Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bike stoke returns

Ripping down the Braille Trail. Photo by Leah. 
When I went to prep my Moots for a short ride on Tuesday, I discovered both tubeless tires were nearly flat. "That's strange," I thought, until I considered it some more. After finishing the Stagecoach 400 on April 30, I had that period of post-race malaise that I described as recovery fatigue, but was really more like mild shell-shock. Then there was the week of road biking with Keith, the motorcycle collision that further sliced into my bike passion, and a much-needed retreat into running. As it stood on May 29, I had ridden my beloved Moots nearly 1,000 miles in the month of April — and zero in May.

Leah set out to help me change that sad statistic by suggesting a Wednesday ride at Soquel Demonstration Forest, an out-of-the-way but nonetheless popular mountain biking spot for its "deliciously technical singletrack" and "black-diamond" trails adorned with teeter-totters, log bridges, and jumps that will launch the braver freeriders into outer space. Honestly, if I had done any research on the area before we headed out there, I probably would have tried to talk Leah into riding somewhere else. But she had ridden there before about three years ago, and assured me from what she remembered, it was fun.

The day was warm and sunny, and both of us were coated in globes of sweat as we climbed an exposed fire road toward Santa Rosalia Mountain. I felt apprehensive about the technical portions ahead, until we launched into the singletrack. Tunnel vision closed around my dread, and I felt renewed excitement emerge from the ashes of burnout. A pleasant breeze wicked the sweat from my skin as all focus narrowed to the trail — a ribbon of hard-packed dirt threaded through a thick canopy of young redwoods. The singletrack was steep but flowing; turns clicked naturally into place, and the A Line features were entirely avoidable. We had so much fun that we opted to climb 1,500 more feet just to ride another piece of tasty singletrack, the Braille Trail, which was even steeper and yet more fun. By the end of our three-and-a-half-hour ride I was buzzing with bike stoke, and I can't wait for the next time I can get my Moots back on some dirt.

Of course, I have some running to do first. Beat and I signed up for the Mount Diablo race this weekend. He's running the 60K and I opted for "only" the trail marathon, which has "only" 8,000 feet of climbing. I plan to "run" this one exceptionally slowly and use it mainly as heat acclimation and a final shake-out for the Laurel Highlands Ultra, which is the following weekend. Ask me what I'm expecting out of that race and I'll admit that I try not to think about it too much. I'll leave it at that until I have no choice but to panic, which will probably come around 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (midnight Pacific Time) next Friday. After that I'll probably be seriously burned out on running, after which I can return to regularly scheduled summer plans of hiking and bikepacking. Ha!

On the way home from Demo Forest, Leah's car started making a loud humming noise, and we confirmed the front tire was flat. It had been more than ten years since either of us had changed a wheel on a car, and our efforts to work through all the steps based on vague memories — unloading the entire trunk rack and trunk for tools, jumping up and down on the tire wrench, wrestling with the jack crank — were rather humorous. And took a ridiculously long time. We had the car jacked up and all the bolts removed — so we nearly had it — when a man drove by and asked us if we needed help. Our response was likely less than confidence inspiring, so after he drove away he returned five minutes later to help us finish the task because "you don't want to be out here after dark." As we drove home, we debated the "damsel in distress" phenomenon — whether he would have stopped if we were two men instead of two women, whether we were annoyed that our self-sufficient efforts were thwarted so we can't bask in that satisfaction that we fixed our own flat (and yes, I realize how elementary school easy it is), or whether we were glad the man was nice enough to stop and help two strangers stalled on the side of the road. I tend to agree with the latter conclusion. It's nice that there are still helpful people in the world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

See, California isn't so bad

Back when I lived in Juneau, I tried to coax my friends into visiting me by promising that I could prove why Juneau really "isn't so bad." "Don't worry about the possibility of mind-numbing rain; we can still go ride bikes on the beach and that's actually a lot of fun." Strangely, I never had any Outside visitors besides my parents in the five years I lived in Southeast Alaska. Since I moved to the Bay area, I've had several out-of-state friends express interest in visiting. I guess California is just a more visitor friendly location, and it's fun to have a chance to show off my new backyard, which I also believe "isn't so bad." This past weekend, my friend Danni from Kalispell, Montana, flew down for a Memorial Day vacation.

Another incentive I usually add when trying to coax friends to visit me is the promise that "we don't have to torture ourselves" — since apparently most of my friends assume my notion of "fun" is synonymous with grueling all-day slog fests. I try to reiterate that I do the slog fests on my own time, and prefer to have actual fun when other people are involved. I'm not sure Danni was banking on a 52-mile weekend when she flew out here, and honestly I wasn't either. But Danni and I are both too alike in many ways, and the miles stacked up all the same. On Friday we did ten miles on my current favorite running trail, preferred for its UTMB training-appropriate properties of being both steep and downhill runnable. After we descended out of the fog on top of Black Mountain, I pointed out all the local landmarks — "That cluster of buildings is downtown San Jose. There's the NASA complex. Google is just to the left along the shoreline." I also added fascinating bits of trivia that I learned from reading trail maps — "Mountain View is named after this mountain, because the town's settlers could, you know, see it from their settlement."

On Saturday we decided to fight the holiday crowds through Marin County to visit Point Reyes National Seashore. We picked up my friend Leah, who has about the same opinion of running that Danni seems to have about cycling — "It should be fun, in theory, but it's kinda not." Plus Leah was recovering from a cold, so I promised "hiking, only hiking." See? I can be a great activity negotiator.  We still ended up on a 14-mile walk, moving at a brisk clip. Walking long distances quickly is often more tiring than running long distances slowly, even at comparable speeds. But it did give us plenty of time to discuss possibilities for future bike adventures.

The scenery in Point Reyes was stunning, with a brisk sea breeze skimming the grassy hillsides.


Beat ran a few extra miles during the hike, and I joined him for a spur down to the shoreline. We found a hidden cove that seemed like an idyllic spot to run along the beach and maybe set up camp for a long stay. I mused on this fantasy until Beat pointed out that the high tide line ended right at the bluffs, which were too steep and loose to climb in most spots that we could see. Just like most great places in nature, Point Reyes is peaceful and enticing right up to the point that it threatens to kill you.

On Sunday morning we set out to run the Skyline to the Sea Trail, a popular backpacking route that descends from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Coast through the thick forests of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. We set up a shuttle with our friends so we could complete it as a point-to-point run, 28 miles total.

We got a fairly early start in order to coordinate scheduling with our friends, and it was 45 degrees and foggy at the top of Skyline. The fog was thick enough that it "rained" on us for the first five miles, but it made for a wonderfully spooky run through the woods. Every Halloween, Danni and her husband Ted throw costume parties, and Danni dresses as some version of an Ewok. Beat and I attended the "sexy Ewok" party in 2010, so the mossy forest setting invariably prompted many Ewok jokes.

We all became increasingly more giddy as we loped through the Sexy Ewok Forest. "Oh, the wonders of combining endorphins and beautiful nature," Beat said. "And sugar," I added as I munched on a piece of Danni's Pop Tart. "Don't forget sugar."

Danni posed with some of the larger redwoods we passed, many with trunks hollowed out by wildfire.

We met up with Steve and Harry near Big Basin Headquarters and continued along a high ridge toward the coast. The pace picked up after we connected with the boys, and Danni and I had a tougher time keeping up. About two miles from our lunch stop, Danni mentioned she was having difficulty breathing. Seconds later she emitted several loud gasping noises and then went silent. I could tell she was trying to speak, but couldn't. I thought she was having an asthma attack and panicked a little, and tried to suggest that we turn around immediately and return to Big Basin to call for help. After she caught her breath again, she insisted it wasn't an asthma attack. We couldn't figure out what caused her airway to constrict so badly for several long seconds. She was fine for the rest of the run, but it was still scary. I thought another friend's visit was going to end at the hospital.

But we did make it all the way from Skyline to the Sea, wrapping up a mostly relaxing run. We spent Monday in San Francisco, moving only enough to make our way from a little bistro where we ate lunch, to a shoreline bar for midday appetizers, followed by a short jaunt through Golden Gate Park. I also had a chance to meet up with my aunt for dinner at a tasty Italian restaurant in North Beach. It was a fun day of marathon eating to make up for our weekend of marathon trail running/hiking.

It's hard to believe that it was just two years ago when I showed up on Danni's doorstep with the introduction, "Hey, I'm Keith's friend Jill," and the plan to hike more than 35 miles through Glacier National Park with a woman I'd never met. Two years later and a thousand miles apart, we're still sharing long marches and the occasional uncontrolled giggle outburst. Thanks for visiting me in Cali, Danni. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

The road ahead

On Monday, I saw my doctor for an annual physical. I was convinced my blood tests were going to show something — low blood glucose levels, iron deficiency, something. Nope. Normal. The doctor asked questions about sleep, weight loss, and stress, which have also worked their way back to normal. Then my doctor had the nerve to suggest that the symptoms I described — general sluggishness, sudden bouts of fatigue in the middle of the day, and lower energy levels — probably had something to do with "the endurance exercise."

Bah.

But as much as I can understand what's going on with my own body, I really do feel like I'm starting to emerge after several weeks under water, and the Ohlone 50K was my first hit of fresh air in what feels like a while. I suspect that my "fun" spring of biking was a lot more difficult for me than I was willing to admit, and the "short" bikepacking race — the Stagecoach 400 — required me to dig a lot deeper into my reserves, and therefore required more recovery, than I wanted to believe. For example, on day two of the Stagecoach 400, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. in Fish Creek Wash and spent the next fifteen hours making my way to Alpine, which was 70 miles away. I had one hour-long breakfast break in there, but for the remaining fourteen hours I was struggling at the crumbling edge of a sustainable pace, in temperatures that topped 90 degrees, for an average moving speed that essentially matched my Ohlone 50K pace. That was just one day of the 400-mile race, and not even a full day, because I continued beyond Alpine for three more hours in the late evening.

The Ohlone 50K, by comparison, was a lot smoother. I'm actually thrilled about how well that race went for me. After feeling like lukewarm road kill for most of the morning, I crossed the threshold of more reasonable daytime hours (for me, the hours after 9 a.m.) and didn't experience much of a struggle for the rest of the day. I was near the end of the line during the climb to Mission Peak, and slowly moved up in the pack during the race. I ended up finishing 71st of 230 starters, and 14th of 67 women ... which, I think it's fair to say, is solidly top third. And although my failure to train for running meant I wouldn't have been able to run it much faster, I do feel I could have run a fair amount farther. If someone told me I could win $1,000 if I turned around and ran the whole course backward for a full 100K, I might have been willing to give it a try. Yeah, I know, it's easy to say that now. But I felt good at the finish of the Ohlone 50K, and recovery runs since haven't even shown the same levels of sluggishness that I was feeling before the Stagecoach 400.

I'm still slow. BUT, I feel like my long-distance endurance is actually pretty good right now. Which, give my aspirations for a potential 46-hour death march at UTMB in three months, is a good place to be.

Good rest and regular fun bike rides are still a priority for me right now, in hope that I do finally dig myself out of my springtime slump. But I at least feel slightly less gloom and doom for the next "benchmark" event I've gotten myself entangled in, the Laurel Highlands Ultra. Beat signed up for this 70.5-mile trail race in southwestern Pennsylvania because his friend Tim Hewitt — the godfather of human-powered Iditarod Trail travel — told him it would be "fun." I admit I have a different opinion about the potential agony of 70 miles of rocky, rooty, steep East Coast trails, but I agreed to sign up as well because I need mental (not to mention foot) conditioning for UTMB. Given the technical aspect of the Laurel Highlands Trail and the race's fairly tight time cut-off that will require me to move faster than my "all day all night" jogging/hiking pace, I still have heavy doubts that I can finish that race. But at least I'm slightly less convinced of my imminent demise on June 9. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Goodbye to a good bike

Attempting to powder-shred with Pugsley in Spaulding Meadows, Juneau, Alaska.
 I sold my Pugsley.

I know, I thought I'd never write those words. If there was any bike I just assumed I'd keep forever, for sentimental reasons if nothing else, it was Pugsley. I loved this bike. But I didn't love seeing Pugsley hanging on my wall, gathering dust, and never being ridden. I quietly put Puglsey up for sale, and a couple of weeks ago, I mailed him off to his new home in Palmer, Alaska. I like to imagine a bright future of trips to Knik Glacier, beach riding along the Matanuska River, and perhaps even more miles on the Iditarod Trail. A bike like Pugsley deserves to be ridden in Alaska — not languish on a wall in California. Plus, Pugsley *is* just a bike. But I do sort of miss him.

This 16" battleship gray Surly Pugsley came into my life in September 2007. Buying this bike was my method of coaxing myself into signing up for the Iditarod Invitational. I figured if I had the right bike, I could somehow be ready for that kind of expedition (ha!) For the two years prior I was an avid winter cyclist, making do with a full-suspension Gary Fisher Sugar and a hybrid 40mm-rim "Snaux Bike." Anyone who claims that fat bikes aren't superior for their intended purpose as a go-anywhere, all-terrain bike have, in my opinion, simply never actually ridden one in appropriate fat bike conditions — deep but packed snow, soft mud, or sand. Pugsley was a revelation for me; suddenly I had so much more mobility than I ever imagined.

This is a photo from one of my first rides with Pugsley, taken on the Salmon Creek Trail, which was part of my "long" commute to work at the Juneau Empire. Pugsley and I spent a lot of quality time together that first winter, training for the ITI. I expressed my love for my bike in blog posts like "Ode to Pugsley."

Here we are on Sevenmile Lake on the first day of the 2008 ITI. When you go through an experience like that with a bike, it cements a strong love-hate relationship. There were times when I couldn't find the strength to push that heavy bike up a frozen headwall, and I nearly just left it there. Then, minutes later, I'd be coasting down a hard-packed slope, buzzing with elation.


Pugsley wasn't just a winter bike. I made it an ongoing summer project to circumnavigate Douglas Island along the cliff-lined beach. It was always an adventure — crushing mussel shells, steamrolling barnacle-crusted rocks, grinding over sand, racing high tides, mowing down beach grass, and eventually meeting an unworkable obstacle, like cliffs that dropped straight into the sea. Douglas Island is doable with a packraft, but I do believe it would be easier and probably faster overall on foot. Still, trying to use fat bikes for off-trail explorations is a lot of fun.

Beat and I posing with Pugsley in Missoula, on what I believe was Beat's first snow ride. Shortly after this, Beat purchased his aluminum Fatback, and it wasn't long before I started cheating on Pugsley with Beat's bike. I prefer the Fatback for many reasons — it's lighter, more agile, and seems to fit me better (even though it's Beat's bike.) We discussed it and decided that the chance the two of us will ride snow bikes together, ever, is fairly low at this point. It no longer made sense to keep the Pugsley. So I sent him back to Alaska, where I think he'll be happy in the way bikes can be happy — that is, I'm happy because someone else out there is falling in love with a fat bike. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Busting out at the Ohlone 50K

Photo by Joseph Swenson
If my confidence wasn't already tenuous enough, my body had to go and zonk out on the shuttle bus. Under normal circumstances, I'm a picky sleeper. I need horizontal silence, and no matter how much I want to, I can rarely take naps in vehicles or on planes unless I am: a) drugged; b) on at least hour 36 of sleep deprivation; or c) so physically spent that I lose consciousness involuntarily. After sucking down a large cup of coffee on the way to Lake Del Valle — the finishing point of the Ohlone 50K — I sat next to Beat on a tiny hard-backed seat of a school bus for an hour-long shuttle to the race start. After what seemed like three minutes, we were there and my neck was really sore. But rather than improve my energy levels, the nap left my head feeling like it was sinking into the deep end of a flu-addled haze. I never feel stellar before 9 a.m., but on this morning I was fully distraught about my physical state. Hazy head, lead legs, sour stomach, the knowledge that I had run only a few more miles in the past month than I expected to run on this single day, a forecast calling for temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s, and now this — apparently uncontrollable sleepiness.

Beat left to wait in the Disneyland-worthy line for the toilets and I plopped down on the grass, resting my chin on my knees like a pouty child and stewing on how much I really wanted to DNS the Ohlone 50K. Of course I could not, for multiple reasons, but the main one is the reality that if I'm not ready to run a hilly 50K now, in late May, then I surely won't be ready for UTMB by late August. The hundreds of hard miles I've biked in the past two months have left at least my head if not my body feeling overworked. But for all of that pedaling, I've only run a few dozen miles in that same time period, largely as slow recovery jogs. So I was overtired and undertrained. Perfect. But my big goal for the summer is a near-impossible foot race, so I needed some kind of physical and mental benchmark. I stood up to slather on necessary sunscreen, and my knees nearly buckled under the strain. I expected the Ohlone 50K to dole out some hard lessons.
 
The Ohlone 50K, now in its 25th year, is a storied event in the annals of Northern California trail running. It attracts a sold-out field of 200-plus runners and is widely regarded as one of the toughest trail races in the region. The point-to-point course traverses the Sunol Wilderness, summiting two prominent peaks and more than 8,000 feet of relentlessly steep climbing in the process. But the elevation gain alone isn't what makes the race tough, it's the sun exposure. Shade is scarce, steep canyons block any hint of breeze, and temperatures often stretch into the 90s during the five-plus hours that most everyone is on the course. (Even fast runners are told to take their best 50K times and add at least an hour for the Ohlone 50K.) But the region has a soft kind of beauty — rounded topography, clusters of broad trees, and golden hillsides that shimmer in the sunlight.

The course gains 2,500 feet right out of the gate, on the four-mile climb to the top of Mission Peak. I started out with fellow back-of-packers who were "taking it easy" in order to save themselves for the really brutal stuff later in the day. The difference between me and them was I kinda was giving that climb everything I had to give — which was a slow plod. My stomach gurgled and I regretted not waiting in the bathroom line, not that it would have paid off anyway. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the top, which I figured was slower than my casual hiking pace, but still better than full-on death march pace. Late-morning sunlight sparkled on the suburban grid of the valley, now far enough below to register as geometric patterns. Despite the rapid rise in temperatures, I was finally starting to perk up.

"Maybe I'm finally starting to warm up," I thought. I've noticed in the past that when my body is accustomed to go-all-day endurance, it can take an hour or more before I even get up to speed, like starting a diesel truck on a cold day. Still, I ran down Mission Peak at a mellow clip, figuring I didn't want to press too hard on the gas and risk flooding the engine. At the first aid station I discovered this race supplied jelly beans, which was a good omen. I had already decided pre-race that I was only going to consume simple sugars in order to keep heat-related stomach unhappiness at bay, and I always worry that I might have to subsist on gels. I refilled my water — a 70-ounce bladder already largely depleted after only six miles — and stuffed a handful of jelly beans in my mouth. The problem with Jelly Belly is there are just enough revolting flavors to ruin any handful. Every time I jogged away from an aid station I always had a hit of "Ew, peanut butter." "Gross, coffee and fruity don't mix." "Arrrgh, buttered popcorn!" Still, it beats gels. 

By the time I reached the bottom of Sunol canyon, mile ten, the heat was beginning to take its toll. Fellow racers were sitting in the shade or having volunteers pour water over their heads. I didn't feel overheated yet, but when I pulled out my bladder it was again only a quarter full, meaning I had sucked down another quart and a half of water in just four mostly downhill miles. I took a couple of salt tabs, ate some more jelly beans ("Ugh, coconut") and started up the next steep ascent. 

As I climbed, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was, "This isn't nearly as tough as pushing my bike up Oriflamme Canyon." When the trail leveled out and cut across sideslopes on its rolling traverse, I thought, "This is way less work than hike-a-biking down Noble Canyon." The Stagecoach 400 comparisons, and the fact that I was passing quite a few people, boosted my mood and I responded by running harder when I could run, and marching forcefully on the grades that my calf muscles refused to lift from. Because it was so hot, and because the scenery was similar, I spent a lot of time reminiscing about the Stagecoach 400. Apparently, in my memory, I hike-a-biked the whole thing, because I was thrilled that I only had 31 miles to cover in the Ohlone 50K. "I only have to do seven hours of this. Yay, biking is hard, running is ea-seeeee." (Note: I do not actually believe this. But I'll play any mind game with myself in order to get through a tough challenge.) 

Photo by Joseph Swenson
Still, my body wasn't willing to listen to the tricks without protest. My hamstrings ached, a persistent side-stitch stabbed at my kidneys during the descents, and my knees were just sensitive enough to keep me from letting go on the flatter sections even though my energy levels remained high. I continued my Jelly Belly/ salt tabs/ ridiculous amount of water regimen. It was too much water and caused me to feel extremely bloated, and I eventually stopped taking salt because I felt that way, but it did keep the sweat layer flowing nicely. I usually wither in heat and never imagined I could survive, let alone thrive, in a fifty-kilometer run in 90-degree temperatures. I probably have the heat acclimation of the Stagecoach 400 to thank for that as well.

The final ascent to Rocky Ridge nearly did me in, though, as it did to many of the racers. The narrow, windless canyon had trapped a pocket of air that felt hotter than a hundred degrees, and the exposed climb left me feeling dizzy enough that I had to stop and take a few breath-catching breaks. The people around me weren't faring much better, and as soon as I reached the top I really just wanted to take off and get this race over with. My leg muscles and joints were surprisingly not achy, despite my lack of run-specific training in the past few months. For this I really have to credit the Hoka shoes. Those things are awesome, and no, the company doesn't sponsor me. Hoka One Ones are fat bikes for feet — all of the fun, less of the impact.

About a mile from the finish I realized I might actually be able to come in under seven hours — which was way better than my early race estimation of "hoping to break nine." I kicked up the gears and ran the last half mile at 6:20 pace — which for me, because of my neglect of speed work and awkward gait that limits leg turnover, is full-on sprinting. I came in at 6:59:29. I shaved nearly a half hour off my 2011 time, even though the heat was significantly higher this year. I found and surprised Beat, who had finished just a few minutes earlier. "Goes to show that specific training is overrated," he joked.

But I did have a good day at the Ohlone 50K, and I'm grateful for that, because it probably helped my confidence more than any amount of resting could do. Not that I'm going to jump full bore into run training just yet, but at least I have a positive benchmark.

Results from the 2012 Ohlone 50K.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Accepting risk

Good times: Keith near the summit of Mount Diablo
I'm about to write about something I haven't discussed openly before, but there was a short period of my life when anxiety nearly took control. It was the summer of 2002, and I was 22 years old. I've never been a generally anxious or high-strung person, but I can recall vivid moments of my childhood that were suddenly, and randomly, overcome by rolling clouds of fear and despair. For example, at age 10, while riding in a car through Anaheim during a family vacation, I saw an old blanket on the street and convinced myself it was the body of a missing girl I saw on the news. The darkness I felt still haunts me.

In 2002, strange moments like these returned. One July afternoon a huge thunderstorm rolled over my house as I sat alone in the front room. The blasts of wind and thunder struck me with a fear so deep that I started shivering, even as I failed to understand why I was so scared — after all, I was in my house, under a roof, and I was safe. There was another incident when I was hiking with my friend near Moab and suddenly felt a sense that we were terribly lost. This irrational fear also had no basis in reality, and yet I felt dizzy and hopeless as I looked out across the sandstone plateau we were traversing. Fear started to affect my decisions. I refused an invitation to a rafting trip on the Green River — not because I truly believed it was dangerous, but because I didn't want to subject myself to the fear. I teetered on the verge of a panic attack for hours during a canyoneering trip in Quandary Canyon. Toward the end of the summer, I began to wonder if I had some kind of psychological misfire, possibly even a mild anxiety disorder — which is why I didn't discuss it with anyone, because I didn't want to be labeled as crazy. But fear was always creeping around the periphery of my life that summer, usually for reasons I did not understand.

The summer of 2002 also was, likely not coincidentally, when I started cycling. I purchased a low-end touring bicycle because I was enamored with the idea of bicycle travel, and practiced (not trained, practiced) by leaving my house in The Avenues of Salt Lake City and pedaling up one of the nearby canyons — City Creek, Emigration, Millcreek, and as I grew more confident, Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Some of these were day-long rides, on narrow and winding mountain roads, and I was humorously bad at it (yes I did tip over at a stop sign once, with platform pedals, because I forgot to put my foot down until it was too late.) But the act of riding my bicycle never ignited the same anxiety that just sitting around my house sometimes did. I felt safe on my bicycle, inexplicably so, to the extent that I would sometimes find comfort during a random anxious moment by reminding myself that the next day I got off work early enough for a ride up Emigration.

In September 2002, my then-boyfriend and I embarked on our first tour, a life-changing fourteen days through Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado. There were times on the trip when I was legitimately frightened, because it was snowing hard and we only had summer sleeping bags and skinny tires, or because we were crossing a hundred miles of waterless desolation on a remote and lonely Highway 95. But the act of confronting these very real fears, rather than sitting at home or work washed in ambiguous anxiety, was empowering. The final pedal strokes into Moab filled me with a sense of bullet-proof confidence, because I had done it — I had beaten my fear.

Those were the first 600 miles of a journey I've been on ever since, a journey that has been less about bolstering my strengths and more about confronting my weaknesses. One of my largest weaknesses is the fact that I am, in the hidden corners of my heart, a fearful person. It's true. I've confronted this weakness in places I would have never imagined back in 2002 — the icy desolation of the Iditarod Trail, the explosive storms and crushing fatigue of the Great Divide. There have been moments in nearly all of my larger challenges when I was deeply afraid, but had no choice but to be brave — and that, too, creates an empowering shift of emotions.

My involvement in cycling and endurance sports had a direct correlation to decreasing anxiety in my day-to-day life. For example, I used to be afraid of flying. This anxiety held on consistently until I reached a very distinct turning point — the Penn Air flight I boarded after the 2008 Iditarod Invitational, from McGrath to Anchorage. I remember sitting in the window seat, taking off, feeling the small plane bank hard in early turbulence, and I genuinely did not care. I had just crossed a bewildering swath of frozen Alaska under my own power — what could this plane possibly do to me now? Flying hasn't bothered me since.

Of course, nothing I write about here is an rational assessment of risk. I'm writing about emotional responses, and how deeply they can affect the way I approach my life. And I write about it now because of the recent motorcycle collision involving my friend Keith. He's been so upbeat and optimistic through the ordeal, and I joked that I've been more traumatized by the whole thing than he was. But in a way, it's not a joke. While we were still at the hospital in Sonora, Keith went into the bathroom and the emergency room doctor pulled me aside. She was concerned about nerve damage and Keith was showing somewhat alarming signs that this was possible. Nerve damage could lead to longer term, more disabling injury. Although I didn't understand all the details, I think the doctor simply wanted to convey the gravity of the situation and why they were transporting him to another hospital when both Keith and I expressed a desire to just let me take him home.

Keith went by ambulance to a hospital in Modesto and I drove there in a daze. I got a hotel room across the street and sat on the bed awake until after 2 a.m., mowing through an entire box of Lucky Charms (yeah, I can be a bit of a binge eater when I am stressed.) I was trying to wrap my head around the possibility of disabling injury to my vibrant, active friend, and how I felt to be a part of it, and how I'd feel if it happened to me. Keith for his part was never nearly concerned as I was. Maybe because he understood better what was going on with his own body, or maybe because he never saw the same look in the doctor's eyes that I saw when she talked to me. But for both of us, it was a bad night, and I admit it has opened up a new trickle of anxiety.

Beat and I have had discussions about this over the past few days, about risk versus reward in road cycling specifically. One of his good friends was killed in a collision with a drunk driver several years ago, and he knows others who have been injured in bicycle-vehicle collisions. He questions, on a rational level, whether the risks are worth it. I'm still working through my own emotional response, which is to both acknowledge and confront the fear. I recognize that the highway where Keith and I were riding was perhaps more risky than others, but the fact remains that risk is always there, haunting the periphery. How we accept that risk is really the only thing we can control.

The most important thing I learned about myself in the summer of 2002 is that I didn't want to let fear control my life. Death isn't nearly as frightening as the prospect of soft-pedaling through life without really living. Still, life occasionally comes along and doles out harsh realities, no matter how many irrational fears I've defeated.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A harsh end to the holiday

It began where these stories always seem to begin, on a bright and gorgeous morning. Keith and I were pedaling along State Route 120, the high road across Yosemite National Park. We had a big day planned — eighty miles and a long, rolling climb to near 10,000 feet elevation. We were about twenty-five miles in, and I was feeling discomfort from several different directions — yes, remnant undercarriage pains, as well as difficulty breathing in the sustained high altitude. Also, I didn't want to say anything to Keith, but I didn't really like this road. It was a little unnerving — narrow with frequent blind corners, and the kind of traffic and drivers typical of national parks. Sometimes things don't feel right, and I don't know why. Usually when I feel unwarranted negativity, I blame it on physical discomfort.

"I kinda wish we just went hiking in valley again," I joked with Keith. "There are so many awesome trails down there, and oxygen too." But when he asked me, more than once, whether I wanted to cut the ride short because I wasn't feeling well, I held on to my resolve. "No, this is a beautiful route. I can rally."

Keith waited for me at the bottom of a long descent, where I arrived still gasping for air. I admitted I would probably require consistent breath-catching breaks in order to make it up the next climb. Keith offered to ride behind me for a while, and chatted breezily while I turned slow rotations and strained thin air through my sea-level-weakened lungs. I didn't want to say anything to Keith, but after a mile I could hear him speaking to me, but couldn't really understand the words over my own loud breathing. We rounded a corner where the pavement notched into the mountainside just as a pack of four motorcycles roared beside us. I distinctly remember being frightened by the noise of the engines and moving far to the right when, just seconds later, I heard a loud, "Nooooo!"

The scream faded into a sickening crunch, and I felt something punching my left forearm. The force ripped my Garmin watch clean off its band and caused me to teeter violently, but I was able to put my foot down before the bike tipped over. I heard Keith cursing and my immediate thought was that his front wheel bumped my rear and he crashed. But as I swung around, I saw something much worse — an overturned Harley Davidson, a half-exploded road bike, and my friend Keith writhing on the pavement.


"Don't move, Keith, please don't move," I yelled as I darted around him, gathering the pieces of his bike from the road. The motorcyclist quickly stood up and we both flagged down vehicles coming from opposite directions. One man got out of his car and offered to direct traffic while another couple rushed toward us and said they were EMTs. They immediately started asking Keith the right questions before I had even fully processed what had happened. I grabbed my cell phone but it had no reception. No one had reception. We were high on a mountain pass, many miles from the nearest towns. So I dug my SPOT unit out of my pack and hit 911.

More bystanders helped the motorcyclist right his bike so he could wheel it out of the lane. His arm was crimson with road rash and he was bleeding profusely from one of his fingers. I dug out my first aid kit, offered him antibiotic ointment, and introduced myself. He said his name was Joe, from Staten Island. He was here on vacation with his buddies. They all rented Harleys in Oakland and were traveling up the Sierras and onto the Cascades. Joe was ashen faced and shocked himself. His buddies were now far ahead. They didn't know he was missing from the group. I felt for Joe. There was no doubt that his inattentiveness led to the rear-end collision, but the action wasn't malicious. He simply didn't see us until it was too late.

The EMTs  — Dan and his wife from Mono Lake — took charge of the situation, and their assistance helped calm all of us down. They determined Keith had all the good physical indicators to likely rule out a spinal injury, as well as no head injuries. But he was in a lot of pain and it was obvious something was very wrong with his back. Eventually construction workers arrived and took over traffic direction as Keith remained where he landed on the road. It took at least an hour for the ambulance to arrive. The nearest hospital was another hour and a half away.

The next 36 hours were a whirlwind of stress. They carted Keith off in an ambulance and the motorcyclist Joe, his friends, the EMTs, and I waited another half hour for a ranger to arrive. We filled out our reports and Joe's friends helped him build an arm bandage out of a greasy towel and a nylon strap. Hey was still bleeding rather heavily, but the one ambulance that arrived didn't have time to help him treat his wounds. I waited another hour for a ride with both bikes back to my car, and another hour went by before I passed into an area with cell reception. All that time, Beat and Keith's wife Leslie didn't really know what was going on — only that my SPOT sent out a 911 signal, and later that there was a collision with a motorcycle. Leslie told me later that she was surprised her reaction to extreme stress was to stay calm and eat a lot of bagels. I felt some survivor's guilt that day, both for almost inexplicably avoiding being swept up in the collision, as well as instigating the SOS call without being able to convey further information. But I had to hit 911 on the SPOT. It was the right thing to do.

I met Keith at the medical center in the town of Sonora, where a stage of the Tour of California was slated to start on Wednesday. Bicycle fever rippled through the tiny town, but I could only feel sadness, and some anger. The accident was just that — unintentional — but the fact is Joe was able to walk away and Keith could not. Bicyclists never get to walk away. And the number of friends who have been involved in vehicle-bicycle collisions only continues to grow. It can be difficult not to ask "When is it my turn?" and "Why not me?" and sometimes just "Why?" Keith held on to his usual cheery attitude and made optimistic observations about his condition. But as we plodded through the tests and procedures at the hospital, I could see that this was becoming more real to him with each passing hour. He was lucky it wasn't worse, which is something one can always say about any bad incident. But he was beginning to realize that he was in for a long recovery, that he won't be able to ride a bicycle for several months, that he might not even be able to work for a long while.

The final diagnosis: A fractured lumbar vertebrae, muscle tearing, and abrasions. He was transported to a larger hospital in Modesto for a whole second day when the Sonora doctor became concerned about signs of nerve damage, but further tests came up clear. We went through the long process of transporting him to my home, prepping him for his flight, and sending him back to Canada, broken.

Keith has a great support network of friends and he will recover. I of course realize how lucky I am that I was not hit. I think my saving grace was the fact I veered so far to the right seconds before the accident. The noise from the other motorcycle engines startled me, and I remember fluttering the handlebars when I drifted too close to the dirt shoulder. Then Joe slammed directly into Keith's rear wheel before his Harley veered to the left and turned over. The trajectory of the crash pushed Keith's bike forward and up. That's likely what hit my left arm and tore off my watch — the bicycle. Keith flipped backward onto his back, but luckily his body never made direct contact with the motorcycle. Otherwise, the outcome probably would have been much worse.

 There was lots of good in Keith's visit to California, and I wish it didn't have to end this way. I took this photo from Glacier Point the evening before the crash, overlooking the Half Dome and other mountains in Yosemite. This is the hike I talked Keith into as part of my "my butt can't handle every day on a bike" vacation negotiations. We started in the valley and climbed the four-mile trail to Glacier Point, and then I went on to the top of the Sentinel Dome, 8,123 feet. From there I ran all the way down in order to catch up with Keith, losing more than 4,000 feet in direct elevation over six miles. It was without a doubt my best running descent yet. My feet floated over rocks and confidently rounded switchbacks, as though I might actually be learning a technique or two in technical running. And honestly, it was the strongest I've felt in a while.

Keith told me that this accident hasn't changed his feelings about cycling at all. He's still excited to return to road riding when he recovers. I admit I can't say the same right now. I am a cyclist, though, and I'm sure this trepidation won't last long. But right now I'm more excited about trail running than ever, and I am grateful for my health to do so.

Get well soon, Keith. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

And on and on

I will say this: It really is difficult to take recovery down time when it's summer, beautiful outside, and the people you spend time with are all out looking for fun. I finished the Stagecoach 400, took a couple of days completely off, and ventured back into easy running for a few days after that. But despite my first truly bad case of saddle sores and lingering tiredness, I've already slipped back toward possibly bad if enjoyable habits. I know I need to make changes in order to stop this cycle of fatigue. If only I could push my willpower in that direction.
 
My friend Keith is visiting from Banff for a spring road bike vacation that he's been planning for months. I can't blame Keith for the bike binging, as this has always been the plan. It's been so fun to have him here, but we've been putting in some solid miles. Right off the plane we did a hard climb up Monte Bello Road even though it was 92 degrees outside and there's still snow on the ground where he lives. He rocked it of course and is excited about all the warm weather, blue skies, smooth pavement and quintessential California cultural experiences like being passed on a mountain road by a parade of supercars. That kind of enthusiasm is hard not to get wrapped up in, and it's been great. But, yeah ... I'm still not feeling super awesome or even 100-percent healthy right now.

 The saddle sores are my most immediate concern. I'd actually appreciate some input from people with experience in this regard, and I'm trying to think of how I can word this without being too off-putting and graphic. So there are blister-like chaffing sores that have been slow-healing and seem to be irritated, possibly infected. I also have a fair amount of lingering swelling and significant soreness in the, ahem, lady parts. I've never experienced anything like this — even after Tour Divide. I often joke with my friends that I have an "iron butt" and honestly thought I was immune to saddle sores. I think it may be a combination of bad chamois choice, less-than-ideal hygiene (although I did take regular alcohol-based wet-wipe "baths" during the race), and more heat than I'm accustomed to. But, man. Ouch. The pain has been bad enough that I haven't been sleeping well at night, still, which also doesn't help with recovery. I tried plenty of lubing for my rides with Keith, as well as applications of a couple of over-the-counter medications for different kinds of infections. I've seen some improvement, but not as much as I expected after a week. Yesterday for a six-hour ride I decided to forgo the chamois and just wear airy running shorts because I've become convinced that chamois are nothing more than bacteria traps and it would be better for me to wick sweat rather than sit on it for six hours. This actually seemed to help. I already have a regular physical scheduled on May 21 so I will have a chance to see my doctor about this. But any suggestions, especially from women, that might offer me some relief before then would be greatly appreciated.

But, beyond the pall of sometimes excruciating undercarriage pain that makes me never want to ride a bike ever again (I joke, kind of), riding with Keith has been fun. We've done a bunch of climby rides because, around here, all the good road rides involve a ton of climbing. On Wednesday we rode Skyline Drive, 52 miles and 4,600 feet of climbing along the wooded spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was fun to share the road with supercars, whose drivers were all courteous and gave us tons of space as they drove the speed limit past us.
 
Thursday was Bike to Work Day, and Google had a big festival with booths and prizes to encourage all of its employees to participate. There also seemed to be a competition of sorts among the employees to see who could complete the most awesome ride on their way to work. A few of Beat's co-workers also saw an opportunity to ride their bikes as long as possible before finally going into work, and planned a "long way" loop to the ocean and back — 77 miles and more than 7,000 feet of climbing. Of course Keith and I wanted in on the fun.

I wasn't the only non-Google employee to show up, but I was the only woman. I rolled up for the 6:15 a.m. start wearing my short running shorts and fat platform pedals attached to Beat's hand-built carbon Calfee. The reason for the platform pedals was because after my and Keith's four-hour ride, my road shoes started pinching and my frostbite-foot toes were sore. With all of my undercarriage issues, I really didn't need the added grief of toe pain, so I threw on the platforms right before the ride. I almost wished I left my headlamp attached to my helmet for a trifecta of dorkiness, but really the running shorts and platform pedals made me dorky enough, not to mention I was the only girl. I don't think any of these guys took me seriously from the get-go, but I held on to the finish.

The pace was friendly but not slacker. We did the ride in six hours in order to make it to "work" by noon. The route was spectacular, really. I would have never imagined myself enjoying road riding the way I do here in California, but this populated place is threaded with nearly traffic-free ribbons of pavement up steep slopes, beside sweeping vistas, and through thick Redwood Forests dripping with greenery. For locals: Our loop route was Page Mill, Alpine, Stage Road, Highway 1, Tunitas Creek, King Mountain, and valley bike routes to Google and home.

Today I talked Keith into a real day off — we're going to the beach and that's about it. After Keith's bike vacation I'm going to have to reassess, again, just how serious I'm going to be about my training this summer — because I'm not sure exactly what I need to combat this fatigue issue. I don't think it's as simple as taking a week off, but something like that will probably be the first step, after the Ohlone 50K next Saturday. But yeah, if I don't get my health back on track, UTMB is going to a lot more absurd than just the pipe dream that it is right now. I have to be realistic, even if I'm having fun.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Climbing to the end

 I've found it difficult to write my Stagecoach 400 trip report. All of the words seem to boil down to "I was really tired and rode my bike for a long time." During the race, my perspective was muddled by fatigue, which cast a sort of gray wash over my memories of the trip. I experienced beautiful moments, but not to the levels of intensity I expected. I rode fun trails, but not with the same zeal I normally would feel. And I did despair sometimes, over not much, really ... a sore shoulder, another steep hike-a-bike, a turn I couldn't find. This is just the truth; I wasn't super awesome during the Stagecoach 400. I was slightly broken, struggling, sometimes continuing only because there wasn't a viable way to stop. But when I managed to rein in these emotions, I felt surges of relief, even joy, because it really didn't matter. In the end I probably wouldn't have been much faster at a hundred percent. I might not have even been that much happier at a hundred percent. Life moves forward no matter where we stand, but as long as I keep moving with it, I'm satisfied.

Four days is not terribly long for a bikepacking trip, but it's just enough time to make the transition to a different way of existing. I wrote earlier about how these hard efforts can be dehumanizing, in a way. In this context, it's not a bad thing. The more I focus on the state of my body and my biological needs, the less think about abstract ideas and life outside the immediate present. I become more animal-like, driven mainly by migration and the prospect of food and water. My thoughts begin to register less as words and more as blunt reactions and emotions. This manifests in simple ways, like screeching at mice who won't get out of my way, or stopping to observe a dead snake with inexplicable fascination. In the night, I growled at a rabbit who hopped by my camp, and in the morning I woke up with a spider on my face and calmly flicked it away. Interacting with other humans becomes more disconcerting, and the patterns of civilization start to confuse me. At the same time, the wilderness becomes a more comfortable place and the quiet flow of the universe makes more sense. I enjoy embracing my inner animal, from time to time.

Although I enjoyed the urban adventure of San Diego, I was relieved to be back in National Forest lands. I hacked through walls of encroaching vegetation on an abandoned fire road and cut across a field into the Pamo Valley.  The mountains were fog-drenched and green, quite a shift from the desert only a few dozen miles to the east. I was doing one of my favorite things, which is climbing quiet forest roads high into the mountains, and tried to rally my tired legs for maximum enjoyment.

Soon the fog began to clear, the temperature shot up substantially, and the road just kept on climbing. Often the route lost several hundred feet of elevation into drainages only to resume its sluggish journey skyward. I neared the end of my water supply and collected some from a stream that I could drink through my filter. Extracting water from my filter is a chore, involving headache-inducing suction, so I took the first opportunity I saw for treated water — a fire station on the Indian Reservation near the top of the canyon. The garden hose was sitting in the sun, and even after I let it run for a minute the water was still hot. I filled my regular bladder and kept the stream water as a reserve. This day, like much of the trip, I'd ride most of the miles carrying more than a gallon of water.

After four hours of near-continuous climbing, I dropped out of the mountains near Lake Henshaw. Its dark blue surface made me wistful for cool, clear water — not the metallic fire water I was choking down. I also wanted to find a resupply business somewhere in the vicinity. After all, a highway crossed the valley and there was a decently sized town called Warner Springs. Although the cues didn't indicate services, I hoped to find something because my food supply was dwindling. When I stocked up at the Chevron the night before, I believed I was overfilling my supply. But that was before the animal side really took over and left me gnawing mindlessly on vast quantities of food. By the time morning came, much was gone and I couldn't even say where it went. And still I felt almost ravenously hungry, at this point trying to ration my calories because the next guaranteed resupply was still many hours away.

Sadly, Warner Springs only seemed to have one establishment — a golf club and store that seemed to be permanently out of business. I even tried casing the fire station for vending machines and didn't even find a water spigot. I knew I had enough food to last me five more hours, which is probably what it was going to take to get over this next 25-mile hump. But it was already 1 p.m., and the last resupply on the route reportedly closed at six. I was going to have to bust ass to make this next stretch and I wasn't sure I had it in me. My knee-jerk reaction was more despair, and in the midst of these raw emotions I wrote Beat a text admitting I was "scared" and was considering just riding the highway toward Idyllwild. Luckily I calmed down before I sent it and made a better plan — race for the RV park, and if I don't make it, I can always ride off route into Anza, which is certainly better than quitting the whole race over this. Beat even gave me suggestions for good establishments in Anza, and I left Warner Springs almost hoping I'd miss the cut-off so I could enjoy cold root beer and maybe even a chicken sandwich.

What followed was the endless climb over the Santa Rosa Mountains, the acceptance of my limitations, and a joyful if inexplicable surge of energy that reminded me, if briefly, what it was like to feel strong again. A blissful descent brought me into the Anza Valley and I cranked the high gears all the way to the Sunshine RV Park, only to arrive at 6:07 p.m. I expected to find the place closed, but discovered the store's summer hours kept it open until seven. I darted around the tiny room collecting new water, cookies, cheese, and something for dinner. The woman at the counter, Mrs. Singh, offered to microwave a burrito for me and also recommend these corn chips that turned out to be fiercely spicy, as well as a Choco Taco. She told me stories of the racers who came through before me — Jay Petervary who ate "all of the food in the store," and Katherine and the hotelers who rode through here together just a few hours earlier. She urged me not to ride in the dark, promising she'd find a nice spot in her RV park for me to camp. When I insisted I wanted to ride on, she gave me two packages of sour straw candy, free of charge, because "when you're riding you suck on these and they give you power." Mrs. Singh was a refreshing shot of human kindness on this lonely day, even if the chips she recommended nearly burned a hole in my stomach.

I'd love to say it was an easy 25-mile climb up to Idyllwild from there, but I hit one more snag less than ten miles from town when I tried to take the unmarked singletrack that we rode on the way out, presuming that this was the official course now. I found the trailhead but took a wrong turn about a mile up the hill. A mile later, the trail seemed to peter out in the bushes, but I remained convinced this was the right way. I crossed a stream that was much deeper than I remembered it being and pushed my bike up a steep rock-outcropping, which didn't seem right at all. At the top, a larger cliff confirmed that I had indeed hit a dead end. I panicked. Not in a "oh, I guess I have to backtrack now" kind of way, but in a "Oh crap, I'm going to die out here" kind of way. I was beyond processing the situation rationally. I picked my bike up and started sprinting toward the rock outcropping, and when I reached it, tried to half-run, half-leap down to the stream. Predictably, I lost control of my footing and slipped forward, nearly tumbling head over feet, but luckily threw my weight backward in time to land on my butt and slide the rest of the way down, dragging the bike behind me. I bashed my shin hard on the pedals somewhere in the process, and blood was streaming down my legs, but happily I was otherwise not worse for the wear. I backtracked and found a different trail, which proved to be the right one. The adrenaline surge kept me full-on sprinting all the way up the hill and onto the final forest road climb, until it wore off, and I completely bonked. The final three miles were devoid of pedaling. I walked when I couldn't coast. But I made it, somehow, just before midnight on Monday night.

Photo by Matt Slater
I was so tired. I signed in as the 18th finisher out of 42 starters, and probably about 25 to 28 finishers (a final list hasn't been posted yet.) Jay Petervary rode the whole course without sleep in 50 hours, and Eszter was the first woman finisher a mere six hours later. I finished in 3 days and 13.5 hours. The final stats on my GPS were 385 miles, somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 feet of climbing, moving time 57:44 at a moving average of 6.7 miles per hour. It's been a difficult experience to process, but the final take away for me is this: If I'm tired, and I just keep moving anyway, good things happen. (Map from day four)

Urban jungle

 I woke up with my face in the gravel, cheek pressed into the moist dirt, and my first thought was, "smells like wet cement." I'm not sure where exactly the thought came from; the accumulating hours on the bike were slowly smothering my critical thinking abilities beneath a blanket of basic desires, irrelevant memories, and raw emotions. Now that the moment has passed, I couldn't even tell you what wet cement smells like to me. I guess it's something like a sandy hill above the suburbs of San Diego, enveloped in fog infused with salty hints of the sea. I could hear traffic humming from the distance, but all I could see in front of me was gray mist.

 My head was swimming, pleading for coffee. I had tossed out my chocolate-covered espresso beans the day before, after they melted into an unpalatable blob, so I had no refuge for my cravings. I don't know why I've gotten myself so addicted to this substance, but then again, I think most of our favorite things in life can be called addictions when you look at them from a critical point of view. I'm also addicted to quick-energy carbohydrates, petting my cat, spending time with Beat, and of course riding my bicycle. But on this morning I was not looking to feed that final addiction. I envisioned myself sitting on the couch with Beat and my cat, snarfing bowls of cereal, and drinking one of Beat's deeply satisfying cappuccinos. But no, thanks to bicycle addictions, I instead had to wake up alone with a face full of sand on this damp hill, with an unknown number of hard hours between me and coffee.

 Those early morning hours were rough. The trail out of the rolling hills beyond Bonita contained several more hopeless hike-a-bikes, on washed-out jeep roads that were carved down the center by erosion canyons deep enough to swallow a bicycle whole. I finally dropped out of the fog into a wealthy suburb that made me feel hopeful a Starbucks was near, but never saw an establishment before the route veered onto the singletrack along the Sweetwater River. The trails were fun riding and I tried to put myself into a better frame of mind — "Normally you'd be thrilled to ride buffed singletrack instead of lame suburban roads." But long hours overfeeding my bike addiction had reduced me to basic emotions and desires, and I only wanted pavement and coffee. The trail began to trace the shoreline of Sweetwater Reservoir. Again, fun trail — but if you've ever ridden around a reservoir, you probably know the strain of traversing a seemingly endless string of drainages on a rollercoaster of screaming descents and lung-busting climbs.

 The singletrack finally dumped me out on a gravel bike path along a busy street where the first business I saw was, oh joy, Starbucks! I ordered a venti drip (disappointed that they haven't yet begun to offer the quart-sized cups they've threatened to introduce) and pulled out my phone to call Beat. I saw it was 9:45 a.m., which means the first twenty miles of the day, losing elevation, had taken me just under four hours. Wow, was I setting this course on fire or what?

"There are still a lot of people behind you," Beat assured me. "You're doing well, really."

"It's just, man, why did they make this thing so hard?" I grumbled, and immediately laughed at my own dumb question. "They" didn't make it hard. I made it hard by pushing my own limits to the jagged edge just to remember what that felt like, and really that was the point. If it were easy it wouldn't hold the same interest, wouldn't feed the same addiction.

 Coffee also did wonders to improve my outlook, initially, and I made an effort to hustle myself out of Starbucks and get back on the concrete trail to San Diego Bay. The route was infused with more hidden gems of green-space singletrack, built on packed sand wending through a forest of palm trees or lining the banks of some hidden creek beside the freeways. These sections were clearly steeped in local knowledge and actually a bit difficult to navigate. It's hard to find a flow when you're stopping at every single intersection to assess which general direction you should be pedaling.

 Coffee, like Snickers Bars, only holds a fraction of its normal impact at bikepacking metabolisms, and by the time I reached downtown San Diego I could feel the clutches of the sleep monster closing around me. I was fighting for my consciousness, and the sensory bombardment of the city proved to be a bewildering distraction. "Green light ... Wait, does that mean stop or go? Wow, these buildings aren't nearly as sparkly as I remember them being. Texas barbecue ... what's that doing in California? Does that sound like something I want right now?"

Pedestrians flickered in the shadows of my peripheral vision, taxis rushed past me, palm leaves swayed in the breeze, and I took deep breaths with every pedal stroke, wondering if I could hold it together. I was drunk on my own fatigue and culture shock, and I was frustrated by how out-of-it I felt. This city after two hard days and 200 miles of desert — what a strange transition.

 In Ocean Beach I passed an organic grocery store. I didn't really require a stop and knew I needed to keep cranking to make the day's necessary miles. But the lure of healthy food was already too hard to resist. I went inside for lunch I didn't really feel hungry for, but still managed to scarf down an apple, a half pound of raspberries, an Odwalla smoothie, a spinach salad, and half of a ham sandwich. I also picked up some treats for later — natural fig bars, dried mangoes, whole-grain cookies, sunflower seeds, and Babybel cheese. Take that, horrific gas station diet. I still believe that, at bikepacking metabolisms, the actual source of food — beyond fat, carbohydrate and protein content — doesn't matter all that much. Hostess cupcakes are organic cookies are bananas are Sour Patch Kids (for the most part, give or take a few grams of fat.) But after a couple days go by and my body is sufficiently depleted of nutrients, fruit and vegetables become substantially more appealing than more usefully caloric junk. No matter what I eat, I still manage to drop an average of about a pound a day during these kinds of efforts. For me, that weight never stays off long. But if you're ever looking for a good crash diet, I highly recommend the "Eat What You Want And Still Lose Weight During Punishing Multi-Day Bikepacking Races" diet.

 As I wended around a strange clover-leaf that seemed to be purposefully taking us on a tour of the outskirts of Sea World, Katherine Wallace rode up beside me. Both of us were having trouble navigating these urban streets and trails, and I noticed we both seemed inclined to take the same wrong turns that I usually caught first because I can be GPS obsessive. It was fun to chat with someone else in the race, but Katherine's comfortable pace was about two notches above mine and after a few miles I could no longer hold her wheel. She would actually be the last Stagecoach 400 racer I'd see for the duration of the race. I was sad to see her go. It can get a little lonely out there, even in the urban jungle of San Diego.

 As the route re-entered the suburbs I found myself on more unique and fun open-space trails: River pathways, singletrack along a gorge, fast descending through a maze of "Tunnels" that was also impossible to navigate, equestrian trails in the canyons beneath multi-million-dollar homes. I was surprised just how closely all these trails can link up. It seemed like we'd leave one trail system and within a mile be on another. For all of the annoyances created by the sprawling nature of West Coast cities, at least one positive aspect would have to be the impressive amount of open space woven throughout the housing tracts. I can't imagine riding trail all the way out of, say, New York.

After the sun set, I turned on my lights to hit up yet another fun trail system, the singletrack around Lake Hodges. My headlamp had a wash-out effect on the beige dirt and similarly colored rocks, and I managed to slam head-on into a decently sized boulder that I didn't even see. The jolt turned the front wheel just as I flew sideways over the handlebars, landing hard on my right shoulder. The reason I'm not a proficient technical rider is because I've never learned how to take a crash well. Under the best circumstances, I take crashing too personally and get frustrated and upset. When I am exhausted and muddled and just trying to fight my way from one point to the next, my strung-out emotions interpret crashing as the absolute end of the world. My shoulder throbbed and I was devastated, lashing out, moaning, "I can't ride this. It's just too hard." Yes, I did throw a childish temper tantrum. I worked through it, but it cast a pall over the rest of my evening. After that, timidity took over and I soft pedaled the rest of the singletrack, convinced that my shoulder was injured and I would need to reassess whether I could continue with the race in the next town.

By the time I hit the 24-hour Chevron outside of Escondido, my shoulder felt better, and Hostess cupcakes and more coffee definitely helped. I decided to put in enough miles that night to pedal out of the cities and back into proper Forest Service Land to camp. Sleep Monster got its talons around me and I was lost in my haze, largely unaware of the miles slowly slipping behind me until I was back in my sleeping bag, face pressed into the grass, and the night was bewilderingly quiet. (Map from day three.