Monday, January 28, 2013

On running tired

All week I felt like I was on the verge of getting sick, although I could never be sure. On Wednesday I set out on what has to be my worst run since I took up running. I went to Rancho park for my favorite ten-kilometer loop, ran the first mile feeling winded at normal speed, and started to seriously lose steam in the second mile. By the end of mile two my whole body ached and my stomach was lurching, so I took a five-minute break laying on a bench overlooking the valley. It felt so nice to lie down but too chilly to stay there. I decided to cut my run short and take the easiest route back to the ranch in case my stomach really started to rebel. But I was so nauseated and dizzy that I could only run for short intervals, and when I walked it must have been slowly because I finished my shortened run a full 90 minutes after I started, with less than five miles distance. I felt wrecked.

"I'm getting sick," I told Beat, but then on Thursday I woke up and felt not any worse. So I proceeded with my plans for a evening mountain bike ride with Leah. Again I battled low energy and muscle aches, but not the extent I had on Wednesday. Still, I was certain some virus was settling in for a long stay. I admitted to Leah that Beat and I had signed up for a 50K trail race on Sunday. She shook her head and said, "No racing on Sunday," to which I whole-heartedly agreed. But then I woke up on Friday and felt not any worse, and had a relatively successful run on at Rancho on Saturday, so Sunday morning I set out to run the Steep Ravine 50K.

The phantom sickness stayed in the shadows. But like they have on every occasion I've run here, the steep trails of Mount Tam thoroughly kicked my butt. I put in what felt like a valiant effort in the first half, knowing that if it went bad (and I partially hoped it would) I could just quit after the first 25-kilometer loop. My legs couldn't produce much power, but I didn't feel nauseated, so I tried to combat my low energy by stuffing down as many Clif Shot blocks as I could stomach. They did nothing for me, absolutely nothing. Beat passed me several times on the out-and-backs, and when he asked me how I felt, I said, "bonky." I felt as though I had low blood sugar, even with a dozen Shot Blocks churning in my gut like rocks in a cement mixer.

I went out for the second 25K lap anyway and soon slipped into an endurance fog, a hazy yet happy place that is something of a guilty pleasure for me. When I'm not injured or hurting, just dog tired, the fog settles in and fills my often overdriven thoughts with sparkling lagoons and white clouds — a meditative emptiness that I can't readily achieve under normal circumstances, but comes automatically when my body feels spent. And because of the natural buildup of endurance training, I rarely experience this state during "short" efforts like 50Ks anymore. It's like any drug that one builds up a resistance to — I need more miles, and then more, and then more, until some future cracking point when I hit my endocrine system's limit, and then I will check myself into rehab and that will be that.

Okay, that last paragraph was partially in jest. This question has been on my mind recently ... the question of limits ... the question "Is there enough?" There has been a lot of chatter in the endurance community about adrenal fatigue and other longterm physical maladies caused by overtraining. Participants in the conversation include people I know well, so I've followed along with a mixture of concern, personal interest, and natural skepticism. Endurance athletes comprise such a tiny percentage of humanity that few scientific studies have been conducted on their behalf, so much of the evidence linking chronic fatigue and overexercising is anecdotal. I don't dispute the evidence, but I will say that I'm skeptical of how closely these two are really linked versus a multitude of other factors that contribute to shifts in physical health and motivation. I've read quite a few books about unintentional endurance — prisoners who walked across Siberia, polar explorers who were stranded in ice and fought for their survival for months and years, people in labor camps during the Holocaust. People who weren't trained, who weren't prepared, who weren't even willing participants, but who did amazing things anyway. People who, if they came out today and said "I did this" without any proof, would immediately be discredited. Because in the modern world, we've erected so many boundaries that it's become impossible to see beyond them.

I lean toward the belief that modern humans haven't even come close to exceeding the potential of human endurance. But the route to discovering our limits certainly isn't a direct one. It's difficult to reconcile the wishes of the mind with the needs of the body, and no rational person wants to take unknown risks with their own health. Acute overuse injuries are a concern for everyone, and I've had my share. But in my case these injuries were a result of misuse and mistakes, not much different than if I crashed my bike and injured myself in the fall. I've experienced weeks and even months of low energy and malaise after hard endurance efforts, but I've also experienced very similar symptoms after personal crises that had nothing to do with physical effort. I can't help but wonder if any physical limit I've perceived is more about a tired or fearful mind than a weakened body.

But yes, back to running the Steep Ravine 50K with a phantom illness. I was tired and began making mistakes. Less than three miles from the finish, I picked up speed on the steep descent down the Dipsea Trail. My leg muscles ached, I thought I had a blister from my new shoes, and I was ready to be done. Just as I started running at what felt like my fastest pace all day, I caught my right foot on a root, threw my left foot down too fast and at a bad angle, and in the process launched myself into the air. As I flew toward a landing that I knew was going to end horizontally several feet down the trail, I tucked in my arms and legs and made myself into a little ball, so that when I hit, I bounced. It actually worked. I slammed into the dirt with my shoulder and the side of my knee, but then rolled over to settle on my back, rather than skid into lots of bruises and trail-rash. It was still a hard hit and it took me several minutes to compose myself and pick up jogging again, but it was perhaps the most graceful fall I have ever taken. I am learning, I am.

I'm learning every day. I don't know what my personal limit will be. I hope I never find it, but if I do, I want to look back on the long adventurous process and think, "well, that was worth it." Or, maybe I will look deeper inside my own over-analytic mind and say, "Now now, you're just feeling scared."

Steep Ravine 50K: 31.2 miles, 7,088 feet of climbing, in 6:56. I've run slight variations of this butt-kicker of a course four times but this was the fastest. Maybe the phantom illness really was a figment of my imagination. 
Saturday, January 26, 2013

2013 dreams, spring and early summer

Daylight is beginning to creep back into Leah's and my evening bike rides in the Marin Headlands. On Thursday we got out for our favorite loop from the bridge, watched a beautifully hazy sunset, listened to coyotes howl as burrow owls swooped through our headlight beams, and remarked how warm it was because 45 degrees and moonlight sure beat the pouring rain that was happening at my home only forty miles south. It was a typically beautiful ride, and we topped it off with some fantastic Chinese food from this unique fusion place in the Mission.

As we buzzed with endorphins and chili sauce, we schemed possible bike tours for the spring or summer. The adventure planning reminded me that I'm still making my wish list for 2013. Spring and the first part of summer are bound to be the time for a bike tour and micro-adventures, but there are a few endurance challenges that I hope to include as well:

May 11: Quicksilver 50-miler. Fifty miles is the one major ultra distance I haven't tried, and honestly, it's the distance I'm least likely to enjoy. Fifty kilometers is just short enough that I can savor a challenging run without it degrading into a slog. A hundred miles is so hard that I can embrace the slog and let it take me to all of the magical places that it will. A hard hundred kilometers or seventy miles offers some of the flighty fun of a hundred miles with less of the pain. But fifty miles — that's a tricky distance. Much longer than a "fun run" 50K, but not quite long enough to venture into ultraendurance mindgame territory. So there it is. I'm going to give fifty miles my best shot at the Quicksilver 50 in San Jose. The course has 8,500 feet of climbing, promises to be an inferno of oppressive heat, and enforces the trails' consistent runnability with a twelve-hour cut-off. Can you tell I'm looking forward to this? But I need a long training run for:

May 31: The Bryce 100. A hundred miles of high desert alpine and otherworldly redrock formations on the outskirts of Bryce Canyon National Park. May 31 is Beat's birthday, and this is how he wanted to celebrate. The course rings the rolling hills of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, ranging between 7,800 and 9,400 feet. The altitude is harsh for a sea-level dweller, and judging by some of the breathing problems I had in the Bear 100, Bryce promises to be a hypoxic struggle amid some of Utah's most breathtaking scenery. The total elevation gain is something over 14,000 feet. My goal for this race is to not pass out, be gifted with great photo-taking weather, and finish before the cut-off. My sights for the summer are set on multiday adventures, so I don't want to run myself into an injury by trying to push my speed limit. (Last month I wrote an article previewing the race.)

June or early July: Sierras fastpacking adventure. This is something I've been dreaming about since I moved to California. I hope I have a chance to pull it off this year. The grand out-there dream would be to hike/run the 220 miles of the John Muir Trail in seven or eight days. Whether I can leverage the time and planning to pull this off is the question. Eight days is lot of time in itself, and the effort will require significant recovery after a full week of going as strong as I can for twelve to sixteen hours a day. I've also received conflicting advice about how to apply for permits, so I have to spend more time looking into this. Also, I need to figue out how to actually *become* an ultralight backpacker rather than just covet their cool gear from afar while I imagine them shivering in space blankets and gnawing on twigs and moss. The John Muir Trail is realistically too much to bite off for a first-time fastpacking adventure. But I still want to plan some kind of multiday endurance challenge on foot. A three- or four-night loop in Yosemite National Park or part of the Pacific Crest Trail would be great possibilities as well.

I'll get to the rest of summer in the next post. I will say that it won't include the Tour Divide or any big bikepacking race, this year at least. As I mentioned earlier, 2013 is the year I want to test my limits on foot, because there are so many incredible places in this world that I can't access on wheels. But the wheels still hold the first spot in my heart, and I'm sure after this year's for-fun bike adventures, I'll be looking for something more challenging once again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Backpack or sled?

Group shot at the start of our Glacier Point run. Martina skied and laughed at our poor mode of snow travel as she glided past.
Our training trip to Yosemite gave me a chance to test out a system to use in the Homer Epic 100K, a race that I haven't really started training for yet (still doing more biking than running) and that seems like a long time off but in reality is less than eight weeks from now. I have almost as much fun mulling the strategy of these types of races as I do running them (mainly because winter races are so dependent on weather and quickly changing trail conditions, that any rigid strategy is bound to fail. Creating multifaceted strategies based on a large number of possible outcomes is a fun challenge.) But I'm still undecided on one fundamental aspect of the Homer Epic — how to carry my gear.

Beat on the freshly groomed ski trail. Conditions would have been perfect if it wasn't 50 degrees out, turning the snow to slush.
One thing I knew was that I don't love pulling a sled. In the past, pulling sleds in the range of 30 to 40 pounds absolutely prevented me from running in all but the best trail conditions or fairly steep descents. I'm just not strong enough; the anchor clamps down and I end up expending double the energy for perhaps 25 percent more speed. It's not sustainable at all. I'm effectively locked in at 3 to 3.5 mph, with an energy expenditure and muscle strain that feels more like 6 mph would on dirt trails.

I looked out over this vista and all I could think of was summer ... and miles and miles of wilderness trails.
I just assumed I'd want to carry a pack in the Homer Epic, so on Saturday I loaded up a Salomon pack with the gear I'd likely carry in the race. The rules require a few common-sense pieces of clothing that I'd carry either way — a big down coat and windproof pants to keep me warm in case I am injured on the trail and have to stop or slow way down. And of course I'll need several changeable trail layers — hats, gloves, mittens, extra socks, etc. The race support includes water only, and even then there are only three checkpoints in a hundred kilometers, so I packed two liters of water and 2,500 calories, although for the race I will probably carry 3,000 or even 3,500. (And honestly believe even this is on the hungry side. I'm a big eater in the cold and bonk quickly when I slow the consumption.) Then there was my safety gear, GPS and camera, foot-fix stuff, headlamps and batteries, knife and duct tape, and med kit. And to top it off, trekking poles and snowshoes strapped to the outside. The final weight was startling. I couldn't weigh it at the start, but my guess would be 17 to 20 pounds. Which makes sense, because it was all of my Susitna gear, minus the emergency calories and sleeping bag bundle.

Yosemite Valley doesn't see much direct sunlight in January
I did not like running with a 20-pound pack. It rubbed on my shoulders to the point that my collarbone felt bruised, and felt more awkward and tedious than my heavier sled ever did in Fairbanks. I ran a fair percentage of the first 11 miles out to Glacier Point, but lost my steam after that. The stats from my GPS were 22.5 miles, 3,245 feet of climbing, 5:43 trail time. The Homer Epic is 62 miles with 6,470 feet of climbing, and has a 24 hour cut-off. Last year's two finishers on foot, who are both faster snow runners than me (and much faster than me off the snow), finished in 21:30 and 23:10 respectively. Finishing the Homer Epic is far from a given; it's going to be tight and it's going to be tough.

Group leaving Glacier Point.
Obviously I will need to do more training with that pack if I am going to carry it. And of course I can look for ways to lighten the load, but most of this gear has been mulled extensively over multiple excursions. Even if the warm gear weren't required, I'd still carry it. I'd rather stay alive in the event I can't move, than move slightly faster when I can. The snowshoes are the most expendable item, but even those I'm quite attached to. If I don't wear them the entire race because of marginal conditions, I'll probably still wear them for half of the race just to ease the strain on my undertrained ankles and knees (because I can't train by running on snow.) Beat has suggested he might make a small sled with the same design as his large Nome sled. I'd still carry my water on my back, so presumably I could get my total sled weight below 15 pounds. This might be the best option.

Ditched the pack as soon as we stopped. Photo by Beat.
Either way, it's been fun to scheme for my only winter race this year. I really do wish I had a full 100-miler to look forward to, but the simultaneous newness and nostalgia of the Homer Epic is motivation enough. Now to get to more consistent training. Ah, training. The best snow race training I can do here in the Bay area is hard jogs up steep, sustained climbs. I have all those snow bike tours I want to do in Alaska, so I should keep riding my bikes, too. 

Right place, right time

As early morning's shadow crept like a curtain down the granite cliffs across the valley, I walked across the ice-crusted snow and found a rock outcropping to claim as my exclusive seat for the show. 

Behind me, the rising sun projected a stream of golden light, creeping down the high peaks of Yosemite and illuminating the backside of Half Dome. I watched previews of color form on sparkling ice and distant snowfields, waiting patiently for the main attraction — the moment the angled light of sunrise touched the frozen mist of Yosemite Falls. 

A faint crimson was the first color to emerge, followed by a hints of yellow and green. As the sun climbed higher into the crystal blue sky, the falls burst into a full spectrum rainbow, with colorful mist floating through the air before freezing into snow and settling gently onto the slope below. Nature's version of Hawaiian shaved ice, striped with every flavor on the shelf. I smiled at the memory of eating a multi-color snow cone in the January heat of Honolulu on top of Diamond Head, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day no less, and ricocheted back to the awe that the present moment brought me to the top of an 8,000-foot granite mountain, and this colorful ice swirled around a waterfall that was 2,425 feet high. The world is continuously doling out beautiful gifts, but the most spectacular go to those who find themselves in the right place at the right time.

Not many people would consider the wind-exposed summit of Sentinel Dome in the predawn cold to be a right place, and even fewer would view the snowbound month of January to be the right time. We would likely have never found ourselves in this spot either if Beat and Steve hadn't been training for the Idiatrod, and looking for tough conditions to trek with heavy sleds and camp for a night. We headed to Yosemite National Park for the long weekend, mainly because the park is our closest access to snow. On Saturday, we ran the 22.5 miles out to Glacier Point and back as a training run, and hoped to find another packed trail to stage our camping trip the following night. But on the way back, we encountered a group of skiers who informed us they were planning to stay on Sentinel Dome that night, and recalling a wonderful hike last May, I said to Beat, "You know, spending a night on Sentinel Dome would probably be amazing."

The following day, we learned our options for sled-draggable trails were actually quite limited, and decided to return to the Glacier Point ski trail for the ten-mile trek to Sentinel Dome, elevation 8,127 feet. Steve and Beat seemed not totally stoked about making virtually the same trip twice, but I stuck to my conviction that a Sentinel Dome camp would indeed be amazing, and possibly, on this warm holiday weekend, even windy and cold.

Our mid-afternoon start put us at the top right at sunset, and we broke camp just as a wash of pink light spread over the mountains.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
The Sentinel Dome is the tallest landmass for many miles, offering a full panorama of a large cross-section of Yosemite, from the higher peaks to the east, to the sheer granite walls of the Yosemite Valley, to the flat expanse of California's central valley to the west, to (I'm convinced, although my friends disagree) the far-away Bay area landmark of Mount Diablo. It's nothing but views, and a whole night up high gave us nothing but time to look at them.

Photo by Beat. The landform I thought was Mount Diablo is directly to the left of my head, behind the city lights.
We fiddled with Steve's new stove as Beat melted snow for hot drinks and three revolting freeze-dried meals (honestly, I never find any of these that I like. I'm just about to give up on hot dinners when camping, which is something I've been saying for 15 years.) Despite the relatively warm temperature (around 30 degrees), the wind picked up after the sunset, and I had a difficult time staying warm without running in circles around the dome at frequent intervals.

It gave us an excuse to dance around in the snow and play with the settings on Beat's camera — also important training for his Iditarod race next month.

The wind howled through the night, but I got great sleep while curled up in my -40 sleeping bag. We woke up a half hour before sunrise to melt snow for coffee and drinking water, as well as a freeze-dried raspberry crumble dessert that I bought, because I know better than to mess with freeze-dried breakfast foods. (Or oatmeal. Not a fan. I'm usually a breakfast Clif Bar eater.)

Photo by Beat
 But I do think stoves are useful for more than just winter drinking water. True happiness is hot coffee at the top of a mountain.

The sunrise views were every bit as startling as they were at sunset, in lighter hues of red and blue.

And the Yosemite Falls light show — truly an incredible work of art.

After the show was over, there was nothing left to do but pack up the sleds and trek back to the valley with full bellies and hearts.

This isn't to say the trek back was easy. But positioning oneself in the right place and the right time rarely is. There's a good chance we'll return someday for an encore. Training makes the best excuse. 

Beat shot a short video of the waterfall rainbow, linked here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ghosts of Outdoors Past

It's probably one of the best things about social media — at least in my view: Every so often, a person or image from long ago or far way pops up at a random time and suddenly redirects your thought stream. I was all set to continue my 2013 goal list this evening when my friend Jen uploaded an album titled "Oldies — College Days" to Facebook. And of course I got completely lost in them, flipping through all 250 re-photographed glossy prints, digesting the scenes and trying to remember the placement and people in any picture I was remotely involved with. Too much fun — only for me, of course. But then again, everyone has these kinds of photographs — pictures of their youth, quick captures of incredible life moments. They're always relatable, these pieces of the storyline, and I usually enjoy looking at friends' old photos. And anyway, I couldn't help but move a few to my blog.

The top photo is a group shot taken before a hike down Quandary Canyon in the San Rafael Swell, in October 2002. It's probably my favorite shot ever taken of our old "D Street Crew," but if I look sorta grumpy in that picture, it's because I was (reference: scowling person in big gloves and hat.) I had reached the point where I was certain I was terrified of canyoneering, and knew I was headed into a slot canyon that involved a rappel, a few swims, and some sketchy downclimbs on loose boulders and near-vertical slickrock. I gave it my best shot, though. Then, much like now, I was easily coerced into adventures that were well beyond my skill set.

March 2000 group shot of the University of Utah crew who headed out to Arcata, California, to do volunteer work as part of a program called Alternative Spring Break. The bulk of our work was unearthing nonnative lupine plants from the sand dunes along the coast. So if you live in Northern California and like the pretty purple flowers on the beach — it was once my short-term mission to destroy them all. What was great about this trip, is this is where I met several people who are still pretty good friends.

Fall 2000, hiking Pinnacle One in the San Rafael Swell. This picture is notable because, as you can see, I am wearing jeans and platform Sketchers, which is what I used to wear on all of my hikes back then. And Pinnacle One isn't exactly a stroll. I'd rate it as a solid Class 3. The kind of hike where you use your hands almost as much as your feet.

Lower Black Box of the San Rafael River, also sometime in Fall 2000. This box canyon hike involves something like ten miles of rock scrambling and river hiking, varying from ankle-deep to over our heads. There were several stretches of at least 500 yards that required swimming, which is why we're wearing wet suits. This outing was humorous because I decided it would be a great idea to load a fanny pack with a jar of peanut butter and a zippy full of Triscuits as my entire day's worth of food, because river water can't get through the plastic, right? Wrong. After the first swim, my peanut butter jar had filled the rest of the way with muddy giardia water, and the Triscuits were mush. My friends had a few nibbles to spare, but it was a long, hungry day.

I'm guessing this is sometime during the winter of 2001-2002. I couldn't quite place the location or circumstance of the photo, but it was notable because Beat commented, "At least I don't have to drag that sled across Alaska," followed by a pause, and then, "Well, I guess I am building a six-foot sled." (Yes, I know this is a boat.)

Summer 2002. While I was working as an editor-slash-feature writer at the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin, I made it my mission to visit every single ghost town in that large and remote desert county, and write a newspaper article about them. Under the guise of adventure, I invited friends to help me document Ophir, an old mining town in the Oquirrh Mountains. I remember this town had strange graveyard that had been cut into a narrow ridge, and a spooky cabin with a real estate sign out front, which we all resolved to buy someday.

Jen also posted a bunch of pictures from our Alaska adventure in the summer of 2003. My friends Jen, Chris, Geoff, and I traveled in a van from Salt Lake City to Alaska, where we spent the better part of three months. I don't remember the location of this camp, but I do remember being incredibly happy because we stumbled on a spot with a great fishing hole (Arctic grayling) and a ton of already split firewood. Probably somewhere in northern British Columbia.

We traveled up the Dalton Highway "all the way to Prudhoe Bay" in early June 2003, when daylight was endless but the air was still crisp, cold, and largely bug-free. This was our jalopy vehicle — a 1990 Ford Econoline Van with two spare tires strapped to the roof (they were needed), a trailer built out of a Datsun truck bed with a ton of gear inside, and four mountain bikes on a roof rack (mine is the red one on the right, a Trek 6500.)

In Prudhoe Bay, we paid for a long and boring tour guided by BP, just so we could say that we stood on the Arctic Ocean. The guide alternated between BP propaganda and bogus stories about polar bears, but I'm still glad we went on that tour. Hey, I stood on the Arctic Ocean. I hope I can go back someday.

The van was always breaking down. Big surprise. But it was maddening and I grew to dislike this vehicle so much that upon returning to Utah, I happily disowned my quarter stake in it while refusing a buyout, just so I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore.

Backpacking trip on Resurrection Pass in Alaska, July 2003.

In Valdez, Alaska, we rented a small motor boat and trawled around the Prince William Sound. Our plan was to sight-see and camp on an island where there were no bears, but as we motored along, we saw hundreds of pink salmon swimming close to the surface of the water. So with our lightweight trout-fishing gear and lures, we caught a few in a matter of minutes and cooked them over a fire for dinner. Alaskans tend to turn up their noses at pink salmon, but it was delicious, one of my most memorable meals of the trip.

Toward the end of our trip, we caught a ferry from Haines into Juneau in late July. We unknowingly set up our tents at a city-sanctioned homeless camp several miles outside of town, and then proceeded to get rained on for three days straight, without relief. The only thing I remember about that particular segment of the trip was battening down the tents again and again, cooking dinners in a musty hantavirus hut at the campground, hanging out in the library, and hating Juneau. It's amazing I ever returned.

Thanks to my friend Jen for posting the pics. It was a fun tour down memory lane.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 dreams, winter

Well, it's the middle of January and I'm well overdue in the blogger department of "listing my goals for the coming year." Because if you write it out, you're more likely to at least try most of it. And of course adventure plans have been on my mind quite a bit since the year started. I recently went to see my doctor about a large lump on my big toe. He diagnosed it as a ganglion cyst and used a giant shiv of a needle to drain out an impressive quantity of gelatinous goo. The cyst is benign but has the potential to come back and cause issues, so as a precaution he took me off running for a week (I talked him down to four days after asserting my need to be mobile during a trip to Yosemite this coming weekend.)

 I'd planned to start ramping up my running miles this week, as I have 100K race coming up in mid-March. But, ah well. I've enjoyed some wonderful afternoons on my road bike. Today I caught a wave of inspiration and veered off the pavement onto the Waterwheel Creek Trail, a scenic fire road that contours the hillside. It was a beautiful, frosty evening with the last wisps of sunlight refracted by a haze over the mountains, and I enjoyed the extra time up high. Also, it's invigorating to grind steep gravel on skinny tires. I can understand why my friend Leah likes to ride her cross bike so much.

 But yes, back to the 2013 dreams. I believe it will be another great year of pushing my limits in places far outside my comfort zone. This could draw out into a very long blog post, so I'll start with winter. Both Beat's and my focus for the winter is centered around Beat's plan to walk to Nome, a thousand miles on the Iditarod Trail. He expects it will take about a month, and I am planning to spend that time in Alaska. Still, I've had a difficult time formulating my own plans. I want to take advantage of that window to embark on some great adventures. But at the same time, I want to be present should Beat have any issues, and I also want to be aware of what's going on in his journey. This desire excludes the possibility of doing a larger trip of my own, and I'm fine with that. I plan to break my own trip up into smaller adventures, in hopes that I don't stay out of contact for too long. So I've drafted a list of "maybe adventures," most of them tentative and dependent on weather, trail conditions, and logistics.

February 24: Iditarod Trail Invitational starts. Of course I'll be there for that.

Week One: Iditarod Trail snow bike tour. It would be strange for me to go a whole year without venturing up the Yentna River at least once. Since there's no Susitna 100 this year, I'd still love to tour in the Susitna Valley. The quiet time between the start of the ITI and the start of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race would be a good time to embark on a short out-and-back bike tour of the Iditarod Trail. Even if I just ride to Skwentna and back, it would be awesome, but in good conditions I could potentially make it a little farther. I'm thinking two to three nights, Tuesday though Friday.

Week Two: Running and hiking in the Chugach. I also hope to embark on a two-day sled run on the Resurrection Pass Trail. The Res Pass run is highly dependent on weather conditions, and if I ran solo, would need to be an out and back — about 38 miles total either way. I'd love to reserve the cabin on the pass and run/snowshoe up to the high country before descending the next day.

Week Three: Snow bike tour of the Denali Highway. This is something I'm working on planning with two friends from Whitehorse — riding 135 miles in three to four days along the winter snowmobile trail in the shadow of the eastern Alaska Range. We'd likely "comfort tour" the trail and stay backcountry lodges at least two of the nights, with one night of winter camping. This adventure is dependent on whether my friends commit; there's no way I can attempt it alone (a long shuttle is involved, among other issues.) If it doesn't work out, one consolation prize would be a trip to Juneau. Tough break, I know.

March 16: The Homer Epic 100K. My only winter race on the calendar, but it's not an easy one. Still, the course was too intriguing to resist. I lived in Homer from 2005 to 2006, and back when I was training for my very first race ever — the Susitna 100 — I would ride my mountain bike on some of the same trails used in the course. It's an undeniably beautiful place, with great trails. I plan to compete in the 100K on foot, carrying a large day pack rather than dragging a sled. I still need to plot my plan of attack, but if conditions are favorable I hope to actually *run* on this course. And if trail or weather conditions are not favorable, it should be a wonderful 100-kilometer snowshoe hike. Either way, I'm there and can't wait.

Week Four: Trip to Nome. This one is more of a pipe dream. Airfare could be prohibitive, but I would love to fly with my Fatback to Nome and ride around the region as I wait for Beat to arrive in town. I might even be able to construct a bike tour on the Iditarod Trail if I have enough time. I've never been to Alaska's western coast, and would love a chance to visit.

Also, if you are going to be in Southcentral Alaska during this time and have any interest in joining me, or perhaps inviting me on one of your adventures, please get in touch. I'd love to have company. If all goes well it will be a fantastic, exhausting month ... all the better to kickstart the wide-eyed hopes for spring and summer. 
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The short but full life of trail-running shoes

The blue heart is a patch Beat sewed into my tights after I ripped a hole in them during a fall. I'm hard on gear.
This weekend, Beat gave me a new pair Hoka Mafates, the fourth pair I've owned. It wasn't a special occasion; he's just sweet and orders shoes for me because he knows I'll probably continue to use an older pair until the shoes are literally in pieces. But I was surprised, because my third pair of Mafates aren't even that old. They were Beat's birthday gift to me before UTMB, in August, which was only five months ago. It seemed ridiculous that I should already need yet another pair of shoes, but when I put the new Hokas next to the old ones, the evidence was clear.

Apparently the Hoka Mafates once had lugs ... and weren't the color of a mummified rat
I have no idea how many miles the old shoes have on them, but I can think of more than 300 miles of racing they've been through (UTMB, Bear 100, five 50Ks, and a road half marathon.) Not to mention all of that rugged hiking in the Alps, a muddy fall here in Cali, and a life that's about 95 percent trail use. Still, relative to most runners who race ultra distances, I tend to log lower-mileage training weeks. A typical week of running falls in the range of 20 to 25 miles, with more if a race is involved. But the racing piles up, hiking scuffs soles too, and another 400 miles or so of training puts even a five-month-old pair of shoes well past their prime.

So yay, new Hokas. Even though I feel guilty for wearing through an expensive commodity at this rate, their price tag appears small next to the value of adventure and fun I've had in these shoes during the past five months (and also pales in comparison to cost of wear that I put on bike parts in a similar amount of time.)

Friends and others have asked me to write my opinion about Hokas, as I clearly am a fan, but I am reluctant to weigh in on this polarizing subject. For starters, I'm far from an expert on running shoes. Honestly, I find shoe science to be the most boring subject there is in the realm of my hobbies, and I can't bring myself to get excited about anything involving the phrases "heel drop," "rocker," or "toe splay." I've never analyzed my own running form, but others who have watched me flail about on trails tell me I appear to be a mainly a mid-foot striker, probably because I frequently employ the ultra-shuffle stride. But don't even try to drag me into the minimal versus maximal debate. I have no frame of reference; my feet find their way into hurty things when I walk barefoot around my apartment. And my feet are usually the body parts that hurt if anything hurts after a long run. If it weren't for feather-soft pillow shoes, I wouldn't run. Period. That's what wheels are for.

But if I could provide any endorsement for Hoka, it's this. Two and a half years ago, I wasn't a runner, even in the most basic sense. Then I decided to go nuts and run really long distances. Hokas aided me in this quest with few — and all relatively minor — issues. While some runners claim that Hokas lack stability, I haven't felt any notable difference in my footing with the Hokas versus my "regular" trail-running shoes. (Brooks Cascadias. And yes, I'm equally clumsy.) Especially since Mafate 2 is equipped with grippier lugs than the Mafate 1 (there, see, I used a quasi-shoe-science term.) Most of my typical runnerly injuries (shin splints, knee pain) developed after periods when I wore the Cascadias for the majority of my training runs, either because I wanted more reliable traction or was trying to "break my feet in." I always went back to the Hokas. They work for me. Why try to fix something that's not broken?

And, after this ringing endorsement, if you are dying to try a pair of your own, I'm including a handy Amazon affiliate link. Because, you know, every nickel toward Hoka pair number five helps. :)
Monday, January 14, 2013

California cold snap

It's been cold in the American West this week. Where I live, a winter cold snap means frost-coated leaves in the morning, ice patches that linger through the day, unobstructed sunshine, azure skies and clear visibility that gives depth to the farthest horizons. So most everywhere else it's cold, but here, it's perfect. 

Beat had quite a bit of Iditarod prep to work on this weekend, including molding a new sled from a sheet of plastic. So I spent a quiet weekend writing and reading ... oh, who am I kidding? There was still a much higher ratio of running and riding. On Saturday, Beat and I got out for a hill climb up Black Mountain, 10.5 miles with 2,800 feet of climbing. Physically there wasn't much notable about this run, but the views were nice.

On Sunday I joined a girls' ride with Leah and Heather, and took the opportunity to wear my new Castelli bike skort. I'm finally starting to part with some of my more ancient active wear (like a pair of Nashbar bike shorts from 2003), and I've noticed that the majority of my sports wardrobe is now comprised of race T-shirts and skirts. Leah noted that I'm probably one of those women who only wears a skirt when I'm splashing around in the mud — and this observation would be true. But I spend significantly more time splashing around in the mud than I do at formal parties, so I might as well prioritize my cute attire (thus the tossing out of saggy-butt bike shorts.)

The temperature was 33 degrees when I left my house and warmed up to the mid-40s by late afternoon. Frost and ice lingered in the shaded canyons throughout the day, so the puffy, hat, and gloves were required for the longer descents. That's right, puffy in the 40s. I'm not nearly as thick-blooded as I'd like to believe.

 We made our way from Leah's apartment in the Mission to Mount Tam, and then worked our way back through the Marin Headlands on a steep and undulating network of fireroads and trails.

 It was a strenuous route but a mellow ride — fifty miles, 6,680 feet of climbing, over 6.5 hours. There was plenty of chatting, laughing, picnicking, and coasting down ribbons of singletrack so smooth and relaxing that they seemed to instantly erase the thousand-foot grunt we'd endured to get there. Some rides are just like that. No epic battles. No lingering pain. Just smiles in the sunlight.

I like to go outside and move through the world. If there's one central trait at the core of my being, it's this. And somedays, maybe most days, this one thing is enough. 
Friday, January 11, 2013

A little housekeeping

There was a "winter storm advisory" for the Santa Cruz Mountains above 1,200 feet on Thursday, so I set out in the afternoon to see if any rare white flakes had graced the tip of Black Mountain. There wasn't any snow, but there was thick frost forming on the gravel and smooth ice across puddles. After a week of smoggy inversion, the air was so clear that I could look out across the valley and see intricate details in the cityscape and red sunlight stretched over the white domes of the Mount Hamilton Observatory, some 25 miles away. It was a beautiful afternoon, punctuated with a toe-tingling descent into the eerie quiet of the canyon at dusk — and finally, for the first time this year, actually dressed warm enough for the 2,700-foot plunge (thanks winter storm advisory.) Happy Hour. Or two.

I've been working on some blog updates, and I wanted to address something you may or may not have noticed on Jill Outside ... ads. Sigh, I know. It's an experiment. I'm working on setting up some advertising contacts for Half Past Done and decided I should test the waters with Google Adsense. But as I researched the program, it occurred to me I could get a much better sense about the earning potential of such advertising at my personal blog, which receives a decent number of direct hits every day. I've stated before that I never wanted to monetize this blog, and I don't. I'm doing this with a plan for it to be a temporary change. Still, it's interesting to see what this blog has "earned" in the 24 hours these ads have been up. While the numbers aren't going to send me to Disneyland anytime soon, I can't help but wonder what might have been if I sold out on day one of this blog's seven-year lifespan. That would be a fun vacation.

I also finally linked to Half Past Done in the sidebar. There's a feed-reader below the logo so you can view the headlines of the latest updates.

Also updated my blog links. There were more than a few dead or nearly-dead ones in there (why do so many bloggers abandon their blogs? This makes me feel lonely.) I'm going to fill up the links with more of the blogs I browse occasionally and enjoy, but the link lists are truncated to the top ten most recently updated. This is my own way of acknowledging my gratitude for frequently updated blogs.

Finally, I updated the book list with the most recent links, including my most recently published book, the blog compilation "Arctic Glass." If you enjoy the content at Jill Outside, the best support you can offer is one of those "cups of coffee" purchases of an eBook. If you don't have an e-Reader or iPad, you can purchase a PDF or text file from this link that can be read on any computer. Your support is appreciated.

One last update — the book projects. I am getting very close on one of them. It's a memoir about the year I lived in Homer, Alaska. If I tried to blurb it in one short sentence, I would call it "A love story about Alaska" but this makes it sound kitschy. There's a few different elements to this story — new Alaskan, quirky community, the trials of navigating young-person poverty and a need to survive harsh winters, and a sudden and strange desire to ride bicycles very long distances in the snow (I promise this is only a part of the book's content.) I've been working to incorporate more humor and less endurance focus in this book than my others. I need to work it through the editing process and, of course, finish it first. But I am hoping for a spring release, early summer latest. I am thinking about titling it "Becoming Frozen," in honor of my many Modest Mouse references in the early days of this blog.

Thanks for reading. Your support may help me avoid real jobs through another great year of adventuring. 
Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Beat and Liehann in better (if sleepy) times, before the Crystal Springs trail race on Saturday. 
Liehann was the first of my good friends who was serious about racing the Tour Divide, and had a plan in place for June of this year. This weekend, he was over at our place discussing the build of my Moots 29er, researching Rohloff hubs, and mulling the finer points of bikepacking kits. On Saturday morning, we coaxed Liehann out to his longest foot race to date — the 35-kilometer version of the Crystal Springs Trail Run. Although he'd never been much of a runner before moving to the Bay Area from South Africa in 2011, Liehann recently started venturing over to the dark side, reasoning that all training is good training. He was off to a great start for an exciting year.

Then, on Monday morning, Liehann got on his mountain bike to commute to work, along five miles of paved bike path between his house and the Google campus. It had rained on Sunday and the pavement was slightly damp, but he didn't think much of it as he pedaled up a pedestrian bridge that passes over a busy freeway. As he started coasting down the other side, he hit the brakes just as his rear tire lost traction on the slick wooden planks, locking up the wheel and pivoting the bike, which slapped him on the ground like a dead fish. At first he was confused. He knew he hit hard, and didn't think he could get up, so Liehann called Beat and asked him if he could borrow a car, pick him up, and take him to work. By the time Beat arrived, a park maintenance guy was there with a small vehicle, and the two tried to move Liehann into the cart. When lifting his shoulders a few inches off the ground caused Liehann to nearly pass out in pain, they called 911.

Several hours later, Liehann got his first glimpse of the X-rays, which he described as "a shock." His femur was broken in five pieces, a web of fractures near his hip joint. The prognosis — minimum four to six weeks on crutches, three to six months recovery. Late that evening, surgeons inserted a few large chunks of metal into his leg.

And just like that, the first half of 2013 has been dramatically rearranged for Liehann. Beat and I went to the hospital to visit him on Monday and Tuesday evening, and it's been sobering to watch Liehann accept this — no Tour Divide this year. No MLK weekend trip to Hawaii. No more mountain biking or trail running for a long while. No work, difficulty conducting day-to-day tasks, and loss of independence for at least a couple of weeks. Several months of physical therapy and painful recovery. We try to reassure him with statements of "you know, it could have been a lot worse." And it's true — it could have been. But honestly, that statement tends to ring a bit hollow to me, because of course worse things can happen. Worse things can always happen, but these vague non-realties don't diminish real and disappointing setbacks.

Liehann's first baby step after surgery
And there's also that element of disbelief, that "wait a minute, these things don't happen." Liehann is an avid mountain biker; he rides rugged trails all the time. He's a new trail runner, where inexperience increases the chance of falling. A couple of years ago he participated in the Freedom Challenge, a 2,350-kilometer self-supported mountain bike race across South Africa. These things are dangerous, but badly breaking a leg while bike commuting to work on a paved path, away from traffic, in a solo crash? These things don't happen ... do they?

It's human nature to look for take-away lessons, some kind of rationale we can construct from the random and unpredictable events of our lives. In Liehann's case, only one lesson comes to my mind — "Life is dangerous. All of it. Dangerous." And in that regard, it almost seems silly to fret about running through the dark woods or launching down a rocky trail on a mountain bike. You can never know what will take you down, so why worry?

For his part, Liehann is taking it well, reaching acceptance and looking forward to activities such as swimming and, in a more distant future, gentle walking. Beat urged him to use this time to "write a kick-ass app." As for me, I made my slowest road bike descent ever on Monte Bello Road on Monday, throttling the brakes as fear gripped me and every tight corner threatened to take me down. But on Tuesday's trail run, I loosened up a little, making an concentrated effort to hold a sub-8-minute pace down the Wildcat Trail in my ongoing goal to become a more confident downhill runner. Life is dangerous, after all, so I might as well embrace it.