Friday, November 30, 2012

Have swimsuit, will run

This week has been an enjoyable one for running — empty trails, slopping through peanut butter mud, splashing into shin-deep puddles, skidding across wet wooden bridges, and feeling the cool caress of misty rain on a warm November afternoon.

This week has been a wet one in the Bay area. I'm not far enough displaced from my life in Juneau to be all that impressed by coastal California weather quite yet (60 degrees and steady misting rain for days? Southeast Alaskans call that "July.") But this particular weather system is the largest winter storm I've seen since I moved here 21 months ago, and may be the largest one here in many years. Scientists are calling this an "atmospheric river" — a conveyer belt of torrential downpours that threaten to soak regional hills and mountains with double-digit inches of rain and send flooding into the valleys. Scientific American ran an interesting article about "Megastorms" and the extent of damage such storms are capable of causing. It's a sobering reminder that even California's splashy fun storms are not to be taken lightly.

This storm also coincides with the largest trail running event of the year around here, the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship. It's a 50-mile money race for fast runners, and a high-participation event with multiple distances for the rest of us. There was a time when I considered signing up for the 50-mile or the 50K event, but decided that I prefer to run low-key trail races, of which there are abundant options around here. However, my friend Monika decided to put together a team for the marathon relay, and recruited me to run the fourth leg. Three women on our team are mainly road half marathoners, and I can't promise anyone an amazing or even adequate 10K, so this "endurance challenge" falls squarely into the "fun social outing" category for us.

Still, despite its short distance, this race feels eerily similar to UTMB — the NFEC 50-mile and 50K races were extensively rerouted due to flooding and safety concerns, so now all of the runners are going to be crammed into tight loops of fire roads in Golden Gate National Recreation area. And by the time our marathon relay starts, six hours after the 50-miler, the course likely to be a morass of mud as shoe-sucking and soul-crushing as those churned-up trails in France. Granted, running that kind of terrain for 110K is maddening, but for a simple 10K, it's likely to be more like splashy fun. Still, maybe this wet weather is just my bad luck. Maybe I should stay far away from anything deemed a "trail running championship."

I hope for the sake of California and its economy that this doesn't develop into a Megastorm, but I do think the severe wetness will make for an interesting experience for every runner involved in major races this weekend.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I've missed these mountain benders

Even after I nearly crumpled while inching out of bed on Sunday morning, it was difficult to accept how wrecked I felt. Despite appearances otherwise, it's actually rare that I so completely thrash my body. As an athlete, I'm conservative to a fault. I'm always holding back on the throttle for fear I'll burn out my engine, saving gas for the next mile while never quite knowing how hard I can go. That's one of the things I love about a mountain bender, when the sheer difficulty of the terrain forces me to engage those uncomfortable high gears. Timpanogos ran my quads through a cheese grater, tenderized my calves and crushed my glutes between a vice. The result was that oh-so-sore, oh-so-smug satisfaction that I gave that mountain my best effort. 

My dad, with the exception of his minor knee injury, seemed to be in a lot better shape than me on Sunday. He read my last blog post and mentioned something about "whining" so I wanted to add a postscript in case there was any confusion — my dad does not whine. He'll be sixty in January and he's strong, possibly as strong as he's ever been. He's also smart and knows when to say when, but he's open-minded and willing to try new adventure possibilities. Beat also had a spring in his step Sunday morning. I think I was the only one who was roughed up by the effort alone, proving that I do in fact need to work smarter with my training. 

Still, Sunday was our last day in Salt Lake, and we didn't want to waste it. Beat and I set our sights on Red Pine Lake, a relatively "mellow" climb up a gulch above Little Cottonwood Canyon. Yes, only eight miles with 3,000 feet of climbing in snowshoes. Easy peasy. A weak cold front moved in, and it was a bit of a blah day — gray, colder, with flurries in the mountains and a hazy inversion starting to spread over the valley. As we started up the trail, I struggled to keep up with Beat. My quads were throbbing, and I could no longer reach my high gears. Still, any day in the mountains is not a bad day. I would probably go into the mountains every day if I could. At least until my body gave out, which, at this rate, would only take a couple of weeks.

Lower Red Pine Lake. The wind picked up as we ascended out of the forest, and I had to put on my coat. The ambient temperature was a few degrees below freezing; the windchill was likely in the teens, and Beat was still in his short sleeves and no hat. I'm a bit of a cold wimp (it's true) but that shows how much heat we were generating during the climb. Hard work.

Upper Red Pine Lake. We walked along the edge, taking great care not to step into the hollow crevices between car-sized boulders. At the far edge of the lake, we watched two skiers and a snowboarder make their way down the ridge. Their position looked precarious. There were exposed rocks everywhere, and they would make one or two tiny turns before stopping for a long while, scooting laterally, then making two more tiny turns.

I can't say I envied them. A friend of mine asked why, since we obviously enjoy playing in the snow, didn't we just go skiing while we were in Utah? My quick answer is that I don't know how to ski, but that's not entirely true. Once upon a time I was a decent snowboarder, and I'd be more than willing to carry a board up a mountain. But as I've grown older, I've reached a level of acceptance about who I am and what I truly love, and gravity sports haven't fallen into that scheme. Descending a mountain is the price of going up, which is the part I enjoy, whether I'm running, hiking, snowshoeing, or yes, even mountain biking to some extent. Another benefit of growing older is that I no longer care if this makes me strange.

Sure, I can still have a good time on a snowboard, but I'd prefer to keep it to open, powdery, purely "fun" terrain. I understand that skis are more efficient than snowshoes, but I'd honestly rather be bogged down by gravity than constantly fighting against it. Fill me up with adrenaline, and I'm an anxious mess. But give me a good, endorphine-soaked slog, and I'm happy. In that regard, our weekend Wasatch mountain-bender was wonderful. 
Monday, November 26, 2012

Humbling mountain

Above 9,000 feet the powder became bottomless, a kind of fluffed sugar that scattered under our feet. I might as well have been driving a ruler into a bin of plastic balls for all the good my ax was doing, and every step only deepened the waist-deep trench that Beat and my dad had already cut. We were moving forward at a rate of about four feet per minute, which, to put into perspective, is a 22-hour mile. And still, the upward lunging and swimming was as anaerobic as I ever go, where every minute of gasping motion required another thirty seconds of rest. Beat and Dad had already expressed their skepticism about this exercise in futility, but I persisted, pointing up to the crest of the small ridge we were climbing and saying, "But we're almost there, and then we can at least see what's up there!"

We thought Mount Timpanogos would be an ideal place to stage a longer day hike on Saturday. About three weeks ago, a huge storm hit the Wasatch Front, and nothing has happened since. This single layer of snow on top of dirt means avalanche danger is about as low as it gets during the winter months, and we were hopeful that the warm temperatures since had reduced the snowpack to a manageable level. Plus, the southern approach to Timp is the most traveled trail in the Wasatch, something of a hiker highway during the summer months, and we wagered that there might even be a packed trail all the way to the upper meadow. If the conditions didn't pan out, we reasoned, we could turn around. My dad isn't stoked on suffering and we weren't looking to get into anything "epic."

The hike started out fairly benign. We took pictures of waterfalls.

We marveled at sun halos.

We worked up a sweat.

As we climbed, the trail became less defined, until we were following a set of knee-deep tracks across the steep face of the mountain. Above us was a veritable layer cake of cliff bands glazed with ice. I couldn't discern any rational path through the vertical maze, not for hikers at least. The summer switchbacks had been smothered by feet of snow, and unless the tracks we were following went all the way to the rim, we'd have to pick out the safest route on our own.

We held to the tracks until we reached a frozen waterfall between two cliff bands. The middle ledge was only a few feet wide in spots, off-camber at about a 45-degree angle, and precariously perched above a twenty-foot sheer drop that plunged into a steep gully. One ice climber who was preparing to scale the waterfall informed us that there was about an inch of loose powder on top of glare ice where he stood. We weren't even wearing crampons, and skittering across that section in dull microspikes seemed like a death wish to me. The climber pointed to a tree-lined ridge where the summer trail went through, and suggested we might find an easier route to that ridge if we descended a few hundred feet.

The downclimb became our first little mountaineering challenge, because our upward zeal had taken us up a slope steep enough that we had to descend backward using axes as anchors. I've never had a climber's mindset, and instead of hyper-focus, I often become strangely distracted on exposed terrain. It's as though my endurance-trained brain uses similar escapist tricks to numb the discomfort when I encounter scary exposure, which, although soothing during a long run, is not what I want to have happen while staring through my legs down a seemingly vertical ladder of snow and ice. Still, winter climbing techniques are something I would definitely work on if I had more opportunities, as I do love the buzz of having conquered a difficult problem once I reach the bottom (which is where I was when I took this photo. As you can see, there's still some lesser downclimbing to be done.)

The true slog began as we sought a less-steep, less-exposed route to the rim, which we weren't even sure existed. It was clear my dad had pretty much stopped having fun the minute we pulled out the axes, but he continued to be a good sport about my sometimes overzealous desire to continue up the mountain. I didn't want to torture my dad, and I honestly didn't even care if we made it to the rim. But Mount Timpanogos had suddenly presented us with this intriguing problem, this beautiful puzzle, and I was aching to see whether we could solve it. It didn't help my dad's cause when our route became increasingly more physically demanding, until we were expending vast amounts of energy for a 1,320-minute-mile pace. There are few activities I love more than a good, ridiculous slog.

There's also a sense of realness to winter travel, a truth that I don't find to the same extent in my summer adventures. The ease and predictability of dirt, the soothing prettiness of flowers and leaves, the comfort of warm temperatures — these are all things I cherish. And yet, when winter strips these things away, leaving behind a much starker, less complacent reality, I feel like I'm seeing a new face of the mountain — perhaps the true face. Mount Timpanogos is a breezy (if long) walk-up in the summer. Now that I've seen it in the winter, I know this mountain for what it is — steep, harsh, and guarded by a fortress of cliffs.

A couple of gullies we hoped would provide access to the rim turned out to have short vertical sections that required mixed rock and ice climbing. We found one potentially climbable snow ramp that would simply take us to a ledge below another set of cliff bands, where we'd have to renew the search for walkable gullies. But by then we were well aware of how loose and bottomless the gully snow was. Even though avalanche danger was minimal, I couldn't help but imagine one of us losing purchase and tumbling down on top of the others, an avalanche of bodies. We called it good and turned back without regret. I was satisfied because at least we tried without taking unnecessary risks for our respective experience levels, and my dad was satisfied that maybe he wouldn't have to stage an intervention for his daughter who apparently goes manic over waist-deep snow slogs.

"I've never worked so hard to climb Timp," my dad observed as we made our way back to the valley, which I found to be true myself even though we weren't anywhere near the peak. In all, we were moving for seven hours, "walked" about eight or nine miles, and climbed perhaps 3,500 or 4,000 vertical feet in total over our wanderings. My quads were thrashed, my calves ached, my shoulders were sore, my hands were numb and head was swimming through a beautiful fatigue more appropriate to a very long run than an eight-mile hike.

Three hundred yards from the car, we had our first mishap — my dad took his microspikes off, slipped on ice, and wrenched his knee badly. He was okay, but it added a punctuation point to our day's lesson from the mountain — sometimes the best adventures are unintentionally epic, small in scale, and huge in humbling life experience. I appreciate being reminded how tiny I am, from time to time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

White Friday

Beat and I flew to Salt Lake City to spend Thanksgiving with a large portion of my very large extended family. Between aunts, uncles, first cousins, and their children, I think there were at least forty people crammed in my uncle's rec room. This was Beat's first big Mormon family Thanksgiving. We made jokes about eating green jello mixed with carrots and overcooked turkey, but the food was actually quite good and my family members kept the uncomfortable questions to a minimum. The funniest statement came from my 82-year-old grandmother, who, upon first meeting Beat, exclaimed, "Wow, you're much cuter than I thought you'd be!"

Before the pie was even fully distributed, my sister and some cousins and aunts started gearing up for their Black Friday shopping assault. Apparently this revered holiday tradition has now trickled into Thursday, and they were all planning to hit the stores in a few hours. In my opinion, Thanksgiving is the best holiday to spend with family (less baggage and stress than Christmas), and the fact that U.S. retailers basically just gave the middle finger to Thanksgiving made me feel a bit melancholy. Although I have my own personal issues with consumer culture, I don't have a problem with Black Friday in general. I do understand how the economic machine that I depend on to prop up my lifestyle hums along. Still, as an individual, I can think of few cultural phenomenons that I'd be less likely to enjoy. Maybe a Justin Bieber concert. But no, even at one of those I could zone out and daydream. Black Friday is just torture, simple and pure. In fact, if Hell did exist, it would absolutely be a custom-designed type of place. Some people would live out their purgatories riding bikes in 40 below weather through Antarctica-like nothingness. I, on the other hand, would spend eternity trapped in the crowds at Wal-Mart on Black Friday.

Luckily, if you don't want to spend your holiday weekend in a retail mosh pit wrestling others over cheap televisions and DVDs, it's not all that hard to get away from the crowds. My dad, Beat, and I headed east into the Wasatch Mountains to climb a 10,200-foot peak called Gobblers Knob. It was, after all, the day after Thanksgiving.

Utah has been unseasonably warm all week, and the bright sun combined with radiant heat off the snow seemed to turn Mill B Basin into an oven. The terrain varied from slush to breakable crust, requiring a number of stability maneuvers that I haven't exercised in a long time. The combination of heat, rough terrain and altitude made for a tough climb. At one point after a particularly slow slog up a slope, I finally caught up to my dad and Beat and said, "I'm struggling. I don't know if it's the elevation or heat or both." It sounded ridiculous coming from a Californian who was wearing virtually the same outfit I wore at a Bay-area 50K trail run two weeks ago, given the ambient temperature was still likely in the 40s, but there it was. I was toasted. And of course it became windy and frigid on the summit ridge. Even after applying most of our extra layers, we had only time to eat a rushed lunch of Nutella sandwiches and tortilla chips on the peak before our fingers and toes were frozen.

The mountains are always joy-inducing, regardless of conditions. And even with the "heat" and weird snowpack, today's conditions on Gobbler's Knob were just about ideal. Strangely, we only saw three other people the entire time, near the trailhead. That fact is even harder for me to understand than the lines of people wrapped around Best Buy. Because if Heaven did exist, it would absolutely be customized, and mine would be a lot like this. 
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pain in the neck

Something about the Mount Tam 50K sparked a "must run" stoke that has yet to dissipate. When I get up in the morning, I feel excited about running. I want to hit familiar trails and try to run faster; I want to seek out new routes and run longer. It's hard to say why my run stoke is so high right now, but it may have something to do with the fact that every time I've ridden a bike in recent weeks, I felt like the reduced-power slug that I probably actually am. And yet, somehow, whenever I set out on foot, I feel comparatively strong, light, and free. So I go for a run, feel great, and then the hidden knot in my neck tightens again. After every run, without fail, I've grappled with a stiff neck for a day or two. It's baffling, and annoying, because since when did a sore neck become a running injury?

This started at the Horseshoe Lake 50K, which was a little more than a month ago. I woke up the next morning with a sharp pain down the center of my neck, and assumed I had wrenched it after I was stung by a wasp during the race. The rigid stiffness faded over the course of the week, and may have gone away completely if I didn't run that road half marathon in Moab a week later. Unknown forces during that thirteen-mile fun run took my little knot and tightened it into something more permanent.

See what I did there? Even though my neck first felt sore after a trail race, I try to blame the half marathon because I think road running is the root of all running-related injuries (not really, but I do carry disproportionate prejudices against running on flat pavement.) But after The Other Half, I was stricken again by a seriously stiff neck, and it's come back to some extent after every run since. I rode my bike for 170 miles in Frog Hollow with no ill effects (at least to my neck), and yet a six-mile run a few days later left me hobbled again. I finally decided this nagging neck soreness might not go away on its own and scheduled an appointment with a massage therapist next week. Based on his opinion, I'll decide where to go from there. In the meantime, I try to limit my running to shorter routes every other day. Which is how, despite rain and colder temperatures, I ended up on a bike ride today.

Here's another habit I've formed since I moved to California that I'm not proud of — I don't ride my bike in the rain anymore. Now, granted, it only really rains here from October to March, and even then only a few times a month. But on the days it does rain, I don't ride. If I want to exercise, I go for a run. I really enjoy running in the rain, and now view non-commute biking in the rain as wholly unnecessary and bad for bikes. It's sad to me because I used to thrive — thrive — on rain riding when I was an Alaska resident. People gave me kudos for riding through snow and subzero temperatures, but it was the rain riding that really made me tough. When I was pedaling in the driving rain with thick droplets clinging to my face and an icy stream running down my back, I wasn't training to be a fit cyclist. I was training for life, to be strong, to be resilient, to be ready for anything the world could throw at me. Now I'm a wimpy Californian with a stiff neck who has to dig through the back corner of my closet to find my cycling rain gear.

I tried to muster strength up the long road climb, but I was feeling sluggish. A steady drizzle tickled my skin, but it was still too warm for rain gear. It was a blah gray day, nothing terribly scenic, and I considered bailing from my ride early. Then I reached the ridge. A storm that had just minutes before been simply gray and drizzly suddenly broke loose. The mountain was enveloped in thick fog, driving rain, and gale-force winds steamrolling eastward from the coast. The Santa Cruz Mountains form a barrier between the Pacific Coast and the warmer Santa Clara Valley, and Montebello Ridge is a prominent spine. Weather collects up there, so even if conditions are nice and calm in the valley, it can be hurricane nasty on the ridge 2,500 feet higher. Suddenly surrounded by horrible, uncomfortable, bike-rattling weather conditions, I couldn't help it. I broke into a big smile.

There was little else to do but pull up my hood, pull on my gloves, and pedal full-tilt into the angry storm. Wind buffeted my little bike and a deeper chill seeped through my wet shirt. I had the best time descending the wet Bella Vista Trail, laughing in the face of driving rain. I relished the fading light, obscuring fog, and violent wind, because they reminded me of everything I used to love about riding bikes in weather, real weather. It will batter you and drive you to distraction in too-large doses; I learned that the hard way. But in small doses, few things are more fun than riding bikes in bad weather.

The rain left me fully soaked and had to bundle up for the long descent, but as soon as I dropped out of the storm, I was treated to a stunning sunset. This photo doesn't capture the visual at all, but there was this beautiful wash of pink light over the sky and valley, and the clouds had an eerily bright tint.

Yeah, this photo didn't grab it either. Guess that's why it's good to get out there, in the cold and driving storm, to see for myself. Either way, I was buzzing after my ride, and wonder if I can now return to my regularly scheduled "ride stoke." For reasons that don't make any sense, this evening has been relatively neck pain-free. 
Monday, November 19, 2012

City living

"I guess that's what happens when you give adrenaline athletes a bunch of jalopy go-carts and an incentive to go hard."

"People really rolled them ... in the middle of Market Street?"

"Some more than once. The streets were soaked so the tires were slipping out, and the wheels would get caught in trolley tracks and spin the cars all the way around. People were drag racing at stop lights, and ramming into each other like bumper cars. We stalled out on steep hills and had to push those things up the road."

"Wasn't there a bunch of damage?"

"Oh yeah. Some were totalled. Helmets came back cracked in half. Someone hit a bus. People were all bruised up and covered in blood, looking pretty forlorn. Everyone was wet. It was carnage, total carnage. But funny."

We turned into a dark alley splattered in street art, and I smiled at the mental image of a few dozen semi-pro and pro athletes set loose on the streets of San Francisco with three-wheeled go-carts and a loosely organized scavenger hunt with a big cash prize for first place. My ex-boyfriend, Geoff, was in town for the Clif Bar athlete summit, and after he completed what was apparently a race to rack up as much collateral damage as possible, we met up with him, our friends Paul and Monika, and old friends visiting from Chicago, for a night in the city.

Minutes after Beat and I arrived fresh from a short but hard run, our friend Paul decided he wanted to eat tacos at a place that was about thirty blocks away. So we walked and walked and walked, and Geoff told us increasingly more head-shaking stories about the Clif Bar summit. "One of the challenges was to trade a Clif Bar for something better. So of course Levi Leipheimer finds a bike shop where everyone knows who he is, and walks out with a $5,000 set of wheels." Monika and I discussed our upcoming trail marathon team relay, and she told me that actually, we're all just taking turns running the same 10.5-kilometer loop. "So in a way, we're kinda just racing each other," I replied, and she didn't disagree.

The Mexican restaurant was typical of many San Francisco establishments I've visited — headache-inducing colors on the walls, all of six tables for seating, and featuring many intriguing menu items that, as an adventurous person, I really should order — even though I usually just go ahead and get two boring old grilled chicken tacos.

Paul went ahead and ordered the fried grasshopper taco, and made sure everyone had a taste:

"It tastes sort of what I imagine rotten yellow grass soaked in stale vegetable oil would taste like."

In the 45 minutes it took to walk back to Paul and Monika's place, the weather changed from pleasant to pouring, with torrents of rainwater gushing down the steep sidewalks. We spent the rest of the evening in soaked jeans, snacking on home-dried fruits and the prototype Clif Bars that Geoff made at company headquarters ("The secret is yogurt-coated mangoes.") We discussed South Park parodies, Iditarod strategies, and listened to Monika's stories of Christmas traditions under communism.

After a fun night in the city, the next day we went mountain biking at one of our favorite spots in our little slice of the "city."

Black Mountain, part of the bustling municipality that is Palo Alto, also home to Facebook and Stanford University.

As I was telling our friends from Chicago, the Bay area has its cons, for sure. But if I'm going to live in a big urban area, this isn't a bad place to be. 
Thursday, November 15, 2012

Surprise PR

Some days, I'm not really sure what to think. One day, I was so stiff that I was barely able to walk after stepping off my mountain bike at the top of Black Mountain. And the next, I was sprinting down Wildcat Canyon effortlessly, like my feet had wings. One day I was half-convinced I might actually need to take a couple of weeks off, or else simply learn to enjoy myself inside my fitness hole. And the next, without setting out to do so, I carved four minutes off my best time on a routine but tough trail loop that I've run dozens of times in better shape.

The bike ride was Beat's idea. It was a beautiful, warm afternoon, there was a storm in the weekend's forecast, and he and Liehann decided to carve a few hours out of their work day to ride up Black Mountain. Recovery was slow after my hard effort at the Mount Tam 50K, and Beat was even more sore than I was. We were still walking like zombies when we geared up for the ride. The 2,700-foot climb was hard, harder than it should be, but worth it. The mountaintop was bathed in rich November light as wisps of clouds painted abstract patterns across the sky, and the distant Pacific Ocean reflected the deepest shade of gold underneath the late afternoon sun. We saw two coyotes lope across the hillside and descended in a refreshing blast of cool air. Some days, I think it doesn't really matter how fit I am, not really. As long as I am still healthy, I am free.

The next day's run was really a "clear my head" kind of pursuit. I've returned to my Alaska memoir writing project after shelving it for nearly a year, mostly because I'm a bit stuck on my "A" project. The main reason I shelved the Alaska memoir is because I lost faith that I could sell it. However, my recent small successes with my "Arctic Glass" blog compilation showed me that books don't have to be fantastically original and "epic" to sell. It's the modern age, eBooks are cheap, and good stories are good enough. I still want to do great things with the "A" project, which is why I've been so tight-lipped about it, but that can wait. So I've vowed to finish the memoir. But when I'm working on it, I find myself a little bit lost in the past. I wanted a good, short jaunt to bring my head back to reality.

My legs were less sore than I expected them to be as I started up the steep first climb on the PG&E Trail. I'd been plopped on the couch all day and didn't even realize that something, perhaps the bike ride or maybe the solid night of sleep, had flushed the lead out of my muscles. I kept a conservative pace down the Coyote Trail and up the first bit of the Wildcat Loop climb. It wasn't until mile three, about halfway through, that I looked and my watch and thought, "Huh, not too bad. If I pick up the pace I bet I can break an hour."

The next two miles melted away at 7:30 pace, loping across a carpet of dry leaves, legs free but lungs hot and head fuzzy. My vision started to wobble and I had a drunken sense of skewed depth perception. I always slowed enough to pass hikers and tight corners cleanly, wondering the whole time how fast runners possibly manage their speed steering. I wanted to keep a good pace on the final climb, but it's still a climb, and I fought that underwater feeling with loud gasps for air. Honestly, I turned off my iPod for a minute and the noises I was making embarrassed me, so I turned it back on.

During the final short descent my shoe came untied and I ignored it, not the smartest thing I've done. I ran full speed across the bridge and hit stop on my watch, 57:41. Sub hour! I was pleased. This is a tough loop. It's only a 10K (6.3 miles), but with 1,050 feet of climbing and all trail. It used to be my "recovery" loop and I would run it in 1:15, and lately have pushed that down to 1:05 or so, but 57 minutes is four minutes faster than my recorded PR (although I don't wear my watch all the time.) So then I wonder how fast I could run this loop if I "tried" on the climb. And then I wonder if maybe, just maybe, I'm not in such overtrained poor shape after all. Maybe being tired is this idea I put in my head because I assumed I should feel that way.

I don't know. I don't have any big events in the pipeline right now, so I feel secure in just going with the flow for a while. I did, however, apply for two 2013 races this week. I was accepted for the Homer Epic, a hundred-kilometer snow race to be held in old hometown next March, and which I hope to race on foot, fast and light. (Yes, I really did once live in Homer, Alaska.) The other race is the Hardrock 100. Yeah, yeah, I know. Luckily the odds aren't good that I'll get through the lottery for that one.

Still, I have a whole winter of relative freedom from training in front of me, and I plan to enjoy it by pushing my margins as much as I can. 
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Crazy endurance eyes

There's something inherently primal about the Steep Ravine Trail after four hours of running. Really, most everything feels primal after four hours of running — the murmur of an overtaxed heart, the taste of salt on moist lips, the angry throbbing of a bruised knee, the gritty film of sweat and dirt on skin. But when I take all of that to the Steep Ravine Trail — located in a small canyon of a popular recreation area and a stone's throw from one of the most populated urban regions in the United States — I'm always transported back to a primordial jungle, vaguely tropical, shrouded in mist and a cloak of creepy silence.

There's a gurgling brook, thick-leaf ferns, and ancient redwood trees blotting out the sunlight. I listen for animal sounds — in this fantasy, it's not mountain lions or coyotes, but monkeys and mastodons — as I pick my way up a staircase of slimy rocks. Another human with hunched shoulders appears in my sightline, and I strain to match his steps and maybe catch him. At this point in the run, I can't decide whether I'm the hunter or the hunted. Blood seeps from my scarred elbow and I feel much more like the latter, strung out and wild-eyed, stumbling toward exhaustion as an unseen predator closes in. A drumbeat of footsteps shuffle up from behind, and two women wearing pink pass me without a word. I'm broken, done, my heart beats on fumes, and I still have twelve more miles in front of me.

Somewhere in the recesses of logical thought, I know it's been a long season of endurance efforts and I'm just tired, simply tired. Because of this I'm not strong, and I'm not fast, and anything I accomplish on this day is going to seem pitifully mediocre, even relative to myself. "It's just a 50K. A race for fun. No reason to kill yourself." And yet, something about the women in pink sparks my primeval instinct, a deeper vein of energy within my tapped-out heart. I vow to keep up with them. Not because I could win this race, not even close, or even beat them, because I won't. But by keeping them in sight, I can assure myself that I still have the power to rage, rage against the dying of the light. Plus, that's the game, and it's fun.

While planning their California trip, our friends Dan and Amy signed up for a trail half marathon on Sunday, the Mount Tam Trail Run. Beat and I decided to join them and, true to form, never even discussed just sticking to the shorter distance and running with our friends. No, we signed up for the 50K distance, because, well, why not double the fun? There was no mention of the sore muscles and fatigue that still lingered less than a week after the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, or the fact that this course wasn't just any old 50K, but a rather technical trail run with nearly 8,000 feet of climbing. I basically feel embarrassed about the fitness hole I'm digging at this point, so I didn't mention our plan to anyone besides Dan and Amy. And yet I really wanted to race the Mount Tam 50K. That is, I was giddy about the prospect. I had little to gain, and yet I had nothing to lose. It's these wide-open playing fields where the game truly breaks free.

Unsurprisingly, I struggled from the start. During the first ascent of Steep Ravine, I had to strain my body's higher gears just to stay ahead of my personal "No twenty-minute miles in a 50K" rule. We veered onto the rockier Ben Johnson Trail, where I caught my foot on a boulder and went down, slapping the dirt hard enough that runners who were several switchbacks above me turned around to see what happened. "Are you okay? That sounded hard," one woman shouted down to me as I dusted myself off and checked my shirt for blood. I always panic about my elbows after a crash, but the harsher pain was emanating from a rapidly forming goose egg on my knee. "I need to watch where I'm going. I was looking over there," I said as I waved at the vista of redwood-covered mountains rippling toward the sea. Despite my physical struggles, this was a gorgeous day in a beautiful place, and the combination of pretty scenery and endorphins never fails to put me in a good mood.

I saw Beat only once, near the 30K turnaround at Stinson Beach. He claimed he was feeling bad but seemed to be moving strong. I could have easily laid down right there and slept rest of the afternoon away. Any hope that my reserve diesel engine might kick in sputtered and died as I started back up the mountain. No, there would be no bailouts today. There would only be decisions, and head games. The distance had chased me into a stupor and the only play I had left was to switch roles and become a chaser. So I turned my gaze away from the dreamlike jungle canopy, fixed my eyes on the trail, and marched.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
As the long climb stretched out, I looked up often to make sure the women in pink were still in sight. My legs and lungs were burning, a sure sign of overexertion — something I don't often do. Yes, I go outside and play for a long time, often, but I do so with a strong self preservation instinct that's difficult for me to turn off. My psyche thrives on the perception that I can do something all day, and all day the next day, and the next. Even though that's not how it works, what I want the most is to turn myself into a kind of perpetual motion machine. Speed, by its nature of breakdown and necessary time to rebuild, just can't be part of that equation. So I haven't been training at my true upper limit. On the rarer occasions that I do peg it, I feel like someone is stabbing me all over with tiny pins. And here I was, somewhere in the muddled middle of a 50K, stoking a dying fire with everything I had to burn.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
For the past few races I've been experimenting with a few more "whole foods" in my fueling strategy, which mainly means I've been trying to skew my intake away from 95 percent sugar. During the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, I took in a lot of calories from a bunch of bland but nutritious burritos filled with black beans, rice, salt, and avocado. During the Mount Tam Trail Run I utilized the aid stations' boiled potatoes and pink sports drink. But on my third return to the ridge-top aid station, where the women in pink had already come and gone, I no longer had the time or energy to spare on health food. I grabbed a handful of Mike and Ikes and M&Ms, stuffed them in my mouth in one big chewy chocolaty sugar bomb, and took off as fast as I could down the hill.

Running downhill full-bore is something I never do. Again, my sense of balance is too weak, and my self-preservation instinct too strong. But I had to make up time somewhere because the women in pink were stronger climbers than me, so I loosened the brakes and took, for me at least, big leaps of faith down the concrete-like Dipsea Trail. I was seeing stars by the time I started across the Muir Valley, so I had to slow my pace to save something for the final climb.

Photo by Inside Trail Racing
As I started up the Heather Cutoff, I decided that I hate switchbacks. Sure, I get that they're necessary for erosion control. And of course as a mountain biker, I prefer switchbacks to steep death trails. But if I'm on foot, give me a trail that shoots straight up the mountain any day. I'll happily march up, and then I'll march back down, because I'm a happy hiker. Switchbacks only make for long, long stretches of runnable punishment that hurt to jog at 12-minute-mile pace, and somehow hurt even more to walk at 16-minute-mile pace. I so wanted to slow to 20-minute-miles, but I couldn't let myself do that, because I was running a 50K. Also, I needed to stay ahead of the women in pink, so I alternated jogging and walking, and both hurt a lot. Another woman caught and passed me, followed by the women in pink, and I tried to keep up. Oh, I tried. I felt like I was running through knee-deep water, watching them effortlessly skim the surface and disappear into the trees.

The women in pink didn't even stop at the last aid station, but my fuel gauge was below empty so I had no choice but to take some time to stuff down more M&Ms. The first woman who passed me thanked me for serving as a pacer to help her get up the long climb. "I just wanted to see if I could catch you, and I did," she said. "But I won't be able to keep up any more."

"You think I'm a faster descender than you?" I said with an unintentional smirk. If only she knew. I'm a terrible downhill runner, and the final three miles into Stinson Beach included lots of slime-coated stairs that I usually tiptoe down. I've been passed by children hiking with their families on this section of trail in the past. "You'll be faster than me on this section, for sure." We both looked at each other with an appreciative smile, finished up our pink drink and started down the Dipsea Trail. In my mind, the race was on.

About a quarter mile down the trail, I looked over my shoulder one last time, and then don't remember much after that. The M&Ms hadn't finished processing quite yet and I was sputtering on fumes, working with some kind of primitive drive that only understood forward motion, without hope for the future or regret for the past. Somehow I made it down the stairs in one piece and started up the last little knoll only to see the silhouettes of two female runners cresting the horizon that was the top of the hill, out of reach.

I tried to catch up. Oh, I tried. Not because I really cared either way, because how could it matter? But there was something primally satisfying about coming so close to beating a weakness that I didn't believe I could actually beat. As long as they didn't fade, that meant I didn't fade. So I fought with everything I had to the very end. When I ran across the finish line, there was nothing left. I wobbled over to a picnic table and put my head between my knees in a cloud of dizziness and nausea. It was as close as I've ever come to actually collapsing at a finish line.

My finishing time was 7:18, seventeen minutes after Beat. It was one of my worst times in a 50K (although this course is, in my opinion, the most difficult that I've raced. Beat thinks the Ohlone 50K is harder, but excepting for heat on that course, I'm inclined to disagree. Mount Tam/Steep Ravine is more technical and this version even has the endless uphill switchbacks.) The women in pink beat me by two minutes and five seconds.

Still, I was proud of my performance in my impromptu pointless 50K race. Because like a pedestrian passing by a donation jar with just a few quarters left in my pocket, I know I gave it everything I had to give. And doing so made it so much more satisfying, and fun.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Autumn comes to California

 I drove home from Utah on Tuesday, which allowed for twelve hours of guilt-free election monitoring courtesy of NPR. Although I despise campaign season as much as everyone else, I love election day. It's like watching an elaborate game unfold with all the emotions and surprises that go along with it. It also reminds me of the good old days in the newsroom, where election day was often the hardest, most stressful, and yet most fun day of the year. Election Day is the endurance race of community journalism. And even though I was behind the wheel of a Subaru shuttling a bunch of dirty bicycles home from the desert, NPR provided a welcome escape into the frantic numbers crunching and anticipation of the outside world.

Fatigue set in again after the drive. Or, really, not so much set in as settled back in. I'll be honest — it's become an interesting personal experiment for me. Where is my edge, and does it, in fact, exist?   Or is equilibrium possible? What I learn could prove to be very helpful in future long-distance challenges, or so I tell myself when the fitness guilt returns. On Wednesday and Thursday, I went running on my regular 6.5-mile trail loop in Rancho San Antonio, and during both runs I posted times near my best times on that route (although, to be fair, the 6.5-mile loop isn't the one I typically "race" myself on. It's the one I run when I'm tired.) On Friday, our friends Dan and Amy came to visit us from Anchorage. Thanks to their vacation research, I discovered there's a new touring-specific bicycle shop located a half-mile from my house (!!!) And since Dan and Amy are already knee deep in snow and single-digit temperatures up in Alaska, we wanted to give them a small taste of California dirt before they set out on their wine country road tour next week.

I was under the impression that coastal California didn't experience much if any autumn-related change, but maybe that's because I spent so little time here in November last year. We saw a lot of color on our Steven's Creek loop, from sprigs of new grass on the previously summer-toasted hillsides, to yellow trees, to sienna leaves carpeting the trail. I admit that I'm so drawn by the intrigue of travel that I often forget about the beauty in my own backyard. I had more fun on this routine loop than I've had in a while. Dan was sprinting ahead to capture photos of Liehann bunny hopping big air off the leaves, Amy told funny stories, and Beat and I happily donned our puffy coats while the Alaskans rolled their eyes at us wimpy Californians. But it's cold here, even if ever so slightly, and this makes me happy.

The four of us are headed to another race tomorrow. It should be, uh, interesting. But the race was Dan and Amy's idea, and I want my friends to enjoy their vacation. Or, as Amy called it earlier today, "Beat and Jill's beatdown boot camp." At the time, she was talking about our fun little three-hour mountain bike ride. Oh, Amy, you should know us better by now. 
Thursday, November 08, 2012

Hollowed out

I cling to the perception that I'm a hopeless endurance junkie, but it's revealing that I spent my favorite hour of the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow unconscious. It was the darkest, coldest hour of them all, the one right before dawn. I'd managed to keep my internal diesel engine humming through the night, but as I climbed up Gooseberry Base for the twelfth time, even that began to sputter. Lactic acid flooded into my legs, and then the dizzy spells returned. By the time I hit the slabs, my body felt as spent as it did way back during lap two, and my sense of coordination was even worse, if that's possible. The bike lurched over ledges and I slammed my front wheel into boulder after boulder, utterly lacking the power to lift up my handlebars. Even when I relented to the push, I stumbled and hit my shins on my pedals. I hated the slabs, hated them with the piercing chill of a thousand desert winters. This icy hate is what now filled my heart at the end of every Frog Hollow lap.

Back at the pit, I fumbled through my procrastination routine of nibbling on a nearly-frozen vegetarian burrito, washing it down with a mini Snickers Bar, switching my lights, adjusting my layers, fiddling with my shock, checking my tires, and staring hatefully at the half moon. A chill crept in as Beat made coffee, and we joked about heating up the interior of the car and drinking our coffee inside. Then it became less of a joke. And before I even fully acknowledged the decision, I was slumped in the passenger seat with an empty titanium cup in one hand and my helmet in the other. "Just fifteen minutes," I mumbled. "Maybe I'll feel better after a little nap."

A lead blanket of drowsiness settled over my aching joints, and I accepted it with the shifty guilt of a child nibbling the edges of a forbidden cookie. In a single-day race, sleep isn't justified, or even needed. Sleep was indulgence, simple and plain, and yet I couldn't remember ever feeling such divine relief. Sleep swept me away from the ink-colored sky, the creepy canyons, the jeep road climb that somehow grew progressively longer with every lap, the flickering lights, and the slabs. Oh the hateful slabs. Benevolent sleep took all of my icy abhorrence, my aches, my feelings of inadequacy, and flushed them into a beautiful void. I was out cold.

Liehann, Beat, and I display our cutthroat competitiveness at the race start. Photo by Trang Pham
That I had even ridden double-digit laps was more than I expected. Given how I've felt on the bike and in general for the past month, how spotty my fitness seems right now, and how few miles I've ridden in total since June, I wasn't expecting the performance of my life. It was worth going because Frog Hollow is a good course — a 13-mile loop with 5.5 miles of jeep road, 7.5 miles of singletrack, and equal parts of challenge, fun, and humbling reality checks — and the event is full of great people and good humor. Months ago, Beat and I made plans to race solo along with our friend Liehann, and expected to see other friends at the venue as well. It was a vacation. I know I've taken a lot of those, and yet my appreciation of the opportunities I have to engage in adventures never wears off no matter how tired my body feels. So I was going to race, and my strategy was to start out slow, and then slow down.

Photo by Trang Pham
About four miles in, I realized that even this race strategy wasn't going to work. I'd purposely started near the back and my climbing pace wasn't just slow, it was glacial. And yet I felt horrible — lactic acid legs, sore shoulders, and dizziness. What was with this dizziness? I launched into the Jem Trail, a flowing piece of smooth singletrack, and could barely keep my wheels from veering into the bushes. I was riding like a drunken beginner, worse than that, because race guilt was creeping in and I wasn't even halfway through the first lap. I burned way too many matches powering over the mini steps at the bottom of Jem. By the time I hit the Virgin Rim jeep road, I was so fried that I coasted the gradually descending slope at about 8 mph, just so I could recover. Then I came face to face with the slabs. First lap meant I needed to at least try to ride this section, but doing so just made a mockery of mountain bikers everywhere. I dabbed so many times that my bike might as well have been a velocipede, and still I managed to slam into bushes. The Virgin Rim trail is rocky but doesn't require advanced technical skills by any stretch of the imagination. I was just riding poorly, because my head was spinning and my legs had no power. The first lap ended with the unsettling anxiety that I might not even have the stamina to finish a second.

Beat had decided to wait for me at the pit, and we set out together for lap two. Beat was riding Frog Hollow with a cracked rib from a mountain bike crash two weeks earlier, and on top of that he was riding a singlespeed, which demands a lot more core strength than granny-geared bikes to power up climbs. I thought he was in for a world of hurt, but he claimed his rib wasn't giving him too much trouble — he was just experiencing the usual pains that crop up when one doesn't train on bikes, such as sore butt and knees. I complained about my lactic acid fatigue and dizzy spells, and lamented that "I used to be so much better at mountain biking." "You were never that good at mountain biking," Beat replied matter-of-factly. Which is true ... I admit I've fumbled through a lot of miles while avoiding the mastery of technical skills and cultivating a growing fear of speed ... but it's still disheartening to have that truth pointed out to me at the beginning of a long mountain bike race. I'd rather just hold onto the delusion that I used to be able to dance over the slabs and that maybe, just maybe, I'd find my way back to the grace and poise that I never actually had. (I should mention that Beat also pointed out my supreme slogging abilities, so his statement wasn't as harsh as it sounds.)

But the vistas surrounding the Frog Hollow course are stunning, and the flowing Jem Trail is and will forever be near-effortless fun. So I kept pounding out miles with the hope that somehow, somewhere, I'd find something. That something came during lap four, which was more than fifty miles into the race. I reached the top of the Gooseberry Base and realized I couldn't remember anything about the climb. The malaise and fatigue that had shadowed me for three laps finally faded away. It was as though my body finally resigned itself — "Fine, we see that this is how it's going to be" — and fired up the trusty old diesel generator that it saves for tough times. For a long time after that, nothing was as hard as it had been. I was still moving relatively slowly, but at least it didn't feel so bad.

The return of the ol' diesel engine after five hours of struggle brought my thoughts back to the book I've been reading that I wrote about last week, "Flow." In one section, the author wrote about the assumption that "extreme" athletes, such as climbers, engage in risky behaviors because they have a pathological need to experience danger, that they are exorcising deep-seated fears, or are simply reckless sensation seekers. He argues that, actually, the whole point of climbing is to avoid danger as much as possible by developing the skills and knowledge to overcome risk. "Enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is being able to control potentially dangerous forces."

This sense of control also applies to suffering, I believe. I seek out physically grueling challenges not because I have a psychological misfire that leads me to believe I actually enjoy suffering, but because by confronting suffering, I teach myself how to control it. I derive a lot of pleasure from rejecting physical discomfort and mastering my emotions amid hard struggles. And once I push over that seemingly impossible wall, there's real joy in the realization that I've freed myself from my own suffering, and I could probably just keep going, as long as I want to keep going.

After lap two, Beat and I largely stuck together. He always climbed faster than me, so he waited at the top of the Jem Trail. With the aid of my big ring, I usually stayed ahead on the descents, but he caught back up in the heart of the slabs, where we could struggle and commiserate together. Beat compared the pains of the 25-hour race to a hundred-mile ultramarathon, noting that, "In running, if you're hurting, at least you can slow down and walk for a while. But on a bike, you just have to take the beating." Another aspect of the bike race we commiserated about was the constant barrage of team racers — you know, the guys riding four- and five-person relays, pounding out 45-minute laps with fierce aggressiveness. The majority were nice, announced their presence, and snuck past gently. But there were a handful of jerks that barreled past regardless of how little room there was on the trail, and I was shoulder-checked once and twice nearly knocked off my saddle. But courtesy aside, it was disheartening to have to constantly listen over my shoulder, waiting to pull over so I could let someone pass. It broke my flow in the best of situations, and in the worst left me rattled and upset. I realize that relay teams are a staple of 24-hour racing, but it's difficult to share a course with something that is effectively a different race. I'm sure they don't like having to pass the slow soloists any more than we like being passed.

After lap eight, Beat decided he was well on track to hit his target of ten laps, and wanted to sleep for a while. It was still before midnight, and I was hoping for a little more relative solitude as some of the teams and solo racers decided to call it a night. I continued through my pleasant daze, diesel engine humming, surprised by how okay I felt, still. Because of my "slow down" strategy, I always spent a long time in my pit, savoring my burritos and making sure everything on my bike was adjusted just right. Sometimes I would just stand there looking at the stars until the chill set in, and then I'd launch into a new loop having little concept of how many miles had passed, or what time it was. It was a beautiful sort of perpetual motion, interrupted only by my extreme disdain of the slabs.

Photo by Trang Pham
As I was setting out for my twelfth lap, Beat and Liehann rustled out of their tents. Liehann had decided to take a short nap as well after his shock busted and would no longer compress, leaving him with severe hand pain. But Liehann is a little competitive and wanted to muster at least more laps than me, so we all set out together. It was just after 3 a.m. Something about that lap broke my endurance spell, and I was back to feeling dizzy, achy, and now because of the late hour, sleepy. After struggling through lap twelve, it didn't take much to convince myself a fifteen-minute nap in the car was a great idea, which turned to thirty minutes, and then an hour. The sky was washed in pink light when Beat and I finally emerged, agreeing I could bust out one more lap so I could at least match what I rode last year, which is thirteen laps and 169 miles.

Photo by Dave Nice
Liehann, Beat, and I stayed together for the sunrise lap, taking it slow, stopping at vistas, and chatting with volunteers along the way. We called it our "victory lap," acknowledging that while we had energy to ride it faster and time to ride another, we didn't really want to. The most difficult part of 24-hour racing is finding motivation, especially if you're not particularly competitive with other people. One my goals were achieved — to come to Southwestern Utah and ride lots and see friends and have fun — it was difficult to ignore how much my butt really did hurt and how my legs were still so sore.

Beat got his ten laps and Liehann netted fourteen. We finished the victory lap at 9 a.m. sharp (24:00), which was good enough for me to finish fourth among female soloists. Riding a fourteenth lap that finished after 25:00 wouldn't have lifted me any higher in the standings. If I wanted to podium, my only option would have been to skip the nap and wedge in a fifteenth lap. Even if I had known that's where I stood in the rankings, I doubt a third place standing would have been motivation enough to skip that wonderful nap. Still, fifteen laps has always been my goal at Frog Hollow. Despite my shortcomings, it was definitely achievable this year and I can't help but wonder if I might have motivated toward it had I gone into the race with a clearer goal. Maybe someday, when the reality of just how many times I've ridden that loop has faded from my memory, I'll feel motivated to go back and try.

Still, any day that includes nearly 170 miles of mountain biking, and homemade banana bread, and a nap, can hardly be regarded as bad day. In fact, it was a great day. I'm not sure I love mountain bike racing, but I am a hopeless junkie for a long ride with friends.