of the Far North. Why this particular activity has become so deeply woven through the fabric of who I am, is still a mystery to me. But a winter without Alaska is still as unthinkable to me as a summer without mountain biking. If I *had* to choose one to give up, well ... most of my biking friends would probably not be happy with my answer.

Happily, Beat's month-long commitment to Nome will likely give me a lot of time to work with in winter 2012-2013. Less happily, my usual, convenient and fun solution of racing is not an option this year. The three races that have played the largest role in my personal development — the Susitna 100, the White Mountains 100, and the Iditarod Invitational 350 — are all unavailable to me this year. I do believe the Susitna 100 will be back someday, and I've mostly been able to let go of the ITI 350, but the White Mountains 100 lottery outcome has been hard for me to cheerfully accept. I admit I was one who didn't understand why some runners are so devastated when they fail to make it through the Western States or Hardrock 100 lotteries. What's the big deal? There are lots of other opportunities. But now I get it. It's hard when you've been part of a small community for three years, channeled so much effort and devotion toward one event, and suddenly you're shut out. I understand why it has to work that way. It's still hard.

So the question remains: What to do? I appreciate the votes on my blog poll. The results were interesting:

Rainy Pass during the 2008 ITI 350: So frightened, so destroyed, so loving every minute I'm alive
"Independent, self-supported bike tour of the Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to McGrath," 107 votes (31%): A longer, self-supported snow bike tour in Alaska is something I've been considering since late 2009. The main reason I haven't followed through is because I moved away from Alaska, and now lack what I consider to be the necessary conditions to adequately prepare for such an adventure. Attempting 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail on my own would be, in my opinion, considerably more difficult than participating in the race. I would have to be absolutely prepared for every contingency because there are no bailouts. I would have to carry all of my food and fuel, at least seven days' worth, from the start. I would have to prepare for camping every night, in potentially horrific weather conditions. There are a few lodges in the early miles where I could book a room and buy a hot meal, but beyond mile 165, I would be deep in the wilderness and completely on my own. There's also the issue of the short window when such a tour is even possible. Basically, the whole Iditarod Trail only exists for a few short weeks in late February and March. It's almost impossible to plan an independent tour and not bump into either the human-powered or the dog sled races. These two race organizations do so much to facilitate the maintenance of the Iditarod Trail that I do feel it's important to not get in their way. For all of these reasons, I admit I'm still more intimidated by the prospect of such a tour than I am drawn to it.

One of my ideas when I first started considering this in 2009 was to launch an initial "shakedown tour" on the first 165 miles of the trail, closer to "civilization" but far enough out that I could still make a day trip over Rainy Pass and see a lot of amazing scenery. At this point, having never done a longer winter outdoor camping trip, this is probably a better idea. Another idea suggested by Phil in Nome was to fly out to a village much farther west on the Iditarod Trail, connect two points, and see some incredible and completely new-to-me country. This, in some ways, would be more manageable than a McGrath tour since I could mail myself food packages to all the villages along the way. I could arrange it to finish in Nome and wait for Beat there. This is also, of course, an intimidating and probably expensive prospect.

2012 "Pecha Kucha Mountain" fat bike weekend: All of the fun, none of the suffering.
"Snow bike or sled tour on the Denali Highway, Resurrection Pass, and other shorter routes in Alaska," 90 votes (26%): Yes, it is possible to have an adventure in the Far North without resorting to a big sufferfest. I admit I like the challenge of more "extreme" adventures, but I also like vacations that are driven toward fun. The awesome women who invited me on a snow bike tour of the Dawson Trail last March — Jenn and Sierra in Whitehorse, and Jill in Anchorage — are all interested in putting together another tour this winter. One idea I had was the Denali Highway, 135 miles of somewhat maintained snowmobile trail in the shadow of the eastern Alaska Range. There are two lodges along the way to help minimize the suffering, although there is one 65-mile stretch with no commercial structures. Depending on weather and trail conditions, this could either be a very long day or a long two days. I'm not sure how far my friends want to venture into the suffer zone.

There are other possibilities for great tours as well — the 48-mile wilderness trail on Resurrection Pass, snowmobile trails around Homer, and the Denali Park Road, although I'm not sure whether that's maintained at all during the winter. There's also the White Mountains loop in Fairbanks, and of course lots of options in the Susitna Valley. I could certainly spend a happy month seeking out 2- to 3-night snow bike and snowshoe/sled tours, working on my book, riding my Fatback around Anchorage, and hiking a few small mountains. Wait ... why am I considering anything else? Oh, yeah, because I would genuinely miss my annual slogfest. If nothing else, I'm likely to be very lazy the rest of the winter with nothing to train for.

The Dawson Overland Trail, home of the Yukon Quest and Yukon Arctic Ultra. It is beautiful.
"Suck up the exorbitant fee and run the Yukon Arctic Ultra on foot," 45 votes (13%): This is one race I would love a shot at running. Paying for it, however, is not nearly as enticing. For whatever reason, the YAU is considerably more expensive than any other winter race I've participated in, and I mean considerably. The price of the 100-mile event is basically insulting. The 300-mile or 430-mile events might be more justifiable, but again, these distances would be extremely hard, especially because if I race this winter, I want to do so on foot. The YAU is notorious for cold weather and bad trail, enough that winter cyclists have all but abandoned this race (I looked at the results from last year, and they were all runners and skiers.) Plus, it's in early February, so it takes place before I'm going to be in Alaska, making travel another considerable expense. As much as I'd love to run this race, it's out of my price range this year. Perhaps my Yukon friends and I will be able to organize another independent trip on the Dawson Overland Trail, which I'd love to see again. I will mention in this section that I am strongly considering registering for the Homer Epic 100K. It's an awesome course that utilizes the snowmobile trails where I used to ride my mountain bike when I lived in Homer. However, regardless of how I approach that race, I'm not sure it will become a focus.

Walking the Yentna River in December 2011: I will say this, there's a lot of time to think out there. 
"Buckle down and finish writing a book for crying out loud," 57 votes (16%): I'm happy that this option received even more votes than the single winter racing option in my poll. It means there are a few out there who care whether or not I ever actually finish my book project(s). With all the fresh inspiration I was seeking in Utah, I've been trying to sit down and work on it this week. It's tough to explain, but my mind feels so "mushy" much of the time and my writer's block persists. I'm convinced this is a result of devoting so much energy to my outdoor pursuits and travel, and also having what is in reality so much time to work on my writing. I'm a journalist; I honestly work better under impossible deadlines. Well, this winter I'm vowing to set some impossible deadlines for myself. Having no sufferfest to train for might, in the end, be the best thing for me. This isn't to say I'm giving up on the possibility of a longer tour. But maybe it won't be so devastating if it can't happen.

"Experiment with speed work and see if I have a 'fast' 50K in the old legs," 23 votes (6%): I mentioned in my last blog post that I wouldn't mind aiming for a ~5:30 50K, acknowledging that I would need to focus my training in order to achieve this. This and the Homer Epic 100K could the efforts I train for in California while planning other short Alaska adventures. The problem is, the race I'd like to train for, Crystal Springs 50K, is in early January — right after Beat and I return from a dark and cold training weekend in Fairbanks. It's not the ideal taper for a fast 50K. I might look into other trail races and keep this possibility on the table.

The Douglas Island Ridge in Juneau, Alaska, in November 2009: Fleeting beauty worth experiencing
"Nothing, winter is for hibernating," 15 votes (4%): We'll just have to agree to disagree.
Monday, October 15, 2012

Just because we can

I was under the influence of a "22-hours-of-driving-from-Grand-Canyon-to-Salt-Lake-to-Los-Altos" lag, and feeling disconcerted about the degree of difficulty I experienced during a 90-minute bike ride on Tuesday, when Beat turned to me and said "Horseshoe Lake 50K is this Saturday. Do you want to sign up?"

My mind initially cranked out a stream of logical reasoning. "The Bear 100 was just ten days ago. Grand Canyon was three days ago. You were already tired before all of that happened, and still have enough genuine fatigue that you can sleep like the dead through the night and still feel muddled and sleepy during the day. And despite what you might believe, you haven't even run that much lately. Everything you've done from UTMB on has pretty much been strenuous hiking. Plus, the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow is in three weeks, and the last thing you need to do is go for a long run. If anything you need to get that baby-soft butt onto a bike seat and crank out some actual bike mileage for a change. Haven't you missed biking? Aren't your feet shredded enough?"

And then, in the same mental breath, that logical side let out an exasperated sigh. "Whatever. You're screwed anyway."

So another side broke through with a burst of elation, like a manical laugh, "Yes, you're screwed anyway! Let's see just how much this thing can blow up!"

I turned to Beat and agreed to sign up for this pointless fifty-kilometer trail run, and then sat back feeling rather satisfied with myself as the lyrics to "Wrecking Ball" by Mother Mother played in my head.

I made a wreck out of my hand
I put it through a wall
I made a fist and not a plan
Call me a reckless wrecking ball ...

Beat and Jan at the start. Jan is my cycling friend who has decided to dabble in trail running. He was in for the half marathon.
Beat upped the ante by taking his brand-new carbon Niner singlespeed for its maiden voyage by riding to the start of the race, a 16-mile road and singletrack ride with 3,200 feet of climbing. Even my wrecking ball can't compete with that; I slept an extra hour and drove to the start on Skyline Ridge. As I greeted friends at the starting line, I admitted that the only real run I'd done since the Bear 100 was a 6.5-miler on Thursday, two days earlier. What I didn't admit was that during this 6.5-mile run, my quads cramped up and I all but limped the last mile, then felt a strong need to take a nap afterward.

"I'm pretty tired," I mumbled, "and I'm not sure how this is going to go." But in my head, the wrecking ball was manically cackling and prodding me. "You need to run this thing fast. As fast as you can! What do you have to lose?"

See, I do hold this secret wish to run a "fast" 50K, which for me would be around 5:30 or so, but so far have lacked enough desire to follow through with the disciplined training it would take. Still, despite my lack of consistent running, let alone speed work, I thought I might have a shot at sub-six hours if I just refused to let myself hold back. I did have one more factor working against me — the fact that the course was almost entirely singletrack, which is always slower if you're a clumsy and unassured runner like me. But the course was designed as two half-marathon-length out-and-backs with one five-mile spur, all closely paralleling a road. I could blow up at any point and not have to limp all that far to a DNF, which I wouldn't even feel bad about given this was a rather pointless endeavor to begin with. At 7:55 that morning, with still-aching quads and sleep crust in my eyes, a big part of me was vowing to run all-out for as long as I could.

I am unruly in the stands
I am a rock on top of the sand
I am a fist amidst the hands
And I break it just because I can.

Beat with our friends Steve and Harry, who I haven't see since shortly after they finished PTL in France. The main reason to come to these events is to visit runner friends. Trail races are basically parties on the move. They're even catered. 
The field took off at 8 a.m. sharp. I initially ran with Beat, Jan, and two Bay-area friends who also finished UTMB in August, Karen and Nattu. The social chatter drowned out the cackles of my inner wrecking ball, and I fell into a comfortable, perfectly logical pace. "Maybe I should have fun with this and simply finish. Maybe I shouldn't blow myself up," I thought. Still, the wrecking ball persisted. "Run! Run faster!"

I was actually feeling pretty good, and was just about to let the wrecking ball win the argument when, at mile 4.5, something sharp and hot stabbed me in the back of my leg. Beat turned to me and said, "Are you limping?" "I've been stung," I replied. As soon as I said that, a yellowjacket stung him, too, and we both started sprinting as fast as we could away from the wasps.

So, I don't know how most of you react to wasp stings. I have more-severe-than-usual allergic reactions to most insect bites, so I wonder if I'm also more sensitive to wasp venom than the general population. Either that, or I'm just a big baby — but I'm being sincere when I say that I was suddenly in a lot of pain. If a nurse had shown me a pain rating scale, I would have marked six out of ten. Several years ago, I had a comparative experience when I crashed my mountain bike into a large sagebrush. A broken-off branch stabbed through my calf and left a puncture wound, and also — I was convinced — a few splinters somewhere deep in my skin that I never found. That's what the wasp sting was like for me — being stabbed hard in the back of the leg with a jagged stick, and then continuing to run with the stick embedded in my leg, yanking and ripping the skin and muscle. Oh, and plenty of swollen burning, too.

And, just like that, I transitioned from "I'm going to run fast" to "I'm going to drop out at the first aid station, walk out to the road, and stick out my thumb because this is way too hurty to even consider walking 6.5 miles back to the start." The fact that Beat and been stung as well and didn't make a big deal out of it made me reconsider this plan, since it did seem like I was overreacting. When we arrived at the first aid station, they were passing out Benadryl like candy because apparently several racers had been stung by wasps. I took one Benadryl, along with four Advil, and decided I was at least going to power myself back to the start.

After all of my pre-race fretting lack of specific training and fatigue, it was a wasp sting that became the overpowering factor in my experience at the Horseshoe Lake 50K. I could no longer muster the maniacal excitement to "run fast" and just continued at a reasonable pace, grumpy about how much my leg hurt. After finishing the first half marathon, I had reached the conclusion that my leg wasn't going to hurt any less if I stopped running. I took two more Advil and headed out for another 13.1 miles, only managing a real sprint through the "wasp gauntlet." Strangely, my right butt cheek also started to go numb. I'm not sure if the numbness was unrelated or if the venom had moved up my leg, but that coupled with burning pain was enough to consume every thought I had from then on out. I ran a bit more with Beat, Karen, and Nattu. Even though I tried to resist a strong urge to complain about my own petty discomforts when all three of them had been stung themselves, quite a bit of whining did spill out. Sorry, friends.

I strode into the finish just behind my friends at 6:32, and, upon sitting down and realizing that stopping in fact did not change the level of pain in my leg, immediately took two more Advil. Eight Advil was the entire amount of painkillers I allowed myself to take during the Bear 100, but recklessly decided that number was just as appropriate for a biddy widdle wasp sting, just to get through a 50K.

Yes, I'm a big baby. And because of that, the Horseshoe 50K was a hard race, a challenge just to endure. Even though I didn't come close to blowing myself up, that big ol' wrecking ball side seemed wholly satisfied. (Race results: 4th woman, 20th overall.)

Let's break it just because we can
Deface it just because we can
Let's break it just because
Just because ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Palette of motion

My friend Jan offered two great suggestions for our morning ride today: Mountain biking along the sandy ridges above Pacifica, or road ride to the top of Mount Hamilton. At first, mountain biking seemed to be the clear choice. With the exception of two routine hill climbs near my house, I've been actively avoiding road biking since my friend Keith was hit by a motorcycle while we were riding in Yosemite National Park last May. It's not a fear or protest type of avoidance; I've ridden plenty of pavement on my mountain bike and commuter since then. It's just that much of my excitement for road riding tapered off when the harsher realities settled in. Put yourself on skinny tires and you're always at the mercy of vehicle traffic. There's no escaping it.

Still, I'd never ridden Mount Hamilton before. At 4,200 feet, it's the highest peak in the Bay area, accessed on a solid 18-mile road climb (and descent) with 4,300 feet of climbing (thanks to a couple of rollers.) There's a domed observatory at the top, and on clear days, huge views of the Diablo Range, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and even the Pacific Ocean. And I'd never been to the top of Mount Hamilton. I couldn't say no to that. The method of travel didn't matter to me as much as the destination.

As we pedaled up the winding road, I pondered the origins of my current palette of activities. I began to wonder if many active or outdoors people ever consider what life events sparked their preferred methods of motion. What makes some people avid skiers who sulk through summer and others identify as cyclists and claim complete disinterest in anything that doesn't involve wheels? Why do some people live for running while others would rather push tacks into their feet than pull on running shoes? Why did I dislike cross-country skiing so much during the one season I dabbled in it? And why did a friend of mine, an otherwise nonathletic, stay-at-home-mom, develop such a passion for ice climbing, of all things? Why do you do the sports you do?

I clearly remember the moment when I decided to become a cyclist. It was several years before I cared much about fitness or even dreamed that competitive events would someday become a big part of my life. No, I was 22 years old, and gripped by wanderlust. My palette of motion at the time was backpacking, day hiking, snowboarding, and more backpacking. One day, I saw a man pedaling up a canyon on a bicycle loaded with panniers and camping gear. And I thought, "Wow, what a great way to travel!"

Because I'd effectively not ridden a bicycle since I was a child, I actually had to re-learn simple bike handling before I could become a bicycle tourist. After a year and two big tours, my travel ambitions morphed into road centuries and commuting, then a brief period of barely dabbling in mountain biking, before my bike passion suddenly and inexplicably swung toward extreme forms of endurance racing, namely long-distance snow biking and self-supported bikepacking. By 2008, I was a single-track-minded cyclist, logging 9,500 miles in one year on dirt, pavement and snow, and aspiring toward ever-bigger and more-difficult bike adventures.

In 2009, that trajectory came crashing down. I'd lost a long-term relationship and finished the Tour Divide. I was heartbroken and burned out. I desperately needed a change of scenery, so I returned to my first passion — hiking. But now, with all that endurance experience behind me, I carried a strong new desire — distance. So it only made sense to try trail running.

That, in essence, is why I became a runner. Not because it felt good, or even natural. In fact, I was an awful, awkward runner, and I still pretty much am (although I have learned a few techniques to better control my awkwardness.) But I loved the way running increased my ability to travel longer distances in the mountains, in less time. A hundred miles on foot in 1.5 days? Check! Now how can I apply what I've learned to backcountry routes where bikes can't go?

But it's not just about travel anymore. Somewhere in those wanderings, I did fall in love with trail running. I enjoy pounding out my routine trail runs, even though the scenery is the same and all the loops eventually go nowhere. The simple motion makes me feel alive. Maybe someday I'll be so in love with this newfound fluidity of motion that I'll even be willing to take my running to the road. But not yet. Biking on pavement is still enjoyable enough to trump the drawbacks. But running? Not quite yet.

And I still love cycling, both as a fun and fast way to get to a brand new place like the top of Mount Hamilton, and as a satisfying motion on the same old hill that I've already climbed many dozens of times. But I wouldn't choose to go back to the days when I was solely a cyclist. Not only did I grapple with a lot more little injuries back then, but I also had fewer destination options overall. Monotone palettes are limiting. I sometimes meet cyclists who tell me they'd never be interested in running and I think, "You should try it! You really should."

Think about it. Why did you become a cyclist or runner? It's likely a lot of us just fell into one or the other through the randomness of life circumstance. Personally, I've enjoyed expanding my palette of motion. Maybe someday I'll even give cross-country skiing one more chance.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Still an incredible ditch

It's my favorite tradition — and a strong indicator of where my priorities fall. I've failed to go home for Christmas for six of the past seven years, but I never miss the annual autumn Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike with my dad. 

This year was my seventh trip into the "big ditch," as my friend Dave calls the Colorado River gorge. My first rim-to-rim hike, back in October 2004, was such a daunting prospect that I was awake all night before the hike, nervous that I wouldn't find the strength to climb all the way out of the canyon. I'd done 6,000-foot climbs before that, but never at the end of a long day. My dad and I joined a large group at North Kaibab trailhead in predawn darkness. I remember thinking it was such an incredibly long way down; after fifteen miles, my legs were aching and we were still at the bottom of the canyon. Temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees as we plodded up the Bright Angel Trail. Some of our companions developed bloody nipples and heat exhaustion, and had to submerge themselves in tiny trickles of streams. When we finally reached the South Rim, I plopped down with a Pepsi my mom brought for me, convinced I couldn't possibly take another step. Now, eight years later, a rim-to-rim hike has become something I've convinced myself I can squeeze in less than a week after a hundred-mile mountain run. Even my dad has started talking about doing a double-crossing next year, calling it "the new rim-to-rim." But where some of the challenge has faded, the unbelievable beauty and quality time with my dad has remained. 

 This year we started on the South Rim and worked our way to the north. We were joined by my dad's friends Chad and Ophie, who recently moved from San Francisco to Utah. Chad is a fun guy to spend time with. He and my dad were hiking companions in the 1990s, before Chad moved from Salt Lake City to the Bay Area. Chad was a 2:48 marathoner and a mountaineer aspiring toward Mount Everest (the tragic death of his climbing partner on Mount Whitney put this dream on hold indefinitely.) But Chad is an obvious bad-ass who recently had knee surgery and gained a little weight, so his self-depreciating humor is a continuous source of entertainment. Chad is looking to get into trail running and was actually asking me for advice about training for ultras. Coming from a 2:48 marathoner, I have to say, the notion that I had anything useful to offer was pretty hilarious. But he is a great guy. His wife, Ophie, was quiet but steady. She was nervous about the scope of a rim-to-rim, too, but only seemed to gain strength as she climbed.

 I still had a few lingering physical issues after the Bear 100, including tired climbing legs, extremely sore pinkie toes and a few open blisters. On Thursday night, I spent an hour giving myself a specialized pedicure, filing down my more problematic calluses, moisturizing, and carefully taping my blisters and four toes. This seemed to help a lot. My feet had been my largest concern for getting through the canyon, but they proved to be a minor inconvenience — if you count excruciating pinkie toe pressure pain as a minor inconvenience. I guess I really am developing an ultrarunner mentality.

 We started down the South Kaibab Trail just minutes before the first wave of shuttle bus hikers and runners (we actually saw the bus pull into the parking lot.) Even still, we managed to stay ahead of all but a handful of runners, so we largely had the canyon to ourselves in the morning.

 Although I've considered taking on the popular runner tradition of running across the canyon and back in one day, I'm torn about the notion of a R2R2R. Honestly, I think it would be a fun challenge, but the Grand Canyon is really the type of place where it's even better to take it slow.

 There were, of course, many picture stops along the way.

 Friday was a hot day in the canyon — barely cool before sunrise on the South Rim, and well into the 90s at the river. Having lost all of my heat acclimation since I haven't been in real heat since August, the early afternoon climb in the box canyon was a tough grind for me. Ophie, who is Filipino, continued to wear long pants and long sleeves all day long.

 The bridge across the river.

 The "Black Bridge" was constructed in the 1920s for mule traffic, and remains one of only two bridges across the Colorado River in the entire Grand Canyon. The other is the Silver Bridge, on the Bright Angel Trail less than a mile away. Both are foot- and mule-access only, so shuttle drivers for any rim-to-rim crossing still have to drive more than two hundred miles around the big ditch.

 Climbing out of Bright Angel Canyon. It was really hot here.

So I was stoked to arrive at this place for lunch — Ribbon Falls, my favorite spot on the North Kaibab Trail. (Actually about a half mile off the main trail. So you even get a bonus mile.)

 I spent as much time as I could lingering near this misty alcove. But not too close, unwilling to get my taped-up feet even remotely wet.

 Yay Ribbon Falls

 This was the first time I carried a GPS on a south-to-north crossing, so I never before realized that despite the long, hot grind out of the box canyon, the North Kaibab Trail actually only gains about 2,000 feet total in the first ten miles after Phantom Ranch. The Artist's House below Roaring Springs sits at about 4,500 feet altitude, and from there it's a big grunt to gain another 4,000 feet in five miles. I knew those last five miles were mean! It's not just tired legs that make it seem so.

 We really motored up those last five miles. I was struggling enough to keep the pace that I didn't even stop to take many pictures, for fear my weak legs wouldn't muster the oomph to catch back up to my dad, who can hike really fast. (He may be nearing 60, but I still have to jog sometimes to keep his pace.) We were about a half mile from the top when my dad and I finally stopped at the Coconino Overlook. Chad joined us about three minutes later and staged a comic meltdown, staggering about and dramatically declaring "I got nothing left. I'm seeing stars, cherubs, there's a monkey on a pogo stick!" A lady sitting nearby turned around with a horrified look on her face, believing that Chad was serious. "You're almost there," she sputtered. "Really, you only have about twenty more minutes." Chad's a funny guy.

My mom, our ever-gracious shuttle driver, was waiting for us at the North Kaibab Trailhead. This is such a great tradition and I hope it continues, even if most of my family would probably prefer I come home for Christmas. Thanks, Mom and Dad.