Saturday, March 31, 2012

Finish and aftermath

Fatback coated in ice the morning after the White Mountains 100.
The sweet release of sleep only lasted about twenty minutes before I woke up with wrenching pain in my right big toe — the pain of renewed circulation. I endured another twenty minutes of intense throbbing and frostbite panic before I remembered that my toe had gone numb all the way back before checkpoint three, and the reason it went numb is because it was crammed against the tip of my boot while I pedaled. I tried to drift back to sleep, but then the coughing fits returned. I'd had a bunch of coughing attacks out on the trail but these were worse, searing my throat and producing crystallized chunks of phlegm that were a disconcertingly dark shade of brown. I managed to sleep fitfully for two more hours, then woke up to the sensation of shivering in my zero-degree sleeping bag. I checked the car thermometer. It was still four below outside at 8 a.m.

My plan had been to just wait at the trailhead for Beat to finish. I was too tired and apathetic to do anything else. But when I realized that this meant languishing in my sleeping bag for upwards of twelve hours, compounded by the fact that I didn't have anything to eat or drink, I decided to make the hourlong drive back to Fairbanks. I managed to catch our host, Joel, between naps at his house. Joel got into the White Mountains 100 at the eleventh hour, or more accurately fifteen hours before the race started, after five months in limbo on the wait list. Joel finished strong, in just over sixteen hours, but he too was shattered by the effort.

It was reaffirming to chat with another cyclist about what I found difficult about the race, and find out he agreed. Not many people understand what piloting a snow bike across a hundred miles of wilderness trails really entails. They see an average pace of five miles per hour and quietly scoff ... "what's so hard about that? I can run that fast." Actually, I can, too, and in many ways I believe the effort of snow biking is comparable to a trail-running effort — at least in my own experiences. Yes, snow biking has coasting, it has the potential to be faster, and it's considerably less rough on my joints and feet than running. But the energy output is still high, and I do believe that most of my struggles in the White Mountains 100 were caused by going out too hard. I wouldn't try to run a six-hour 50K at the beginning of a 100-mile ultramarathon, but that's essentially the effort level I exerted on my bike in the first forty miles of the White Mountains 100. My fitness, and indeed my genetics, just weren't conditioned to hold up to the demand.

I did collect some interesting data (if only to me) from my GPS. I have the comparisons for my pace in the 2011 and 2012 race. The 2012 race is slightly truncated because my GPS died a couple hours before I finished, but most of it recorded. Unsurprisingly my speeds were slower over the entire course, and in a fairly consistent way. To me, that proves the course was just across-the-board more difficult this year. It was! That's my story and I'm sticking too it.

After chatting with Joel I don't remember if I ate or drank anything. If I did it wasn't nearly enough. I headed back out to the Wickersham Dome trailhead to watch Beat finish. He put in an incredible effort and finished in 33 hours and 37 minutes, two hours faster than last year. He was the third of seven runners, and the second of three men. He had few issues besides sore hip flexers, and I think less post-Iditarod race fatigue than even he expected. Beat had a great race, and thought the trail conditions weren't all that bad. Well, no, not compared to the Iditarod. Ha!

It really amazes me how strong Beat is at these consistently hard efforts, recovering from them in a matter of days. Beat was essentially fine within hours after he finished, while I continued to struggle. I tossed and turned for most of the night as my heart raced and I gasped for breaths that I couldn't seem to catch. I thought I still hadn't cooled down from my hard effort, but several Facebook friends (how I love social media) diagnosed me with something much more obvious — dehydration. David Shaw, who finished the 2011 White Mountains 100 just a few minutes before I came in, wrote, "It's called volume shock. When dehydration sucks the fluid out of the blood, the blood thickens and volume goes down which means your heart has to work much harder to keep blood pressure up. You respiration rate is probably high too, another compensator. Drink and eat, drink and eat."

I took his advice, drank a lot of water, took some electrolyte tablets, and felt significantly better by the afternoon. Strange how such small changes can cause huge swings in health and well-being. And once again I revealed myself as a master of poor recovery.

This is essentially what most my friends pointed out after the race — "You're bad at recovery. You never let yourself recover from anything." I went straight from the Susitna 100 to playing hard in Alaska and the Yukon to training for the White Mountains 100. I don't really see this as a problem. I enjoyed every moment of playing and training, and didn't have any injuries or specific fatigue going into the White Mountains 100. I agree that with more focused intervals of training and resting, I could get my body to a point of being stronger and faster. But this isn't really my interest or my goal. If I had to sum up my fitness goals in simple phrases, they might be, "I want to do what I want, when I want. I don't want to be tied to a specific activity or regimen. I want to avoid injury. I want to travel long distances under my own power and have the strength and energy to do so."

Motivations for racing are as wide-ranging as the individuals who participate in races, and yet most people assume we're all the same — "We want to be faster. We want to beat others." Moving fast and placing high in race standings is certainly satisfying, but it's not why I race. I race to challenge my perceived limitations and confront my fears. I race to be part of a community, to connect with others who share my passions. I race to learn more about myself and the world around me. I race to overcome difficulties and prove to myself, again and again, that I'm capable of doing so. I race to fuel the stoke for day-to-day outdoor adventures, which collectively have provided more personal rewards than all of my races combined. Some people train to race. I race to train. I race so I can pursue adventure. As a sometimes reluctant adult, I view training as as euphemism for "go play outside."

It was 27 degrees and clear the afternoon before Beat and I left Fairbanks. I had downed six liters of water and only recently started breathing normally again when Beat decided to take the Fatback out for one last spin through the snow. He came back forty-five minutes later and described a beautiful loop that was "just a little farther than we ran the day before the race." That distance was only about four miles, so I thought it wouldn't be too outlandish to go out and enjoy one last romp in the winterlands myself.

The afternoon was indeed painfully beautiful, with sunlight sparkling on the snow and golden light high in the spring sky. I was still low on energy but, thanks to the impact-absorbing wonder that is a bicycle, had little muscle soreness or joint pain after the race. Still, I took it easy and savored the cool air, knowing it would be my last taste of Alaska for a while. I took Beat's advice and followed the main trail as it continued to wend through the spruce forest. I pedaled and breathed, pedaled and breathed. Somehow an hour went by, and I didn't appear to be anywhere near where I started. I rode another fifteen minutes before I arrived at a mushing clubhouse that I knew was at least five miles from Joel's place by road. I had already been out much longer than I intended, wearing only a pair of running shoes, nylon hiking pants, and a soft shell over my cotton T-shirt. I cut to the road and raced home, mainly because I was chilled and needed to build some heat. Without trying I had turned an questionable recovery spin into a fifteen-mile, moderate-effort ride. And yet it didn't feel that bad. In fact, it felt kind of awesome.

Now my friends are asking me if I'm actually going to rest and recover now that I'm done with my winter season. I already have a 400-mile mountain bike race planned at the end of April, and regardless of conditioning, I'm really excited for that one. It's going to be a beautiful route across Southern California, and it's been too long since I've embarked on a bike tour. In fact, I really should start planning an overnighter to get ready for the Stagecoach 400. You know, for training. I also need to start a routine of nightly sabbaticals in the sauna. You know, for heat acclimation.

If I required an extended period of downtime after a race it would mean, to me, that I've failed in my fitness goals. If I fail in a race because I pushed my limits of recovery too far, well, that's okay. At least then I'll know what's too far.



Friday, March 30, 2012

Fade to white, part two

I didn't actually believe I was going to walk the entire rest of the race; I just needed a mental reprieve from maneuvering my bike and crashing and thrashing out of the snow and doing it all over again. I blamed my fatigue on my heart, but my mind was tired, too — tired of intense focus and anxiety. I pulled over to let a few skiers pass, gliding over the fluff. "It's too bad you don't even get to enjoy the downhill," Anchorage skier Abby Rideout said as she coasted by me. "Meh!" I called out with an exaggerated shrug as though I wasn't jealous of her effortless speed, which I was.

I hiked to the edge of the ice lakes and pulled microspikes over my boots. The ice lakes are not lakes at all but a narrow, sloping valley covered in a film of wet ice known as overflow. Overflow forms when an upwelling of ground water seeps over the surface of the snow in freezing conditions, building variable layers of ice and open water. The condition of overflow changes quickly — shin-deep slush can freeze to bumpy ice which can submerge in a new upwelling of water in a matter of hours. A volunteer had told me the ice lakes were knee-deep earlier in the morning, and since my overarching goal is self-preservation in all situations, my plan was to walk this section all along. A thin veneer of new ice shattered beneath my boots and sunk my feet to my ankles in water. Thanks to my prior frostbite experience, overflow is one of my great fears. Crunching and groaning ice echoed in the wind, an eerie chorus matched in volume by the pounding of my heart. Turns out my heart did have some oomph left — all I needed was a little more fear.

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you probably know that I enjoy confronting my fears. The ice lakes are more than a mile long, and after about fifteen minutes of anxious tiptoeing I managed to punch in fairly deep, over my right ankle. I stopped to watch the slushy water cascade over my boot with childlike fascination, exhausted as my mind was. Amid the sudden quieting of my footsteps I could hear the sounds of the environment — gurgles from water seepage, metallic clinking of wind-driven snow, and the moaning breeze. The low cloud ceiling blended flawlessly into the snow, obscuring the ground and creating the optical illusion of spruce trees ascending into the sky. The whole world was black and white except for the ice surrounding my feet, which was a bright glacial blue. Because my soft shell and base layer were soaked in sweat, the cold wind stabbed into my core with a "help, I'm alive" kind of urgency — both exhilarating and terrifying."What is this place?" I said out loud, with a genuine sense of wonder. And then, in the next breath, "I love this place." It no longer mattered that I wasn't quite strong enough. I was here.

Shortly after the ice lakes, I forgot about my silly resolve to hike it in and got back on my bike. Trail conditions were much better than they had been on the other side of the divide, but the surface was quickly filling in with new snow. I could see several ski tracks but no tire or snowmachine tread, meaning enough new powder had fallen to obscure older tracks entirely. When snow is falling that quickly, a trail can become unrideable in a matter of hours. This knowledge boosted me into hard-riding mode again. I really didn't have the stamina for it, nor the energy, because these effort levels caused me to feel pukey and made it impossible to eat anything but Gummy Lifesavers, of which I only had one package. (Note: These were regular Gummy Lifesavers, not the sour kind that made me so ill during the Susitna 100. But it is ironic that they were the only food I had that didn't make me queasy.)

This section of trail is the most fun of the White Mountains course, a gradual descent swooping through the woods beside cathedral-like spires and dramatic gulches. Sadly I was too blown to enjoy it, and also crashed two more times. After my second crash I laid in the snow for several seconds, letting the soft pillow envelop me and contemplating whether I could take a power nap right there. The chill roused me to action before I dozed off. I couldn't arrive at checkpoint three soon enough.

Checkpoint three manager Dea Huff catches a much-deserved nap in the Windy Gap Cabin. Photo by Beat.
I arrived at Windy Gap, mile 60, at 7:30 p.m. I had only been on the trail for eleven and a half hours but honestly, the way I felt, you could have tacked another day on to that. I was surprised when Dea told me I looked "fresh" compared to others who had been through before and also said I was the "best dressed" of the bikers. (I was wearing a sweaty jacket, freebie mittens from the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse, and clashing shades of blue and purple — but everyone loves my down skirt.) Dea served me her signature soup with six meatballs. I crammed the steaming chunks down my throat. My eyes watered as the food seared my tongue, but I was too hungry to wait for it to cool down. Every time I stopped moving, I felt ravenously hungry. And yet, as soon as I started pedaling again, my appetite faded behind a wall of nausea.

The trail past Windy Gap cabin the next morning. Photo by Beat.
Snow was still coming down hard after I left Windy Gap, enough so that I had no choice but to put on my goggles. I despise wearing goggles, and have discovered that the only times I can make myself wear them are when it's snowing too hard to see without them, or so windy that the chill can freeze skin in seconds. My goggles have a brown tint that rendered the already flat light into low-resolution fuzziness, like an old photograph. I think not being able to see much actually did me some good, as I could no longer see the deeper ruts in the trail and thus took no evasive action that probably would have caused me to swerve and crash into the snow bank. A few times my front tire dropped out from underneath me before I realized I was descending into a stream bed — my depth perception was so bad that I couldn't even discern six-foot dips. Finally it became dark enough to switch on my headlamp. I didn't know what was worse — a complete lack of depth or squinting through the static television effect of snow swirling through the beam. Either way, I seemed to be riding better than I had been all day. Go figure.

I reached Borealis cabin, mile 79, at 11:15 p.m. Abby was just leaving and a couple of male skiers were discussing the benefits of classic skis in this year's trail conditions. As soon as I was drawn into the discussion it turned into a debate about which year was the most difficult for the White Mountains 100. "Definitely this year, no question," I said. The first skier disagreed, arguing that the minus 25 temperatures of 2010 made the trail much worse. "Maybe if you're a skier," I said. "But bikes can handle the cold. New snow slows us down." Everyone agreed that this year was probably the year for skiers, in the unofficial competition between the three disciplines. A skier was the first to arrive at Windy Gap cabin, and if the snowstorm that followed me down the pass had come five hours earlier, a skier might have won the race. But it's amazing what strong snow bikers can do, and the top three guys, all bikers, would finish in the twelve-hour range. The lead skier finished in thirteen hours flat.

I've never seen any of this section of the race because it's always dark when I travel through here. Now I'm wondering if maybe I should just try the White Mountains 100 on foot one of these years. Photo by Beat. 
I left Borealis with one of the skiers, Brian Jackson. He took off his skis to climb the steep hill out of Beaver Creek, but even though we were both walking I couldn't even strain to keep his pace. "Your fault for bringing that heavy bike," he had joked earlier when I complained about the push up the divide. I watched Brian's headlamp fade up the hill. As far as I could tell there weren't any other cyclists in my time zone, so I figured I'd be spending the rest of the race alone.

The sky began to clear before it even stopped snowing. Through the squall I could see the moon, and then stars, and then subtle streaks of white light — the Northern Lights. Finally the snow tapered off, and then the temperature dropped precipitously. It was ten degrees above when I left Borealis, but down on the slopes along Wickersham Creek it felt at least fifteen degrees colder, possible twenty. It was definitely below zero. Before I arrived at Borealis I decided my wet soft shell was no longer keeping me warm, and traded it for a fleece jacket, then tied the soft shell around my waist. This was plenty warm for the hard climb immediately after the cabin, but let in a harsh chill as soon as I started pedaling again. By the time I decided to use my soft shell over my fleece jacket just to block the wind, it had solidified into an ice sheet. I could barely bend the coat enough to wrap it around my torso. My clothing situation was not ideal.

Luckily, I had packed my expedition down coat in my seat post bag. It was two pounds of extra gear I likely wouldn't need, but I appreciated having an insurance policy on my bike. I was already on the cusp of feeling uncomfortably cold, and temperatures were dropping. Not having any more layers would have been unnerving. As it was, I could only stay warm if I crammed some sugar into my system. Every time I felt a chill, I would choke down a peanut butter cup or a piece of Twix bar. I really didn't feel like eating, to the point where the nausea caused by swallowing made me feel dizzy, but candy worked. The kindling sparked and I'd feel warm again, for a few minutes, until it burned out. I'd waver until my teeth began to chatter and choke down another peanut butter cup. I thought about putting on my down coat but I knew I had hard climbs ahead of me, and I didn't want to pour any moisture into my insurance policy if I didn't have to.

Photo by Beat. This is where I felt the coldest. Beat recorded temperatures of 15 below in the early morning. 
This section was punctuated by a few deep overflow sections. I picked a bad line over this crossing and punched my front wheel into water all the way to the hub, soaking half of the brake rotor. This instantly froze into an impenetrable ice film, and the front brake wouldn't work for the rest of the race.

The Wickersham Wall viewed from the distance. Photo by Beat.
But even beyond the deepening cold, I was more concerned about the unseen monster looming in front of me — the Wickersham Wall. The Wall is the direct route up to the top of the Wickersham Dome, gaining a thousand vertical feet in a little more than a mile. By itself it wouldn't be a big deal, but in the White Mountains 100 this obstacle comes at mile 93 of a 100-mile race. Even after cresting the wall, the trail continues a general climbing trend on rolling hills all the way to one mile before the finish. It's brutal, just brutal.

I needn't have worried so much about it, though. I had already pedaled in survival mode for the better part of fifty miles, and the Wall was simply the next step. Plus, I had eaten so much candy in my efforts to stay warm that I actually had a little energy to spare, and felt a boost while I plodded up the foot-stomped snow. When I reached the ridge I found I could pedal uphill, even where I saw the footprints of other cyclists. This energy and alertness boost carried all the way to top of the dome, as though I was finally coming around. But by then, it was too late — I was at the one-mile-from-the-finish sign. I coasted in with a subdued sort of elation, riding my squealing back brake and wondering if perhaps I wasn't broken, and perhaps I'd never been broken. These are the questions I always ask myself after a hard effort — how much of the challenge was physical, and how much was mental. I still believe most of this is mental, and as long as we maintain the basic physical needs (food, water, warmth), most anything we deem impossible is achievable. And so I wonder ... I wonder ...

Photo by White Mountains 100.
But I was tired. I was stupid tired. I arrived at the finish at 4:47 a.m. for a finishing time of 20 hours, 39 minutes (the race started at 8:08 a.m.) I knocked on the RV that was race headquarters and announced my arrival. The volunteer must have taken a photo that I don't remember her taking, and directed me toward the warming tent. "I'm not going to the warming tent," I replied. "I'm just going to go to my car and sleep for a while before driving back to Fairbanks."

"You can sleep in the tent," she said. "There are cots in there and a heater. It's nice."

I considered this and said, "But my sleeping bag is in my car" — as though this statement should have conveyed proper logic as to why I couldn't sleep in the warming tent. Alas. I rolled out my sleeping bag in the back of a borrowed Jeep and fell into a dreamless sleep.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fade to white

My lactic acid-saturated legs were stomping out another 31-minute-mile when I crumbled. Or, more specifically, my heart crumbled. Its once enthusiastic thumping had faded to a humming-bird buzz, and a seemingly erratic one at that. Even this 1.9 mph bike-pushing pace was driving me dangerously close to what felt like a maximum effort, and I began to wonder if my heart had the capability to quit before I did. Is this what happens when athletes blow up? I mean not just bonk, but completely implode? I had often wondered, but I can't say I've ever gone hard enough for long enough to really find out. I suspected the White Mountains were going to show me exactly what it was like to defeat myself, here in the depthless expanse of the Cache Mountain Divide, where vision fades to white and the wind drives breathtaking cold in late March. Not the best place to suddenly feel like my body was broken.

Ah, back at the White Mountains 100. My favorite race. As Beat put it, the WM100 is one of the best hundreds around — "flawless organization and hard and a ton of fun." He also called it "like the Iditarod without the drama." The White Mountains 100 traverses a scenic loop through a small mountain range north of Fairbanks. The race incorporates all of the best parts of winter endurance racing in Alaska — largely self-supported travel through the backcountry; camaraderie among a diverse group of cyclists, skiers, and runners; a spectacular range of scenery including white-washed mountain peaks, craggy cliffs, rolling hills, tall spruce trees, boreal forest and eerie burns; a chance to see the Northern Lights; unpredictable weather and trail conditions; exciting obstacles such as overflow; friendly organizers and quirky participants; Alaska-specific food (moose chili and hot Tang, anyone?); and challenging, fun mountain biking (that just happens to be on snow) — all in a "short" hundred miles. Beat and I both agree that the White Mountains 100 is worth the herculean effort just to get there — making it through the race lottery, preparation, packing and travel, all while ignoring a lack of recovery and specific training. Beat was three weeks off his grueling eight-day effort on 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail. My snow bike training amounted to a hundred-kilometer tour on Yukon's Dawson Trail, during which I regularly commented, "I'd forgotten just how hard snow biking is." Yes, the White Mountains 100 promised great things for both of us, and we were excited.

Since I've finished this race twice before, my goal was to "ride harder" this year. In 2011, I was feeling demotivated to endure much suffering after the Susitna 100, and took it pretty easy during most of the race. If it wasn't for a surprise bonk seven miles from the end, I would have coasted to my 17:55 finish. Finishing faster than that wasn't necessarily my goal this year; there are so many variables in snow biking that times are almost irrelevant from year to year. But I wanted to put in a good effort this year and see where it took me.
 
The day before the start, it snowed. A few inches of fine fluff coated the previously hardpacked trail, and before the first volunteers set out Sunday morning on snowmachines, nearly all of the course was still untracked. A single bike traveling in these conditions would only experience increased resistance while powering through the powder. But add a few dozen bikers, skiers, volunteers on snowmachines, and their accompanying erratic tracks, and you have a rutted, somewhat technical trail. For the most part these ruts are unpredictable. They grab front wheels and induce loss of control, wild swerving, and often crashing. "Snow angel" is the common term for bike-shaped holes just off the trail, and these became increasingly more frequent in the early miles of the race.

Skilled snow bikers can to some extent read the tracks and pick the most efficient line — or increase their power output and plow through them.  I expect the frontrunners were able to do this, and also didn't have as many deep ruts to contend with. By the time I pedaled through the mess, there was no hope of powering down a direct line, and yet any attempts to steer around the ruts often resulted in one of the tires washing out. This is the side of snow biking where fat tires become more of a liability, because the smoother tread has poor traction in slippery conditions. I'm already out of practice and tried to make up for my lack of skill by applying as much power as I could, basically trying to cut my own deep track through the sifted powder. This was a strenuous effort, and despite single-digit temperatures I was sweating so much that I had to take my hat off and unzip my softshell, exposing my single base layer to the frigid windchill just to cool down.

The first forty miles of trail traverse rolling foothills, a series of climbs and descents. I tried to take advantage of gravity any time the trail sloped downhill. In the process, I made several of my own snow angels — a humorous experience but also a lot of work to get out from underneath. There was also a lot of effort involved in wrestling the Fatback through ruts at higher speeds. It was like taking an angry bull by the horns and trying to stop it from bucking me into the snow. One guy commented that the downhills were more strenuous than the climbs, and I agreed.

During the long descent into Beaver Creek, I was shadowing another cyclist when he began to coast away from me. Just as I was searching for the courage to release the brakes, his bike bucked violently and tossed him into the air. I watched his rag-doll silhouette arc over the handlebars and lawn-dart into a snow bank. I slowed as I passed to ask if he was okay. He giggled but his laugh sounded a little like a whimper. "That was a good one." The deep snowpack is forgiving in most crashes, but I couldn't help but think about what would happen if I crashed like that in just the wrong spot or the wrong tree. I resolved to take the descents slow.


This was my ongoing obsession during the first forty miles — the condition of the trail. When it was bad I would ride hard just to maintain forward motion, and when it was better I would ride hard to catch up on my perceived loss of progress. Despite my claims otherwise, I did want to improve on my 2011 time, and I was quickly falling behind the pace. The sun emerged from the clouds for a brief few miles and the open hillsides felt as hot as a sandy desert. The air told a different story though, as I sucked it into my lungs. Cold air burns, and this effect is amplified like windchill when I'm breathing hard. My lungs already felt ragged and raw. I was working what I might call my 50K race pace, an effort I can maintain for five to eight hours although not comfortably. I pedaled along that uncomfortable edge for six hours just to reach checkpoint two, a cabin at mile 39 of the loop. My original plan was just to blast through the first two checkpoints and only collect water. But my higher-than-usual effort level made it difficult to take in any calories on the trail. I decided sit down for 15 minutes and eat a baked potato with cheese, then somehow "take it easy" and "recover" during the 2,000-foot, eleven mile climb to the Cache Mountain Divide.


Luckily the first miles of the climb were on good trail. The course entered the deeper woods where less new snow covered trail. A film crew on two snowmachines had been through recently, loosening the powder but at least evening out the ruts. I was able to zone out for a while and just climb, a favorite activity that helped reduce my stress level and brought my heart rate down. The heart of the White Mountains loomed in a distance that I was steadily drawing closer. I hoped to catch glimpse of the peaks shimmering in the sunlight. Instead, the clouds closed in around me, and it started to snow again.

By the time I climbed above the last stands of spruce, the snow squall had strengthened to a white-out and the trail had been completely wiped out by the previous day's storm. I could see the footprints and choppy ski tracks of racers who came through before, but only as faint tints of gray in the disorienting flat light. Even these subtle clues were disappearing fast under new snow. The powder on the trail was about eight inches deep. It was hard work, pushing my bike, and my GPS registered speeds in the range of 1.5 to 1.9 miles per hour. Again my heart was pounding, which made my head feel light and my stomach nauseated. Sometimes overexertion is necessary just to maintain forward progress.

I did spend some time wishing I had trained more mindfully — ran some intervals or something, just to increase my cardiovascular capabilities. I gulped down wind-whipped shards of snow and pulled my balaclava half over my mouth, trying to strike a balance between inevitable sweat from the hard effort, a lack of insulating layers because I was sweating, and the bitter cold. I didn't feel so good. I thought I could feel my heart racing toward overdrive, and this mental image was concerning enough that I stopped often to catch my breath even though doing so let in a frigid chill. Bracing myself against the wind and gasping for air was tough dose of reality for me — a realization that I was doing all I could, but my fitness just wasn't up to snuff. Could be overtraining, could be undertraining, could just be a bad day in the saddle. The reasons don't really matter in the midst of a blizzard fifty miles from nowhere. There was never any drama involved because I was part of the White Mountains 100 and help was always nearby. But when I was a small dot alone in the white intensity of the Cache Mountain Divide, I could let myself believe what I come to these frozen landscapes to believe — that forward progress isn't a choice, it's a necessity. It doesn't matter how bad I feel; my body can keep going indefinitely if it has to. As always, this is an empowering realization.

Still, maintaining requisite forward motion while feeling lousy doesn't exactly put me in a good mood, nor does it motivate me to move fast. I crested the broad pass and tried to remount my bike for the descent. I was determined to ride down the pass, which was a silly delusion when I could barely discern the trail from the deep snow from the mountains from the sky. Still, I continued trying to ride, crashing again and again over unseen ruts. During the heart-rate-pegging efforts to extract myself from snow drifts, frustration finally boiled over. I threw a little temper tantrum and resolved to not just stop trying to ride my bike down the pass, but to stop riding my bike in the race, period. This year's White Mountains 100 had been one hard effort after another and I was exhausted. I felt like I had just barely avoided a physical blow-out and I still had fifty miles in front of me with little evidence that riding my bike wouldn't continue to be just as strenuous as it had been in the first fifty. I missed the "easy" marching of competing in the Susitna 100 on foot (oh, how those rose-colored lenses of memory mask the truth.) "If the trail doesn't improve I'll just walk to the finish." And for weird reasons that are now only known to the irrational whims of fatigue, this plan made me feel so much better. I set off marching down the pass, happily prepared to push my bike for fifty miles.

... to be continued.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

We interrupt this spring ...

Riding over Cache Mountain Divide in 2011. Photo by J. Rose, White Mountains 100
... for more winter fun! And a story:

When I flew to Anchorage to run the Susitna 100, I spent my first night in Alaska with a good friend who I've known since college, Chris, and his wife Becky. I had spent most of the day Wednesday at various airports or on planes. I get airsick when I travel and never eat or drink much, so I was already depleted Thursday morning when I downed two cups of coffee while chatting with Becky. She mentioned she was going to go for an hour-long ski with her dog before work and asked if I wanted to join her. I didn't have ski equipment but I pictured classic skiing as something about walking speed (because when I do it, it is), so I agreed to accompany her on foot.

I threw on a coat over my cotton hoodie and put on extra socks, a warm hat, and gloves, because it was 20 degrees outside and I was still acclimated to balmy California. We hit a groomed multi-use trail near her house, and Becky immediately took off down the pre-set ski track. She was breezing along at six miles an hour, and I had to run to keep up with her. The snow was groomed but not hard-packed, meaning every footprint punched in a couple of inches. Maintaining ten-minute-miles in those snow conditions was a full, red-lined effort for me — like running a ten-minute mile up a steep incline. Becky chatted amicably while I gasped for cold air and occasionally grunted single-syllable replies. I was extremely overdressed for that intense of an effort, so I was showering myself in sweat.

We made it about two miles down the Tour of Anchorage trail when the edges of my vision began to go dark. As the tunnel closed in, I hit a wall of dizziness so thick that I actually stopped and knelt on the trail. In the degrees of bonking, this one was a nine out of ten — one of the worst I had ever experienced. Becky didn't notice right away so I stood up and called out to her, a likely pathetic whimper. "Becky, um, Becky?" She and her malamute, Moose, slowed and waited for me to stagger toward them. "I'm sorry, I really have to turn around," I explained. "I didn't eat much yesterday, then drank too much coffee with no breakfast, and I'm completely bonked. Sorry, I just can't keep up."

Becky's face revealed a mixture of confusion, pity, and horror. Here I was, in Anchorage specifically to run a hundred miles on the snow, in a race that was less than 48 hours away, and I was apparently incapable of running two miles at what she viewed as a mellow pace. "Um, okay," she said. "I'll catch you on the way back."

As I staggered back through the woods of Far North Bicentennial Park, I continued to feel worse. My glycogen-depleted body stopped producing heat, and my drenched cotton hoodie let in a stiff chill. My head was still spinning, my heart was thumping, my teeth were chattering, the muscles in my legs were achy with dehydration, and I admit I felt scared. Was I even going to make it back to the bridge over Tudor Road? It had been a long time since my body felt that broken down, and I certainly wasn't expecting it right then, during a morning stroll while tapering for the Susitna 100.

I'm sharing this story to illustrate my point that while training and experience count for a lot, circumstance can be everything. Even though Becky will probably now and forever question whether I'm really a couch potato who makes up everything I write on my blog, I didn't let that incident upset me. I knew my major bonk was just that — a bonk — and all I needed were some carbohydrates and water, and maybe a little more sleep, and I'd be all set to run a hundred miles across the Susitna Valley. But the fact that I could be taken down so swiftly by seemingly benign circumstances was enlightening. The lessons: Never assume anything will be easy. And don't assume that unexpected setbacks make something impossible.

Beat and I are leaving early Friday morning to travel to Fairbanks for the White Mountains 100, which begins Sunday morning at the Wickersham Dome Trailhead, about an hour north of Fairbanks. I am planning to ride the Fatback and Beat will tackle the course on foot. This race could be anything and I have to approach it with an open mind. All week, overnight lows in Fairbanks have been -15 to -30, and temperatures are typically at least ten degrees colder in the Whites — and the swing is wider on clear nights. Forecasts call for a warming trend over the weekend, but also new snow on Saturday. Even if a lot of fresh snow dumps on the trail overnight, I'm still planning to start this race with a bike. I feel like I'm physically prepared for a long push and admit there would be a certain masochistic fun in trying, but I'm still hoping for hardpacked trails and lots of fun, true mountain biking.

So there could be fresh snow, it could be twenty below or colder, there could be a lot of sloping ice and even wet overflow on the trail, there could be strong winds that will push my bike like a sail as I tiptoe across the Ice Lakes, or temperatures could warm dramatically and turn the whole trail to mashed potatoes. That's the thing about winter racing — and the part I like best: You must expect anything. I'm not sure what to expect from my body as it's been a while since I attempted or even trained for this many hours on a bike. But I have a deep base in cycling, an abnormally insensitive butt, and a lot of enthusiasm. My hope, if the trail is good, is that I find the wherewithal to ride hard. I want to put in a strong race. And while I do plan to avoid bonking at mile two, I accept this and all setbacks as possible.

The race begins Sunday at 8 a.m. Alaska time. Beat updated our tracking pages for the White Mountains 100, so you can follow our progress here:

Jill's tracking page.

Beat's tracking page.

These pages should also depict the speed of our progression. Mine will be a series of fat-bike riding and pushing, with hopefully more miles of riding: 
And Beat's page will be a series of run, trudge, rest (I wouldn't expect to see much resting from him. Possible some from me.)
There will also be updates at the White Mountains 100 site, as well as photos and other info about the race. I may post before the race begins but if I don't have a chance, I wanted to put the links up now. Wish us luck. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Woodside to the sea

You know what I love about road biking? How much distance and elevation it enables me to cover during relatively small efforts. Some days, I like a good challenge. Others, I simply want to cover miles, view new scenery, and taste different air. Today I had errands in Palo Alto, so I decided to head to Woodside and point my road bike west. I had three hours, so today's goal was "what can I see in three hours?"

I rode up and over Skyline Ridge and down Tunitas Creek Road, a thin ribbon of pavement wending through the redwoods. The weather was almost unrealistically perfect. I was wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt and a pair of tights, and I was comfortable during both the climb and the descent — never hot nor cold. After seven miles of mostly coasting on a smooth surface amid a temperature equilibrium, I began to have a strange sensation that I wasn't even there — that I was somehow distant from this place, sitting on a stationary bicycle and watching tree trunks stream by on a movie screen.

That is, until I neared Highway 1. I could smell the honey sweetness of mustard fields in bloom, and taste pungent sea salt wafting on a light breeze. The sun emerged from a thin veil of clouds and cast the hillsides in rich light. I rode along the highway until my watch read 1:22, and then turned to find an overlook on the cliffs above the Pacific.

I found a place hidden in plain sight by a rusty old gate and a rough gravel entry. I sat and ate an Odwalla Bar, slowly so I could better taste the infusion of salt and savory ocean air. Waves crashed into the shoreline a hundred feet below the cliffs, distant enough to sound like purring. I watched a solo walker stroll barefoot across the sand. The baby blue Pacific yawned over the horizon, fading imperceptibly into the similarly blue sky. It was a peaceful place, and it made me feel happy, enough so that I could have laid there all day. It seemed strange that I ran a quick errand, rode my bike for ninety minutes, and somehow ended up here. So close and yet a world away.

Still, I only had three hours and a long way to climb, so I set back out toward the mountains. Up and up and up toward the crest of Skyline, then back to Woodside. It didn't seem like all that much work, which is why it was pleasantly surprising to upload my ride stats find out I rode 35 miles with 5,500 feet of climbing. That kind of distance and elevation would take me the better part of a day to cover on foot, but the road bike makes it too easy. It almost feels like cheating — if it wasn't so wonderful. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring fever

Leah and I coasted down Steven's Creek Canyon in a splatter of mud and explosion of green. Green everywhere — wrapped around tree trunks, saturating the canopy and littering the trail. Interesting weather pounded Monte Bello Ridge during my training rides and runs all week — gale-force winds, soupy fog, heavy rain, and even sleet. And somewhere in there, while I was squinting against the sharp moisture and rewarming my numb fingers in a drenched set of mittens, spring came, and suddenly the winter-muted landscape turned green.

The last remnants of what passes for winter around here are still holding on at the higher elevations. After the sun came out during our lunchtime run, Beat and I could see a film of snow on the peaks across the Bay. But spring fever hit me hard this week. I've been scheduling May visits from friends,  and scheming strategies for the Stagecoach 400, including a potential training weekend in April. I'm mulling a summer full of mountain binges that I've deemed necessary to train for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. And I'm wondering if I can squeeze a mountain bike tour between it all, sometime during the summer. Besides UTMB in late August, most of my summer calendar is still a blank. I feel driven to keep it that way as long as possible so I can continue to dream and scheme, anticipating that adventure is inevitable. Times are good. Spring is here. Winter is done.

But wait ... it's not. Three weeks in Alaska followed by a return to a greened-up California set off the seasonal transitions in my brain, but the reality remains that Beat and I are still headed back to Fairbanks this week for the White Mountains 100. There's going to be lots of snow and it could be 20 below. Which is awesome, really — but right now, hard to comprehend. Today I found myself sorting through potential gear for the scorching-desert Stagecoach ride and contemplating a trip to the sauna to begin my heat training. I was just about to start boxing up my winter gear when the rational side of my brain finally prodded me: "You need those tights! You need that puffy! White Mountains! Twenty below! Twenty belooooow." Yikes.

In other news, I've taken up running again after a nearly month-long hiatus following the Sustina 100. Beat seemed to recover from the Iditarod in no time. He endured one week of a low-level cold and revved-up appetite, and then he was back on his feet, cramming in a few tune-up runs for the White Mountains. Yes, Beat is actually planning to run a hundred more miles on snow this weekend. If I understood it, I'd try to justify it, but I don't. But he looked fairly strong out there today, given he looked like this just two weeks ago:

(In this photo, Beat is thinking "Fairbanks will feel like a sauna after what I've been through." By the way, he has started posting his ITI race report with an awesome play-by-play map on his blog.  Also fun from the Web this week was a cartoon by EJ Murphy on iRunFar depicting my own Iditarod superfandom.

During my own training runs, my legs have felt slow but strong, like I could climb up a wall. I think this is a good indicator that I'm actually in decent snow biking shape despite a deficit of actual conditioning. I'm going to keep telling myself that, because I'm actually pretty nervous about the effort I'm facing on Sunday-Monday. But I'm determined to pedal hard, with the promise of spring to drive me forward.


Friday, March 16, 2012

The action kilt

When browsing through photos from the Iditarod Trail Invitational, my friend stopped at a snapshot of Beat and Anne at the finish in McGrath. "What's he wearing? Is that a skirt?"

"It's not a skirt!" I said with mock offense. "It's an action kilt!"

It's totally a skirt. This ingenious piece of gear insulates body parts that don't make their own heat while preventing sweat from the ones that do. Insulated skirts took off in the women's outdoor gear market a few years ago after women discovered they were the ideal way to keep their tushes toasty while avoiding the thigh chaffing and sweating that often accompany insulated pants. Plus, you can just wrap these skirts around your waist whenever a chill hits, no shoe removal required. In addition, they're pretty cute — especially the models offered by Skhoop.

I acquired a Sierra Designs Gnar down skirt a few months ago, then wore it on our New Years trekking trip in Alaska. When I raved about its abilities to ward off "cold butt syndrome," Beat noticed other potential benefits. Beat, like many guys, often has trouble keeping his man parts warm in cold temperatures. He has tried many things, from windproof tights to sewing a piece of neoprene to the front of his briefs, and still cold air manages to find its way in. Our friend Anne let him borrow one of her skirts during a day hike, and Beat was sold. He decided he needed one for the ITI.

Beat sewed his own skirt from scratch. Weirdly, insulated skirts are only sold in women's sizes, and tend to be tight in areas that Beat didn't want it to be tight, and not as protective of the areas he wanted to protect. He designed a skirt that was high in the back, loose in the front (he doesn't like having his torso constricted), with waterproof zippers for movement and venting, strategically placed on the sides to keep the front secure. He used a Gortex-like waterproof material for the shell with Primaloft insulation. Beat has become quite the seamstress with his $79 sewing machine, and the skirt — ahem, action kilt – came out really well. Not only did it survive 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail, but it survived with style.

I think there could be a commercial market for men's action kilts if men could only get over their hangups about the whole skirt thing. I guess it's just a matter of what's more important to men — asserting their masculinity, or protecting it. But I can already imagine the ad campaign: "Action Kilt — Warm enough for a woman, but made for a man."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cramming for White Mountains

After we returned to California on Friday, I decided it was time to launch some focused training for the White Mountains 100. Problem is, the race is in two weeks, and I am back in a land without snow. My snow bike weekend with the girls and two three-hour rides in Anchorage were a good jump-start to my all-too-short fat bike season. These rides were also a reminder from my body that running muscles and snow-biking muscles are not exactly the same muscles, and the latter felt pretty flimsy and out of shape. There isn't much I can do about that in two weeks, but I figured it couldn't hurt to load up my Fatback with winter gear and ride up some hills. Long, slow climbs are probably the closest simulation to the resistance of snow that I can find near my home. Climbing on dirt or pavement more closely resembles riding flat snow trails, whereas the White Mountains are full of trails that go up, well, mountains. But every little bit helps ...

I am trying mightily to resist the urge to overpack my bike this year. The White Mountains 100 organizers allow racers to choose their own gear — which for a packrat like me can be even worse than being forced to carry required gear. I care less about how fast I ride, and more about being ready if I step into overflow. I think I've figured out a good compromise: Big down coat, bivy sack and small pad to sit on if I am injured and unable to walk; waders and microspikes for overflow; goggles; spare balaclavas and gloves; trash bags; extra mid layer; insulated pants (maybe); extra socks. Also bike pump and repair stuff, headlamps and batteries, medicine/foot kit, and food. I'm basically thinking about the stuff I actually used in the Susitna 100 and stuffing it into a couple of small bags on my bike. It is still far from "fast and light." This thing is a beast. On Saturday I took it trail riding. It was a blast to ride dirt again after several weeks on ice and snow. I felt fast and awkward at the same time. Twenty-seven miles and 4,500 feet of climbing in 3:27.

I wanted to put in a day-long ride on Sunday to "work out some kinks." But between the late-rising effects of Daylight Savings Time and a planned celebratory dinner for Beat with friends, I only had time for a moderate ride. Fatty and I climbed over the Monte Bello ridge and dropped into a state park currently on the chopping block in California's budget cuts, Portola Redwoods. I can't really blame the state for carving this one out of their budget, as there was almost nobody down there on a pleasant spring afternoon. I wouldn't mind if they put up a gate and took down all of those "no bikes" signs on all of the trails. Right now bikes are limited to the narrow gravel and paved roads, but it's still a peaceful way to while away a few hours on a Sunday. I love wending around the big trees and listening to birds chirp from far-above heights in this seemingly forgotten forest. Forty-six miles and 6,500 feet of climbing in 5:02. Three fewer hours than I hoped, but it was still my longest ride since the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow last November.

Monday and Tuesday brought "short" rides up Monte Bello Road. It rained on Tuesday and I used that as an excuse to test my pogies and waterproof handlebar bag. If you're wondering whether pogies actually help when it's 50 degrees, windy and raining — they do, especially on long descents. My fingers are nearly always frozen at the bottom of Monte Bello Road no matter what gloves I'm wearing, but with the pogies they were toasty. And it's easy enough to bunch them away from my hands on the climbs. I would probably use them more often in California if they didn't earn me so many strange looks and probing questions from strangers. I already have to budget about ten extra minutes into each ride for people who stop me to say, "Man, those are some big tires. What are those for?" On Monday I talked to a woman who flat-out refused to believe I had pedaled my bike all the way up Black Mountain. She seemed to interpret the Fatback as a downhill bike and thought I had taken a truck shuttle up to the gate (sure, lady, I always shuttle gravel and paved road descents.) "You can't really climb with that bike, can you?" she asked at least twice. Well, actually, yes. That's exactly what I'd been doing all weekend.

Monday: Twenty miles and 3,100 feet of climbing in 2:10.
Tuesday: Seventeen miles and 2,600 feet of climbing in 1:45.

For a four-day total of 111 miles and 16,700 feet of climbing in 12.5 hours of loaded fat-biking.

On Monday and Tuesday I strapped on the heart rate monitor to see if I was working as hard as I felt like I was working on these climbs. Today's graph was especially erratic and confirmed that I'm entering that overtraining zone. Time for a rest day and maybe a trail run, as I actually haven't been out for a proper run since before the Susitna 100. I'll probably fit in a few more loaded rides this weekend before packing up Fatty for the trip to Fairbanks.

But it was fun while it lasted. I heart bike binges. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thoughts on Beat's ITI

The morning after a 45-below night in the Farewell Burn. Photos by Beat Jegerlehner
It's true that we can only view others' experiences through the lens of our own, and for that reason, few can grasp what an event such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational is really like. Bits and pieces reach us when we remember times when we were cold, or exhausted, or fighting mind-numbing tedium, or frightened for our lives. We feel empathy, and believe we understand, but we don't. Not really. This is why I shy away from telling others' stories, but I wanted to express a few thoughts about Beat's Iditarod experience from an outsider's perspective. In time I'm sure he'll write about his experiences out there, what really happened, even if few can understand.

2012 was the year of weather for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Walkers and cyclists who pushed through to the finish saw raging blizzards and high winds obliterate the trail several times over, soft and sugary snow, rock-hard wind drifts, overflow, and a temperature swing of 90 degrees, from 40 above to 50 below zero. Only 18 of the 47 starters would reach McGrath, and none would go on to Nome — a first in the 10-year history of the ITI. It was a tough year to run the race, let alone as a rookie, and one that undoubtedly favored stubbornness and perseverance over any kind of speed.

Sean Grady, a cyclist who rode as far as Shell Lake in this year's ITI, laid out the race weather report well:

Day 1 - Blizzard dumps three feet of snow around the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna.
Day 2 - High winds.
Day 3 - More winds followed by another snow event.
Day 4 - Snow falling.
Day 5 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 6 - Negative 45 degree temps.
Day 7 and 8 - Eight inches to one foot of new snow fell on the final section of the course.

Just a few hours after the race began at 2 p.m. Sunday, a blizzard buried the course in more than 30 inches of snow. Where snow had drifted in on Flathorn Lake, some of the frontrunners found it impossible to make forward progress of any sort. Runners actually encountered the first cyclist moving backward on the trail, claiming that was the only direction he could physically go. Only by cooperative effort did the group manage to plow through Flathorn Lake and the Dismal Swamp, covering something in the range of six miles in seven or eight hours. A handful of cyclists turned around and scratched, not even making it to the first checkpoint.

When Beat called me early Monday afternoon to tell me he was still slogging along the Susitna River, I knew things were bad. This meant he had traveled less than 35 miles in 24 hours. The same distance on virtually the same course had taken me ten hours to knock out on foot, just one week earlier. And step for step, Beat was working considerably harder than I ever did during the Susitna 100. In all likelihood, his exertion level and energy burn for those 35 miles were on par with my entire Susitna 100 effort combined. Not only that, but I could only imagine how demoralized he must have felt, to be so exhausted before even leaving the old-hat Su100 course.

I didn't expect him to scratch at Yentna Station, but I admit part of me hoped he would. I love the guy; I hate to think about him out there suffering, even though I acknowledge these activities are optional and that another part of me (a part I still don't understand) wished I was out there experiencing the same epic struggle. He reached Yentna at 10 p.m. Monday and took a short rest there before striking out toward Skwentna early Tuesday morning. That afternoon, my friend Dan and I did our fly-over and saw Beat, other walkers, and the still-bike-pushing cyclists making their way along a single soft trail on the Yentna River. He reached Skwentna at 6 p.m. that evening and left around midnight. By then, it was just about 60 hours into the race. Contrast this to my 2008 Iditarod, when I hit Skwentna in 12 hours (with a bike) — or even our December 2011 sled-trekking vacation, where we leisurely walked for eight to nine hours each day, rested, ate and slept for the rest, and still made it to Skwentna within 48 hours of starting (about 15 miles shorter, but still.) I offer these as examples because Beat was still in familiar territory, moving slower than he ever imagined, and one of the challenges of this race was accepting that.

But even in a year of frustrating extremes, Beat did experience moments of bliss. This is a photo of Rainy Pass, which he crossed right at sunrise on Friday. This is another place that only experience can really reflect. It's so pristine and remote that just being there is ethereal. But experiencing Rainy Pass solo and under the influence of heavy physical effort is sublime. I still carry my favorite memories of my 2008 Iditarod experience through the frame of Rainy Pass. I slumped over these mountains at sunset and completely bonked beyond recovery, but even then I understood that I had crossed a threshold into a new perspective, and my life would not be the same.

But the blissful moments wouldn't last. Shortly after leaving Rohn, Beat would encounter the deep-space cold of the Farewell Burn. This section of trail crosses 90 miles of absolutely nothing. It's hard to truly fathom until you see it, but there is really nothing out there. Covering this distance on foot takes two full days of self-sufficiency.  You might happen to see a person on a snowmobile out there if you get into trouble, but in all likelihood, you won't. When I crossed the Burn over two days in 2008, I saw exactly three people, and they were all other cyclists. During the time Beat was out there, other racers recorded temperatures of minus 40 to minus 45, and it's likely that some cold sinks saw temperatures in the negative 50s. When it's this cold, a body enters survival mode. Nothing else matters. Beat later described the last half of this race as a something of a tug-of-war between mind-numbing tedium and terror. There was little in between. 

Beat traveled the last 50 miles with a friend, Anne Ver Hoef, who finished first in the women's overall race. They reached McGrath at 4:20 p.m. Monday for a finishing time of 8 days, 2 hours, and 20 minutes. I found this amusing as this was the exact time of day, down to the minute, that I finished in 2008 — 6 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and I had much easier trail conditions (and a bike!) Even though I feel like I have some frame of reference from my own experiences, it is still impossible for me to fathom what Beat and others really went through out there this year. It's also impossible to explain why Beat wants to go back out and do it all again next year, if the opportunity arises. He's a crazy man, and I'm proud of him.

I'm also happy for Geoff, who finished first in the foot race in his third try on the course. His race report is published on iRunfar. I think Geoff's report does a good job of portraying just how far the Iditarod goes beyond the typical conception of an ultra-endurance race. The ITI is a full expedition, with the added layer of racing against a clock and others, and it's as exciting as a race can be at 2 mph.  What Geoff managed to do out there is, in my opinion, a more exceptional performance than his 2010 Western States win. The ITI was a full week of high-level exertion and mental stamina without the benefit of support, or the satisfaction of moving fast. But of course most people prefer fast, because most people can relate to fast. Because of this, most ultrarunning fans will soon forget about Geoff's 2012 ITI and remember him for Western States. My (admittedly unique) opinion is that most people just don't understand.

But Beat finished the ITI without even the benefit of sponsors, and he finished as the top rookie runner in the race (as well as tied for third runner and tied for seventh overall.) He's awesome — at least that much I understand. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Return to Juneau

Amid the whirlwind of activity during my three weeks in Alaska, I never had a chance to post about my short trip to Juneau. Thanks to an Alaska Air mileage ticket and a few extra days between the Susitna 100 and Beat's arrival in Anchorage, I had an opportunity to return to Southeast Alaska for the first time since I moved away in April 2010. I was excited to see old friends, eat a Silverbow bagel and drink some Heritage coffee, and walk across the Douglas Bridge while gazing lovingly at the Gastineau Channel. But more than anything, I wanted to visit some mountains.

Of all of the places I've lived, Juneau still holds the deepest level of affection in my heart. In many ways, Juneau feels more like home than Salt Lake City. In spite of myself I often bring up Juneau in casual conversation, enough so that most of my new friends have at some point asked me why I ever left. I tell them I had to leave because my life there just wasn't working. I felt I had given my best effort to make it work, but it came to a point where I needed drastic change, the kind that just can't happen in an isolated community of 30,000 wedged on a narrow strip of land between ice-capped mountains and the sea. Leaving Juneau was one of the most difficult decisions I've made, and also one of the best. I don't regret that I left, but I miss it, sometimes achingly, all the same.

At the height of my unhappiness there, I was still struggling to cope with the breakup of a long-term relationship, working 50- and 60-hour weeks just to barely hold together my section of the local newspaper, living in a small room of a house owned by a fussy landlady, cycling through the awkward realities of dating again, hanging out with my ex too often to be healthy, avoiding some of our mutual friends because of awkwardness caused by the breakup, feeling under the weather all the time, losing interest in cycling and generally showing early signs of a potential onset of depression. It was a rough time in my life, and there were a few months in there where my only source of happiness was the mountains. I've mostly let memories of those bad months fade behind everything I loved about Juneau, but I still hold on to images of those snow-bound peaks. I couldn't wait to visit them again. There was only one little kink in my plan: The Susitna 100.

For your viewing pleasure, I'm re-posting the picture of what my feet looked like for several days after I finished the race. I had a rather impressive case of edema that was concentrated in my feet and lower legs. My hands and face didn't swell at all, but my feet looked and felt like they were about to burst. I also had painful skin issues, having essentially boiled my feet in their own sweat for the better part of 35 hours (thus the blisters, but those aren't what hurt. My soles felt like a combination of sunburn, electric shock and severe athlete's foot.) It was Tuesday afternoon before I could even fit my feet in my oversized winter running shoes again. That evening, I got on a plane to Juneau.

I was still limping when I arrived at the house of my good friends Libby Bakalar and Geoff Kirsch. Libby and Geoff were a great support system when I was going through my rough patch, and it was fantastic to see them again and meet their year-old son. On Wednesday morning, I woke up to 35 degrees and full-on snain ("snain" is the term Juneauites use for precipitation that includes both slushy flakes of snow and stinging daggers of rain. It's rain and snow at the same time, and although it happens all the time in Juneau, I've never witnessed this exact phenomenon anywhere else.) I was already grumpy about how much my feet ached, and I used snain as an excuse to sit around all morning, snarf three Silverbow bagels, and pout.

At about 2 p.m. I finally had to acknowledge that I was either going to completely squander my trip to Juneau, or I wasn't. I stuffed my swollen feet into some shoes, put on my snain-resistant Gortex coat, and hobbled out Libby and Geoff's front door. The closest trail to their house is the Dan Moller Trail, and since I had no transportation besides my hurty feet, I moved slowly in that direction. Eventually the excruciating hot-coal feeling numbed and I once I strapped the snowshoes on for softer snow, my feet felt almost normal. The climb was hard. I wasn't recovered from the Susitna 100 by any stretch of the imagination, and my heart felt like it was racing even as my legs struggled to lift out of the soft powder. But I pushed through it, all the way to the ridge, because I wasn't going to lose this chance to visit "my" mountains.

At the ridge, the stiff wind and sweeping views hit me simultaneously, and I experienced the sensation of freezing and melting in the same breath. The scene was heart-achingly beautiful, in a way this photo doesn't begin to show. Or perhaps it was so beautiful to me because of the memories that are now deeply infused in this place: Looking out over Admiralty Island for the first time, gimpy snowshoe hikes while recovering from a knee injury, all the incredible snow bike rides while training for the Iditarod, my last afternoon of blissful ignorance just a few hours before Geoff broke up with me, all those damp late-summer hikes with Geoff while we tried to work through it. The Douglas Island Ridge has seen me exhausted and frozen, excited and strong, blissful and content, angst-ridden and weak. I do look to these places now like I look to old friends, for understanding and remembrance. This visit did not disappoint.

On Thursday morning, I headed downtown to have lunch with my friend Abby at Rainbow Foods. Because of procrastination I had to run the entire way in order to not be late — a little less than three miles in 24 minutes. I was running hard with a big hiking pack and snowshoes in my hands, and I won't lie, it hurt. My feet were on fire and my legs were screaming too, but in a weird way it felt good to run for the first (and still only) time since the Susitna 100. Abby and her daughter Marin were ten minutes late anyway, but it worked out for the best because we also bumped into my friend Dan. Dan and Abby are the two who are directly responsible for my first steps into the running community. Abby was the one who rallied me to join her on training runs when I first expressed interest in running following my cycling burn-out after the 2009 Tour Divide, and Dan was the one who finally convinced me that trail running is just like hiking, only faster.

During this time, Abby invited me to join her at what would become my first trail race, the Mount Roberts Tram Run. We started out jogging together near the back of the pack when she said, "Is it all right if I run ahead?" At the time I only understood that she was somewhat faster than me, so I replied, "Of course, go win the race!" I was joking about the winning part, but then she went on to scorch the 4-mile, 1,800-feet-of-climbing course and win the overall race, beating all of the guys. Turns out she's a lot faster than me, but she made an effort to include me in some of her training runs all the same. Abby is awesome, and I'm lucky to have had such a great running ambassador during my novice year.

Fittingly, my afternoon plan involved hiking up Mount Roberts. Dan took a half day off work just to join me, and in true Juneau fashion, did so by calling his boss and saying, "I'm not coming back from lunch. I'm going hiking." And his boss, because the clouds were breaking up and actual sunlight was hitting the downtown streets, said, "Of course. Have fun."

It was another gorgeous afternoon in Juneau. The sucker holes didn't stick and thick clouds settled back in, but temperatures were mild, the wind was surprisingly light (for Mount Roberts) and it was fun to catch up with Dan. He's looking to enter his first 100-mile trail race this summer, and we spent time discussing the possibilities. It's humorous that I've completed a 100-mile foot race before Dan, given how reluctant I claimed to be about the whole running thing back in 2009. He opened up questions about my latest Susitna 100 experience with, "Last time I saw you, you didn't even like running and now you've gone crazy with it." Yes. Yes I have.

I also worked in a dinner with my friend Brian at El Sombrero. By early Friday morning, it was already time to leave. It's an interesting experience to revisit a place I left because my life wasn't working, and discover how many pieces fell into place, exactly where they needed to be. I will be back again, Juneau, hopefully sooner than later.