Monday, April 29, 2013

Orange County

I went down to Huntington Beach to visit my baby sister this weekend. Some family members think that because we live in the same state, we must see each other all of the time. But HB is a solid six hours from where I live — and more like eight with L.A. traffic. Unlike most road trips, I enjoy very little about the drive, so it's tough to motivate to head down there ... but it's nice to see my sister. Beyond it being time for an annual visit, my brother-in-law is also something of a Craigslist pro and Beat and I wanted to sell two of our bicycles — my Rocky Mountain Element and Beat's Santa Cruz Blur. So I transported them down to Sara's with the hope that two Orange County riders will find value in these bikes. They're great bikes, they just don't see much use now that I have the Moots and Beat is angling for his own 29'er.

Sara and I had a great weekend, touring downtown Huntington and riding bikes to Balboa Island to eat frozen bananas (a Balboa-specific treat made famous by my favorite sitcom ever, "Arrested Development.") I sometimes tell people that Sara's and my most remarkable sisterly trait is how different we are. She's a California girl through and through, works at a high-end hotel, likes expensive purses and fashion, dislikes all things winter, isn't crazy about wilderness ventures, and can take or leave travel (unless it involves a tropical paradise.) But every time we see each other, we find new similarities. Sara recently signed up for a 30-day challenge at her Bikram yoga studio — a 90-minute session every day during the month of May. Having recently developed more of an interest in fitness, Sara wanted to know more about electrolyte supplements and fueling. It's telling of our differences that Sara's foray into an active lifestyle brought her to Bikram yoga — which is how I envision purgatory — but the 30-day yoga challenge is decidedly endurance and I'm excited to hear about her experiences.

While I was in Huntington, I tried to get in a couple of runs. Sara lives close to the Huntington pier and far from the hills, so the most reasonable place to go was the paved boardwalk that runs along the coast. I did a ten-mile run on Saturday and an eight-mile run on Sunday and struggled with both. There's something about road running that not only triggers nagging pains (such as shin pain) but also sucks the energy right out of me. I thought I'd be able to hold 9-minute-miles no problem but I lost my will and fell back to the 9:30 range. I have regular trail routes with singletrack switchbacks and a lot more climbing that I can average 9:30 on with considerably less perceived effort.

Just Wednesday, I had my best Black Mountain run yet — effectively bombed the downhill and wrapped up the 10-mile run with 2,700 feet of climbing in 1:58. Trail running on steep elevations and uneven surfaces is so much fun. The movements feel natural, and I rarely encounter the same repetitive motion pains and lack of motivation. I strongly dislike road running. Before, I believed I would just need to break my feet and body in to take it up, but now I suspect that I would rather quit running altogether than regularly run on roads. After all, that's what wheels are for. And walking. It's strange that I can enjoy a walk along a beach path and yet dislike running along the very same route. It's one of those reasons I continue to suspect that I'm not and may never be a "runner" — more like a hiker who's learning to move more efficiently over variable terrain. Or maybe I'm just annoyed with myself that I couldn't muster a decent run over the weekend. Oh well. It was a rather random week for outdoor activities, work and travel anyway. Perhaps I'm just tired.

Monday: Road cycling, 145 miles, 7,044 feet of climbing
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: Road cycling, 17.5 miles, 2,725 feet of climbing
Thursday: Trail run, 10.1 miles, 2,750 feet of climbing
Friday: 0
Saturday: Road run, 10 miles, 95 feet of climbing
Sunday: Road run, 8 miles, 104 feet of climbing
Total: 162.5 ride, 28.1 miles run, 12,718 feet climbing
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Another long day in the sun

Beat had an "off site" with his Google team this week, and one of his co-workers, Jeff, convinced Beat and Liehann that they should ride to the retreat in Big Sur, a distance of about 120 miles. Liehann, who is still trying to regain fitness after recovering from his broken leg, decided he'd be more comfortable with half the mileage, so I was recruited to ride with the group and then drive Liehann's car back from the meeting point. I'll never turn down an opportunity for a long ride, but I was admittedly not quite feeling it. Saturday's 31-mile run took a lot out of me, more than usual because of the day-long heat exposure. Early in the season, when I'm not yet adapted, long days in the sun seem to suck the life force out of me. Although I finished the Ohlone run feeling energized, by Sunday morning I felt ragged and my lips were raw. Despite my best efforts to apply sunscreen, I had a patchy sunburn; and despite two-plus gallons of water consumed during the run, I had a throbbing headache that had yet to subside after 36 hours. Monday morning brought much of the same, and wondered if I'd even have the 50 miles to Watsonville in my achy quads.

But here's where I draw inspiration from my now-far away experience in the Tour Divide. I had so many mornings when I woke up feeling like I was about to collapse in utter exhaustion, and then I got on my bike and pedaled into a new day. There was always something there, some spark of life, and it's this something that I am forever searching for. That life spark was not readily apparent in this ride, with its 6:30 a.m. start, and the company of Jeff and Beat, who are both so much stronger than me. We began the gradual climb into the Santa Cruz mountains and rolled along the summit ridge as I struggled to keep up and often fell behind. "I'm doing the best I can," I wheezed, but Beat wouldn't accept this excuse. It's a fair assessment, I suppose, because I know it's not my "best." But then again I don't even know where to find my low-end "best." My legs were empty and my head was still throbbing, and I was openly hoping the boys would decide to drop me for good.

But then the earliness of the too-warm morning finally drained away, and we launched into the long descent into Watsonville. With speed tears streaming down my cheeks, I started to remember how fun it is to spend entire days riding bikes. With the addition of Liehann to the group, I thought we'd settle into a friendlier pace. Maybe I could hang on a bit longer. South we went, along the rolling sand dunes of Monterey, with a stiff ocean wind pushing at our sides. It was a strange sensation because the air was still warm but the wind was noticeably cold — like standing in front of an air conditioner on a hot day. We enjoyed lunch at a little sandwich shop on the shoreline and then I talked myself into a jaunt around the peninsula on 17-Mile Drive, reasoning that I've lived in California for two years and I've never even been to Pebble Beach.

Fog moved in as we fought a fierce headwind, and I lagged behind too much to draw any help from the small paceline. We reached Carmel at mile 93. The boys had less than thirty more miles to their destination, but I was becoming concerned about my own timing with sunset — while night itself doesn't bother me, I have little desire to ride on roads after dark. I reluctantly turned around and rode the quartering tailwind at a nearly effortless 25 mph.

By Monterey the tailwind turned back to crosswind again, and my legs finally started to feel strong. It only took a hundred miles.

I finished up in Watsonville with 145 miles behind me — a few more than I anticipated. I've ridden farther in one day on a mountain bike, but this qualifies as my longest road ride yet. And now, a day later, I feel so much better than I did on Sunday. The knots in my quads worked themselves out; and despite fewer hours in the saddle these days, my iron butt seems to have held up and there's no lingering aches or sores. Many applications of spray-on SPF 30 prevented my sunburn from getting worse. And thanks to flat pedals, my feet are as happy as ever. (I should probably address the platforms, because I know they look ridiculous on a carbon road bike. My issue is that I haven't found a pair of bike shoes that don't cause me excruciating toe pain after more than four hours in the saddle. I blame nerve damage from frostbite four years ago, but the truth is this happens on both feet. I like to wear comfy shoes and I like to move my feet around as I ride. The consistent switching between toe and mid-foot helps me ward off knee pain during long rides. And the difference in power transfer falls somewhere between negligible to nonexistent for me. I suspect I'm simply conditioned to riding platforms and don't "pull" on the upstroke regardless of what I'm pedaling.)

But I think the lesson here is, if you feel a bit burnt and sore from a long run, the best course of action is to go for a long ride. Sometimes that spark of life takes a while to light up, but it's wonderful when you discover that it's still there, and has been, all along. 
Sunday, April 21, 2013

Layering up for summer

As we geared up for a 31-mile run on Saturday, I remarked to Beat that it takes longer to prepare for a summer run than a winter run, because summer running requires even more layers. First comes the anti-chafing layer on feet, arms, back, neck, butt, and upper legs. I like to use chamois cream but lately have been experimenting with a lard-like substance made in Australia called Gurney Goo. Then I apply a double layer of sunscreen, SPF 50, so there's three. Then comes the clothing layer — I generally favor a more robust combination of sleeves and three-quarter-length tights because it prevents the chafing I otherwise get on my thighs and armpits, and also adds more sun protection. Finally, during the run I add the inevitable layers of sweat, dust, bugs, and more sunscreen that eventually blends together into a coarse, disgusting paste. Altogether, I count four to six sticky, sweat-soaked layers on top of my skin. To be honest, I prefer fleece and Gortex.

Summer is the default condition here in the South Bay, with six months of solid summery weather followed by six months of indeterminate season that often resembles summer. Summer is also not a season in which I particularly thrive, what with my heat aversion, pale skin and sun sensitivity, allergic reactions to lots of green things and insects, and often voracious thirst. I won't go into the jealousy I feel at every photograph I see of more northerly and mountainous climes with their late spring snow, even when accompanied by less than cheerful captions. I get that most people prefer summer. I can work with it but it takes me a while to adapt.

Beat and I, along with our friends Steve and Harry, wanted to get in a longer run this weekend as a shakedown for the Quicksilver 50. Since we're missing out on the annual "spring" tradition of running the Ohlone 50K next month, we decided to set up an independent 31-miler on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which crosses the steep rolling hills that separate the East Bay from California's Central Valley. Although not wilderness in the John Muir sense, the area is relatively remote and some of the hills are nearly 4,000 feet high (actually, it's the Diablo Mountain Range, and reminds me a bit of the grassy ridges of the Italian Alps.)It's a great spot to stage a long run, except for there's almost no shade, and the weather forecast was calling for temperatures in the 80s. Some of those narrow windless canyons trap heat like an oven and make it feel at least 15 degrees warmer. I braced myself for full immersion into summer ... immersion by fire.

With plans for multi-day adventures this summer, Beat and I decided to test out the Jam 50-liter packs we just got from the 50-percent off sale at Golite. We wanted to load them up with a fair amount of weight to test the feel of the pack. I figured as long as I was packing a load, I might as well pack something useful — ice. I froze a three-liter bladder solid, and carried three 20-ounce bottles that were two thirds ice and one third water, along with one more 20-liter bottle of water just in case I drank all of the liquid water before enough ice melted. All in all, it was an obnoxious 180 ounces — or nearly 15 pounds — of fluid. And of course there was a day's worth of food, meds, electronic gadgets, trekking poles that stayed in my pack the whole day, and just because I could — a small windbreaker jacket, gloves, and hat.

In addition to being uniquely anti-summer, I also have a rare anti-lightweight mentality. I'm much more of a pack rat, or as I like to think of it, a pack mule. I love feeling prepared for all contingencies and will happily hoist a bunch of arguably unnecessary stuff if I believe it will make me more comfortable later on. At one point during the run we descended into a canyon where the lack of wind made it feel like it was a hundred degrees, which would normally make me feel uneasy about dehydration and heat exhaustion. But on Saturday, I was happy and relaxed — "I have 15 pounds of ice water; that's going to last me all day. Wheeee!" For me, over-preparation is freedom. Anything else is tempting fate. I often wonder how many outdoorsy people share my views in this day and age of extreme minimalism and ultra-uber-light backpacking. I feel like we should form a support group. "Maximalists Anonymous."

Of course, if I wasn't at disadvantage enough with my ability and speed compared to my friends, I had to go and pack 25 pounds of stuff and water. They set what for them was a friendly and relaxed pace, but it was often a struggle for me to keep up. Sometimes I was comfortable but often I felt like I was racing the Ohlone 50K, and avoiding stopping so as to not lose more ground. As a result, I didn't eat much for the first four hours. We didn't start our run until around noon, as we had another group of friends who were out for a very long run (a hundred kilometers), starting from the other end of the trail, and we hoped to meet them along the way. Due to daylight concerns we just missed them, but ensured a good long run on a tough trail at the hottest part of the day.

Still, it was such an enjoyable day for me. We climbed 2,000 feet to the saddle of Mission Peak, dropped into the Sunol Valley, and tromped another 3,000 rolling feet up the next ridge, maintaining a brisk but not painful pace. We took a long lunch break in the shade as I ravenously mowed through about a thousand calories of Goldfish, shortbread cookies, and granola trail mix. And I didn't even get sick. Whenever I started to feel a bit down or woozy, all I had to do was sip on my icy water bladder and the whole world became beautiful and good again. I only refilled bottles at the water stops, so the ice block in my bladder remained until late into the day, and I had cold water right up until the bladder was entirely empty. It was a wonderful treat, and felt well-earned. I'm going to start doing that all the time — freezing way more water than I need so I have a steady stream of cold water. As though my backpacks aren't already heavy enough.

It was also gratifying to get out for most of a day where the only thing I had to do was run. I've been spending more time working lately, which is good, but I've been missing the less structured, always-in-motion lifestyle I enjoyed during the month I spent in Alaska. It's been interesting as I've come to understand more about myself, to discover which aspects of life I find most fulfilling. Although I value many things that most people gauge success by, it's often these arduous, arguably fruitless activities like running 31 miles that I find most rewarding. It's nice to find balance, but I think I might always prioritize my time to wander.

Beat and I fell behind Steve and Harry when we started to dawdle even more on the final descent. It was a beautiful evening, with the sun setting over the Santa Cruz mountains and the San Francisco Bay surrounded by glittering city lights. "What's the rush?" I thought. Never mind our friends were probably starving because it was well past dinner time and my sense of urgency was tempered by the 2,000 calories I still had in my pack. I like being in a state where I know I can just keep going. I knew we were going to drop back into the valley because that was always the plan. But I had food, water, lights, and just the slightest desire to turn around and keep running. Just having the option to do that is freeing.

Monday: Road bike, 18 miles, 2,447 feet climbing
Tuesday: Trail run, 7.1 miles, 847 feet climbing
Wednesday: Trail run, 8.0 miles, 1,012 feet climbing
Thursday: Road bike, 18.2 miles, 2,451 feet climbing
Friday: Road bike, 16.3 miles, 2,114 feet climbing
Saturday: Trail run, 31.4 miles, 7,445 feet climbing
Total: 52.5 miles ride, 46.5 miles run, 16,316 feet climbing
Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fighting disheartenment

Getting out for runs this week. 
So, I started this post a few days ago and decided not to publish it, feeling that people have already read enough about the Boston attacks from the running community. But I have to admit that this did affect my mood this week, and it's been helpful to hash out the emotions. 

I was one of those sentient children who occasionally became deeply affected by world events. Some of my oldest memories are framed by news images I saw on a television screen. I was 6 years old when the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened. My first grade teacher screened the live coverage in the background of whatever else we were doing that day. I remember distraction among my classmates, but my teacher was watching the news intently, and I also couldn't take my eyes off the screen. She remarked that it was a "sad day for America," but I remember my predominant emotion was fear.

Looking back, this visceral fear had less to do with scary images of burning debris falling from the sky, and more to do with the budding understanding that the potential for bad things surrounded me and everyone else, everywhere. No one had total control of a situation. From an early age I believed that safety was fleeting, and so I never felt safe. This fostered a growing entrapment in my own subtle fears, until one day I woke up in a cold sweat at age 22 and decided I needed to get a handle on this creeping anxiety — not by avoiding fear, but by confronting it.

So this week. Everyone has their own reactions to the predominant events of this week. Like many of my peers, I spent Monday morning tracking a few friends and family members in the Boston Marathon. I was particularly excited about my Aunt Marcia, who was a role model for me when I was growing up. She was my "Ironman aunt" that I'd brag about to friends long before I even remotely considered myself an athlete, and she was good at touting empowering sentiments to my cousins and me. For several years, she battled through a dark period of her life from which she recently emerged, and found comfort and renewed strength when she took up running again.

Last September, after reading one of my books for the first time, she sent me a thoughtful e-mail that I cherish: "There have been many, many days where I have been so empty and I have — not just thought but KNOWN — that there was no way I could go on. Yet, somehow, someway, I pull something from that innermost part of me and I just keep going. I don't know where that comes from and you did a beautiful job of describing it. When people tell me I'm crazy or how determined I am or what a bad-ass I am, I just smile and say "I can't help it, it's in my genes." Well, damn girl, I was and continue to be right. I am proud to swim in that gene pool with you and proud to call you family."

When she qualified for and went to Boston, I was excited for her. I checked her progress on the Web only minutes before I learned of the explosions. I knew she hadn't finished yet. I knew she was probably close or right there when the blasts happened. And I let that childlike sense of helpless fear creep back in. What if?

My aunt is among the lucky ones. She finished faster than she has ever finished a marathon, about ten minutes before the first bomb went off. She and a friend made their way beyond the impact zone — but still close enough to witness much of the chaos. Her friend who was waiting for her at finish line remarked, "Her training and speed may have saved us all. We started making our way to the recovery area after she passed by, and we got four blocks away from the blast zone."

Ten more minutes ... Monday's marathon is filled with hundreds of similar stories. With such a reduced degree of separation, it's difficult not to feel personally impacted by these bombings, even though I was not there and no one I know was physically harmed. At the same time, it's a reminder that catastrophes and senseless violence happen with astonishing regularity around the world. I've grown into one of those news junkie adults, so I encounter disturbing stories and images nearly every day. And I do ask myself why I should feel so much more shaken by the marathon attacks than I do about bombings in Iraq, or violence in Africa, or even the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. They all strike at the heart of my childhood fear — that things can go bad for everyone, everywhere. Just as there's no way for us to completely shield ourselves from evil and disasters, there's no way to completely shield ourselves from this fear.

So I've been feeling a bit down ever since. Another act of terrorism — another act of senseless violence, and more calls to limit freedoms in the name of "security," which would be an illusion at best and oppressive at worst. There have been suggestions that cities should reduce or cancel big marathon events, or that runners should avoid congregating in large groups — even though it's highly unlikely that the attacks had anything to do with "running." Meanwhile, we're doing little more than fleeing from shadows.

But then I consider how I'd feel if my aunt wasn't one of those who returned safely. There are never definitive answers, which is why it's easy to feel so helpless or scared. But I'm reminded why it's important to refuse to give in to fear, no matter how big or small, in all aspects of life. And even though I know the attacks were directed at a high-profile event rather than runners specifically, I'm heartened by the meme my aunt posted shortly after she returned: "If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target." 
Monday, April 15, 2013

Danni's diet run

I reflected in my last post about hunger for adventure and the way it drives my life, and then settled into a rather uneventful week at home. Like all things in life, even adventure needs balance, an ebb and flow. April is generally a quiet month, and it's a good time to hunker down, do income-generating work, finish taxes, organize, spring clean, buy new furniture, scrape the winter mud off bikes, schedule appointments, take the car in for service ... and of course the mundane list goes on. Life maintenance, my friends call it. The stuff that is required to continue having adventures.

And of course there is training. Training is a less mundane and arguably less important component of future adventuring. But it is important. I feel like I put some great deposits in my fitness bank during the winter, and then I went ahead and withdrew everything in Alaska. It was worth it, but I returned to California with tired jelly legs and little maintained running fitness. My big summer adventures will require me to be comfortable and confident on my feet, and I feel like I need to rebuild my base. I filled the week with moderate-distance trail runs under the mantra of "time on my feet, get used to the heat" ... with the hope that my legs will eventually HTFU, my stomach will get back on line with this warm-weather nonsense, and then I can do a short build of the relative speed I'll need to finish the Quicksilver 50-miler, which has a 12-hour cutoff and is four weeks away (May 11). It seems to be working so far.

One actual fun thing that happened this week is my friend Danni visited on Friday and Saturday. She was in San Francisco for work and was able to swing an extra day with us before she had to jet back to Montana. Three weeks ago, Danni completed the White Mountains 100 — a hundred miles of sled-dragging in the fierce cold and snow of Fairbanks, Alaska — and then chased that adventure with a week of endurance gluttony and sloth (her words) in Mexico. She then decided to complete the trifecta with a three-week, extreme low-carb diet (she tells me she's just trying to quickly trim down to her fighting weight so she can keep up with fast hiking partners during summer backpacking trips.) Danni's diet is ridiculous, really, for someone whose weight loss needs are questionable at best; it includes a mere 50 grams of carbohydrates a day and stipulates that it's not a good idea to exercise at all while adhering to its strict nutrition plan. Despite this dire warning, Danni thought it would be interesting and fun (her words) to try a twelve-mile trail run with minimal glycogen in her muscles and no carbs for fuel (she did buy a Builder Bar to break open in case of extreme bonk.) I do love the way Danni thinks.

Beat put together a loop on our home mountain that included nearly 3,000 feet of climbing on steep pitches interspersed with long, rolling descents. Danni was excited to try out her new Anton Krupicka signature race vest and Lululemon shorts that she picked up in San Fran — and as all runners and cyclists know, any run or ride infused with new gear automatically becomes at least 15 percent more fun. I was interested to see how Danni did with the "bonk run." I've actually always wanted to try one of these in training, to test my own capabilities to burn fat as fuel. But so far I've been too scared (and also admittedly adverse to fasts of any sort.)

In short, she did great. She said her muscles felt empty and she had an overall low level of energy, but her energy level did remain steady during the run and she was able to maintain a consistent pace. We speculated that her long-distance endurance base is probably what boosted her through the run; few people would endure, let along tolerate, such a long effort on so little glycogen. Danni's experiment does bring up interesting considerations about fueling during long runs. My stomach is prone to turning sour — plus carrying food is a pain — so I'm intrigued by the notion of training my body to burn fat during a long endurance event. But I do prefer high-level energy to low-level energy, and I'd rather finish my adventures rather than flare out in a glorious bonk. So I'll probably stick to carbs for the time being.

This week was my first in quite a long while with zero biking. Sad, in many ways, but I was in a time crunch for much of the week that left me less time for going outside, and also committed to rebuilding my running base. Gotta get those feet in shape somehow. I feel good about my progress. During today's run with Beat, I felt gooey and sluggish and couldn't hold his pace without feeling pukey, so I shadowed behind and lamented my slowness. But after we wrapped up twelve miles on what is a tough trail route for me, I looked at my watch and saw it took two hours and nine minutes, which is not all that bad. Deposits in the fitness bank for a rich future of adventuring.

Monday: 6.2 miles, 983 feet of climbing
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: 9.6 miles, 2,455 feet of climbing
Thursday: 8.1 miles, 1,592 feet of climbing
Friday: 7.0 miles, 1,213 feet of climbing
Saturday: 12.0 miles, 2,990 feet of climbing
Sunday: 11.9 miles, 2,229 feet of climbing
Total: 54.8 miles, 11,462 feet of climbing
Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Is there enough?

Flecks of snow fluttered into my eyes as the front tire spit a stream of grit toward my face. It seemed like a less than dignified way to end a journey that began two months ago under the scorching sun of Salt Lake City's August, and finished on this country road silenced by Upstate New York's October. And yet it hardly seemed real as the autumn storm intensified into a light blizzard — I got on my bike Utah, and pedaled it 3,200 miles, and ended up here ... in New York! I expected — no, scratch that, I knew that this would be the defining journey of my adult life. Someday I would tell my grandkids or my grandnieces and nephews this story, about the time I rode a bicycle across the United States. "Nothing can ever top this," I thought, and I believed it.

It's been nearly ten years since I pedaled from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York — that once-in-a-lifetime journey which, I told myself, would satisfy my craving for adventure. I used to believe things like that, genuinely. I convinced myself that this desire which hummed from the deepest core of my consciousness could finally be quelled by one great adventure. Then I could get on with my life — whatever that was. My bicycle tour across the country was a thundering crescendo. I was going to return from New York, take up residence at the newsroom desk that awaited me in Utah, move out of my college commune, and rent my first very own apartment. I was going to do the things adults do — whatever those things were.

Everyone who knows me, knows exactly how that worked out.

"I'm sure even some of my closest friends may find it hard to believe when I say I've always believed that, at some point, one of these experiences will turn out to be "enough." That's not to say, I'd be done with trail running or give up long, multi-day treks. It just means that I won't be driven to find something bigger, harder or "more" than what I've already accomplished. It seems to me that the unbounded pursuit of ever more difficult challenges can only end in a breaking point and I'm not really interested in finding where that is."
— My friend Steve Ansell, reflecting on his recent 350-mile 
journey to McGrath, Alaska, in "Enough" 

On Sunday, I had a chat with Tim Long at the new Elevation Trail podcast about the rhetorical question, "How Far is Enough?" He posted the interview under the title "How Long Distances Lead You Home." The podcast is about an hour long and can be downloaded for on-the-go broadcasting if you are interested in listening. We didn't have time to delve into philosophical concepts of "enough," because I spent too much time describing my own journey toward endeavors that might be perceived as "too much." It all started when I was a teenager, hiking with my dad; he and I would find higher and harder peaks to climb in the Wasatch Mountains. Then it was backpacking, then bicycle touring, and then I found my way into endurance racing via the backdoor of what was then the completely obscure sport of winter cycling. First it was 100 miles, then 350, and then the 2,700-mile Tour Divide. And just when burnout was at an all-time high and "topping" these adventures was becoming more of a logistical problem, I turned to something that's quite difficult for me personally, and thus deeply intriguing — trail running. 

Reading Steve's post prompted me to turn his question of "enough" back on myself. These days, I'm no longer searching for a resolution. I finally concluded that the spirit of adventure is a fundamental component of my identity. For me, adventure is as fundamental — and I might even argue as irrevocable — as eating. And like eating, it's impossible to ever be fully satisfied. I could eat the most epic meal of my life — pounds of sushi, ice cream, a mountainous salad, and all the soda I can guzzle. I'll be full for the rest of the day, and maybe even the next day. But eventually, inevitably, I'm going to be hungry again. And it's not going to take weeks. It won't even be days. One day is all it takes for hunger to creep back in. 

Imagine that somebody invented an implant that gave you all the nutrition you'll need for the rest of your life. You will never have to eat, or feel hungry, ever again. Would you accept this mechanical nutrition device — or would you choose to keep eating? Eating is a huge pain in the ass; it requires a great deal of work, is incredibly easy to overdo, and causes no end of agitation, confusion, and angst. But eating is also one of the joys of life. Each meal carries the promise of something sublime. Would you choose to give it up? Think about it. Given the option, I'd choose to stay hungry. 

Is there a limit to how much I can eat, how much I can do? Of course there is. But just like turning from backpacking to cycling to trail running and points beyond, there are always new opportunities spread across the table. You know what they say about variety — but the spice of life, I believe, lies in those variations that are still untried. Beauty is infinite; as long as I remain hungry, there's no end to the discoveries I can devour. 

 As to the breaking point, Tim Long made a great observation on his own blog:

"I've always looked at life like a rubberband. The further you stretch the pain and suffering, the easier it is to stretch it to that point next time and then you stretch it a little more. Your perception stretches. What was perceived as difficult or maybe even impossible is now ordinary." 

 "What happens when the rubberband snaps?" you may wonder while sipping your tea at your work cubicle, wasting time at work reading this drivel. Death. The metaphor of the snapping rubberband is Death. Up to that point is living full."
Sunday, April 07, 2013


Beat and I went mountain biking today. It was blissful. The hills were green and alive. The trails were tacky and muddy. Biking felt great after all the running. I ran five days this week, 36 miles total (slowly, but it was all running, even up steeper hills.) Now my legs are finally sore, which is a definite improvement over inexplicable shiftlessness. Biking is hard, too. I just want to have power again, to pedal strong, and to run until my muscles actually hurt, rather than feel like my body isn't listening to me and is instead being defiantly lazy. Beat is in great shape compared to me; I just have to conclude that walking to Nome is good for you.

I'm not sure what's wrong with me. I don't think this is a rest issue, necessarily. I felt worse after a full day of rest (during a 6.5-mile run Wednesday) than I did today during a three-hour bike ride, one day after a hilly 9-mile run. Plus, it felt great to get out today, and breathe some fresh air after what feels like a week spent indoors (it's strange that I feel this way, given that I went outside for at least an hour most every day. But compared to my lifestyle last month in Alaska, this is a readjustment to a more anchored and indoor-based routine. Essentially, I need to go outside to stay emotionally healthy. The physical stuff is not as big of a concern for me, although I'd like to figure out why I feel so weak. I think it might be time to get the heart-rate monitor out and start doing some short bike intervals, to give me a chance to push the red line without that looming injury threat. Maybe that will get the adrenal system back online.

Keith taking a break from the daily grind of his job
In a recent comment, long-time reader Ingunn asked for a few updates about injured friends that I wrote about here. I suppose if I'm going to publicize the grizzly stories of my friends' injuries, I should follow up with the happy endings. The first is my friend Keith Brodsky from Banff, who was rear-ended by a motorcyclist while we were road biking in Yosemite last May. Keith suffered a lumbar fracture and a few other more minor injuries, and spent a quiet summer recovering from a broken back. But Keith made a full recovery and has been back at it for months. I believe he started biking again last October. He spent the winter working for a heli-ski company in the Canadian Rockies, and ski touring around Banff on his days off. Basically, Keith has been doing what Keith does best — living the dream in paradise. His wife, Leslie, completed her Pacific Crest Trail hike in November, and they have plans to bike tour around Utah in May.

Liehann at the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow
My friend Liehann, who crashed his bike on a pedestrian bridge and broke his femur in five pieces back in January, is also recovering quickly. He's back on the bike, although he's still taking it easy and mostly sticking to roads for now. It also will be at least three more months before he can run again. But he's still considering riding the Tour Divide in 2014, and may even feel strong enough for a longer bikepacking race later this summer.

And finally, Ingunn asked about my book projects. It will probably come as a surprise to no one that I accomplished close to zero progress on my books while I was in Alaska. I fear I may have even made backwards progress on my "Becoming Frozen" book project. After the Homer Epic, I spent a few extra days in Homer and had ample time to wander around on my swollen feet and ponder the words I've been writing about it. Of course I came to the conclusion that it's "wrong, all wrong." Since then I've been revisiting some of the early chapters to see where my visions diverge.

Oh, Homer. Why are my memories of you
so vivid and yet so hard to nail down with words?
This is an ongoing dilemma I've been having in my writing lately — I begin to disagree with certain aspects of it and want to dramatically change things around before I've even given my project a chance by simply finishing a draft. In other words, I hate almost everything I write. I didn't always have this problem, and I feel the need to do some serious self-evaluation about what's changed. I think part of the issue is the way I've turned myself into a "publisher" of sorts. Back before I wrote "books," writing was fairly effortless. "Ghost Trails" was initially intended to be a personal journaling project rather than a book. I wrote "Be Brave, Be Strong" as a sort of escapist coping mechanism when I was going through a tough personal time in early 2010. Those stories just flowed out and took almost no time to actually write. Now I can't look at anything I do without that intimidating "publication" threat looming over me, and it does create a mental block.

I need to get back to my roots of "writing for me," which is cliche but that's why I started these memoir projects in the first place. Who cares if they ever see the light of day? I mean, clearly I care, but that's not the reason I should be writing them. I do have some non-memoir nonfiction projects in the works, and also two potential collaborative projects, which I hope to start in the near future.

So there are my updates for now. I appreciate reader requests for content. They help me get around occasional blogger's block.
Friday, April 05, 2013

Moving forward

I've gotten out for a run most afternoons this week but have yet to bring my camera along, so I'll have to settle for a picture from my last full day in Alaska that I never had a chance to post. Anchorage had just received more than a foot of new snow followed by a cold snap, and it was 8 below zero when I woke up that morning. But the air was calm, and after Nome it felt downright balmy. I had to take the Fatback to the bike shop to be dismantled and crammed into a tiny road bike box, and figured I might as well extend the ride for an hour or two since I was going out anyway.

The Chester Creek Trail was smothered in soft powder that had been stomped up by walkers, but the strenuous 5 mph grind suited me just fine. I didn't see many people out on this cold morning except for a Ukrainian woman who my friend Dan told me walks this trail all the time. He also told me she doesn't like bikers. Sure enough, she waved me down to yell at me for "wrecking" the trail. It was laugh-out-loud humorous, actually, given I was pressing nice, smooth track over the snow as she made shin-deep craters. That's one thing about Anchorage I've noticed ... anti-bike sentiment seems to permeate rational thought, whether it involves commuting or trail use. But it was too beautiful of a morning to get worked up over it:

 And riding the fluff made me sweat. At one point I took off my fleece jacket and was down to a short-sleeved T-shirt from a California trail race. But the windchill was too cold on my exposed skin, so I put the jacket back on. After I dropped off my bike at Speedway and met a friend for lunch at the Middle Way Cafe, I observed, "It's nice and warm here in Southcentral." My friend gave me the side-eye and then pulled out her phone to confirm it was still only 10 degrees outside, which is actually very cold for Anchorage in late March. "Huh," I said. "California heat is probably going to take some adjusting to this week."

Maybe it's the heat. I have been struggling this week to plod back into a routine. But on a positive note, I landed some part-time work while I was in Alaska. When I visited Homer last month, a former boss of mine, Carey, offered me an opportunity to pick up some contract work with her current employer, Report Alaska. The small media company produces weekly newspapers for rural Alaska villages, and Carey needed someone to help lay out and copy edit the Bristol Bay Times (Dillingham) and Arctic Sounder (Barrow.) It seemed like an ideal fit for me — something I can do from my home in California, but stay connected to Alaska journalism.

Work started this week at the bottom of the learning curve, without a lifeline. On Tuesday morning, I made a grave error with the file sharing that resulted in *all* files being deleted from the server. That alone should have gotten me fired on the spot, but luckily they had ready backups in place as I was not the first person to make this mistake ("you're actually the third or fourth," Carey told me.) After that I was chained to my laptop for the better part of fourteen hours, re-teaching myself skills I haven't used in three years, for newspapers I'd never even read before this week. Once I get around the learning curve, my workflow should move faster, and it will be fun to spend two days a week working with people in a "newsroom" of sorts once again (never mind we're spread out from California to Texas to Homer to Anchorage to Kotzebue.) And I have to laugh at the concept of doing virtually the same thing with the same editor I worked for seven years and a veritable lifetime of experiences ago. Life can be cyclical like that.

An image I just found from last month's Homer Epic 100K. There was *some* running involved. Photo by Don Pitcher.
And I'm running again. Or I should say, I'm trying to run again. I want to ride my bike, but my bike won't get me exactly where I want to be in a few weeks and later this summer, so for now I run. I go out with my heavy legs and little bottle of water and feel sick to my stomach, but still I run. I know I've on the tired side of fitness right now, so I don't push it too much, or for too long. But still I run. I thought I had Alaska to blame, but yesterday Beat decided to join me for his first run since he arrived in Nome, and his first time moving faster than 3mph in more than a month. He killed it ... bounding down the trail like a gazelle while I more closely resembled an arthritic elephant flailing to keep up. It seems after a thousand miles of strenuous walking, he has retained decent running form. As for these buckets of goo I call my legs ... I have no one to blame but myself.

So I run. I finally broke the 8-mile barrier today and found that I started to feel much better and move faster in the final miles. Maybe I'm just in ultra-long-distance-endurance shape right now, that level of slow-burn fitness where it takes me an hour just to warm up. If that's the case, I guess it's not a bad place to be.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Easing back in

Alaska, with her enticing siren song of beauty and adventure, never fails to tempt me into the depths of physical exhaustion. For a month she persuaded me to dig deep, and so I dug, and dug, until April came and I was flat on my back in California, deep in an energy hole just in time for the launch of spring training. And so it goes. Winter is for playing until I'm exhausted. Spring is for playing until I recover. 

I can't even complain because I didn't walk a thousand miles to Nome, but March was a big month for me — enough that I feel like I'm well down the backside of the bell curve of fitness. Beat and I returned from Anchorage on Wednesday, and amid the flurry of unpacking and catching up, I attempted two short runs on Thursday and Friday. Both were busts. It was hot, so hot (67 degrees one day, 76 the next!), and my legs weirdly felt frozen — as though I haven't run in more than a month ... which in truth, I haven't (snow "running" is a different sort of motion for me than trail running, and I didn't even do much of that.) But I figured I at least needed a shakeout. Even six miles turned into an exhausting effort. I was nauseated and sweating, feeling like I was attempting a run in a 120-degree desert and not the temperate coastal climate in which I live.

So I'm back in California, happy to be settling back into a routine, but frustrated with my current level of fitness and general blah-ness — much like I was in April 2012. And like last year, I figure the best way to deal with it is to go for long bike rides. What can go wrong with a plan like that? (Stagecoach 400 slow meltdown revisited? Good thing I decided not to ride that this year. I only have two tough ultramarathons in May, which is like, at least a month away.)

 But yes, long bike rides. My friend Leah's spring break was this week. Originally we had been hoping to squeeze in a little tour, but with responsibilities stacking up we only had time for an overnight: Car camping and a nice, long ride on the Arroyo Seco trail in Los Padres National Forest. This is the same segment I rode as part of a 280-mile spring tour last year, and I was excited to go back and experience those beautiful mountains when it had not rained several inches in the days leading up to the ride, and I was not completely bonked and out of food.

True to form, we did not get an even remotely early start, despite a forecast calling for afternoon thunderstorms. I didn't care about snoozing away the morning as I had one of my better nights of sleep in a month, sprawled out in our big REI tent with my air mattress and 32-degree bag draped like a comforter over my body. The outside air temperature that night was warmer than some of our Alaska friends' houses. It felt divine but I knew it also foretold of uncomfortable heat during the day. Despite this knowledge, my memory is filled with frozen fingers and shivering snack breaks in Alaska, with a longer-range memory of fending off the drizzling chill in this same region last year. So I filled up a backpack with enough extra layers to handle subzero cold, and enough food to supply a multiday bike tour. But luckily, since my rational side still expected 80 degrees, I also had a ton of water. That thing must have weighed 15 pounds. And I haven't ridden with a backpack in more than a month. My lower back still hurts from this ride. 

 But we had a ton of fun. Arroyo Seco is an old dirt road that has not been open to vehicle traffic in many years, and is quickly being reclaimed by the Los Padres Mountains. The first four miles of climbing away from the Arroyo Seco Gorge are still road-like, but after that overgrowth and landslides have fostered natural singletrack, along with some wide-open washed-out sections. I think it's super fun riding, in a spectacular natural setting that sees relatively few visitors for a place with close proximity to San Jose and Monterey. And the best part is, there's an intriguing web of hiking trails connecting more old fire roads. This area is ripe for exploration.

 We finished the Arroyo Seco trail after eighteen miles and dropped six more on the road into Fort Hunter-Ligget before deciding to turn around. The region was beautiful, with groves of huge old oak trees, sandstone hills, and a golden eagle soaring directly overhead. By that point the afternoon sun was out in full force, lighting the dusty pavement on fire. Even Leah, who is acclimated to California temperatures, found the heat to be less than bearable. But she motored on ahead as I struggled, feeling dizzy and overheated and sick to my stomach. Even returning to the trail didn't help my condition. At one point I was in front of her and pulled off the trail. "Photo break?" she asked. "No, just regular break," I replied and slumped over the handlebars.

 My physical state began to improve as clouds moved in and the wind picked up, bringing a band of thunderstorms that dropped the temperature at least 15 degrees. Leah was worried about rain and sticky mud, but I was more relieved that it wasn't so hot.

 But it was a fun ride, despite my feeling out of shape and pasty, and the beauty of the region did wonders to ease the sting of having to leave Alaska behind.

 Our ride was 48 miles with 7,900 feet of climbing according to my Garmin — much of that gain accomplished in the ceaseless rolling terrain of the mountain traverse. We finished in just under seven hours, with 6:01 of moving time. Leah remarked that she was surprised by how "slow" the ride was — and I was thinking, "wow, I barely remember what it's like to average 8 mph for a whole six hours."

But even though we didn't squeeze in a full tour, Leah was happy. I was happy as well; it's nice to see firsthand all the ways that California is big and beautiful, too.