Showing posts from August, 2012

Shake it out

I've had a tough time starting a pre-race blog post, clouded as my mind is in a fluctuating haze of anxiety and awe. I feel peaceful and content when I go into the mountains, and less so when I wander through the crowded streets of town or sort through a growing mountain of gear that I want to pack with me in UTMB. The weather forecast has progressively deteriorated from ominous to downright apocalyptic. The race is expected to launch under steady rain and temperatures around 5C (41F), turning to snow on the first pass around 1,800 meters, and throughout the night the higher elevations on the course are expected to receive about 5 cm of snow, temperatures around -5C (23F) and 45 kph winds. So, basically, we're going to get soaked at the start and then climb into snow and subfreezing temperatures with flash-freezing winds, then slip and slide down the wet snow until the ice crusted to our clothing melts and we can be soaked anew at lower elevations. Having experienced long end…


The town center is crowded and the backdrop is jaw-dropping — but there's a surreal tint to Chamonix that I haven't experienced in the similarly set national parks of North America. Maybe it's hints of old-world culture, European richness, or the simple fact that, crowds notwithstanding, the Alps have to be one of the most ruggedly beautiful mountain ranges in the world. The Himalayas, no contest; the Andes and Cordillera Blanca, of course; the Canadian Rockies and the Alaska Range, my personal favorites— but the Alps, the Alps have this way of extracting tears of joy amid cries of pain; a haven of pinnacles both inaccessible and endlessly inviting. I can't wait to attempt to hike and jog for a hundred miles in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

I'm writing a quick blog post while Beat packs up for La Petite Trotte a Leon, which starts today (Monday) at 10 p.m. Chamonix time (1 p.m. PDT.) PTL is 290 kilometers of trail with some 22,000 meters of elevation gain. Some of the…


Beat and I have spent the past few days visiting Beat's family in Switzerland. Thursday was Beat's brother Andy's fiftieth birthday. We traveled to Interlaken, a idyllic little village in the foothills of the Bernese Alps, where Andy and his wife went skydiving in the morning. We had previously declined an invitation to join them, citing nervousness about injuries before our big races (About seven years ago, I went on a tandem skydive where the instructor misjudged the landing and put us down extremely hard, bruising my tailbone. I was unable to walk normally for a week after that.) Of course, as soon as I saw those parachutes sailing through the clear blue sky amid glacier-capped peaks, I regretted passing up the opportunity. I'm not even an adrenaline junkie (I'm an endorphin junkie, and there's a huge difference.) But I can only imagine what the views were like from those heights, in free-fall.

We did get a glimpse of the views, minus the free-fall, when we…

Packing up

This weekend has been a frenzy of packing, shopping, and re-packing. We leave for Switzerland on Tuesday, so I need to have everything ready to go before then. Beat hoisted my UTMB pack and proclaimed, "There's way too much stuff in there. You need to get rid of some of that."

"I can't," I protested. "That's just the required gear. I don't even have any food in there yet, and except for some meds and batteries, it's all obligatory." I'm not yet willing to rely entirely on fontina cheese and dried meats for the duration of a hundred-mile foot race, so I will be packing my own supply of gummy candies. This backpack is heavy. I try to put it in perspective, remind myself of my Susitna sled, of all the water I carried on my back during the Stagecoach 400, but that doesn't make me feel much better. The backpack is my first tangible dose of truth — this thing is about to get real.

So what is UTMB? It occurred to me that I've nev…

The consequences of experience

One week ago, a man who is well-known in the Northern California trail-running community died from complications of heat stroke in Death Valley. Like many do in this social media age, I learned of his death through vaguely worded Facebook posts and wondered what could have possibly happened. Michael Popov was an experienced endurance athlete, a formidably built Russian with a long resume of adventure racing and self-supported fastpacking treks. When initial reports said he ran out of water during a recreational, six-mile traverse between two parallel roads, I thought "that doesn't sound right." Today, Outside Magazine published a more detailed account of what happened during a "routine run" in one of the most extreme environments in North America. The story is enough to bring pause to anyone who considers themselves an adventure athlete — the experience we take for granted, and the decisions we make every day.

Although I didn't know Michael well, his death…

Deep fried

Given my cold-weather preference, I tend to wonder what type of climate is actually a more physically taxing environment — excessive heat, or extreme cold. Of course these descriptions are relative to what a person is accustomed to, but for my purposes I'll call excessive heat "over 90F" and extreme cold "below 10F." During my residency in Alaska, I would have cited excessive heat as the tougher environment, without hesitation. Sure, extreme cold requires quite a bit of energy just to breathe; you're consistently ravenous, your muscles feel sluggish, and you're so preoccupied with staying alive that it's surprisingly easy to push past your physical limits and do things you might regret later, like riding a bicycle a hundred miles with a severely inflamed knee. But heat — heat just sucks the life force right out of me. It makes me lose interest in biking, running, until eventually even moving becomes a chore. I tell people that I can't ever move…

August beatdown

I am trying to "peak" my UTMB training this week — "peak" simply meaning I do a relatively high volume of tough outdoor workouts in an effort to get my mind ready for the long slog ahead. Oh, and to reintroduce the legs to chronic fatigue. Since the week started with Sunday's 50K, this is what I have so far:

Sunday: Trail running, 32 miles, 7,070 feet of climbing
Monday: Road cycling, 18 miles, 2,772 feet of climbing
Tuesday: Trail running, 7 miles, 1,414 feet of climbing
Wednesday: Trail running, 8.5 miles, 1,605 feet of climbing
Thursday: Mountain biking, 57 miles, 7,291 feet of climbing
Five-day total: 47.5 miles trail running, 75 miles cycling, 20,152 feet of climbing

For Friday I'm planning another run of indeterminate length and then on Saturday Beat and I have another 50K trail race. If I finish the race, this week could end up being one of my largest seven-day running totals yet. I love doing these "peak" weeks, but as it turns out, Augus…

Steep Ravine 50K

On Sunday I ran this fifty-kilometer trail race. At least, I'm pretty sure I did. I have flickers of memories from the run and a T-shirt that proves I was physically there, but my mind slipped into a gray sort of trance and now I find it difficult to fathom how I was out there, running, for a full seven hours. Thick fog shrouded the mountain and I let my thoughts disappear into it. My body continued on autopilot, rudimentarily aware of my directives to "keep moving," "lift your feet," "watch where you're stepping." I didn't feel much in the way of fatigue and only mild pain in my banged-up knee. I stopped at every aid station to eat exactly two peanut butter sandwich quarters and a swig of pink electrolyte drink, which was the perfect amount of fuel. And I must have been relaxed because I didn't fall on my face or even stumble that many times, despite the technical nature of much of the course. Although there often wasn't much to see…


When I was in fifth grade, I remember taking an aptitude test to vie for a spot in my school's "gifted" program. I managed high scores in math and logic games, establishing a track that I assumed I would pursue all the way through college and a career. (When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "either an animator or an engineer" until halfway through high school, which is humorous to me now as I don't have an engineer's mind at all.)

Fifth grade was also the year I remember being tested in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, which establishes children's athletic abilities through activities such as sit-ups, a one-mile run, pull-ups, a shuttle run, and an agony-inducing-if-you-have-tight-hamstrings stretch called the V-sit. I also recall other impossible challenges such as a rope climb and hurdles, although this might just be a mash of memories from the overall humiliation that was my grade school physical education. I was able to crush…