Thursday, February 28, 2013

Solidarity (sorta)

After three hours and two moose, but not a single other person on the trail, I heard a chorus of low, guttural barks. "Ooo, sled dogs," I thought, and veered to the side of the faint track in anticipation of them running past. I was standing at the far end of a narrow valley surrounded by steep peaks, so there wasn't really anywhere else for them to go. But I waited a minute, and all I heard was the high-pitched moan of the wind. I looked around and thought I detected quiet yips, but saw no dog teams — no one was there. After a brief pause the thought occurred to me, "You're not in California right now." I've become accustomed to running trail systems where the deer are so habituated that they'd let me pet them if I wanted to. Out here, strange sounds can be a number of things — but they're most certainly not docile deer. A shiver trickled down my spine, but there was nothing in sight to fear. "Maybe it was my imagination," I thought. "Or the wind."

This afternoon I decided to load up my sled and take it for a training run up Hatcher Pass. I stocked full overnight gear and an extra liter of water for good measure, because all extra weight is good weight in training. The Willow Fishhook Road ended in a gate, and from there I had no idea how far it was to the pass. I decided to hike on the soft and wide snowmachine trail until I reached the better snowshoeing terrain up high.

There was a lot of overflow across the road. Some sections were so deep that my snowshoes punched several inches below the crust and my feet sank into slush, testing the waterproof capabilities of my Gortex Montrails (verdict: Not too shabby.) I also got out my Garmin to test speed versus effort levels (not my nonfunctional navigation unit. I have a 305 watch for pacing.) I very much want to figure out a way I can run on snow, dragging a sled, and have the effort pay off (versus killing myself for a measly extra 0.5 miles per hour.) The trail conditions didn't help my experiments — soft snow and slush meant I had to wear snowshoes the entire way, and added a lot of resistance. But I have to say that these running experiments were a major failure. I pushed my heart rate all the way to 180 and barely cracked the 12-minute-mile barrier. Most paces were around 14-minute miles. I can walk 16-minute miles with considerably less effort. Ah, running on snow ... such a puzzle for me! I think one has to exceptionally strong, which I'm not, or train very specifically, which I can't. It would be similar to choosing to run all of the uphills in a long ultra. I would flare out so quickly but a part of me still wants to crack that code.

And, as it turns out, Hatcher Pass is not a close jaunt from the Willow side. The approach itself was more than seven miles, and once I was there, I figured I should do the snowshoeing I wanted to do. I marched up a low ridge and then dropped back into the valley to explore until I heard the real-or-imagined coyotes-or-wolves. After that incident, I felt a sharp sting of aloneness that prompted me to move more quickly down the canyon, even running occasionally.

The hike down from the pass started to feel long. I really didn't intend to set out for an 18-mile snowshoe hike with a full sled this afternoon. An overcast pall had moved in, it was getting dark, and I was grumpy. "This is such a slog," I griped to myself. "Why did I hike all the way up there? Why am I doing 100K on foot? I wonder if I should show up to the Homer Epic with my bike instead?" But then my thoughts flashed to Beat, who I knew was marching into the Alaska Range toward Puntilla Lake at that same moment. For a few moments I felt a thread of connection in sore quads, wet socks, cold toes, and the ethereal sort of mind wander spurred by long walks alone in black-and-white worlds. I wondered if Beat felt the same things I was feeling, and then I realized that he did not — because he wasn't returning from a measly 18-mile jaunt with a junior sled. His experiences ran that much deeper and wider. The realization made me feel silly for indulging in grumpiness. I marched harder and sloshed through the overflow with a renewed sense of perspective.

I received my latest call from Beat at 9 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after he arrived at Puntilla Lake Lodge. He sounded tired and slurred his words, so I couldn't decipher everything he told me in the short three-minute call. But he did tell a funny story about traveling through the Happy River Steps with Tim Hewitt. The Happy River Steps are a notorious section of trail that drop steeply into the Skwentna River and climb just as steeply out, on short pitches of 30- and 40-degree slopes. Tim didn't want to section out his hundred-pound sled and make multiple trips, so he let the heavy sled push him wildly down the hills, and then got down on all fours to heave the thing up the steps, like a true beast of burden. "He's just so determined," Beat said, as though he could hardly understand it himself. Beat said he plans to rest a full night at Puntilla and set out in the morning for the harsh climb up Rainy Pass. Temperatures there are still mild, with highs near 20 and lows around 0, with light winds and a small chance of snow. I'm hoping they stay that way for his crossing on Thursday.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A glimpse of the Great Land

On Monday afternoon, a weather window opened wide enough to allow my bush pilot friend Dan Bailey and I to fly over the Iditarod Trail toward Skwentna. We made the exact same flight during the race last year, notably a full day later as everyone was moving considerably slower due to a storm at the start. This year the lead cyclists were already pedaling into the Alaska Range, but Dan and I were able to catch the action in the foot race. I posted more photos on my Half Past Done blog, but here are a few of my favorites:

Dan flying his little yellow Cessna beside Mount Susitna. It's funny, but I used to have a visceral fear of flying. This fear increased over the years until I had to psyche myself up to deal with the most benign of commercial flights. Small planes terrified me. But racing in the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational had a deep effect on my sense of what qualifies as scary. I remember sitting on that PennAir flight out of McGrath and thinking, "Wow, this is nothing at all." Flying hasn't bothered me since. Which is good, because it's so fun to fly over frozen swamps and spruce forests in little planes.

We were able to catch most of the runners who were spread out along a 40-mile section of the Yentna River, and also quite a few cyclists. Dan buzzed low and we waved at everyone from the air. Most were still enthused enough to wave back.

To the north, the air was clear enough to reveal an incredible view of Denali, Mount Foraker, and the Alaska Range skyline.

We landed at the Skwentna airstrip for lunch and a brief chat with racers at the Roadhouse, and again caught the lead runner in the race — this time Dave Johnston. Dave arrived just after 3 p.m. — meaning he ran 90 miles in 25 hours, in soft and punchy snow, dragging an expedition sled. Dave is ever the character, sporting a woolly hunter cap, a homemade face mask, camo shirt, elbow warmers,  and a rather minimalist looking pair of running shoes. He indulged in a few cans of Budweiser before his lunch. I'm actually spending a few days with Dave's wife Andrea in Willow, so I asked him if he wanted me to relay a message to her. After the usual miss-you-love-you, along with the expected "this is really hard," he said, "Remind her not to change the cats' litter box." (Andrea is six months pregnant.) I said, "Well who's going to change it while you're gone?" He just shrugged. "I don't know. But she shouldn't." That's the kind of laid-back attitude Dave has — no worries about logic. Something will work out. He's having a strong race this year.

On the way back, we finally caught a glimpse of Beat, who we'd missed on the way out. He looked good and was moving well, although later he told me he's having tendinitis issues in his big toe, a kind of non-serious but nagging pain that is gnawing away at his tenacity. I hope it's one of those pains that works itself out. He sounded downright despondent during a Tuesday morning phone call outside of Skwentna after a long rest. But he perked up several hours later when he called from Shell Lake, even though the trail was so soft he had to wear his snowshoes (which he strongly dislikes wearing.) I appreciate these early days of the race when Beat still calls me often. That tends to change as the days drag on.

 A couple of setbacks have prompted me to defer my Yentna River bike tour. The first is the warm weather, which climbed into the upper 30s in Willow today. Susitna Valley trails are mush right now. Pedaling out to Swentna and back was dependent on decent trail conditions — I don't necessarily want to spend twelve- to fifteen-hour days pushing my bike. Also, my Garmin eTrex 30 suddenly died. I can't even power it up to troubleshoot anything — it turns on and then shuts off within seconds. When I'm traveling alone in big wildernesses, GPS serves as my main security blanket. Even if I know where I am, I like GPS to confirm my position. I could likely navigate this route on my own with my maps and a compass, as it effectively involves two big rivers. But still I lack confidence and I don't like to feel lost. In fact, I'd rather feel cold than lost. I hate when I'm lost. So I'll see if I can hold out for another three-day span with cooler weather and a new GPS.

I sat down today with the intention of getting some work done, but Alaska has proven time and again that I am just not a productive self-motivator in the vicinity of so much adventure possibility and beauty. I reasoned a quick afternoon outing would allow me to determine just how bad snow conditions are right now, so I pedaled away from Andrea's house and onto the Parks Highway. Within a mile, I found my way to the most wonderful trail system I've seen yet. It was well-marked, groomed, and extended for miles across the valley.

 Anchorage has become such a snow-biking mecca that its multi-use trails can feel crowded and contentions with other trail users can run high. Willow is still the realm of dog mushers, who are friendly as long as you give them their needed space. The musher trails are well-maintained, open to everyone, lead to some wonderful views, and see little traffic. I was all alone for much of my ride. I passed three mushers and two snowmachine groups. The second group stopped to ask me if I checked out a nearby Willow Creek trail system that they were building. "It has ramps and berms and would be a great place to ride one of those snow bikes," a guy said. I hadn't checked it out — but a snow bike park? Really? I must have found fat bike heaven.

 With sun baking the open swamps, I felt like I was back in California. At one point I had stripped down to the same layers I use to go for rainy trail runs in the Bay area (tights, a long-sleeve shirt, and a vest) and had my pogies pushed down so I could dry my hands. It was still cooler than 40 degrees, but with the sun reflection off the snow, it felt summertime hot. Even the well-groomed trails turned to mush. I worked a consistent zone-four heart rate just to pedal an average of 5 mph, and swerved wildly with my out-of-practice snow handling, making plenty of snow angels as a result. Even churning through mashed potatoes, I was enjoying myself so much. I veered off the trail system onto the Susitna River and pedaled nine miles up the Big Su, basking in the sun.

My 5.5-hour ride netted me 35 miles of snowbiking bliss, weaving through the spruce forests and climbing small bluffs. This kind of riding is hard work, right up there with dirt trail running, and I'm exhausted. I'll probably go for a run tomorrow to give myself a break. (And because my two foot races would benefit from some specific snow training.) Still, I am enamored with Willow trails and the exploration capabilities of the Fatback. I'm not sure I can stay away.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Iditarod, again

Anne and Beat on the Iditarod Trail
I was going to write a personal blog post about arriving in Alaska, the lead-up to the Iditarod Trail Invitational and the race start at 2 p.m. Sunday, but I have to admit I'm a bit emotionally drained right now. More than an hour after the race started, I loaded up my fat bike and pedaled out the Iditarod Trail. It took me longer than I hoped to put my bike together, but I wanted to catch up to Beat and other foot racers as they marched over the rolling hills and frozen swamps of the Susitna River Valley. Temperatures were on the warm side — near freezing — and the trail and melted and churned up to a mashed potato consistency. It took me ten strenuous and maxed-out miles to finally catch Beat, who appeared shaken. He told me, "It's all starting to set in now, what I'm doing here."

It was a warm day, with temperatures in the high 20s to low 30s, and the trail was soft
I pedaled a bit farther and thought about all of the memories and emotions I have wrapped up in this trail, how it's still so intimidating and unpredictable, and yet familiar and comforting, like a small piece of my identity. And I thought about this thing that Beat is setting out to do, this thousand-mile walk to Nome — all of the inevitable hardships, the unnerving dangers, the strong beauty and raw emotions that will no doubt change a piece of his own identity, regardless of whether he makes it or not.

Tim Hewitt, Beat, and me at the start
I passed Beat, who was traveling with our friend Anne Ver Hoef, for the last time at Burma Road. It occurred to me that this was likely the last road he'll cross that's still connected to the North American road system, for a thousand miles. Beyond this he is off the grid and out of reach — and it's hard. It's harder than I even expected. After I had passed the last of the foot racers, I indulged in a few tears. Then, at the top of a long hill, I stopped to catch my breath and unintentionally broke out into a blubbering mess for two or three minutes. I really just had to let it all out. It's a big weight, this churning ball of excitement and pride and fear; and this felt like big place, this birch canopy hill that is only the smooth edge of a vast and uncaring wilderness.

But I love this, too, in a different but still deep and visceral way. I feel strongly that Beat will get through his adventure just fine and emerge with every part of himself, including his emotional health, intact. But life is as fortuitous and ever-changing as this wilderness, and there's no way of knowing or understanding the future until it's already deep in the past. But I have hope, and that's one thing humans can hang onto, the one thing life can never take away unless we let it.

If the weather is good on Monday, my friend Dan and I hope to fly over the Yentna River and see Beat and other foot racers. If it's not, perhaps I'll write a lengthier blog post. For now, I posted some more pictures and a bit of a report at Half Past Done
Friday, February 22, 2013

Let's pretend we're in Antarctica

Here I was yet again, T-minus a few days to another winter visit to Alaska, fending off hypothermia in coastal California. When I left the trailhead for a ninety-minute run, it was 42 degrees and raining. I didn't bring a coat because I didn't realize it going to be that cold, but I reasoned I could just run harder. Then I broke out of the emerald protection of the forest and ran straight into a wall of wind as it drove daggers of rain through my soaked shirt. At that elevation, raindrops had the kind of sharp definition they take on just before rain turns to sleet, and the windchill was brutal — I'd place it in the 20s, easily. And I was wet and had no wind protection or gloves.

Ah, California, you always manage to catch me with my guard down just when I need to re-learn a valuable lesson about underestimating the effects of cold — like how frustrating it is when fingers go numb or when my quads are so cold that every pounding downhill step feels like an electric shock. My muscles were too cold to engage the higher gears needed to increase my heat output, so I simply settled into a numb jog knowing I'd be fine but slightly miserable for a while. Dropping off of the exposed ridgeline and back into tree protection improved my mood substantially, even as the rain intensified. Slicked with precipitation, the leaves and grass were intensely green; the trail was covered in fun splashy puddles, and I had the whole normally crowded park all to myself (ask a local what they wear to go outside during a winter storm, and most will probably respond with a confused expression. Go outside?) But spring is in full effect now, and by the time I return from Alaska at the end of March, it will be nearly summer. I admit I will miss this green.

That partially paralyzing anxiety and pre-race jitters are really clamping down now; I'm not sure who's more nervous about Beat's expedition to Nome, him or me. It's impossible to form a concept of the 1,000-mile expedition as a whole, so he's taken to visualizing it in pieces, and thinking out loud about just how horrible each section is going to be. The other day we discussed the Yukon River — a couple hundred miles of a wide and flat river plain plunged into a 40-below freezer and buffeted by gale-force winds. "It will be awesome," I said. "Just pretend you're in Antarctica." Beat looked at me with a raised eyebrow that clearly said, "How is that supposed to be better?"

But deep down he knows he's going to relish the experience and I know I'm going to spend more moments of this month freaking out than I like to admit. I've actually compiled a fairly full calendar for myself, but I'm going to make my best effort to post regular updates about Beat and other news from the Iditarod Trail Invitational when I'm on the grid (and if I'm going to be off the grid, I'll post how long so the lack of updates doesn't worry anyone.) News will be posted at my endurance racing blog, Half Past Done, with more frequent quick updates on Twitter and Facebook. Here's a list of links to follow Beat's progress:

Half Past Done
HPD Twitter page
Jill's Facebook page
ITI Latest News
ITI Leaderboard

We leave for Alaska later this afternoon (Friday) and the race begins at 2 p.m. Alaska time Sunday. I'm headed out for one last quick run in the sunny green hills (60 degrees today) and then it's a month of snow and ice that I plan to live to the fullest. Yesterday one of Beat's friends sent him a video that seemed appropriate — Of Montreal's "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games." ...

"Let's have bizarre celebrations. 
Let's forget when, forget what, forget how. 
We'll have bizarre celebrations. 
We'll play Tristan and Iseult, but make sure I see white sails. 
Let's pretend we don't exist;
Let's pretend we're in Antarctica." 

 More soon.
Monday, February 18, 2013

The best kind of bonk ride

I sought out Sunny Jim Trail primarily because I despise it so. There were a few seconds of weakness as I wavered at the crossing of Skyline Drive with its smooth and flat pavement, less than a mile to my next connector trail on Russian Ridge. And then there was Sunny Jim with its 600 feet of elevation gain in a half mile followed by a teeth-chattering descent. It's a mean, mean fire road, and to top it off, my blood sugar had plummeted off the edge of pleasantness. I had the h'anger. And even though there wasn't a single viable reason why I should take Sunny Jim over Skyline, I promised myself a fruit snack if I could pedal all the way to the crest without keeling over.

Sunny Jim's grades top 20 percent. It's a leg-buster on a good day, but riding it bonked after several thousand feet of climbing in the midst of a five-hour ride is another experience altogether. My legs filled with hot lead and my lungs seared in the sixty-degree air. My head spun but I couldn't dab, couldn't let my feet touch the dirt of sweet relief, no I would not. Every time I passed a trail sign pointing the way to a friendlier piece of singletrack where bikes are not allowed, I sneered at it. "I hate you Sunny Jim. I hate you so much." And then I couldn't breathe, so I couldn't speak, so I hated Sunny Jim in silence, with the fire of a thousand suns.

I mashed past a family of hikers who regarded me with unveiled concern. I was full-on wheezing at that point and I didn't care who could hear my gasps of desperation. Sunny Jim was destroying me, and I couldn't let that happen. Too steep to stand out of the saddle, almost steep enough to tip backward, I leaned into my handlebars and mashed with all of the sputtering power my h'anger could release. By the crest I was so dizzy I could no longer read the hateful trail sign, but I knew what that fluttering brown square meant. My backpack was tossed on the ground before I even got off the bike, and I ripped into the pack like a wolf, extracting all of its guts for the prize at the bottom. I devoured the small pack of fruit snacks in two bites, and ate another without deciding to, even though that was all the fruit snacks I had. (Whoops on forgetting to restock my backpack.)

Sugar rushed into my blood stream as I plummeted down the steep track — instant energy plus endorphins plus exhilaration exploded into a chemical reaction that is my secret solution for a most sublime level of bliss. All of my endurance experiments have taught me tricks for manipulating my physical reactions and emotions to both push through tough times and squeeze the most joy out of my experiences. I admit I suspected Sunny Jim would be fair payment for an incredible second half for the last trail ride I'll likely be able to squeeze in before I leave for Alaska.

I raced around my favorite Russian Ridge trails, taking in views like this. Somewhere in there my 160 calories of fruit snacks burned out. I was too blissed out to notice, but my head did start to feel fuzzy again, my gut noticeably hollow. No matter; it was time to turn toward home via my favorite descent in all of the region, Alpine Road. Alpine Road is actually a segment of trail that I believe was once a logging road, but in a couple of decades of MPOSD jurisdiction has overgrown and washed out to a fast and flowing singletrack that drops steeply into the Portola Valley. On Sunday, the trail was in hero dirt condition. Fuzzy endurance (or in this case, hungry) brain helps break up some of my more useless inhibitions, and I flew down the descent and hugged the tighter turns with a kind of instinctive confidence I can't easily access in stronger physical condition. Yay for stupid fun.

I don't often ride Alpine Road because it dumps me out near the I-280 corridor about fifteen miles from home. It often seems like too big of a busy pavement price to justify the ride. But on Sunday it seemed totally worth it, and I had just enough time to spin the big ring home before dark. However, I managed to take the wrong right turn off of Alpine and started climbing back into the Los Trancos Hills. It seemed not quite right, but I was certain, somehow, that this road connected back up to where I needed to be. I climbed as the road led up steeper and steeper grades, and still I continued climbing. Eventually I felt not well at all and then I hit a dead end. I switched my GPS screen to check my elevation and saw I had reached 1,400 feet. The freeway corridor is at 100 feet. I called Beat.

"I'm running late," I told him. "But it's because I'm lost. Can you tell me if, um, let's see, if Los Trancos Road connects back up with Page Mill?"

Beat looked up my location and informed me that I was essentially riding into a spiderweb of dead-end roads. "Are you sure this doesn't connect with Page Mill?" I insisted. "I left Alpine Road like a half hour ago and then I climbed a thousand feet. I don't want to go back."

He insisted that even if I found a magical connector trail that was not on the map, Page Mill would eventually lead me to nearly the same spot as Alpine Road, and I'd still have about the same distance to ride home. All of these complex concepts were just confusing me. I didn't have the energy to argue but I wasn't all that disappointed either. I launched into my accidental road descent that was actually a lot of fun. 36 mph.

I had to strap on my headlight and red blinky to pedal home but that was okay, too. The setting sun washed the sky in pink light and I felt peaceful and content, like I could keep pedaling forever, fruit snacks or none. 
Sunday, February 17, 2013

Typical week

Beat and I are getting down to the wire with our Alaska preparations. We both have our gear strewn all over the house. Even though Beat is gearing up for a 1,000-mile expedition, I definitely have more stuff than him since I need gear for winter bike touring and bike commuting and overnight sled trips and racing. I'm fretting over how I can cull it down without leaving something crucial behind, and even then doubt I'll have room for anything else. Guess I'll have to wear the same jeans and T-shirt for a month.

All of this flurry makes me feel like I won't have much else to write about until we get there. But if you haven't read this yet, I urge you to check out a profile I wrote about Tim Hewitt (link here), who's preparing to make his seventh trek to Nome, this time completely unsupported. In his own matter-of-fact way, Tim once talked me out of making a very bad decision. But then he effectively talked Beat into signing up for Nome, which could be considered a bad decision. So I guess in the grand scheme of the universe it all evens out. Regardless of his bad influence on Beat, Tim is a compelling athlete with an incredible story. I appreciate him taking the time to answer my questions.

Beyond the gear explosion, this has been a typical week for me with writing projects and afternoon exercise. It's actually been a few years since I've bothered to keep a quantified record of my workouts. I carry a Garmin for most of my trail runs and maybe half of my bike rides, mostly because the GPS keeps me on pace or allows me to track a route. But I rarely plug these numbers into any kind of log or add them together. However, this week I actually did some comprehensive Garmin'ing, and since it represents a typical week for me, I thought I'd compile the stats:

Monday: Road bike ride, 18.1 miles, 2,577 feet of climbing. 1:27
Tuesday: Trail run, 6.5 miles, 983 feet of climbing. 1:04
Wednesday: Fat bike ride, 24.1 miles, 3,392 feet of climbing. 2:33
Thursday: Trail run, 8 miles, 1,645 feet of climbing. 1:22
Friday: Road bike ride, 18.3 miles, 2,563 feet of climbing. 1:31
Saturday: Trail run, 12.2 miles, 2,178 feet of climbing. 2:08

Total: 60.5 miles cycling, 26.7 miles running, 13,338 feet of climbing, 9:05 total time.

Of course this is only six days of the week. Most weeks contain at least one longer (four-plus-hour) adventure, usually a mountain bike ride but occasionally a 50K trail race. (Training runs longer than 15 miles are a rarity for me. Usually if I have that much time to play outside I'd rather be cycling.) Also, I rarely take rest days, unless I'm either too busy to get outside, injured or sick, or —somewhat rarely — feel like I need the recovery. Limited rest days have been part of my workout habits since I took up daily outdoor activity back in 2005. And it's a reflection of my motivations.

I like to focus on "fun" and "forever fitness" and skew my workouts toward activities that let me get outside for small-time adventures most every day, rather than lock myself to a plan that injects variable intervals of pain and recovery. I'm leery of risking my "forever fitness" on high-intensity workouts that carry a higher risk of injury. (This is especially true for running. I'm way more likely to peg it and often do when I'm cycling.) It's fine to want to be the fastest version of yourself, but speed has never interested me enough to pursue it with any passion. What sparks my passion is distance — the ability to travel under my own power over intriguing landscapes. I want to find out just how far I can go, and how efficiently I can run. I'm like the proud owner of a Toyota Prius. I may be puttering along the freeway as others zoom by, but darn it, I'm going to figure out how to get sixty miles per gallon, so I'll still be on the road long after the BMWs and even Subarus have exited for refueling.

I realize there are better ways I could go about building endurance. But my way makes me happy and does seem to establish a solid base that allows me to say, "Multiple strenuous adventures to fill nearly every waking hour I spend in Alaska? Don't mind if I do!" Beyond planning a few different multi-night bike tours, I also registered for another foot race — a 25-miler in Fairbanks. There's a decent chance I'll overdo it in Alaska because I have so much confidence in my endurance right now. I've been there (last spring, actually), and spent more than a month wondering where all of my energy went. But, as they say, if you want to discover how far you can go, you will risk going too far.

In the end, it's all a wonderful excuse to go play outside:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My fat bike history

I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't ridden the Fatback in several months. Since I'm planning to take this bike to Alaska and ride it many miles to far-away places, I figured I should go for at least a couple of shakedown rides to see what might need replacing or adjusting. The verdict: Definitely must replace the rear Endomorph tire (I feel bad removing a relic when Surly is discontinuing production, but it's as bald as a bowling ball.) Also, new brake pads. The shifter cables could use some adjustment, too.

As I pedaled up Montebello Road toward the ridge, a friendly vineyard farmer (viticulturist?) pulled up beside me in his truck. "What kind of tires are those?" he asked. "Is that one of those fat-tired bikes?"

"It is," I replied. "They're made in Alaska for riding on snow."

"I've heard about them," he said enthusiastically. "But I never thought I'd see one up here. Those bikes must be all over the place now."

I nodded, "Yeah, even in California."

The farmer's comment got me thinking about the growing presence of fat bikes in the Lower 48, and the way many cyclists around here view these bikes as a kind of fad. They started showing up in magazines, they seem quirky and possibly fun, but not really practical. And when you live in a region with little to no proximity to sand or snow, it's true they're not practical. There's no denying I haven't ridden the Fatback for months and hardly missed it. But I'm still a big proponent of fat bikes. If I was forced to use only one bike for all for the riding I do for the rest of my life, I would choose a fat bike. To me, fat bikes have never been trendy or stylish. They're awkward and heavy, but incredibly useful. And I should know, because I was a slow adopter myself.

Now here's something that would be almost unthinkable in the modern era of fat biking — showing up for a hundred-mile winter race in Alaska with a 26" full-suspension mountain bike. This is my set-up on a Gary Fisher Sugar mere minutes before I set out to race the 2006 Susitna 100. I like to go back to this picture from time to time and laugh at myself. Yes, that is a seatpost rack loaded with what must be at least fifteen pounds of cheap synthetic sleeping bag, pad, stove, and a liter of water that I never touched. And yes, those are studded tires — totally useful on soft snow, those are. Strapped to the rear shock is a K-mart handlebar bag filled with Clif Bars and, get this, open hand warmers to keep them "thawed." I don't even remember what the handlebar sack holds, only that it wasn't the dry clothing I badly needed when I became soaked through during a rainstorm that hit near mile 65 of my race. The resulting ankle-deep slush on the trail and chill from being soaking wet at 37 degrees were ... intense. I struggled and shivered and hiked and hiked. Shortly after we met, Beat asked me if I had ever run an ultramarathon. At first I replied no, but later I thought about it and said, "Well I did push my bike for most of the last 35 miles during the 2006 Susitna 100." Totally counts as a first ultramarathon in my book. If I'd had a fat bike, I may have gotten off the river before the rain came.

Problem was, I couldn't really afford a fat bike. But I wanted to race the Susitna 100 again, so in late 2006 I cobbled together the parts for a semi-fat mountain bike — an old Raleigh steel frame, a Surly (One-One?) fork, 40mm Snowcat rims, and 2.7" Timberwolf tires. I had to carve off the knobs with a box cutter in order to fit the rear tire in the frame. It was a faux snow bike, so I called it "Snaux Bike." Snaux Bike was marginally better than the full-suspension mountain bike. I shaved five hours off my Susitna 100 finishing time in 2007, but wrecked my knee in the process. To this day I still wonder if the fit of the bike was partly to blame for my injury.

After my knee healed, I got the bug to race the 350-mile version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and decided Snaux Bike wasn't going to cut it for that daunting expedition. After two years of dedicated snow biking, it was finally time to buy a real fat bike. In late 2007, there were only a handful of options — Vicious Cycles, the now-gone Wildfire Designs, and the new and exciting Surly Pugsley. In order to keep it within my limited budget, I purchased a set of used Large Marge rims and Endomorph tires on eBay, and scavenged most of the components from Snaux Bike. The frame I bought new, battleship gray and beautiful. It was love at first sight.

Pugsley and I shared many happy miles (and not a small number of not-so-happy miles) as we navigated a whole new world together. The addition of a fat bike in my life opened my eyes to what was possible after two years of riding sub-optimal bikes in all kinds of conditions. Pugsley made all the difference — suddenly I could pedal all kinds of trail conditions I had long accepted as unridable. As they say, once you go fat, you never go back.

In summer 2010, after I'd moved to Missoula, I met Beat. Shortly after he convinced me to run my first non-bike-pushing ultramarathon (although still unofficial, since I was pacing him at the Bear 100), I convinced him to sign up for a fat bike race — the 2011 White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks. If he was going to ride a snow bike race, he reasoned, he would definitely need a snow bike. He bought an aluminum Fatback with a carbon fork that weighed in a full seven pounds lighter than my steel Pugsley. There were many aspects of Beat I found endearing ... sexy, funny, brilliant, crazy ultra-athlete ... but I have to admit that the Fatback purchase really sealed the deal. Any man who's willing to ride fat bikes with me is a keeper. We had a great time training through the winter in Montana. He did go on to opt out of biking the White Mountains 100 so he could run it instead (reasoning that he needed the gear testing session for the Iditarod 350 the following year.) I was perfectly okay with that decision, because it meant I could ride his Fatback in the race.

The Fatback (which we unimaginatively named Fatty) proved to be a wonderful bike. It was light and swift and handled like a mountain bike, rather than the tractor-like handling I'd become accustomed to with Pugsley. My loyalty to Pugsley began to fade when I realized the Fatback was just that much more fun to ride. After I moved away from Montana, and Beat and I no longer had a close-by venue to ride fat bikes together, I adopted Fatty as my own. Truth is, Fatty is still Beat's bike. But I love it as though it's mine.

By early 2012, I started to feel genuine guilt about never riding Pugsley anymore. He just hung from a wall in my apartment in California, which is no life for a bike like Pugsley. As much as I still clung to my sentimentality about this bike, I couldn't relegate it to a wall decoration. I put up a small post on that the bike was for sale, all but implying that I was hoping for a good home even more than a good offer. I received an e-mail from a guy in Palmer, Alaska, who mentioned in his inquiry that he wanted a fat bike for overnight bike-rafting and beach riding. So Pugsley returned to the region where he belongs, and these are the adventures Pugsley has now. I'm a happy former owner.

Although I've taken Fatty to Alaska twice for the White Mountains 100, this will be his first trip to the place where it all started for me — the Susitna River Valley. I'm hoping to embark on a three-day tour up the Yentna River during the quiet week between the start of the ITI and the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. Hoping it will be a fine start to a wonderful month of Alaska adventures for Fatty and me.

Monday, February 11, 2013

High above the highway aisle

Beat made some more adjustments to his sled and wanted to get in one more round of testing before we head to Alaska on Feb. 22. His available time was limited this weekend, so we opted for the most convenient route — another overnight trek to Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Our trip away from our warm beds was less than 36 hours, including driving time. But even the utilitarian nature of the trip resulted in some remarkable scenery. I'm not sure Yosemite National Park has the ability to disappoint.

Although I have to be honest — I'm just about over the activity of hiking on the Glacier Point ski trail. The next morning we figured out that off-trail snow conditions were ideal — about four inches of new powder on top of hardened sun crust — so we spent more time trekking through the woods. Wending through pine trees atop soft powder, although slower, was considerably more fun than the groomed road. I'll have to keep that in mind should I find another chance to go snowshoeing in Yosemite. Still, the 10-mile trek up the mountain took us into an ethereal fog, quiet and cool with temperatures in the low 20s and dropping.

Beat's sled and pack/harness system hangs from a frosty Jeffery Pine. I also took the opportunity to try out my own sled system — a cute three-foot "baby sled" that Beat constructed for me from the same ultra high molecular weight Polyethylene that he used to build his Nome sled. I had my -40 sleeping bag and pad, a big down coat, spare clothing, headlamp, snowshoes, and about 2,500 calories in food — enough for a comfy winter overnight minus the tent and stove/fuel that Beat was carrying. This sled was crazy light, and glided and tracked well on both the groomed trail and off trail. I hardly noticed it dragging behind me except on steeper climbs. I think I'll use this system in the Homer Epic 100K, and it will also be great for overnight treks in the Chugach Mountains (hoping to do at least a couple.)

 Shortly after we arrived on top of Sentinel Dome, the fog began to break up.

 Steve works his way up the final pitch to Sentinel Dome. The altitude made this climb a real lung-buster. Heading straight from the Bay area to 8,000 feet in a single day tends to get to me, too.
The fog continued to break apart as the sun set, erupting into a stream of golden light above the Yosemite Valley. 

I was still wandering around the dome checking out the Ansel Adams trees, all beautiful works of art born of rough and rugged lives.

As the light show flickered through the more protected trees below.

The view to the east, with the last wisps of crimson sunlight stretched across the high peaks of the Sierras.

Sentinel Dome is one of the most spectacular spots I've had the pleasure of spending a night. I spent long, satisfying moments looking out across the expanse and humming ethereal music to myself, like "Holocene" by Bon Iver: "At once, I knew I was not magnificent. High above the highway aisle, jagged vacance, thick with ice. I could see for miles and miles and miles ... "

After sunset, temperatures dropped into the low teens with a brisk breeze. Even though I brought a warmer down coat with me for this trip, I couldn't manage to keep my feet and legs warm without moving. In any winter activity, the transition from moving to not moving is the hardest part, but necessary for activities like cooking, melting snow, and watching stars. I need to spend more time learning how to manage the camping aspect of winter camping (as opposed to the ultra-racing, just-keep-moving-until-I'm-done strategy.) I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunities in Alaska next month.
The fog had completely cleared out by morning, revealing all of the granite walls and waterfalls we'd missed seeing the night before.

Our morning off-road ventures took us to Taft Point, which we learned upon approach is the sharp edge of a 2,000-foot sheer cliff. There was a cute little guardrail on the corner of the wall, and this is about as close as either of us could get with our similar levels of vertigo. Even that position was enough to feel a dizzy buzz from the exposure.

The view over the edge. Eeks.

We spent the first two hours of Sunday morning wending through moss-covered trees. Beat was more than satisfied with version three of his sled, which he has named "Crooky" because of a slightly crooked warp to the plastic that happened when he bent it into shape with heating strips. I posted his nearly finalized Nome gear list at my Half Past Done blog. I realized this week I need to work on finalizing my Alaska gear list. I can't believe how close it's all becoming.