Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tired legs 50K

The alarm rang out at 5:15 a.m., which was of course about three and a half hours after I finally fell asleep. I glanced over at Beat, hoping he didn't hear it, or maybe he would decide sleep was worth skipping the race today. No such luck; he groaned and rolled out of bed, so I made a move to do the same. My legs hit the carpet with an audible thud that seemed to say, "Um, you're not really going to go through with this, are you?"

"Look, it's only thirty miles. It will be over before you know it."

"We hate you. You know that, right?"

"I think hate is a strong word, don't you?"

"No. No we don't. You already overworked us with fourteen hours of biking and running this week. And 18,000 feet of climbing. Why are you doing this to us?"

"Look, we're all going to feel so much worse during the Su100. This will be good practice for the real deal. I need this kind of practice to stay mentally strong when the going gets tough. You two, well, you can do what you want. But I'm going to the Steep Ravine 50K."

"We hate you."

We drove to Stinson Beach with our friends Harry and Martina, who were also running the 50K (Harry placed in the top ten and Martina finished strong even though she wanted to quit just as much as I did.) It was an absolutely beautiful morning. Sunrise washed the sky in pink light, ocean waves rolled gently along the beach, and a thick film of frost coated the ground — evidence of a pristine clear night that carried the promise of a warm day. The fifty-kilometer course featured four huge climbs and equally huge descents, utilizing a lot of rugged redwood forest singletrack, with about 7,000 feet of climbing total. Easy peasy, right legs? Right? But my legs were no longer on speaking terms with me. The silence was deafening as we started the slow plod up the Steep Ravine Trail toward.

My legs weren't the only thing that felt awful on Saturday morning. My stomach joined the protest and lurched through the first climb. Including one restroom break, it took me more than an hour to knock out the first four miles. I took a short break at the aid station near the top of Mount Tam, and I'm pretty sure I was one of the last runners to leave. By mile five, I had already fallen into "epic mode," which is what I call my mind's semi-subconscious coping mechanism for dealing with hard efforts. Epic mode is actually — initially at least — a rather pleasant feeling, a sort of out-of-body sensation with tinges of bliss. I floated down Mount Tam, happily absorbed in a stream of shallow observations: "The ocean is so blue. The sky is blue, too. Wow, I can see San Francisco! That hill is pretty."

If only epic mode could last forever. Unfortunately, it can not, and mile five of a 50K is not a good place to use it up. By aid station two, about mile eleven, I had descended all the way into grumpy mode, and a long, flat, runnable stretch that made my hamstrings burn did not help. My mood darkened even more during the climb, where, while working at what felt like near-maximum effort, other racers started to pass me. See, where I fall in with the pack, people almost never pass me during ascents. I get passed like I'm standing still on the downhills, and still I often catch and pass these same people on the climbs. Climbing is the one thing I can do. Now my stubborn legs were even botching that task. I tried to motivate the limbs, but they had no sympathy; they just burned with anger and refused to do anything but the bare minimum.

During the second descent, I started to feel a strange electric shock of pain behind my right knee. I thought it might be a pulled or torn muscle, and I stopped several times to massage it. The sharp pains became frequent enough that I had to walk nearly backwards down a long series of stairs. I contemplated the wisdom of quitting at the next aid station. After all, this was just a silly training race. Then I met Beat about mile from the thirty-kilometer turnaround. "This is really hard," I whined. "My legs hate me." He urged me to take Advil. I mumbled a wishy-washy "soon." He said, "no, now," and pulled a few pills out of his pack. I never give Advil credit for actually working, but sure enough, my tight hamstrings began to loosen up at the turnaround. As a general rule, any pain that Advil can kill is not that serious. So I really didn't have a good reason to quit at 30K. Shoot.

Then I started to perk up. The next four miles of climbing on the Steep Ravine Trail felt significantly easier than it had the first time. "See, legs, this is what we need to learn. A little fatigue and pain is not the end and the world. We can go far on fumes."

My legs remained unconvinced. After a slow descent, the fourth and final climb brought extreme sleepiness. I had to shift the mental battle from the lead legs to my heavy eyelids. With fewer reinforcements, my feet succumbed to the fatigue and I shuffled my way into the wrong side of a tree root, tossing my whole body to the ground. Luckily no serious injuries, but afterward my shoulder ached and my right shin was smeared with blood. This was really not my day. But that's one of the purposes of training, isn't it — to go out and occasionally endure bad days just to remind yourself that not everything about your hobby is sunshine and rainbows. This is the only way to continually grow stronger in our hobbies, and subsequently in our lives.

Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
Since my chosen games are mostly mental, I need the hard days to build mental strength. My legs didn't care. Legs don't have mental strength. They only knew they hurt and really needed rest, and why couldn't I just stop and rest? I finally stumbled into the finish after seven hours and sixteen minutes. My face and posture in this photo effectively tell the story, I think. I was one tired puppy. (GPS track here)

It was all just part of the plan for "peak training week." From Sunday to Saturday, I ran 70 miles with 16,500 of climbing, and biked 66 miles with 8,600 feet of climbing, for a total of 25,100 feet of climbing and 21.5 hours of time wasted completely wearing myself out. And I finished two ultramarathons. It was a good week.

I planned to take a rest day today, I really did. But it was a Sunday and a beautiful Sunday at that, and it didn't take much for Beat to coax his friend Liehann and I out for an afternoon mountain bike ride. My legs were still plenty angry, although not really hurting anymore, so I again had no excuse to stay indoors. I planned to whine and dawdle the whole way through the ride. But as luck would have it, we bumped into a couple at a stoplight who were interested in the Fatback, which Beat was riding. "My girlfriend rides it in crazy snow races in Alaska," Beat explained to them. The man looked at me and said, "Are you Jill?" Turns out we were chatting with Forest Baker, another fellow Tour Divide finisher (Forest raced in 2010.) Since only a few hundred people in the world have attempted this race, it was quite random to bump into one of them "just riding along." We all rode up Montebello Road together at a nice chatty pace, which was still close to my personal max. But it was fun to run into another endurance bike nut. He lives nearby in Sunnyvale and is planning to race the Arizona Trail 350 in April, so hopefully we will plan some long training rides together this spring.

Monday = rest day. I promise, legs. No really, I mean it this time. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Danni's playlist

I've been working hard this week to make my legs as tired as possible. I only took enough time off on Monday to work out some kinks from Sunday's 50K trail race, such as the minor calf strain. I was up bright and early on Tuesday for a three-hour mountain bike ride (30 miles and 3,500 feet of climbing) and again on Wednesday for a hard-effort road climb (18 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing.) I went for an eight-mile trail run today (1,700 feet of climbing) and am planning another road ride tomorrow before another 50K on Saturday. This is my big week and this is my strategy — push just to the edge of exhaustion, incorporating cross-training to avoid injury, before an adequate period of recovery. This way I re-learn what it's like to run far on tired legs, and hopefully my muscles do too, because that's what the Susitna 100 is going to be like — tired legs, really tired legs, for a really long time.

Luckily, motivation is running high right now. My friend Danni in Montana, who is also currently in training to run the Su100, recently send me a playlist of awesome music for training. She listed each song, a few lyrics that reminded her of the race and an explanation of why she included them. For "Sail" by AWOLNATION: "This song because we have ADD, which is in part the reason for doing things like the Susitna." And "Hey Hey" by Dennis Ferrer: "This song because I could blame you for my Su habit ... It's all because I walked your way, and I should have known to stay away."

As I was pedaling to the lyrics of this song, I almost yelled out loud, "Hey, Susitna was your fault!" Actually, it was the fault of one of Danni's playlists. It was the summer of 2010, and I was preparing for  TransRockies, a mountain bike stage race. Danni sent me a training playlist, and on it was the song "D.A.R.E." by the Gorillaz. I was already contemplating dipping my toes into the intimidating whirlpool of ultrarunning, and there was the song I had come to associate with my first-ever crazy endurance experience, riding my bike in the 2006 Susitna 100. "I should enter the Susitna and run it," I thought. "It will be so painful and so glorious." Afterward, I told Danni about my flash of inspiration and she admitted she had been contemplating the Susitna 100 for years. After several weeks of mutual goading between the two of us and another new friend of ours, Beat, we all signed up for the 2011 race together.

Now Danni and I are going back for the glorious and painful 2012 edition. I'm still digesting Danni's Susitna playlist (and she may not want me to share it publicly), but it did get me thinking about songs I would include on a Susitna-specific playlist. Songs with a good tempo, but not too manic, with lots of references to running and walking, self-punishment, and discovery. I also tried to keep the music more upbeat, as Danni's 2011 race took a turn for the worse when her melancholy playlist plunged her into an irreversible cycle of despair. "I've learned the hard way that my normal sad music is like poison to the weary and tired mind after a while," she wrote in her song notes.

So here is my Susitna playlist for Danni. The links will take you to a YouTube video in case you're curious and want to hear the song. I also included the lyrics that remind me of the Su. It's turned out to be a motivating mix, for me at least. I downloaded the playlist onto my Shuffle before my trail run today, and knocked out a by-far personal best on my usual Rancho route (Finishing in 1:20 what usually takes 1:30 to 1:35) Now I just need to figure out how to burn a CD and send it to Danni.

Jill's Susitna 100 training playlist:  

"The Sun"  The Naked and Famous
Here it comes ... the unavoidable sun ... weighs my head ... and what the hell have I done?

"Zero"  Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Try and hit the spot ... get to know it in the dark ... get to know whether you're crying, crying, crying, oh ... can you climb, climb, climb higher?


"You Do Run"  Cocktail Slippers
You're gonna run until you can not run no more ... You are still fighting, tell me what you're fighting for.

"Specialize"  Tor with Sufjan Stevens, Pete Rock and CL Smooth
I only use this type of style when I choose it ... I speak for the hardcore.

"Something Is Not Right With Me"  Cold War Kids
Something is not right with me! Something is not right with me! Something is not right with me!
I'm trying not to let it show.


"Walk"  Foo Fighters (Side note: This music video is hilarious)
To keep alive ... a moment at a time ... But still inside ... a whisper to a riot ... To sacrifice ... but knowing to survive ... The first to climb another state of mind.

"Alina's Place"  Fredrik
Silly old parade ... where food gets thrown away ... digestive ill behavior forming.

"Little Lion Man"  Mumford and Sons
Rate yourself and rake yourself ... Take all the courage you have left ... Wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head.

"You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie"  The Submarines
It's time to be so brutally honest about ... The way we know we long for something fine ... When we pine for higher ceilings ... And bourgeois happy feelings.

"Higher Devotion"  Jimmy Eat World
The quiet should be nice but isn't ... I guess we're going to spend the day like this ... In psychic screaming.

"Gimmie Sympathy"  Metric
We're so close to something better left unknown ... I can feel it in my bones.

"Kilojoules"  Freelance Whales
Well I've been making ... Some cold calculations ... Regarding our body heat ... It's not easy, believe me.

"Wrecking Ball"  Mother Mother
I aim to break, not one but all ... I'm just a big ol' wrecking ball.

"History Sticks to Your Feet"  Modest Mouse
All those red marks ... on our shoulders ... self back patting ... homemade trophies ... well the path only exists as tiny bricks ... We burn to release all its memory ... I've had enough with rolling boulders ... I want more moss on me.

"Second Song"   TV on the Radio
Confidence and ignorance approved me ... Define my day today ... I've tried so hard to shut it down, lock it up ... Gently walk away.

"Not Like Any Other Feeling"  The Thermals
When you're ascending you glow ... When you hit a dead end you know ... It's not just a feeling you get ... It's a feeling that you fight against.

"Born This Way"  Lady Gaga
(I added this song as a joke for Danni, but it is an awesome song for injecting energy into drab situations.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Favorite winter gear

Bella Vista Trail
Early this morning, Beat, Liehann and I rallied for a mountain bike ride before work. For me, it was a sluggish but beautiful ride. Every time I try to exercise first thing in the morning, it seems to take me at least two hours to warm up. Plus, my legs still felt mostly dead after Sunday's 50K run. But it was the most fantastic morning — calm, clear above the valley haze, and warm. Temperatures started at 40 degrees and inched close to 60 before we were done. It's the kind of beautiful, idyllic outing that could make a person forget about cold weather and winter for good — and yet I still think about winter, constantly. Recently, I've received several e-mails and questions about my planned gear for the Susitna 100. It made me think about a few unconventional items that I've discovered after years of trial and error. So for my blog today, I'm detailing my four favorite pieces of unconventional winter gear:

Camelbak vest: Preventing water from freezing is one of the toughest and thus widely-debated problems in winter recreation. Everyone has their own methods, and I've tried a lot of them — from bottles in insulated pouches to wrapping a hydration tube with aluminum insulation from Home Depot. None of these methods worked in the long term. Last year, I purchased a Camelbak Shredbak vest and removed the outer shell, turning it to a light vest with an integrated two-liter bladder. The vest is better than a backpack, because it fits snuggly against my back and there's no risk of chaffing. The hose initially came wrapped in a neoprene sleeve, which I promptly removed. I think those hose sleeves are worse than useless. They only actually insulate down to about 29 degrees, and after that they block access when ice eventually builds up somewhere inside the hose. At least with a naked hose, I can just stick the ice-blocked section in my mouth until it thaws out. I have actually successfully done this in the past with a completely frozen tube and valve. It took a while, but it was worth it.

I wear the vest over my base layer and pile any insulation layers I'm wearing over it, then thread the tube beneath one arm and up through the vest so it rests firmly against my collarbone. This way, the valve is easily accessible, even with mittens, but still well-protected from the cold. Last month in Alaska, even when we were outside for nine hours in minus 30 degrees, I had no issues with ice building up in the valve or tube. In fact, the water only cooled down to a tepid 60 degrees or so, which tasted wonderful (drinking ice water when it's extremely cold outside is about as fun as choking down hot coffee in 100-degree heat.) Two liters is plenty of volume for the Susitna 100, which has checkpoints about every twenty miles. The only drawback to this system is that I have to remove all of my insulation layers and the vest to refill the bladder. But in the case of going inside a race checkpoint, I usually do this anyway.

Sierra Designs Gnar skirt
Down skirt: During my final leg in the 2008 Iditarod, while riding my bike from Nikolai to McGrath, I got what I describe as "butt frostbite." It wasn't actually frostbite, but it was a crescent-shaped white blister surrounded by windburned skin just above my cheeks, caused by exposure to minus 20 degree temperatures and a 35 mph tailwind. When I was planning out my gear for that trip, I never considered the possibility that my butt was an at-risk region. In fact, butts are quite susceptible to the cold — if you're a woman.

It's a fact of nature: Women are built to carry more body fat than men, and this fat is concentrated in specific regions of our bodies such as butts, thighs, upper arms, and breasts. Fat is an insulator, but it doesn't insulate itself. When core temperatures drop, our body constricts blood flow to extraneous tissue — in this case, the junk in the trunk. And because fat doesn't generate its own heat the way muscles do, no amount of movement is going to warm it until blood flow returns to normal. Butts that get cold, stay cold. (Note: This is not a scientific explanation, just a theory.) But either way, just like fingers and toes, these parts need extra protection in order to stay warm when the body gets all stingy with heat distribution. Enter the down skirt.

I was not a convert until recently. But it makes so much sense. It snaps around your pants for easy application outdoors, and provides just the right amount of insulation exactly where you need it, while still allowing plenty of room for moisture wicking and movement. I have only used it running, but I believe the shorter skirts would be equally useful on a bike.

Fleece balaclava: This is perhaps the oldest piece of gear I own. I purchased it for snowboarding back in 1997 and inexplicably have not lost it yet. Because it's so old, I couldn't tell you the manufacturer or model, but out of all of the headgear I have tried, this piece remains my favorite. The important features of this particular balaclava are thick polar fleece, a loose fit so it can slide over hats and thinner balaclavas, and an adjustable face piece. I dislike neoprene masks because they're so constrictive, despise wearing tight balaclavas over my face because it's like breathing through a wet rag, and haven't tried any of those fancy air-circulation face masks. But why would I, when the simple solution works? The loose-fitting face piece creates a warm pocket that recirculates my breath and allows me to consistently breathe warmed air no matter how cold it is outside. The warmed air flows upward, which keeps my facial skin, nose and eyes warm. In extreme cold, the drawback is ice buildup. However, because the balaclava is made out of fleece, ice buildup doesn't seem to compromise its insulation value at all. The ice-lashes and snow-brows are annoying, and this system does cause goggles to fog to the point of uselessness. In windy conditions, I have no choice but to switch to goggles and a neoprene face mask.

VaprThrm high-rise sock

Vapor barrier socks: The concept of vapor barrier is simple — conserve heat by blocking evaporative heat loss. A completely non-breathable fabric creates a kind of micro-climate for the body part it's wrapped around, trapping moisture and heat in the thin layer of air between the fabric and skin. The jury is still out on how well vapor barrier systems work for jackets and pants, but I love my vapor barrier socks. I use the RBH Designs insulated sock on top of a pair of moisture-wicking Drymax socks and a pair of fleece socks. I believe the Drymax socks hold moisture away from my skin, the fleece both insulates and wicks moisture, and the vapor barrier contains moisture and heat so ice can't build up inside my Gortex shoes. I have no idea if that's what's really happening, but consider this: I finished the Susitna 100 last year, and trekked 90 miles in three days this year using this system without a single blister or cold feet. And I've had frostbite in the past, which makes my toes especially susceptible to the cold. So I think I'll stick with this system.

So there you have it, four pieces of gear that I may never give up (of course, I'm always waiting for something better to come along.) And just in case this post made you feel overly chilled, I have more photos from my mountain bike ride today:

Picking up speed on the Steven's Creek Canyon trail.
Ah, January. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Weekend at the races

Four more weeks until Susitna, five until Iditarod. Beat has been busy with work and also inventing gadgets that will be useful or at least interesting during his big Alaska race, such as a thermometer that logs constant temperature readings on an SD card, customized maps for his GPS, and even his own primaloft skirt (this skirt is actually coming together quite well. Although he could find a women's skirt in his size, I think maybe he believes it will be more manly of he sews it himself. Oh, wait.) Actually, sewing does allow him to customize the skirt around the manly regions he wants to protect in the cold. But, either way, his work projects have already necessitated sticking closer to home on weekends. I doubt I'll see any more snow or cold temperatures before I return to Alaska, not that I believe this really matters. In a way, running on snow is like always running uphill, so what better way to train than on steep dirt trails in California? Yeah, still a stretch. But the "training" continues to be enjoyable, all the same.

On Saturday, Beat and I drove up to Walnut Creek for the Coastal Trail Runs Blazer Awards luncheon, so I could bask in the distinction of being the top point-earner in the women's 50K division in 2011. Coastal Trail Runs awards competitors points based on where they place in the race. In a tradition I can get behind, the Blazer Awards reward volume over speed. I ran four Coastal races last year and won three, for a total of 87 points. (This is also the luck of the draw. Some of Coastal's races are stacked with faster women, while I was the *only* woman running the 50K distance in one of the races that I "won.") No matter, I will accept my reward mug, medal and performance T-shirt gratefully. Thank you, Coastal organizers and volunteers, for a great year of racing.

I enjoy taking starting-line self-portraits, because the other runners in the photo always look so serious.
On Sunday, Beat and I headed out bright and early for our long "training" run at a fifty-kilometer race in Pacifica. The Brooks Falls 50K was the inaugural race of a new trail-running organization, Inside Trail Racing. This now makes three full-time trail-racing organizations that host ultra-distance races in the San Francisco Bay area. This means there's at least one local 50K race most weekends of the year. It's really quite remarkable, even considering the population of this region, that the trail-running community can support so many different events. I am well aware of the drama that some of these businesses are embroiled in, and don't feel the need to comment on it on my blog. But I for one support higher volumes of trail running; organizations and races are always great for getting people excited and involved. I wish Inside Trail Racing the best of success in their new venture. They did a great job with the Brooks Falls 50K. A large number of volunteers, photographers and cheerleaders showed up to work for eight hours in the 55-degree, rainy, windy weather.

The course was well-marked, although I made a few early mistakes. Amid the sometimes drenching rain and mud-slicked trails, I was so nervous about falling on my bad arm (and face) that I spent a lot of time looking at my feet and missing the ribbon markers. I overshot one turn on the descent from Montara Mountain by nearly a half mile, and probably would have run all the way to the ocean if a Good Samaritan non-race runner didn't chase me and another guy down and turn us around. I made up for my extra bonus mile by misreading another marker and accidentally cutting the course. We ran two loops on Montara and I came up with nearly equal distance readings on both routes. I did disclose my mistakes to the volunteers, and I know I wasn't the only one (from what I saw and heard, there were several creative variations of the Montara Mountain loop.) ITR was nice enough to still list me with the finishers, and I did finish with 31.2 miles on the GPS.
But amid my wrong-way course-cutting, I passed Beat without either of us knowing it, and was surprised to see him behind me when he caught up to me near the end of the second loop. We ended up mostly sticking together for the rest of the race, which was was uneventful but fun. The wind and rain added a touch of drama to the day, with cold blasts of air on the ridge, dynamic noises in the trees, and a steady drenching of rain at times. But for the most part I kept a steady "Susitna" pace (only in terms of exertion, certainly not speed. I can only dream of "running" as fast at Susitna as I can run up a 15-percent grade.) I had no issues save for mild side stitches and a slight straining of a calf muscle when I tried too hard to run uphill (even though I know, by now, that I can pretty much speed-hike at nearly the same pace.) I clocked 7,700 feet of climbing on my GPS. This was a dangerous course in that there's a lot of climbing but nearly all of these trails are runnable, both up and downhill, and I was full of energy and feeling good. My hips, which are needed for sled-dragging, really hurt after the last 50K I participated in, in which I at least jogged nearly all of it. This time, I was smart and dialed it back when I needed to. I have a bigger fish to fry next month.

It was a fun weekend with the trail-running community. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

So I got into UTMB

This morning, I received an e-mail from Les Trailers du Mont-Blanc:

Bonjour Jill HOMER,
Le tirage au sort a été effectué et nous avons le plaisir de confirmer votre inscription à la course UTMB®! Vous devez maintenant finaliser votre inscription, à partir du 20/01/2012 et avant le 30/01/2012.


In my just-woke-up bleariness, I spent at least two minutes trying to decipher the French words that I've never known how to read. Not that I needed to. I knew what that exclamation point at the end of the first sentence meant. It meant the race lottery came out in my favor. Oh, crap.

So what is UTMB? It's a 166-kilometer foot race around a popular hiking trail that circumnavigates Mont Blanc, beginning and ending in Chamonix, France. The trail ascends and descends more than 9,400 meters (30,800 feet) — which, in the popular vernacular of describing a boggling amount of elevation gain, is a little higher than the ascent from sea level to the top of Mount Everest. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc takes place each year at the end of August, and is probably the largest ultra-distance trail-running race in the world. For the past three years the limit of 2,500 people have started the race. Typically about half that number finish.

So why the low finisher rate? Because the course is hard; I think harder than most newcomers who have painstakingly studied the elevation profiles would even expect. From the little that I've followed this race in the past two years (and it was cancelled because of bad weather in 2010), it seems the overwhelming reason for most of the drops is a tendency to go out too fast, and then physically blow up or mentally give up somewhere along the way. These trails are just steep, rugged, relentless, and mean, which are actually my favorite kind of trails — to hike.

The idea came to me last September as I was following Beat during the Tor des Geants, an even tougher trail around the Aosta Valley in Italy that is home to a 200-mile race with 80,000 feet of climbing. Even though he was visibly suffering each time I saw him, his eyes would brighten as he shared his latest stories of struggle and triumph. "You should run the TDG," he said to me. "You'd be good at a race like this."

I started to think he was right. Beautiful mountain routes that reward a slow but consistent pace over a long, sleepless period of time (i.e. "scenic slogs") actually are my kind of thing. The entire reason I developed an interest in personally participating in ultrarunning (yes, before I met Beat, but only just) is because I wanted to teach myself how to travel quickly over long distances in the mountains. So far trail running has proved to be a more difficult effort than I expected — I make too many clumsy missteps, struggle with the lack of breaks (i.e. "no coasting"), and I still haven't figured out what makes my feet hurt so much over longer distances. But I do know most of my issues arise from the act of running. When I hike, well, I feel like I can hike forever. Even up very steep hills. In fact, this is one of my favorite things to do.

I have just one strength on foot, and this strength is climbing steep terrain. I also have a huge weakness, and this is descending steep or technical terrain. However, I am gradually getting better at downhill running. The more I practice trail running, the more sure-footed and confident I become. I may not be capable of ripping down steep, rocky terrain yet, but I am already a whole lot faster than I used to be. Rugged mountain races actually play to my strengths more than flatter, faster courses. And because these types of races are difficult for everyone, the cut-off times are more generous. UTMB gives competitors 46 hours to finish. Although the fast guys can scorch the course in just over 20 hours, the overwhelming majority of finishers land in that 35- to 45-hour range. Which means a lot of these people are hiking, at least a lot of the time.

Not that I have any delusion that trying to finish the UTMB in 46 hours or less is going to be a Sunday stroll. I first tried to conceptualize this kind of effort in September during a "long" day hike on part of the UTMB course. I left Courmayeur and climbed to Col de Malatra, then hit up two more cols on my return. I arrived back in town a little less than ten hours after I started, with 26 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing on my GPS — just about the exact ratio of distance to climbing in the Tor des Geants. It had been a somewhat leisurely hike. I stopped and took pictures, and once laid in the grass and ate snacks. But I was tired afterward, and I contemplated the intimidating prospect of actually attempting that same hike eight times over, with very little rest — because that, essentially, was the Tor des Geants.

And the UTMB is essentially that, four times over. When I think about completing my three-col hike four times — running more steps when I had the capability to do so, and not carrying nearly as much weight (since I was training for Racing the Planet Nepal, I hiked with a full 25-pound pack that included three liters of water) — imagining it on those terms, it seems doable. Maybe. Well, at least it's worth trying. Registering for this race began as a joke but I'm glad my name was drawn in the lottery. Not only is it held in a spectacularly beautiful location, but the race itself is an elaborate, outlandishly difficult spectacle that is unlike anything I've ever attempted. This is exactly why I want to do it.

But for now, I have to keep my head in the nearer future, and the completely different but still intensely difficult endeavor of the Susitna 100. I'm planning my last long training run on Sunday, and this afternoon I set out for a training run for that — a simple eight-mile, 2,000-feet-of-climbing loop at my local open-space preserve, Rancho San Antonio. Usually this place is quite crowded with hikers, but the today there were just a handful of cars in the parking lot. It seems the heavy rain and cold wind deterred all but a few hardy trail runners. In the open, sideways rain blew with such force that I couldn't hold my face up, but the mud was deliciously tacky and allowed me to fly downhill. These fast speeds combined with UTMB stoke made me feel incredibly giddy. The other runners I encountered looked similarly stoked, splashing mud and flashing huge grins at me. As I climbed one steep hill, I passed a woman who was descending almost out of control, swinging her arms and shouting, "Is this storm great or what?" You see, people in the Bay Area don't see this kind of intense weather all that often. We were like children playing in weather we weren't allowed to play in, and this made us feel free.

"It's fantastic," I said. "I really love it." And this was true — about running in the rain, about running, period.

I think I'm in for a great adventure at UTMB. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just the usual ride

I think every mountain biker has their "usual:" that one route they've ridden considerably more times than any other route. It may actually be their very favorite trail; more likely, it's the best option closest to home. But either way, it's a place to memorize the tiniest details — the ruts and curves, the line through the rock garden, where to let off the brakes and really let 'er rip. And it's a place to be consistently surprised by the bigger picture — a mountain range of clouds hovering over the ocean or red sunlight cast across the hillside. Most riders' regular routes have boring yet endearing names like "Tin Cup" and "The Goose." Mine is called Steven's Creek Loop.

I've ridden it so many times and taken so many pictures of the same vistas. And of course they always look the same because this is coastal California and I'm fairly certain I haven't witnessed a significant change in the landscape in the 11 months I've lived here. But truthfully, I know these hills do change because I'm here often enough to notice the subtle differences. In March the skies were gray and wet; in April and May the hills were brilliantly green. June's heat added hints of gray to the greens. July gave way to the golden age of August, when the sky was so incandescently blue that it almost burned. In October some of the trees shed their withered leaves; those that stayed turned an undaunted shade of Army green. Now the winter grass is brown and brittle. But in the low evening light, the delicate colors come to life.

I set out almost defiantly this afternoon because Wednesday is becoming a good day to go for a mountain bike ride. But truthfully, I wasn't too stoked on riding today because my arm hurt — not the injured kind of hurt, just a bruised and battered hurt. So there was no risk of damage, just irritation. I pulled on my big elbow pad even though I dislike it because it's so stiff that it essentially immobilizes my arm. Right now, a minimal range of motion is a good thing. Still, every bump in the trail felt like a bratty child repeatedly slapping a sensitive bruise just to get a rise out of me. I reached the top of the steep hill where I crashed last August and thought, "I really don't want to descend any more dirt." So I turned away from the usual and mixed it up with an out-and-back. I was happy to be pedaling uphill again.

One of my favorite things about my usual is the fact it's so quiet here. Even after dozens of rides, I still marvel at the fact I can pedal away from my apartment at the edge of a crowded valley and ascend so quickly into the idyllic tranquillity of these hills. The silence here can be almost absolute when I'm not moving; and when I am moving, I can listen to all the sounds mountain bikers love — the purr of my freewheel, crackling gravel, and a gentle percussion of wind. I usually see more deer and osprey than people, and in the winter I often don't see any people. It's come to a point of solitude and familiarity where I often talk to the deer as I pass, like chatting with neighbors. Every once in a while I bump into the more reclusive residents, the bobcats and coyotes.

"Hey, Coyote, how's it going?" The coyotes rarely even bother to feign interest. This one was especially shy. I got off my bike to subtly stalk him and see if I could capture a better photo. Alas, coyotes are more wily than I am, and he knew exactly what I was trying to do after I snuck around a tangle of bushes for a clearer view. He raised his ears and I could imagine him rolling his eyes at me as he stood up and bounded away.

And maybe I followed him up the hillside, because sometimes it's just fun to follow the trail of a coyote.

The sun began to set as I began the long but mostly smooth descent toward home. I noticed a thin film of frost had formed on the road, which was actually kind of exciting because it meant the temperature had dropped below freezing — and this was something new. Of course, it also meant I was woefully underdressed for the next six miles, screaming down pavement at thirty miles per hour.

Happily, I brought my good bike light this time.

Which was perfect for really hammering the frigid but exhilarating descent into the crowded but beautifully lit valley. A giddy grin froze on my face as my fingers and toes went numb. It's just the usual ride, and yet I love it, every time. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Creative running

My minor maladies often come in bunches, usually convincing me that they're somehow related. Just about the time the swelling on my elbow finally diminished, I came down with a wretched case of likely food poisoning. I spent a long evening and night clutching the toilet and wondering if I had some kind of horrific wound infection from the superficial cuts on my scar. It is humorous what my mind can conjure up when I'm coping with a downturn in my health. By the fourth purging session, I felt extremely dizzy. I laid down on the cold floor and obsessed about flesh-eating bacteria and probable paralysis in my right arm. Honestly, I can be such a hypochondriac. Luckily I know this and keep these delusions to myself until my health starts trending upward again.

Still, arm pain and food poisoning sufficiently punctured my motivation and led to a rather deflated weekend and start of the week. I had big plans to finally hammer out a kind of "deadline schedule" for my 2012 project goals (I am discovering that my journalism background has essentially trained me to only work well under deadline pressure.) But nausea prevented consumption of breakfast and coffee, which led to more dizziness (and sleepiness) and out-of-focus staring at a blank document on my laptop screen. I finally decided my day was shot and I might as well just try to stuff down some simple carbohydrates and go for a run.

This is also the time when "training nerves" start to get under my skin. It's just a little more than four weeks until the Susitna 100. Conventional wisdom tells me that the next two weeks are crucial for hammering out the kinks in my fitness, putting in a couple more endurance-boosting long days outside, and pounding a few more miles on my soft feet. Once it's time to taper I actually feel relieved, because there's really nothing more I can do so I might as well return to my regular happy routine. But for the third and fourth weeks before a big event, I tend to experience low levels of panic that I'm completely unprepared and I need to get my butt in gear.

I didn't want to let an arm boo-boo and a tummy ache completely derail the whole week, but I knew overdoing anything wasn't going to help matters either. I settled for ninety minutes at an easy pace, and of course felt lousy the entire time. It is humorous that I try so hard, when deep down I know that these little training efforts aren't really what will give me the boost I need to finish the Susitna 100. I know that any success I might experience is going to be a triumph of my imagination rather than fitness. I already have the physical ability to drag a heavy sled a hundred miles over soft snow while wearing snowshoes. I nearly did exactly that just three weeks ago, and it wasn't really that hard. Of course doing even the same thing in one long effort is a completely different matter. (It always amuses me when people try to impress the difficulty of a 100-mile trail run by exclaiming, "It's like running four marathons!" Because, really, if it were as easy as running four marathons, there would be a lot more people running fourteen-hour hundies.) Still, it doesn't have to be impossible, either. If I imagine piecing together three thirty-mile days in Alaska, the Susitna 100 suddenly seems imminently more doable. And if I continue to imagine it as doable, it is.

One of my favorite aspects about winter ultras is the fact that even if I wanted to, there's no way I could train for them with any sort of scientific precision. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. My default setting is essentially "unprepared" no matter how well my training went before the race. I have to activate my imagination, think my way through problems, and adapt to unexpected and continuous changes in myself and the environment. It is, in its own way, a creative endeavor, just like writing. Creative running.

Still, physical fitness is the most useful tool in this creative process. And it is crunch time. I guess the best I can do is all I can do. I hope this bunch of minor maladies doesn't come in threes.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reliable klutz

Beat and Liehann, trying not to look cold because it was about 40 degrees, drizzling and windy at the ridge.
After a mountain bike crash last August left a quarter-sized crater in my elbow, I started demoing different elbow pads. After all, it took a full painful month of wet-dry bandaging to extract all (or at least most) of the gravel from that thing, and I really didn't want to have to go through that again. I briefly tried a roller blade pad — stiff and inflexible — and moved onto mountain bike armor — hot and uncomfortable. Just before a 25-hour bike race in November, I discovered lightweight pads for basketball players — basically a thin piece of foam on a sleeve. It seemed better than nothing, so I wore them a few times, but it didn't take long before I went back to arms au naturel.

Just as the pain of dragging a sled a hundred miles through frozen Alaska fades all to quickly from memory, I had conveniently forgotten all the ways in which I was kinda miserable for most of the month of August. Laying in bed with my arm propped above my head, unable to sleep ... jogging slowly with my hand in a sling ... not biking at all. All of these memories are still fairly fresh. They should be reminders of why I should wear body armor and maybe just not go outside at all, but memory is a funny thing. It manages to gloss over weeks of teeth-clenching soreness and yet acutely remembers a single moment of getting back on a bike after six weeks off, and how incredibly liberating that felt. Padded arm sleeves, on the other hand, do not feel similarly liberating.

Good thing my friend Martina remembers that I'm a klutz. Before we set out for our planned 18-mile run on Saturday, she pointed to my scar, which was covered with a blood blister I incurred after I smacked my elbow on a bathroom drawer a week ago. "Are you still wearing elbow pads?" she asked. "Uh, yeah," I said, and pulled them on for the first time since November.

It was a hot day for January, nearly 70 degrees, and that's before we hit the oven of Rogue Valley. I rolled the sleeves over the pads but didn't take them off, although I really wanted to, and this is perhaps the first thing that went through my mind at mile 9.5, when, while running uphill along a narrow piece of singletrack cut into a steep slope, I caught my foot on a rock and started going down. My face was headed toward a veritable abyss and all I could think was "good thing I'm wearing elbow pads." Instinct directed me to grasp for the trail before I tumbled down the mountain. My right elbow smashed directly into the rock, scraping along the rough surface as my body slid a couple of inches horizontally down the sideslope.

I pulled myself up quickly and continued running, too filled with klutz's remorse to even stop and assess my pain, which was relatively immense. Martina caught up to me about the time the adrenaline wore off. I couldn't really muster more than a staggering shuffle anymore, so I had to admit I had clumsily tripped and landed directly on my bad elbow. It hurt a lot more than I thought it should. I noticed blood dripping beneath my sleeve. I pulled the pad off and sure enough, my scar looked like rotten hamburger — a mess of torn gray tissue and blood. The joint itself was cut and swollen, and turning a pale shade of purple. "Well," I said with a resigned sort of gratitude, "it could be worse. There's no gravel in there. At least I won't have to go to the hospital for a scrubbing this time."

The wound continued to throb with pain as we tried to catch up to Beat and Harry, who were a ways ahead of us. Beat finally came back down to see what was wrong, and agreed to continue downhill and get our car at home while Martina and I climbed to Black Mountain and walked a shorter route to the road. I was angry with myself. All of those easily forgotten bad memories about August trickled back into my consciousness, and I wondered how much I had set myself back. Would I not be able to ride a bike for a while? Would I have to run with my arm in a sling? Would it hurt too much to run at all? What exactly happens when you rip up scar tissue? Does it ever heal?

For most of Saturday, I was genuinely worried that I had singlehandedly undone five months of careful healing in one clumsy blow. Luckily, it does seem to just be a simple arm bashing rather than a deep wound. The swelling went down and I was feeling better this morning, so I decided to pop a few Advil and join Beat and his friend Liehann for the first paved miles of a long mountain bike ride we had been planning. Even with the full-squish bike on pavement, every tiny jolt caused enough pain that I rode most of the miles slowly with my right arm dangling. I have enough diagnosed nerve damage from the original injury that I'm not exactly sure how the healing will progress this time around. I admit not even the slightest hint of a scab has formed. The new wound isn't deep but it is still bleeding. Still, I remain optimistic that it's just a small setback, hardly worth mentioning, really. Except for this blog post ... because it's kind of a funny story, don't you think?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Afternoon spin class

Back in late 2004, I had twenty-five extra pounds I wanted to lose and not a lot of enthusiasm for my bicycles (I know, I know. Life was very different for me back then.) I was also an extremely dedicated non-runner. A co-worker listened to my woes and invited me to join her for lunchtime spin class at the Apple Fitness in Idaho Falls. "Her class is hella-hard," she said of the noon class's instructor (this is circa-2004 when people still said 'hella.') "But for seventy minutes a session it will get you in the best shape of your life, I promise."

The instructor was drill sergeant. Her classes were filled with creepy death-metal-electronica fusion music alongside the Gwen Stefani. She screamed in our faces and turned up the resistance knobs repeatedly without asking us if this was okay, and then nodded in stern approval as our knees made horrible crunching noises and our faces locked in a twisted grimace. It was so not my style. But my co-worker was right. Afternoon spin class set me on a road to physical fitness that I haven't turned back from since.

I haven't belonged to a proper gym in years, but that doesn't stop me from occasionally returning to afternoon spin class. These days, I pull out the road bike, tune into motivating pop music like The Naked and Famous, and set on a steady beat toward Monte Bello Road. After a 3.5-mile warm-up, I charge full-bore into the climb as my heart rate shoots to 180. I have five miles to ascend to 2,500 feet. I hit the steep pitches hard, relax on the short descents, and try to tap a little spin class magic by setting my iPod on repeat (I just stand still but it keeps on coming, and I just stop moving but it keeps on coming, it keeps on coming so I start running) The goal is to get to the top before minute 55. My all-time best is 50:21. Someday I'll cut it below 50. I just keep on chipping away at it, still reaching for that ever-elusive best shape of my life.

But the best part about afternoon spin class: The 2,500-foot cool-down. It's a long way down. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2012 goals

Recently, Beat posted his adventure goals for 2012. It got me thinking about what I want to do in 2012. Below is a list of the events I'm thinking about for the coming year. Most of these are tentative, and I'm sure others that I haven't even thought of yet will become reality. But for now, these are the dreams that get me out the door most every day. My adventure dreams. This post is merely "part one." I'll post about other goals for 2012 soon.

Susitna 100
Foot race, February 18-20
This year will be my fourth showing at the illustrious Susitna 100. I finished the 100-mile "Race Across Frozen Alaska" twice on bikes (a full-suspension Gary Fisher Sugar in 2006 and an old Raleigh with Snowcat rims in 2007. It is possible to ride snow trails without a fat bike. Not well.) Even though I had much better bikes by 2011, I still decided to leave them at home and try my chances on foot. I surprised everybody and myself by finishing, and now I want to go back and try it again. Why do I want to drag a heavy sled 100 miles across the Susitna Valley, yet again? For me, these long winter slogs are very much a mental landscape sort of challenge; one might even call it intense meditation for lack of a better term. Almost regardless of the outcome, I always emerge from my Alaska sabbaticals with a renewed sense of clarity. But I do want to improve on my 2011 finish of 41 hours and 16 minutes, and my main strategy is to avoid the two-hour breaks at Luce's and Flathorn lodges.

White Mountains 100
Snow bike race, March 25
The White Mountains 100 is easily my favorite race, ever. This 100-mile race in the mountains north of Fairbanks, Alaska, takes all of my favorite things about snowbiking: Rolling terrain, winter "singletrack," sweeping vistas, a huge climb up a mountain pass, a white-knuckle descent, cozy checkpoints, tasty hot food, awesome volunteers, potential aurora gazing ... and just enough extreme cold, terrifying overflow, and of course the 800-foot-climb-in-less-than-a-mile-Wickersham-%*$!-Wall to keep it real. I finished in 22:23 in 2010 and 17:55 in 2011. Since I won't be particularly well-trained for snow biking, and since snow conditions always dictate how these things go down anyway, my main strategy for 2012 is to minimize the weight I'm carrying in extra gear, and probably also try to cut down my checkpoint times. However, the overwhelming goal in this race is to have fun.

Stagecoach 400
Self-supported bikepacking race, April 27
I haven't taken on a multi-day mountain biking challenge since I finished the Tour Divide in 2009. Although I've enjoyed my foray into ultrarunning, I admit I miss the independence, freedom and flow that I feel on my bike. So I was excited to learn that Mary Collier, who also previously finished the Tour Divide (in 2008; she is one of the stars of the movie "Ride the Divide") and her husband, Brendan, put together a 400-mile dirt route across Southern California. The loop incorporates historic routes such as the Juan Bautista DeAnza trail and the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. Since I am now a resident of California, and since the Stagecoach 400 Web site features stunning photographs, I felt compelled to enter. My main concern for participating in this event is the likelihood of extreme heat, given that it swings around the Salton Sea, which is often hotter than Phoenix. But I figure after returning from Fairbanks, some dedicated sauna training will hopefully get me in shape for what will likely be a grand and difficult tour of the state I now call home.

The Zion 50
Foot race, May 11
This race fits in the "maybe" category, and hinges on actually feeling ready for such a thing so soon after the Stagecoach 400, and also on whether Beat decides he wants to run the Zion 100. But the course looks fantastic, through one of my favorite regions, just outside Zion National Park. This would be my first attempt at the 50-mile distance, and I'm guessing a pretty tough one for me. The elevation gain in the 50-mile course is only 3,500 feet, which puts it solidly into the "runnable" category, and the cutoff times reflect that. But it would be a beautiful challenge, and it would give me an excuse to visit my family in Utah.

The Colorado Trail
Bikepacking, July
This one also falls squarely into the "maybe" pile, and actually just popped into my head as a possibility the other day. Beat is planning to spend some time in Colorado in mid-July to acclimate for the Hardrock 100, which begins on July 13. I thought if I went to Colorado with him, and acclimated, I could potentially give the Colorado Trail a shot starting the following week (mid-July.) My plan would be a self-supported fast-tour of the bike route set in place by the Colorado Trail Race, which covers 470 miles and 65,000 feet of climbing. This wouldn't necessarily be an ITT, as I don't really believe I have a shot at Eszter Horanyi's incredible time. But my plan would be to abide by all the self-support rules, carry a Spot, and basically just give myself good excuses to keep the pace cranking when things are going well, and take a breather when they're not. I like the challenge of a determined pace, even if I'm ultimately just out for a scenic bike tour. I've long promised myself I wouldn't try to ride the Colorado Trail, which is known as much for its rugged singletrack as I am known for being a poor technical rider. But I figure if I ever want to see the Colorado Trail, I'll either have to walk all of it or some of it. I might as well ride my bike where I can, and try to enjoy the hike-a-biking as though I were simply hiking. I do enjoy occasionally taking my bikes for long walks. Since this ride would be in conjunction with Hardrock, I imagine I'd start in Durango, which is opposite of the race this year. The Colorado Trail Race begins in Denver on July 30.

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc
Foot race, August 31
This is a HUGE maybe, given — among the many reasons why I should not attempt this even if I do get in — that there's a lottery with a little worse than two-to-one odds (to be held later this month.) But the truth is, I threw my name in the hat for what is widely considered one of the most competitive and most difficult ~100-mile foot races in the world. The 166-kilometer run around Mont Blanc crosses into three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) on steep Alps trails with nearly 31,000 feet of climbing. Entering this thing when I have never even successfully completed a much easier trail 100-miler probably comes across as an extreme case of hubris, and it is. I blame curiosity. I was only even on the Web site to check out the much crazier race that Beat signed up for, the La Petite Trotte à Léon (290 kilometers with 22,000 meters of "positive height gain.") The adjacent site for the UTMB offered registration for qualified participants, and I thought, "there's no way I qualify." To qualify, a participant needs five points in two races. I discovered that my finishes in the Susitna 100 (4 points), Racing the Planet Nepal (3 points) and Ohlone Wilderness 50K (1 point) were more than enough to get me through the first cut. Out of sheer bemusement about the idea that a snow slog, a stage race with a heavy pack, and a 50K could qualify me for one of the toughest mountain races in the world, I signed up.

Let me just continue that I do think, with a little luck, I could finish. I would approach it from a speed-hiking standpoint and would aim to move consistently at a conservative but determined pace to stay ahead of the 46-hour cutoff. And believe me, I've done enough hiking in the Alps to understand how incredibly hard this will be. Hopefully all the hike-a-biking I do in Colorado will whip me into shape for the task, but if not, no biggie. Honestly, if I don't get into UTMB, I won't cry about it. I'll just hike the Mont Blanc loop over a much more luxurious four or five days while Beat is racing the PTL.

The Bear 100
Foot race, September 28-29
If I don't get into the UTMB, I'd still like to aim for a 100-mile trail race in 2012. The Bear 100 is ideal for me. It's tough and "climby" enough to be a good fit for a hiker like me, covers a scenic point-to-point route in my home state of Utah, and has the awesome nostalgia factor of being the race where Beat and I had our first "date." I've already run the last fifty miles of the course, so I think the hundred-miler is doable for me, although I would have to practice my running plenty over the summer in order to finish under the cut-off. Plus, my friend Danni is planning on running this race. It should be a lot of fun.

25 Hours of Frog Hollow
Mountain bike race, November 3-4
This is just a fun mountain bike party in the desert near Hurricane, Utah. It's too far in the future to really know whether I could fit it into my schedule, but I like to tentatively plan on being there all the same. I'd love to return as a solo racer and avenge my early-morning meltdown of 2011. However, I'd be thrilled if I could place as high as second, because this race becomes more popular every year. I wouldn't be surprised if a pro or two showed up in 2012. It's still a fantastic way to spend a day with some great people. 

Indulgence

I should know myself better than this by now. I have two very nice bike lights that take all of thirty seconds to mount on the handlebars. However, I often leave these lights at home, on purpose, as though neglecting to bring lights will force me to return at a decent hour. So I leave the bike lights behind, but I do bring a small headlamp and red blinkies, because, you know, safety first.

I was little bit lost in my project today, and failed to noticed the quickly passing hours until it was already 3:04 p.m. Oh, I need to go. Slap on a long-sleeved T-shirt and tights. My running pack from last weekend's trail race and its leftover water, hat, jacket and mittens should suffice for supplies. The responsible side of me just wants to stay at home and keep writing; don't break the flow. But louder voices lodge a compelling protest.  You promised we were going mountain biking today. You've been home in warm, sunny California for a week. No more excuses.

Okay, okay. What  kind of ride do I even have time for now that it's what, 3:17 p.m.? Sun sets at 5:10. Useable daylight lasts until 5:30. That should at least give me time to tag Black Mountain. I pedal away from my apartment building, mind still crowded with chapter outlines and dialogue. Not that any of that stuff is really all that important, but I admit I sometimes wonder exactly why I feel so compelled to ride my bike. Daily exercise has been such a part of my routine for so many years, through so many major life changes, that I have a difficult time imagining my self identity without it. Exercise serves as both my anchor and my escape, but sometimes I wonder if it's too much of a priority. What is it exactly that drives me to cut the line to my creative juices and redirect all of my energy to simple pedaling? What does mountain biking accomplish for me that words can not?

I pedal up the steep road as guilt about stifled creativity and slow work progress gives way to the blissful mindlessness of hard effort. It's easy to ignore the more oppressive thoughts in my head when so much oxygen is directed to my muscles — one of the side effects of exercise that I cherish. With guilt and worry out of the way, I launch into the trail with renewed enthusiasm, the kind that never grows stale no matter how many times I venture outside for a simple ride. After cresting the mountain top, I briefly remember I was supposed to do something here, but can't remember what that something might be. Warm January air and rich afternoon light prompts me onward to a smooth ribbon of singletrack. The blast of chilled air and swirls of dust put a smile on my face, which is as good a reason as any to tuck in and coast all the way to the canyon.

It's there — twelve miles, 2,700 feet of climbing, and 600 feet of descending later — that I remember what it was I set out to do on this ride: Get home by dark. Wisps of pink light stretching across the sky tell me this is not a likely scenario. But I engage the high gear anyway, and get all the workout I need in twenty red-lining minutes. With my grimace factor on high, the air temperature turns from chilled to raw, and there's only enough oxygen flowing to my brain to register gasps and moans. But the rewards are unmistakable. I reach the top of Black Mountain just in time to watch the vermillion sun slip beneath a sheet of haze over the Pacific. Steeped in pink light and endorphin euphoria, I steal a few minutes of fading daylight to catch my breath.

I pull on all the warm layers in my pack, sip some leftover race water, and switch on my headlamp and blinkies now for good measure, because I'm going to need them soon. I'm not going to make it home before dark, and by the time I shower and eat dinner I'm probably going to be too tired to get any more work done today. And yet, the ride is completely worth it. I should know myself better than this by now. 

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Recovery run: Crystal Springs 50K

At the start of the Crystal Springs 50K
I felt weak and a little off-kilter, not unlike the way I felt a month ago after I returned from Nepal. I went for a couple short bike rides, and on Thursday decided it was time to return to running. Since nothing I did in the deep snow and intense cold of Alaska can really be counted as running, it had actually be a while. I ran my standard eight-mile loop. It felt weird. I returned home with my usual attitude that forms after a hiatus of any length — "running is too hard." But it was too late; Beat had already signed us up for the Crystal Springs 50K.

Upon arriving at the start in Woodside, I learned I was currently the female course record holder for the Coastal Trail Runs race. I did not know this, nor did I feel pressured to defend my title (Crystal Springs was a smaller affair in 2010 and 2011, but this year there were 60 people starting the 50K, at least a dozen of whom were women.) But as the "defending champion" I did feel some responsibility to at least show up and give this running race my best running effort. But not too much running, because running is too hard.

The antithesis to my frosty face photos from Alaska — this is what winter running looks like in coastal California. 
I hit a few snags early on in the race. I learned why leg warmers aren't more popular with runners after I had to stop several times to pull up my leg warmers after they'd fallen down, then finally just took them off. There were also a couple trips into the woods when something from that morning didn't agree with me — I convinced myself that something was running. But eventually I hit my stride and found myself surprisingly able to hold a solid pace without excessive effort. I'd already decided I was just going to run Crystal Springs "easy" because right now, maintaining my endurance motor is about the only thing I can do to improve my chances in the Susitna 100. Speed will accomplish exactly nothing toward that particular goal.

Everything motored along swimmingly until I passed the last checkpoint, 4.6 miles from the finish. I looked at my watch and realized if I could somehow log sub-nine-minute miles for the rest of the race, I might just reach something that has been a longer-term goal of mine — to finish a trail 50K in less than six hours. The remainder of the course was predominantly downhill, but in my world, that's a bad thing. I think you have to be a similarly flailing and awkward runner as I am to really understand what I mean. Even on flat pavement, seven miles per hour is about my speed threshold before I begin to feel uncomfortable, like my feet are stumbling over themselves and painful things are about to happen, and sometimes they do. Even if they're physically achievable, fast speeds frighten me enough that I'm psychologically incapable of letting off the brakes.

I crested a small hill with my GPS registering a 13-minute-mile, which just wasn't going to cut it. Just then, a song came on my iPod that reminded me of my trek in Alaska, and momentarily moved my thoughts from the vibrant sunlight filtering through the redwood forest, back to the frigid air and frozen swamps of the Susitna Valley — "The Cave" by Mumford and Sons:

It's empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you've left behind



For a moment I could feel all of it — a hundred miles of snowshoe trekking, a reluctant sled tugging at my hips, lips cracked with windburn, swollen fingertips, a painful patch of dry skin that formed on my nose after I dozed off with my face sticking out of my bivy bag, the cold headaches, the fatigue after my long flight home, the lead weights in my legs during my difficult training run, the 27 miles of consistent running I had already logged that day. And then, in the next moment, I let it all go. And I ran. 

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck


I locked in to the frenetic banjo harmony and matched my own cadence, feeling a rush of wind and adrenaline as I accelerated down the narrow, winding trail. A towering redwood canopy filtered the sunlight into a hypnotic strobe, dry leaves erupted at my feet, and I could almost taste the moist aroma of soil and green moss. Even the endless hairpin turns couldn't disrupt the exhilarating sensation of simply running without fear. Who cares if I fall?

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again


I passed several runners — a guy, another guy, a woman, two guys. One of them called out to me, "Nice pace!" "Thanks!" I shouted back. The trail disappeared beneath my feet like a conveyor belt. I felt like I could run faster, but I had a hunch I was running fast enough. That was good enough for me.

I crossed the finish line at 5:51, a personal record by 20 minutes. (Garmin stats here) I didn't win. Not even in my age group. The woman who did win shattered my course record and beat me by an hour. But it felt like a big victory, all the same.