Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dot on the map

Between his family reunion and our trip to Iceland, Beat needed to put in a heavy week of work at the Google office in Zurich. I had a few deadlines to keep myself, but beyond that I had some free time to spend exploring. On Monday it rained heavily for most of the day. I had to complete a few chores such as taking the rental car back to the airport, buying a phone card, and figuring out the train network — somewhat time-consuming tasks in a foreign city. I've never been great with public transportation; I prefer to be independently mobile, even if it means walking for an hour or riding a bike dozens of miles. But Switzerland has an extensive train network, and it seemed worth utilizing while I'm here.

Still, any trip that looked to be less than three kilometers merited walking. I got myself hopelessly lost several times, wandering around wet streets with an orange umbrella pressed against my chin and clutching a waterlogged map in both hands. I went to a museum that was closed on Mondays and a lakeside path that was still closed after Ironman Switzerland. Shut down on several accounts with sore feet from padding the pavement, I considered taking a trip out of the city on Tuesday.

Trouble is, I had no idea where to go or how to get there. A hotel employee recommended Luzern, but Beat warned me that the town was large and touristy, and he wasn't sure how much hiking I'd find in walking distance from the train station. I opened Google maps and traced the train line south as it worked its way through a series of towns next to lakes. At Lungern, the highway veered into a tunnel, which indicated the town was pressed against a steep mountain with no room for a larger road. Knowing little more than that, I walked to the main Zurich train station on Tuesday morning to purchase a ticket.

The train moved for an hour and stopped in Luzern, announcing the end of the line. My ticket was entirely in German and I didn't realize I needed to catch a connection, so I darted out of the train and wove through thick crowds until I saw a sign for Interlaken, which was in the same general direction I needed to go. I stepped on the train, which lurched forward before I even sat down. My layover must have been shorter than five minutes. Eek, I hope I'm on the right train.

I didn't know for sure until an employee checked my ticket and didn't say anything, so I figured I was not in the wrong. At nearly every stop I stepped up to the door, just in case the platform said Lungern. A few stops looked particularly nice and I almost considered getting off early, but decided to wait. The train rounded a narrow valley and began wrapping around impossibly blue lake; it was a color I'd never seen before, a kind of electric cerulean. It was so enthralling that I decided this would be my stop regardless, but when we arrived at the train station, it turned out to be Lungern.

I stepped off the train and looked toward the mountainside, an abrupt slope that climbed into vertical walls. It didn't even look walkable from the valley, but I've learned enough about hiking in Europe to know I'd probably find a trail up this mountain. Sure enough, on the other side of the train platform were those tell-tale yellow signs with destinations listed in hours instead of distances. I've learned enough about hiking in Europe to know that when fresh and determined, I can usually halve the estimated climbing times. My downhill times usually come out pretty close to estimates, unless I make an effort to run the sections that I'm capable of running. I had about four hours before I needed to catch the train back, and "Huttstett," listed at 3 hours and 45 minutes one-way, seemed like a good goal.

 The storm had cleared out and it was another warm day. Climbing was strenuous, gaining at a rate of about 1,200 feet per mile, mainly on open grassy slopes exposed to the hot sun. But the views were consistently nice, at least when took a break to catch my breath and turned around.

Huttstett was a narrow col at 5,450 feet elevation, just over 3,000 feet above the valley floor. It had only taken me an hour and a half to get there, so I had at least another half hour to climb. The main route seemed to drop back into the valley, but if I hopped over a cattle fence, there was an option to keep tracing the contour of the ridge.

I remember doing this countless times back when I used to hike solo in Juneau, marching toward a mountain peak with a tight timeline looming behind me, and somehow justifying, "Just a little bit farther. Just a little bit farther."

There was a distinct high point in the distance and I just wanted to see what was on the other side. The grade was less steep on the ridge and I made an attempt to run until the sideslope steepened to the point where falling would have been considerably costly. There were rocky cliff bands on both sides and only a narrow trail to hold my clumsy self to the mountain.

 Eek, don't look down.

 I marched up to the peak, called "Gibel" at 2,035 meters (6,676 feet.) A gravel road came up from the other side of the valley, and there were a dozen sightseers milling about. This is hiking in the Swiss Alps — you can rip your lungs apart marching up a steep and rocky trail, skitter over a narrow ridge with heart-stopping drops on both sides, crawl over a peak drenched in sweat, and arrive at a vehicle-accessible vista crowded with people. I dropped down the backside of the peak and found a bench overlooking an incredible vista of sharp, high mountains and glaciers. Wispy clouds streamed over the ridge and sometimes obscured the view altogether, so I sidled up to a bench to await an opening in the fog. An older couple was sitting there, quietly enjoying the vast views. The woman motioned at me and pointed to the sky, which I noticed for the first time was filled with para-gliders.

Now I had 2:32 on my watch. Eek, I really only had 90 minutes to make it back to Lungern before 4 p.m., in order to catch the 4:10 train. It wasn't the end of the world if I missed the train, but I did promise Beat I'd be back by 6:30. It was only five miles but more than 4,000 feet vertical descent away. When it comes to steep and rocky slopes, I find descending fast to be more difficult than climbing. I can't really call any of this "running," but it's at least if not more strenuous than any running I do, even for 40-minute miles. Still, descending is something I do need to practice, within reason. I think I startled a couple of families with children as I clomped down the trail, catapulting rocks with my trekking poles.

In a rare display of relative grace, I arrived at the bottom unscathed with 3:47 on my watch, meaning I managed to descend five miles and 4,300 vertical feet in an hour and fifteen minutes. Where did that come from? Relative to my usual descending abilities, that was a massive leap of faith, sometimes literally. Now if I can just manage all of this over and over, twenty times in a row, I'll be set for PTL next month. But, at least for this day, I made my train schedule with enough time left over buy an Apfelschorle and crackers from a vending machine. The perfect way to wrap up a serendipitously wonderful visit to the Swiss village of Lungern. 
Sunday, July 28, 2013


Beat and I flew to Zurich on Friday to attend a large family gathering for his brother's and sister-in-law's 25th wedding anniversary. The past 36 hours have been fun but exhausting, a whirlwind combination of jet lag, meeting uncles and cousins and Beat's father for the first time, excessive heat that we could not escape, and language barriers. People asked me how my German was and I'd reply, in English, "I can count." I can also sing a few songs and recite a personal introduction that I learned in eighth grade. Beat's sister-in-law actually held me to counting and we made it to funf (5) together before she accidentally skipped over to sieben (7), which is just as well, because I can never remember the German word for 11.

The heat here has extended beyond family meetings and being on the hot seat for my sad lack of language diversity. When we arrived in Zurich on Friday afternoon the temperature was 38 C — 100 degrees, with much higher humidity than I'm accustomed to. I get the sense that most buildings in Switzerland do not have air conditioning, and this included our third-floor hotel room in Langenthal. After marinating for a few hours we decided it's better to sweat on the move and went out for a 90-minute run through the woods and farm fields near our hotel. I thought I was heat acclimated, but it's impressive how strenuous a run can feel in humid triple digits. The draining effect of the run on top of sleep deprivation (I never sleep on planes) and jet lag left me feeling almost drunk with fatigue by the time the party began in the late afternoon. I guess I'm lucky there was a language barrier because intelligent conversations became challenging. The party was a beautiful and elaborate affair, with an organ concert in a cathedral and a delicious four-course Swiss meal in a ballroom. It remained so hot that I had to stand with my knees together to prevent visible droplets of sweat from running down my legs. But it was an enjoyable gathering, even if social events in stagnant heat leave me feeling more drained than long runs.

We woke up "early" (still feels like 10 p.m. California time) on Sunday to join Beat's uncle for a hike in the Jura Mountains, a sub-Alpine range that divides the Rhine and Rhone river valleys. As we approached his uncle's flat near the Aar River, we passed an enormous castle perched on the cliffs above the village. No one mentioned this castle to me before; I supposed in Switzerland these things are no big deal, but it's really not every day you pass a 300-year-old castle on your way to your Sunday morning stroll (I did not take a picture of the castle, unfortunately.)

We climbed a narrow gravel road that had been hammered into the rocky slopes by the Swiss military in 1915 to fortify a barrier against German invasion from the north. Each unit that worked on the road carved their coat of arms into the rock. Although the Alpine regions lack in wilderness, the depth of history is fascinating and the extensive infrastructure is useful. A network of trails across these ranges make it possible to hike from Spain to Germany on an established mountain route, with regular stops at trailside cafes if you so desire.

After brunch, a large thunderstorm with heavy rain and hail moved in, and we decided to run our same dirt route in Langenthal in the afternoon. The effort was markedly easier in the warm drenching shower than it had been in the hot drenching heat. We ran fast (for me), cranking out 10 kilometers with 703 feet of climbing (like how I mash up imperial and metric measurements?) in 55 minutes. Although we did an extra 2K spur during the run yesterday, it really did take nearly a half hour longer. Interesting how oppressive heat can be. I'm going to remind myself of this experience next week in Iceland, when it's 5C and raining and I can't stop shivering. 
Sunday, July 21, 2013


Beat and I spent several hours on Sunday finally putting all of our Iceland stuff together: Locating our flag-adorned T-shirts, rain gear and five *required* pairs of socks; compiling med kits and a surprising abundance of required odds and ends (including but not limited to an emergency bivy, two Ace bandages and a mirror);  and packaging little daily "lunch" baggies to discourage overeating of supplies in the early stages of RTP Iceland. The final verdict for my pack with all gear, seven days worth of food, and 1.5 liters of water: 27.3 pounds. Beat's pack was similar in weight. We'll probably have two of the largest packs out there, but I bet most of the participants — save for the most competitive runners —will have starting weights ranging from 23-30 pounds. Given we packed similar stuff for every day, I can already envision what each day will be like:

Sunrise: Wake up. Spend ten minutes mulling how I can avoid climbing out of my toasty sleeping bag. Inch my way out and pull on my down coat (so glad I brought that!) Put on a fresh pair of socks and underwear (figured if I was required to bring five pairs of socks, I might as well have an equal number of underwear.) Ah. Put on same clammy shirt and tights I wore all day yesterday. Ugh.

Breakfast: Two cups of Trader Joe's coffee (100 calories), one granola bar (190 calories) and one serving peanut butter (250 calories.) Wish I could mow through all of my Snickers Bars instead of trying to subsist on this meager breakfast.

Stage begins: Looking at another 25-plus-mile day. Hopefully it's not that 42-mile day. If it is, I probably have a pit in the bottom of my (growling) stomach.

Follow the course markings into the vast open expanses of Iceland. Hopefully the weather will be gorgeous and we'll be able to see for dozens of miles in all directions. Odds are the weather is cloudy and drizzly, with the potential for low-lying clouds and heavy rain. Either way, I anticipate much soaking in of ethereal beauty as we shiver in our cheap rain gear and puffy insulation layers (so, so glad I brought that!)

As the miles grind on, we'll find ourselves among familiar faces who share our general pace. We'll chat with our new friends from Hong Kong and Singapore and Scotland. One of the coolest benefits of an organized event like Racing the Planet is meeting like-minded people from all over the world. As fatigue sets in, I'll retreat into my introspective zone. And I'll probably have Sigur Ros playing on my iPod shuffle (so glad I brought three of those!)

Lunch: Actually just a small assortment of junk food eaten on the go: Two candy bars (500 calories), one granola bar (190 calories) and one bag of happiness courtesy of Haribo (500 calories.) Really, 1,200 calories of carbs? That seemed like so much on my spreadsheet. I'm hungry. But at least I feel awesome. Yay sugar!

Stage wraps up. My knees are getting pretty achy and my feet — I don't like to think about my feet. Pretending they don't exist is really the best course of action. But at least the pack gets lighter every day. I crack into my treat — a can of Pringles — that I hoped would last the week, but by day three it's already gone. (200 calories.)

Pre-dinner: Hang wet shirts, socks and tights inside the tent with all of our tent mates' gear. It smells fantastic in there. Put on our camp slippers (so glad we brought those!) Give ourselves sponge baths with tablet towels and attempt to treat our increasingly mangled feet. If it's still raining, I'll put on my Tyvek suit and go for a walk because the tent makes me claustrophobic. If it's not raining, we'll hang around the camp fire with folks telling adventure stories.

Dinner: One Mountain House Meal (600 to 800 calories) and one hot chocolate (150 calories.) If I had a good day, I'll probably rip apart the packaging of my meal and lick it clean. If I'm deathly ill like I was in Nepal, I'll try to pawn it off on a local boy who will take a sniff, crinkle his nose, and hand it back to me. (Actually, in Iceland, we're not likely to see many people not associated with the race. So make that a sheep. I'll try to give my food to a sheep.)

Sleepy time: Spooning with eight of my closest friends.

Beat and I took our properly loaded packs on a trip up Black Mountain with our friend Martina this afternoon — ten miles round trip with 3,000 feet of climbing. I forget what a burden thirty extra pounds can be — temps were in the high 70s and we were drenched in sweat. I couldn't muster much of a run on the climb, but we put in a hard effort on the descent and ran nearly all of the five miles back. I could feel each footfall heavily in my knees — more so in my right knee, which has been my good knee for the past few weeks and is more fatigued from bearing the brunt of my efforts. But the good news is, my left knee feels strong. If it can handle a 3,000-foot descent with a 27-pound pack, well, it must be reasonably solid.

Racing the Planet Nepal doesn't begin until Aug. 4, but it feels like we are in our final days of "training." I can't really say I'm going into a taper now, since I effectively started tapering when I bashed my knee four weeks ago. But there's much to do before we leave for Switzerland later this week (for Beat's brother's anniversary party and work obligations at the Google office in Zurich.) So I suppose the taper has begun. With luck, I'll be able to escape on a train into the Swiss Alps for one final "shakedown." 
Thursday, July 18, 2013


The knee issue was puzzling. When it comes to injury therapy, I can be skeptic. I don't believe in miracle cures. But there was no denying that I'd been struggling with limited mobility for three weeks; then I took an accidental and painful fall, and suddenly everything felt a whole lot better. I wasn't sure what to think; I called my doctor to possibly schedule an appointment, but he is out of the office until July 20. Because of lingering concern about stability, I went for a run on Monday to test things out. The joint felt markedly more stable than pervious weeks. There was no pain when I tried the higher kicks that are typical of a full run (rather than the ultra shuffle that I admittedly prefer.) With this new boost of confidence, I even increased my pace on the descent. Nothing. No pain, no wobbliness.

Today I went to see a massage therapist in Los Altos that Beat and I really like, Angelo, who works with a system of orthopedic therapy called the Hendrickson method. As much as I don't believe in miracle cures, he's helped me work out some nagging pains I've had in the past. Angelo worked around my joint and said he could detect thickened tissue that would indicate scarring on the side of the knee cap. I explained the fall I took on Twin Peak — my right foot slid out but my left foot remained anchored against a rock, resulting in considerable pressure on my left knee as it was forced into a hard bend. Angelo explained that similar motions are common therapy for breaking up scar tissue — a physical therapist applies torque to manually range the knee. He speculated that my limited range of motion was likely a result of scar tissue, which tightens up as it develops. Feelings of instability can be a symptom of a medial collateral ligament tear — which can result from a direct blow to the knee.

I am still considering consulting my doctor, but I can't say I even have any complaints to relay to him. Angelo said he couldn't detect any inflammation, and I don't have any points of pain. Even the superficial soreness has diminished. Although I resolved to take it easy for a few more days, I couldn't resist an urge to go for another run on Tuesday, just to relish in this new freedom of motion. Eight miles went flawlessly — it felt like my best run of the summer.

I could still have issues with this knee. If there is scar tissue as Angelo speculated, that means there was some initial tearing, which can be easy to re-injure, especially if I take another jarring fall. I plan to get re-acquainted with a more aggressively supportive (even if chafing and ouchy) knee brace for my long hauls.

But for now, I am embracing an optimistic outlook. Which means I can finally start looking to my two big summer events as though they're not going to be complete disasters. Finally, the scale between stress and excitement is tipping in the right direction.

In early August, we leave for Reykjavik to participate in Racing the Planet Iceland. This is a semi-supported stage race on foot, traveling 250 kilometers over six stages in seven days. The race organization supplies water drops, hot water at camp, and group tents. We're required to carry everything else we want over those seven days, including food. I like to look at it as a fun group backpacking trek in a beautiful northern region that I have wanted to visit for most of my life — with the added bonus of big miles. I love big miles. There are two 25-mile stages, two 28-mile stages, one 42-mile stage, and a final six-mile easy day. If I'm feeling good and my knee is strong, I want to put a good effort into this race — meaning I do plan to run within reason. But it is possible to be deathly ill and hike it out and still finish. That's effectively what I did during the 2011 Racing the Planet event in Nepal, when I came down with the worst stomach bug I've ever had during the night before stage one. I couldn't keep any calories down for the first two days, ate minimally for the remaining five, and still eked out a mid-pack finish. I suspect it will take a lot for me to feel worse in Iceland than I did in Nepal.

The weather in Iceland is likely to be ... Juneau-like. It could be beautiful, or it could rain non-stop for the entire week. Temperatures in the daytime will probably range from 45 to 65 degrees, with nighttime temperatures near freezing. Snow is possible. Sleet, likely. Rain — seven straight days without rain in that region is almost unfathomable. We are preparing to be cold and wet. I used to be really good at these conditions, but I am woefully out of practice.

Beat and I are both using Go-Lite Jam 50-liter packs. The capacity will sound enormous to most stage-race enthusiasts, but what can I say? We wanted our packs to be fully versatile for non-racing backpacking, and we also don't like to tightly condense our stuff. Our packs look big but they're not *that* heavy. Part of the required gear is a 35-liter drybag for clothing and sleeping gear.

Without going into too boring of a gear list, some of the notable things I'm packing are a RAB Quantum Endurance 25-degree down bag, RidgeRest, synthetic puffy pull-over, fuzzy fleece hat and mittens, mitten shells, extra shirt and tights (dry layer for camp), extra Drymax socks, warm wool socks, and Frogg Toggs rain jacket and pants. Why Frogg Toggs? They're cheap (given the nature of this race — running with large packs in wet and muddy conditions — our outer layers are likely to be semi-destroyed by the end). They're light. And they provide excellent rain and wind protection even if they don't breathe. (When it comes to rain gear, hard efforts, and long hours in heavy precipitation, I do not believe in waterproof breathable. I think it's better to bolster wind protection and accept that sweat will happen. There are several manifestoes about this in my blog archives from my days in Juneau.) I will have a spare down coat for camp.

I plan to wear a long-sleeve synthetic shirt, wind-proof tights, Drymax socks, hiking gaiters, a buff, and my beloved Hoka Mafate shoes. Actually my "new" pair is about as worn out as the pair I replaced in January, so it will be a challenge to squeeze 155 more miles out of them. But I plan to do so because I have a feeling this race is going to a shoe destroyer, and I don't want to take a brand new pair (which I'll need for bigger and badder terrain at the end of August.) To save my "race" Hokas, I've actually been training with my old shoes (which I made fun of back in January) since mid-June.

And I can't forget the Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Poles. Effectively my favorite piece of long-distance trekking gear. I would probably give up Hokas before I gave up these poles. I've gotten pretty good at running at a good clip while using them. They help me manage my balance and footing on technical downhills, and help me "pull" on the climbs. Call them crutches, I need them. As a runner I secretly wish I was a four-legged animal, and these are as close as I'll ever get.

Food we're keeping fairly simple. Each night is a bland but filling Mountain House dehydrated meal and a hot chocolate, with packets of Lipton soup as appetizers. After Nepal, I wasn't even able to look at any form of dehydrated meals for about a year, but I've come around on about three or four varieties — the more bland the better. I like Chicken and Noodles, Chicken and Rice, Mac and Cheese, and if I'm feeling zesty, the Veggie Lasagna. Breakfast is coffee with creamer, a granola bar, and peanut butter. Daytime is a variety of granola bars, energy bars, trail mix, and gummy candy. After Nepal, I learned that trail food really is the most versatile form of calories to have during endurance events — bars or candy are the one thing I can usually force down even if I'm feeling considerably crappy. One week is not enough time to become woefully malnourished from lack of fresh foods. The calories will probably amount to about 2,600 a day. (The spreadsheet adds up to 18,500 calories. But we will not need many for the final day, so it's actually more along the lines of 2,850 a day.) It seems minimal for the effort we'll be expending, but I've learned that I'm unlikely to eat more. I do expect the cold weather to demand additional energy. We'll have to see how it goes. We'll be hungry. It will kind of suck, but I really don't want to overpack food. Again, I carried at least 5 pounds of food that I never ate in Nepal. I probably managed an average of about 1,200 calories a day. My digestive system was so angry, but beyond that, I was fine. My performance did suffer. ;-)

The packs with two liters of water will probably be in the range of 25 pounds. I might pack it up this weekend and actually weigh it, and I'll post if I do.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ventana Wilderness: Cures for what ails you

I've had a "mid-July backpacking trip" on my mental calendar for months. I believed the timing would be good for a necessary shakedown for my big trips in August, for gear testing and to see where my conditioning stood. Since I hurt my knee, the scratch marks over these plans grew thicker with each passing week. Recovery just wasn't happened at the rate I thought it should. There were two main problems — range of motion, and stability. I couldn't bend my knee to a 90-degree angle or higher without pain, and I couldn't put much weight or force on the joint without feeling wobbly. These two problems aren't great for anything, but they're workable. After three weeks of no activity to low-impact activity, I began to wonder if the fix might require some long-term downtime. Maybe to get through the summer, I was just going to have to learn how to work with it — or at least, learn whether I could work with it. Perhaps a shakedown trip was needed to figure out just what my knee could and couldn't do.

But more than dubious self-prescribed physical therapy, I admit I needed a mental reset. Beat and I decided to embark on an overnight backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness, in the coastal mountains of Big Sur. We pored over the maps and found an intriguing spot at the southern end of the range — Cone Peak, a craggy marble summit that climbs from the sea to 5,155 feet in less than three miles as the gull flies. There's a questionably passable but direct route appropriately called "Sea to Sky," but we decided to take a more meandering route in and out of several drainages, starting at the Vicente Flat trailhead. If we made it to the peak, our route would likely be 15 to 16 miles with well over 6,000 feet of climbing one way. We decided we'd hike as far as we felt like, camp, and turn around to retrace our steps the following day. No big commitments.

At the trailhead, Beat and I hoisted our 25-pound packs and let out a harmonic "oof." I'm not much of an ultralight packer. I just don't like to fuss with meticulous planning and don't necessarily mind the carrying part (actually, "muling" is something I consider one of my strengths.) But there's no getting around the fact that weight makes everything harder and slower, especially on what was effectively our first loaded trip of the summer. The bulk of what we were carrying was water, because it's the height of summer and there are few guaranteed sources in these thirsty mountains.

The first steps were a struggle, but after a half mile I hit my stride and felt as light and free as I had in weeks. An unknown wilderness loomed in front of us and a thick layer of fog added an air of mystery and excitement. The pursuit of new experiences — adventure — creates such a depth of satisfaction for me that simply embarking on a wilderness hike can wipe away weeks' worth of angst that occasionally accumulates like grime on my psyche.

Yes, I was stoked to be out there. So much so that I forgot all about my wobbly knee, only to occasionally be reminded when we had to climb around deadfall or descend into a rocky drainage. Above the marine layer, the temperature rapidly increased and the sun beat down with startling intensity for our low elevation. But the canyons were deep and cool, sheltered with towering redwoods but surprisingly, at Vicente Flats at least, without water. Not even a trickle.

We walked another two miles, up and over another ridge, and descended the steep sideslope of a drainage that had water. A bow hunter was sitting in the creek with his shoes off. When we told him we planned to continue beyond that point, he warned us that "these mountains are as dry as I've ever seen them" and we weren't likely to find any water at higher elevations. We decided to fill up our carrying capacity — between us, eight liters — which we thought would be more than enough until evening. I'd pumped about a half liter when I handed my filter to Beat, who then accidentally broke the handle off the pump. Shoot. We had chlorine tablets as well, but those take four hours to purify. Still, we had about four liters of "good" water, and filled four more with water that would become okay to drink at 5:30 p.m. "Good luck," the hunter said as we started climbing out of the creek. "I doubt anyone else is headed that way. You'll be all alone up there."

After another mile we reached the intersection with the direct "Sea to Sky" ridge route and — what can I say? I am a sucker for a brutally steep climb. Beat asked if I wanted to try the "shortcut" and I didn't even hesitate. Yes! The bow hunter also told us we'd be nuts to try the ridge — "It goes straight up" — and this made it all the more enticing. Anyway, we could probably connect with the main trail for the descent, avoiding an equally steep descent that might trigger knee problems.

The ridge route was indeed brutal. It had all the steepness I expected, with the added challenge of bushwhacking through spiky brush and extremely loose dirt underfoot. Gaining 1,500 feet per mile was the easy part. In the grassy sections where there was no brush to grab, it was often difficult to gain enough purchase to take a single step. The soil would just crumble away beneath my feet, taking clumps of dry grass with it. The spiky brush tore up our arms and burrs stuck in our fingers. The heat was downright astonishing. At 4,000 feet we were now above the upper reaches of the marine layer, and the region had a different climatic feel, as though we were suddenly deep in the interior and it was a hundred degrees. I was probably not actually 100 degrees (it was likely 90) but it felt extremely hot, and both Beat and I were sucking down large amounts of heated water as we hacked our way up the ridge.

By the time we reached the summit of Twin Peak — a close neighbor to Cone Peak and just below 5,000 feet itself — we had 6 ounces of good water between us. It would be another hour before we could drink the chlorinated stream water.

The route to Cone Peak looked precarious at best — big cliffs blocked the summit and from our position, it wasn't obvious where we could skirt around, or if it was even possible. We didn't have enough spare water to go on an exploratory mission, so we decided to head down the nearest drainage to a water source — knowing we'd have to drop a few thousand feet to find it. Still, we hadn't given up on Cone Peak just yet. We could return in the morning on the known trail if we were feeling energetic.

The backside of Twin Peak had a few major problems that we were not aware of before we started our descent. A major wildfire tore up this slope in 2009, bringing down several massive redwoods and scouring the surface, leaving a layer of very loose dirt and crumbling rock. We had to leave the ridge to pick our way around the deadfall, only to find a steep surface that was so extremely loose that gaining purchase was nearly impossible. We'd take a step down and slide until enough dirt built up to stop us, and do it again. I was certain if I lost my balance, I'd start sliding and keep sliding, getting torn to shreds and probably smack into something before I stopped. The dirt had as much integrity as rotten snow, and when we tried to climb onto rocks, they broke off in our hands. At one point I slipped onto my butt and slid a foot or so, stopping shy of a really steep pitch that went right into a huge fallen tree trunk. When I tried to scramble back up, I just started sliding again. I panicked for a few minutes and Beat had to come talk me through it.

Life didn't get much easier when we regained the ridge. We still had to hack through brush and struggle down loose dirt. While trying to work our way around a wall of boulders, I lost my footing and slammed onto my butt, but my left foot remained anchored and wrenched my bad knee violently as my butt slammed into my heel. An electric flash of pain blocked out my vision and stole my breath, then washed over in a wave of nausea. It was so much more painful than the initial bashing that spurred the injury. As soon as I could collect my awareness from the white swirl of pain, my first thought was, "How am I going to get off this mountain?" Not "Oh, there goes another three weeks of training." Not, "Shoot, I just wrecked the rest of my summer plans." No, my first concern was whether or not I'd even get out of there without major intervention. It felt like I tore something clean in half.

In my initial panic to not let Beat know how frightened I was, I stood up quickly and mumbled something about being fine. Surprisingly, I was actually able to put weight on my leg. I stood still for another minute or so, absorbing the pain, until Beat climbed back to check on me. "I fell on my knee," I admitted. "It really hurts. But I think I can use it."

Stumbling down the mountain, I was surprised I could bend it, but it was still sore. Then I fell again. Owwww! I cried, but it actually came out as more of a whimper. I was still so scared. There was no way of knowing what I had done. But with pain like that, it couldn't be good.

It took us more than an hour to descend 1,500 feet. During this time, we cracked into our stream water and drank most of it. We were so dehydrated and exhausted that the two of us plowed through the better part of a gallon within the next hour. We hit the trail and I decided to stop peg-legging and see how bad it felt to bend my knee. The soreness was still there, but it was different than I expected — almost the kind of soreness you feel when you rip a bandaid away. Superficial soreness. The joint itself felt surprisingly loose, and dare I say ... strong? I was so confused, but I didn't complain.

We dropped into another narrow canyon and found a cool, flowing creek at 2,500 feet elevation, next to a beautiful camp site overlooking the sea. My knee felt ... not just not bad, but almost great in comparison to how it had felt in recent weeks. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to have strength in both knees. It was inexplicable, but Beat speculated that perhaps I had a bunch of scar tissue from the initial injury that finally broke apart in this second blow. Or maybe some band of tissue had been out of place, and then snapped back into place. Since I never knew exactly what was wrong, I have no sense of what might have fixed it. But I felt like the sitcom character who throws out her back, only to have some unknowing friend give her a big bear hug and snap it back into place. Like accidental Rolfing for the knee. A double negative somehow makes a positive.

We'd already decided after my painful fall that we wouldn't try to return to Cone Peak, but we still had a 12-mile hike out. I did some stretches before bed and even got myself into a full squatting position, something I also haven't been able to do since I injured my knee. We drank a bunch of water, ate Mountain House meals, and the next morning I woke up completely refreshed and pain-free.

I didn't want to let optimism get the better of me just to discover something horrible had happened after all, but I couldn't help it. The stoke took over and I felt weightless the whole way back. I realize I made some questionable decisions and perhaps just got incredibly lucky, but what if my knee was actually fixed? Could a person really receive so much goodness from one simple weekend hike? Beat enjoyed the outing too, except for being terrorized by hundreds of tiny burrs that stuck to everything. I actually opted for nylon pants and hiking gaiters (which I lent to Beat for the second day) instead of running clothes, which proved to be the better choice. Boots would have been better than running shoes for a lot of this terrain. I forget that hiking is not just "slow running." Hiking can be a whole other harsh animal in the wilderness.

The fog moved away, offering us a glimpse of the Big Blue on the return. Twenty-four hours later and survival needs abated, my knee is still-pain free. Fluke that it might be, I feel indebted to the Ventana Wilderness — steep, brutal, and stunning.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving through the world

Sometimes Beat complains when I go too many days without updating my blog. I tell him I just want to avoid writing anything that sounds too defeatist or whiny. It's just been one of those weeks. Or months, I guess. Even at age 33 I find myself thinking things like, "I don't like July 2013. How many days until July is over?" As though the simple flip of a calendar page can turn everything around.

Not that I should complain. Work is going well — both Alaska newspapers and collaborative book projects (my own projects, sigh ... they need a boost. But it's hard to motivate toward creative projects when I'm feeling blue.) Beat is on fire at his job, and he's pumped about that. We have great adventures planned ... all the more reasons to count down the days in July. But I've been feeling frustrated about my physical state. My left knee continues to improve daily on an incremental basis, but the fact that it isn't 100 percent yet seems worrisome. I wonder if the bashing three weeks ago triggered some underlying overuse stuff. It feels a bit like chondromalacia, which gripped my right knee for years but strangely doesn't seem to crop up anymore. Maybe it's left knee's turn? I wonder.

Careful (perhaps arguably over careful) handling of this minor injury has limited what I can do outside, which also makes me feel a bit blue. I fight it, though. Motivation slips with my mood, but I get myself out there anyway even if I have to run easy, just so I can look at the world. Even when it's hot again and running feels like the last thing I want to do, I do it anyway. Inevitably, the simple act of going outside lifts me up. Yesterday I had to take my car in for service, and spent the two hours it took wandering the neighborhood — in the outskirts of San Jose. Pawn shops, car dealerships, and an outdoor mall. But the simple act of just walking around and observing the traffic of life had a positive effect on my mood; I was happier and more fired up for Beat's and my planned run in the evening. Staying on the move, looking at the world — that I think is my base motivation for nearly everything I do. I am just not wired to sit happily in one spot.

Our Wednesday run was relatively difficult (relative, that is, to my current abilities and perceived fitness, which is a disconcerting realization in itself.) So I decided to go for an easy road ride today, just up to the top of Steven's Creek Canyon and back. As I was pedaling up the canyon, a black truck with tape across one of the taillights buzzed me close, pulled into a pullout directly ahead, and turned around. I didn't think much of it until about a minute later, when the same truck buzzed me again, this time even closer. I could feel a whisk of forced air against my shoulder, and then I saw the driver waving his middle finger out the window. About a hundred meters ahead, he flipped another U-turn. At this point, I was frightened and wondering, "What's wrong with this guy that he's so angry at me?" I was just a solo cyclist, pedaling on the right edge of winding dead-end canyon road with a posted speed limit of 25 mph. And the next thought, "Well, here it is, the incident that's going to turn me off to road biking for another year. Who knows what he'll do when he turns around again?" And then, "What is he going to do? Why does he have to be so ragey? Why the hell do people hate cyclists so much? We cost them seconds of time and they respond with acts of terror."

After several more minutes he had not returned, but I was still frightened. Maybe he was waiting for me in a darker corner near the bottom of the canyon. I had no desire to turn around and find out, so even though I planned an easy out-and-back ride, I veered onto a spur road called Redwood Gulch, which climbs 1,000 feet in less than two miles. Some of the switchbacks are way too steep for my tender knee, but I figured a little knee pain was better than being assaulted.

The climb was strenuous and instead of feeling better at the top of Redwood Gulch, I just felt more upset about the incident, so I kept climbing. I pedaled a little bit harder to try to push out some of the anger. The knee pinched a bit but really, it's probably in better shape than I give it credit for. I climbed to the crest and turned onto Skyline Drive. There was still this irrational fear that this guy was back there somewhere, and I was not keen on turning around. I passed the Long Ridge trailhead, and even though it rightfully annoys Beat when I ride his nice carbon road bike on dirt, I decided I could use a brief off-pavement venture to relax at the overlook, away from cars.

Funny, but plowing those skinny tires through a thick layer of summer moondust on singletrack did wonders for my foul mood. It was kind of silly, kind of exciting, and required enough concentration to funnel my thoughts into the moment. Fifteen minutes later at the overlook, with the marine haze shrouding the golden hills, I was smiling again. I pedaled down Page Mill and turned a one-hour ride into something closer to three, but it was worth it.

It doesn't need to be much. I just like to get out there. At the base of my outdoor, endurance-focused lifestyle, that's really all it's about. 
Saturday, July 06, 2013

Summertime blues

I have a mild case of summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as the "summertime blues." I've always been susceptible to this — overly sensitive to sun, allergic to lots of green things and bugs, find heat oppressive and too easily lapse into lethargy. "Most people are summer people but some of us genuinely are winter people," I try to explain, but am more often then not met with confused stares, especially now that I live in the Golden State. "Who doesn't like summer?"

I don't not like summer. I just struggle when it's 90 or 100 degrees and my favorite activity, going outside, becomes a chore. Outside isn't as much of a sanctuary for me in the depth of summer; it burns my skin, blisters my lips, dries out my throat, wears me down. I slow down and feel unreasonably stale. I spend days working indoors with beads of sweat clinging to my arms and legs, looking grimly out the open patio door at the white-washed sky and dreading whatever short outdoor activity I have planned for the afternoon. Because of my knee injury, I haven't run in two weeks. Occasionally I force myself out the door to ride my bike because low-impact movement really is therapeutic; it helps keep the joint loose and seemingly pushes out some of the inflammation or whatever tightness is causing pain — in other words, I feel worse after a long day of sitting and better after riding. But the rides are pretty sad; they just have no power, no heart. Truth is, if I didn't think light exercise was helping my knee, I might not even bother. Yeah, might as well curl up on my couch in a pool of my own sweat with a tub of ice cream and a spoon. It's that time of year.

But, I'm not despondent. I recognize this for what it is, a bit of SAD, not at all anchored in reality. I have awesome adventures coming up. I don't even really care if I'm a tub of melted goo because just being there will be an amazing experience. Anyway, past experience has shown that my fitness doesn't fluctuate all that much, and perhaps doesn't even matter when it comes to multi-day adventures. After about twelve hours of continuous activity, I'm the same tub of goo no matter how much ass I kicked in the months leading up to the grand adventure. It's all maintenance after that. Endurance I have.

Not having much power in my left knee means I've avoided riding my mountain bike, which really is more of a task-master than the gentle spin of the road bike. Beat had to work over the holiday weekend so I had some solo time and potential for quiet trails that I didn't want to waste, so I resolved to set out on Thursday.

Because the high that day was 98 degrees, I waited until as late as I possibly could and still squeeze in a three-hour ride before dark. Problem is, that time was 6 p.m., which is usually around the time we eat dinner. Creatures of habit sometimes forget their emergency trail snacks. A surprisingly flexible knee spurred me to climb hard, relishing in that searing sensation coursing through my legs for the first time in what feels like weeks. Of course, by 7:15 p.m. at the top of Monte Bello, I hit the bonk wall. Meaning, I actually felt reasonably light-headed. Temperatures were still in the high 80s; I'd been shedding so much sweat that my top tube was soaked, and this was hard work. I did not have a snack. But, like SAD, I know that bonking is largely an emotional response — especially at my lower wattage capabilities — and it's usually more satisfying to keep powering through.

I climbed over Black Mountain with the saturated light of late afternoon, as dry grass swayed in a gentle breeze that finally wicked the sticky layer of sweat from my skin. Without extra energy I couldn't concentrate on much besides the spinning pedals, the crackle of tires on loose dirt, the warm breeze on my cheeks. Living in the present. Curtains of marine fog poured over the mountains, sucked inland by a high-pressure vacuum of heat. Normally in my SAD state of mind I would think, "Wow, I live so close to the coast. Why don't I just go there? I could just lay on the beach until I start shivering. But it's like two hours of driving. If it wasn't for these dumb mountains blocking the way." But on this afternoon, reduced by low blood sugar to a simpler, more animal state of mind, I simply thought, "Wow."

I launched into the singletrack descent, dried by weeks of no rain and churned into a slippery, gravelly chunder. Normally I fret about these conditions and actually dislike mountain biking during the depths of summer in California, as summer is when I experience my worst slip-out crashes. But on this day, I just flew, flowing with the loose trail, leaning into curves without losing my traction and grinning with the flickering golden sunlight. Time no longer registered, only moments — trees in varying shades of green, deer loping through the tall golden grass, long shadows stretching across the hillside. "Sometimes," I thought later, "I just need to get out of my head." Most times? At least outside, in motion, I operate so much better in the present.

Living in the present — not anchored in time, not imprisoned in a season, just experiencing the world one moment at a time. I needed that.
Tuesday, July 02, 2013

From the sidelines of Western States

One question I am occasionally asked when I tell people I like this distance-running thing is whether or not I've seen the movie "Unbreakable." The answer is no, I haven't — and while one of the reasons for this is probably obvious to some, another reason was that I never mustered much enthusiasm for the mythology surrounding the Western States 100. Yes, I do understand why it's become its own legend — after all, it's the first. Back in 1974, Tevas Cup competitor Gordy Ainsleigh decided to try his own chances against the horses on foot. He finished the course in just under 24 hours and effectively invented the 100-mile ultramarathon. The Western States Endurance Run became official in 1977 and has since grown into most prestigious 100-miler in North America, attracting a deep field of ultrarunning talent and a lottery that brings in thousands of entries for less than 300 free spots. But — and I only admit this in the interest of honesty — I couldn't get past my prejudice that Western States was just a basic, somewhat bland California course with a corporate sheen. People only want to run it because all the fast guys are there and because it's the first, I thought. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it wasn't for me.

Still, the journalist in me wants to be where the action is, and there was admittedly a flickering desire to check out the scene. Earlier this year, I was chatting about cameras with an acquaintance, Amy Sproston, when I mentioned off-handily that I'd be happy for a chance to come out to the race if she needed any help on her crew. I think we both forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when she e-mailed me to ask if I still wanted to crew for her at the race. Amy is part of Team Montrail and the 2012 100K World Champion. She'd be gunning for a top finish at Western States against a lot of strong women, I knew it would be a fun race to spectate from the front lines.

I may have not harbored a ton of enthusiasm for Western States itself, but like anyone, I love a good hero story. For better or worse, Western States is where this small sport makes its heroes, and race-day speculations are fine entertainment. Who will come out victorious? The hot young talent who has been enjoying a killer year? The seasoned veteran who comes from behind late in the race to prove that experience can trump youth? The local favorite? The dark horse who no one expected? Watching these stories unfold is like watching a great sports movie without the formulaic dialogue or pandering sentimentality. It's a true story happening in real time, over many hours, through the sweat-drenched heat and fatigued night. The sidelines are a great place to witness the sides of the stories that few bother to tell. And because my own running journey has been a bit of a disaster recently, I didn't think it would hurt to venture to the grand stage to search for inspiration.

My job was to join Amy's sister Lisa at half of the crewed aid stations. Lisa comes out from Wisconsin every year for some sisterly bonding, but she often handles the bulk of the crewing herself and it can be stressful. Amy actually had an entire entourage this year, with two friends, Jason and Dillon, from her home state (Oregon) to help with crewing, and a pacer in her friend Robyn, a fast road marathoner who had never participated in a trail race or ultramarathon. It's true that we all had some outside interest in being there, and also that Amy probably didn't need any of us (with the exception of her sister.) She's pretty efficient and self-contained. But Amy was gracious in letting us all be a part of her Western States experience, and for that I'm grateful.

2013 will be remembered as "The hot year." It was officially just the second hottest Western States in history, but I have a difficult time imagining anything hotter. I saw 110 degrees in Sacramento the day before the race. It barely dipped below 70 overnight in Squaw Valley at 6,200 feet, and the heat-trapping canyons along the American River easily saw ambient temperatures in the 110s with brutal sun exposure and no breeze. My car thermometer repeatedly showed 100-degrees-plus while driving along the Foresthill Road. I slathered my skin in sunscreen and vied for the tiniest slivers of shade along the course. Lisa and I carried camp chairs and coolers up and down steep paved approaches to the aid stations; it was actually the first time I had done much walking in the week since my knee injury, and it was tough. We had our share of mishaps — leaving the cooler with all of Amy's cold drinks in Squaw Valley, miscommunication with the guys as we shuttled between aid stations, frantic rushes when the schedule got tight. All of this time, Amy was running steady, hitting her splits from 2012 almost exactly despite the extreme heat, and coming into the aid stations quiet but collected.

Meanwhile, the story that was unfolding in the women's race was an exciting one. Amy's U.S. teammate Pam Smith, who hadn't been on anyone's list of race favorites after struggling to a 29-hour finish in last year's Western States, surged ahead before the halfway point and continued to build her lead. Because of our aid station schedule, we didn't see what was happening at the front of the men's race, but we did see a lot of the faster chasers come through, wild-eyed and determined to keep up a strong pace in the hot hot heat. It was exciting and fun, with the added bonus of frantic, wild scrambling for two minutes every three hours. We tried to do anything we could for Amy, who was methodically chipping away at the miles — nauseated, pale-faced, and suffering just like everyone else, but moving strong.

What these men and women do at the front of these races is baffling. I know — hard work, smart training, decent genetics, blah blah blah. It's still the human element that intrigues me the most — the "whys" of every runner, not the "hows." Western States is a prizeless race in a fairly esoteric sport. Yes, you get a belt buckle if you finish, but I think belt buckles are terrible prizes. There, I admitted that too. I'd rather have a coaster. You have to admire the grit and raw energy these people give to a decidedly unglamorous endeavor.

We had an interesting mishap with Amy's pacer, Robyn, that became perhaps my favorite story of the day. Robyn was set to pace Amy from mile 62 to the American River crossing at mile 78. Amy actually prefers to run without pacers, but Robyn is her speedy training partner who Amy wanted to entice into the world of trail running by showing her the ropes at Western States. Robyn has run a marathon in three hours flat, but never anything longer and never a race on trails. Throughout the day she was visibly nervous about the prospect of pacing Amy for sixteen miles, and asked a lot of questions about trail racing customs and strategies.

Lisa and I were waiting for Amy at the final crewed aid station, mile 93, when the guys surprised us by arriving there as well — without Robyn. When we asked what happened to her, they admitted they "lost her." "We were climbing up the hill when we looked down at the river and saw Robyn crossing," they said. "We yelled and screamed as much as we could, but they couldn't hear us. I don't think Amy knew she was back there. We're not sure if she's still out there or not."

Um ... really? Robyn didn't have a headlamp or even trail shoes. She'd never run anything longer than a marathon. Was she really out there running an unplanned 50K, possibly in a condition where she'd need assistance from Amy, who was supposed to be racing? I felt a pit of dread in my stomach, and I could see all the color flushed from Lisa's face. "We lost Robyn."

They arrived at mile 93 and Amy took off almost immediately, as she was in close proximity to second position runner Nikki Kimball and fourth Meghan Arboghast. Lisa went with her, as it's their tradition for Lisa to pace her sister in the final seven miles. Robyn was excited and flustered, explaining that she didn't realize she wasn't supposed to cross the river, and when Amy noticed her at the other side, it was too late to turn around. With the rope and other runners crossing, a backward crossing would have caused an obstruction. Robyn asked people around her if she could borrow a headlamp and actually obtained one, and then spent the next fifteen miles doing everything in her power to follow Amy's lead as they climbed hills, danced over rocks, and ran through the forest in the fading light. We congratulated Robyn on running her first ultra, and she was visibly glowing and openly emotional about the experience she'd had.

Amy arrived at the Placer High School track without Lisa, as she'd surged so much that she actually dropped her sister. She ran a steady race and finished in 19:25, in third place behind Pam and Nikki. I thought she looked strong at the finish line, but just a few minutes later all the color drained from her skin and she ended up in a fetal position on the grass, and then in the medical tent. Ultimately she was okay, but you could tell that she'd left a lot of herself out there, strewn across the sun-baked dirt of the Western States course.

Generally, once the podium is filled, the journalists go home and the race carries out its quiet conclusion. Western States encourages lingering with a big awards ceremony after the 30-hour time limit has been reached, so we had a chance to spend another half-day in the hot hot heat watching the final finishers. Although I appreciate the talent and determination at the front of the race, as an individual I identify more with the back-of-packers — their quiet determination and internal rewards.

One guy finished just one minute past thirty hours, which drew a standing ovation from the entire crowd — although that guy ran every inch of a hundred miles, he would not be officially recognized as a finisher under race rules. Then nearly everyone turned and started filing away, and five minutes later, another guy crossed onto the track. A few photographers jumped back into finish line, and a few people turned to clap, but this last finisher's arrival went largely unnoticed. I admit I started tearing up as he and his pacer passed with their arms clasped. It's so hard to chase cutoffs. Those at the back of any race are there for a reason — they're having a particularly tough day, or experienced unexpected setbacks. And once you fall behind, you have to fight and you can't stop fighting. This guy fought so hard, but in the end he only just lost the battle. In the end, sometimes you fight just for the sake of fighting. I bet this guy is proud of what he accomplished.

Amy, of course, has much to be proud of herself. I have a lot more respect for Western States now, as an event and as a journey. It's a great race, and it's the people involved who make it so.