Monday, April 01, 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.