Monday, October 28, 2013

Exploring Santa Cruz

Beat and I enjoyed a quiet weekend, working on a few projects and being lazy tapering for Frog Hollow. My friend Jan was in town for the weekend, and was interested in venturing out for a mellow ride on Saturday. Jan moved to Seattle recently and has been enduring autumn in the Pacific Northwest, so he was stoked about clear sky and temperatures in the 70s. He told us about the horrors of bike commuting in the cold rain, and I was quick to commiserate. "I lived in Juneau for five years. They get three times the annual precipitation of Seattle." Jan related his trials and I joined in with back-in-my-day war stories about showing up at the office covered face to foot in road grit and rigid, refrozen sheets of ice, which is what happens when it's 32.1 degrees and you ride a bike through three inches of slush, even with fenders. I'd have to stand outside the building until I peeled off the top two drenched layers, shivering with full-on convulsions as my extremities went numb, and, Sonny, you don't know the true indignity of bike commuting until you've commuted through a winter in Juneau. 

But it's true that weather toughness is like muscle mass — it steadily gets softer and weaker the longer one lives in a friendly climate. Now I'm Californian through and through, and I don't even blink when it's 70 and sunny in late October. Yawn. 

2008 Jill would not be amused.  

But it's refreshing to view one's routines through the lens of someone who sees more rareness in opportunities. Jan wanted to ride in Santa Cruz, which is one of those places that is so close and yet feels so far away. I admit my first reaction was, "Ugh, traffic." But there wasn't any; it's less than an hour of driving, to visit a place with incredible diversity in terrain and landscapes. In just one twenty-mile ride, we climbed desert-like sand slopes, rode through a lonely eucalyptus grove stranded in a grassy plain, dropped into loamy, root-choked singletrack winding through a dense redwood forest, and skirted coastal cliffs.

Descending into the coastal fog after riding the trails and fireroads of Wilder Ranch.

Pelicans. Lots of pelicans.

More seabirds on an envy-inducing perch.

Whenever a taller friend comes to visit, we usually lend them our 18-inch Fatback, because it's our largest bike. This was Jan's first time on a fat bike and he had that giddy "monster truckin" grin on his face for much of the ride. The fat bike market is exploding right now, with exponentially more choices in frames, forks, wheels, rims and tires than there were just three years ago when Beat purchased the Fatback. This trend is also pushing fat bike design away from its snow-and-sand origins, and more into the all-terrain market, with bikes featuring tighter geometry, carbon frames, knobbier tires, suspension forks, sometimes even rear suspension. These developments annoy some "old-timer" fat bike enthusiasts, because the industry already offered bikes better suited for trail riding, called mountain bikes. I also agree that fat bikes really shine on soft and loose surfaces, and prefer my mountain bike for dirt. But I can't deny that riding a fat bike is simply fun — smile-inducing fun — whether it's on snow or dirt or pavement. Jan agreed. We managed to get Fatty off trail for a fun diversion of beach riding in a cove below the cliffs. I would try to ride sand more often if there were more accessible, longer stretches of beach in the area. But every strip of nearby coastline that I've noticed is either closed to the public, closed to bikes, or blocked by cliffs.

Skimming along the cliffs was my favorite part of the ride. Beat was on his singlespeed and spun out at a relaxed pace. A stiff tailwind helped scoot us along, so I just leaned back and coasted with my camera out.

So many pelicans! Thanks for getting us out for new explorations in our back yard, Jan.

Beat has been hard at work on gear for his upcoming walk to Nome. Now that he knows exactly what he wants, he's been designing, building, and sewing a lot of it himself. He started from scratch on this year's sled (version 6.0), built from a sheet of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. The lightweight sled is five feet long, with a built-in shield silnylon cover that doubles as a bivy sack. The front flap allows venting while keeping out snow, and there's a plastic dome at the head to keep fabric away from Beat's face when he's sleeping. The rear section rolls back into the sled with a VX21 fabric flap. I crawled inside and it was cozy in there, like a warm cocoon rather than the suffocating coffins that closed-up bivy sacks usually mimic. Innovative stuff.

There are more pictures of Beat's Nome sled at this link. There are probably only a couple dozen people in the world who'd appreciate a good, lightweight, sleep-in pulk, but who knows? Maybe this stuff will go the way of the fat bike someday. 
Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fun in the pre-season

Even amid frigid winds and fog so thick it was visibly streaming sideways, I felt a tinge of disappointment when Leah suggested we skip crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and instead keep our Wednesday evening ride on trails within San Francisco city limits. She was feeling under the weather and I understood her reluctance to go out for hard climbs and descents on the exposed ridges of the Marin Headlands, but urban trails? How fun could those be?

We wound through the forested corridors of Golden Gate Park on sandy singletrack, then cut south toward Mount Sutro, a small greenbelt beside the University of California San Francisco. Foggy daylight faded to blue-tinted twilight as we climbed a narrow trail through a dense eucalyptus forest. Drooping branches and frayed bark captured the fog, which rained down on us as fragrant precipitation. It was a seriously spooky place, made more so by the fact that we were bound on all sides by urban jungle. I couldn't help but imagine creepers lurking in the shadows. We rolled over the 908-foot peak — one of San Francisco's "seven summits" — and descended back into the dark and spooky woods on a muddy, rocky, twisting trail.

It was so much fun. I admit I headed out to the city hoping Leah would put the hurt on in the Headlands, and I'd have to burn up all my matches keeping up with her. That would have been a great training ride. But I'm glad we went on an adventure instead. After all, what is training besides an excuse to continue having adventures?

I've had a lot of fun with my "training" this week — doing what I felt like doing, plugging into Strava, making efforts to crack some PRs. On Sunday I was especially sore after the Coyote Ridge 50K — which was the most I've run, actually run, in quite a long time. Beat and I set out for a "post 50K" Montebello climb where he nearly broke his own PR and I struggled, rolling up about 10 minutes later. That was not what I wanted; I wanted to be more like Beat, who by now thinks a 50K run ain't no thing. For the next few days, I set out to do better.

On Monday, I had a decent 18-mile road ride around Mount Eden and Redwood Gulch, and cracked a few Strava PRs. But on Tuesday I only had time for a run. Every Tuesday, I'm working on deadline and lucky if I can squeeze in an hour from door to door. I have a 5.5-mile road and trail loop that I often run if I have time, and it's become my Tuesday routine. This Tuesday was the first in a while that I managed a run without IT band pain flaring up. About a mile and a half from home, I realized I was making sort of good time, so I decided to tack on an extra 0.7 miles and try to break my 10K "personal record."

My PRs for short distances are all embarrassing. I feel very awkward when I try to run "fast" — for me, this means anything in the 7:xx-minute-mile range — and since I'm convinced forced speed is a quick ticket to injury for someone like me, and it doesn't really enhance my goals of developing longer steady-state endurance, I never try. My 5K PR is still 31:52 (!!), established in the only 5K event I've ever run, back when I was not even remotely a runner, at the 2006 Sea to Ski Triathlon in Homer, Alaska. I've since run five consecutive kilometers faster than that, of course, but never as an actual 5K distance, which I think is a prerequisite for a PR.

Anyway, my 10K PR was 57:14, the fastest I've run my favorite 6.2-mile trail loop at Rancho San Antonio (which has 960 feet of climbing, I might add, if that makes this 10K time any less pathetic.) The goal for the last 3K of this Tuesday's loop (which has 680 feet of climbing) was to get that time below 55 minutes. I ended up running a couple of laps around my apartment complex at 7:30 pace but just missed it — 55:05. It was all quite silly but fun. It doesn't mean anything, but I was really enjoying myself.

On Thursday I set out on a double-climb of Montebello Road. I have this long-term project in mind that I call "One Hundred Miles of Montebello" — ten consecutive climbs and descents of a local road that climbs 2,000 feet in five miles, for a century with 20,000 feet of climbing. Everyone I tell about this dream thinks it's a horrible idea, but I'm determined to see it through someday, even if I can't con anyone into joining me. It would be at least a twelve-hour ride, so more daylight is needed, and it also would be more likely to motivate for if I'm engaged in focused bicycle training — I'm thinking it's a project for next April or May. So the hundred-miler is a ways off, but I've never even done a double-back of Montebello Road. Today was as good a day as any to start practicing for my project.

The double went really well. I tapped into my steady-state endurance, kept a good pace but didn't push into the red zone, and wrapped up the ride with 28 miles and 4,400 feet of climbing. Later I plugged my GPS data into Strava and learned I cracked my own all-time top ten list on this climb that I ride all of the time — twice! No PRs, but I'm stoked about how generally strong I feel right now.

This whole long training post was really supposed to be a lead-in to a question that some have asked me — what's next? Recently, I was reminded of an essay by Terry Tempest Williams. For the life of me I can't locate the direct quote, but to paraphrase, Williams wrote, "For every person there is a land with which one resonates above all others." For me, this is that land:

Alaska. Winter's Alaska, with all of its wild, white, open space. This, specifically, is the Iditarod Trail. Or even more specifically, it's a perfectly groomed segment of the Iditarod Trail near Finger Lake that I had the pleasure of riding in February 2008. A lot has changed since then, but one thing that never seems to change is how deeply this imaginary line has needled its way into my identity. I dream about it often; I find it entering my thoughts when I am scared or elated, joyful or lonely, inquisitive or bored. For a number of reasons, I haven't attempted to return to the route over the Alaska Range since I contracted frostbite on my foot in 2009. Nearly five years have gone by. I kept my runaway dreams at bay with patches: two amazing runs in the Susitna 100, three exhilarating rides through the White Mountains north of Fairbanks, a reluctant but beautiful sled run in the Homer Epic 100K. Next year, 2014, it's time to go back to the 350-mile journey to McGrath. And this time, I decided to attempt the route on foot.

I made this decision back in April when I signed up for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I've since wavered back and forth on this. For the entire month of September, I was so demoralized by my experience at the PTL that I wasn't sure I wanted to go to McGrath at all. Then October came, my attitude and strength flipped a 180, and Beat started prodding me about the prospect of going to Nome on a bicycle. "You will love it so much," he said, and I suspect he's right. But I'm not ready, not yet. And yet, if I do aspire to ever ride a bicycle beyond McGrath, I should probably practice by riding a bicycle to McGrath once more.

Before PTL, I was much more confident about my decision to try this route on foot. It's not that I don't love snow biking or that I'm not a significantly stronger cyclist than I am a runner (I do and am.) What I was looking for in this endeavor was authenticity in the experience. It's difficult to describe, but on foot everything seems to happen more immediately and directly. There's nothing else to lean on, nothing else to blame, no mechanical boosts, no imaginary companions (I admit I become emotionally attached to my bikes.) It's just me. Taking a bicycle to McGrath remains one of the most difficult things I've ever done, and I can't even fathom how much harder it's going to be on foot. But a large part of me really wants to find out. Finishing the 2012 Sustina 100 on foot, alone, on my terms, has been my most rewarding running accomplishment yet. I had an incredible experience in that "short" race two years ago, and want to pursue a similarly raw and authentic experience in 2014.

However, I know that the rewards in a walk to McGrath are going to largely reside in post-race reflection. Walking to McGrath stands a good chance of being awful while I'm doing it. The ride to McGrath can be just as awful, but it also has a better chance of being a lot more fun. As Beat likes to joke, "Bikers complain about bad trails but that's the only time it sucks for them. It always sucks for runners." That's obviously an overly simplistic way of characterizing biking versus hiking — but there's some truth to this as well. Dragging a sled to McGrath is a lot like pushing a bike for 350 miles.

Beat says I need to decide soon, and he's right about that. The "pre-season" officially ends after the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, which is just over a week away. Then I really have to buckle down and start preparing for winter. It's scary and exciting ... and I'm glad I rose out of my post-summer malaise in the nick of time. 
Monday, October 21, 2013

Running just because

Last weekend, after another hard rally up a mountain in Utah, I returned to find a text from Beat: "Yo, I'm signing us up for the 50K next weekend. That's what you get for not picking up your phone."

It's true that I'd expressed regret about skipping out on the Diablo 50K, and maybe I would enjoy going out for a long run in the near future. But in the very next breath, I reiterated our need to put in some more cycling miles ahead of Frog Hollow, and reminded Beat that my actual running mileage (as in, not hiking or scrambling or crawling) has been low since I injured my knee during the San Lorenzo 50K in June. My Iceland and European experiences were a different beast entirely, but running has remained on the backburner ever since. I've averaged one run a week, in the six- to eight-mile range. Not one of these runs has gone well. I felt sluggish on the climbs and tentative on the descents, got side-stitches and ITB tightness, became frustrated about my pace. "I'm super slow right now," I warned Beat.

Meanwhile, my cycling efforts have been on an upswing — I'm feeling stronger, climbing faster, descending with more fluidity and confidence. Hiking is still great as well. But for whatever reason, I open up my stride into a run and everything starts to fall apart. While most of my athletic abilities were hard-won over years, running especially seems to just not come naturally. "Running is really hard for me," I've told friends. "I think that's why I want it so much."

So even though cycling has been going really well, and just one good, half-day mountain bike ride would probably work wonders to improve my confidence for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, I showed up at the start line for the Coyote Ridge 50K on Saturday. Looping through the recently opened Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the Marin Headlands, the Coyote Ridge 50K is a deceptively difficult course. It looks tough on paper, too, with an advertised 7,300 feet of climbing (I Strava'd closer to 6,100 feet of climbing, but it's still a healthy dose of ups.) But what makes this course tougher than most I've run is the fact that much of the climbing and descending happens on very steep fireroads and trails, with flattish sections in between. Less variation in grades usually translates to a consistent pace, while transitioning from steeps to flats always throws me off kilter.

On this day, I was comfortable marching fast up the climbs that nearly everyone hiked (after PTL, I've developed a new mantra — If you're not using your hands, it's not steep.) Same with the descents — it's the dry chunder time of year and trails were loose and slippery, but take short, quick steps and it's fine. But the flatter, runnable grades? Argh! My IT band locked up early and knee pain thwarted attempts to open up my stride. It was a gorgeous day, with flawless blue sky, coastal cliffs sparkling in the sunshine, and low fog wafting in from the Pacific. I was thrilled to be out there, and wanted to do this awesome day justice by putting in the best running effort I could. The IT band was grumpy but I found I could break up the tension by rubbing the side of my leg as I walked. This relief didn't last long, but was often enough to earn me several minutes of pure running bliss, prancing along the edge of a cliff high above the shrouded ocean waves in a place that seemed miles away from any notion of pain or fatigue.

The leg was back in lock-up phase as I shuffled into the finish at 6:43, which I found disappointing. I'd run the first 15.5 miles in three hours flat and thought I could even-split this race given how solid my endurance feels right now. But, no, running wouldn't let me, because running is hard. The time doesn't matter, but in racing — even spontaneous "for fun" races — most of us trick ourselves into believing time is important. We do so because this belief motivates us to try our best, which enhances the experience. This is what I love about racing. But sometimes I finish and I'm disappointed. Several of my races this year have been like that. This race was like that.

Beat and I had set a "cut-off" time of seven hours, as our friend Martina's birthday party was that evening, and we were helping with the hosting at our apartment clubhouse. We had to leave Muir Woods by 3 p.m. so we would be home in time to start setting up. Beat was trying to usher me out of there, but I demanded a snack because I was feeling ravenous. As I was standing at the table gnawing on a chicken leg, a Japanese man who was participating in the marathon distance ran into the aid station. I thought he was finishing the race, but as it turned out he had only completed the first loop and still had seven miles to go. The race director, Wendell, informed him that the cut-off had passed and the sweeper had already been sent out. But he could continue if he wanted to, knowing that the trail markers might already be taken down.

"Will you still be here when I get back? Will all of this be here?" the Japanese man asked as he gestured at the food on the table.

"I will be here," Wendell said. "I'll even make you a burger when you get back."

"I will do it," the man said. "I will run for hamburger."

"I ran with that guy for a bit," Beat told me. "He directs a race in Japan, called the Eco Slow Marathon. People carry bags to pick up trash along the way, and they're given as long as they want to finish. He has this philosophy of slow running."

Hahime Nishi. Photo from Dreamcatchers.
This trash-collecting race was intriguing, so I looked him up. As it turns out Hajime Nishi is an extremely dedicated and enthusiastic marathoner. He's chasing a life goal of running 1,000 marathons in 250 countries, and he's already up to something in the mid-600s at age 64. He held (and possibly still holds) an official world record for running seven marathons on seven continents in seven months. He started running after his wife died of cancer in 1990. He touts enjoyment, connection, and savoring experience above all else. He takes a lot of photos and stops to absorb the scenery whenever the urge hits him. But he loves the challenges and constructs of a marathon. A marathon, he says, is about learning more about people, cultures, and himself. According to a Runner's World article, his "worst marathon time" is 3:45 and his "best" is 10:32.

 “Because I am free from running for time, I have a wonderful time every time," he told Northwest Asian Weekly." The blood circulation just brightens my mood. It frees me from whatever family issues, personal issues, or work stress I have. That’s the great benefit of slow running.”

Of the Ecomarathon Inba, which disqualifies participants if they arrive by vehicle, gives prizes for those who pick up the most trash, allows only reusable water containers and locally produced food, and isn't timed, he said, "The idea is to lower the bar of the marathon — to make it more inclusive to society —and to increase the winnings of the environment. Before, I thought, 'Winner takes all. It's very important to win.' And now, I realize this is wrong. Everyone has value, not just the winner. Marathons should respect participants, the environment and local culture, and that is what I am trying to do."

He wrote a book, published in Japanese, about his anti-competitive philosophy called "Losing is Winning." It seems Hajime goes to lengths to promote his worldview, which is an intriguing development for a man who admits that, until his wife died, he was committed to accumulating wealth and power, and quite successful in that regard. It's also interesting to consider in a time when the divide in running culture is widening. On one side of the gap you have what many view as "easy," ecologically dubious but hugely successful Color Runs, and on the other there are people who think everyone should be competitive in the same old ways with no consideration of the vast diversity of abilities, values, and passions among runners.

I'm not saying I agree with or disagree with Hajime's message. The dichotomy between competitiveness and anti-competitiveness is something I struggle with myself. And it is problematic to promote eco-sensitivity and minimizing one's footprint while traveling all over the world to run races. But I wholly embrace Hajime's zeal for life and desire to share his passion with others. The world definitely needs more of that — zeal for life.

And this is another reason I love running races — an opportunity to meet, even if only briefly, people like Hajime.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Wasatch mountain bender

Well, I'm back in warm and sunny California after a great five days in Utah despite the disruption of my family's annual Grand Canyon tradition. I visited a couple of friends from college, did dinner and a movie with my best friend from high school, ate a few pounds of my mom's homemade pumpkin cookies, and binged on Wasatch mountain scenery just as autumn began its stark transition to winter. I got in 20 hours and 37 minutes of hiking over my five days in town — much of it at a similar effort level to the trail running I do at home, so it was a solid week of training, too.

Dad was coming down with a nasty cold but he rallied for a Saturday outing up the Cherry Canyon Logging Trail. This trail begins at a nondescript city park on the edge of Draper, about two miles from where my parents live, and climbs straight up the steep face of a mountain. On a good day one can ascend 7,000 feet to the top of Lone Peak, but we knew snow and ice conditions would prevent us from attempting the technical scrambling up the summit ridge, and also that route finding would be more difficult under fresh snow. We set our sights on the "Outlaw Cabin" in the pine forest at 9,500 feet elevation. Still a 5,000-foot climb.

It was a gorgeous day, but the wind was fierce and above 7,000 feet we were soon slogging through shin- and knee-deep powder. Temperatures climbed just above freezing, but the wind made it feel much colder.

Lone Peak and its drainages remain my favorite section of the Wasatch Mountains. The massif towers over my childhood house (where my parents still live) and I consider it my home mountain. I always love the opportunity to return here.

The Outlaw Cabin, built in 1960 by the Allen Brothers, was constructed before the pine forest where it's located officially became part of the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. I admit backcountry cabins like this creep me out; I half expect to find the bones of a long-dead miner or the bloody victim of a chainsaw murder inside. Dad pulled back the wooden slab of a door and peeked inside, but I couldn't bring myself to do so. We brushed the snow off a log and enjoyed a shivery lunch outside. Then we started down the 5,000-foot descent that always seems so much longer than that.

On Sunday I squeezed in a quick trip up the West Ridge of Grandeur Peak. Another cold storm had moved in and the mountain was shrouded in thick fog and pummeled by wind, stinging rain and sleet, so I pulled my buff over my face, put my head down, and marched. Although it's not the most scenic route in the Wasatch, if I lived in Salt Lake City I would probably climb this trail often. It's a great training "run." In five miles there is 7,400 feet of elevation change (3,714 feet in 2.5 miles, and both the climb and descent are pretty much equally difficult at those grades.) On this hike I managed to shave twenty minutes — four minutes a mile — off my pace from when I hiked it back in May. I like to think that maybe I'm actually in better shape now than I was in the spring, but mostly this just demonstrates my tendency to do better when the weather is awful than when it's nice. Also, I love the kind of terrain where 29-minute miles feel like a hard effort. If I had a steady supply of steep mountains to climb or snowy tundra to traverse, I would be a happy hiker. I wouldn't miss running one bit. But I do enjoy trail running, of course, for the way it's taught me how to move more efficiently over variable terrain and cover more distance in one go. Come to think of it, I really need to start running again soon.

The clouds moved away for several minutes just as I arrived at the 8,300-foot peak, affording me a brief but nice view of the surrounding mountains.

 On Monday I had another short window of time, so I decided to head up Little Cottonwood Canyon to climb to White Pine Lake, which sits in a rocky basin below Red and White Baldy peaks at about 10,200 feet altitude. Right before I left the house, my dad suggested that I borrow his snowshoes because Little Cottonwood always gets "slammed" when there's a storm. The suggestion surprised me. Sure, these fall storms had dumped a few inches of snow, but surely not enough to be snowshoe worthy?

Dad was right; there was a lot of snow up there, starting with about three inches at the trailhead and building to nearly two feet at the lake. Many of the aspen trees still had their leaves in tact, creating a cool spot-color effect on the black-and-white landscape.

Light snow continued to fall throughout the climb, which was a genuine trudge. Dad's snowshoes are a bit heavy and the snow was wet and cement-like. I logged one 38-minute-mile to the top that was an all-out, gasping effort (being at 10,000 feet could have had something to do with that. I actually do okay at altitude for the first few days of acclimation, and tend to start struggling with it more later in the week.) I had plans to visit my sister in the afternoon, and was trying to keep the hike to three and a half hours. It took me 2:30 to reach the lake, only five miles and 2,600 feet of climbing from the trailhead. Luckily I was able to take the snowshoes off and jog most of the last three miles, keeping the hike to 3:40.

Despite my efforts to rush through this outing, it was soothing and peaceful. I broke a fresh track all the way to the lake and only saw two other people on the return. Fine grainy snow fell and thick fog streamed through the canyon. Above treeline I encountered full white-outs, which were deeply unsettling in their complete sensory deprivation. On two occasions I stopped walking and gazed into the gray silence, grasping to regain some feeling of reconnection to Earth. I felt like I was floating in outer space (a sensation probably sparked by the fact my friend and I saw "Gravity" at the movies on Saturday.) The tiniest sparks of panic would creep in, and that was always the moment when the clouds moved through and I could see the outlines of rocks and ridges in front of me. I can see! These moments of sensory disconnect continued for most of the last painfully slow mile, and I was happy to have my own tracks to follow down.

And that's my trip to Utah. I flew home on Monday evening, back to bikes and 80-degree weather. But it's time to start gearing up for winter. Beat and I have lots of good things coming up, and as my PTL shellshock continues to diminish, I feel more excitement about all of it — 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, Alaska, Iditarod, snow bikes ... many good things. Although I was roughed up by my summer adventures, I feel like I've grown stronger because of that. Twenty hours of time in the winter-kissed Wasatch Mountains was a solid jumpstart for the mojo I feared I'd lost. 
Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shut down

Nearly every autumn since 2004, my dad and I have traveled to the Grand Canyon to hike from rim to rim. Traveling from Idaho or Alaska or Montana or California, rain or snow or 110 degrees at the Colorado River, south to north or north to south, hiking with a big group or a few friends or just my dad and me — I love our annual R2R. It is my favorite tradition. We always plan the trip a year in advance, and 2013 was to be a first for me — a Rim to Rim to Rim, over two days, spending a relaxing night with my mom on the South Rim before turning around and heading north again. But it was not to be. The federal government shutdown cut access to the Grand Canyon, and Arizona's deal to reopen it wasn't reached in time to save the trip. I already had nonrefundable tickets to Salt Lake City, so I decided to travel out for the weekend anyway, and salvage some of the tradition by spending time with my dad in the Wasatch Mountains.

Of course, I had to hit the double jackpot of bad timing when my trip coincided perfectly with a winter storm that hammered the mountains. In the two weeks prior, my dad had climbed a couple of favorite mountains and enjoyed warm weather and good conditions. But this storm was likely the one that will close off the Wasatch high country to anyone who isn't a serious backcountry skier or mountaineer for the rest of the season. I had traveled out to Utah with Grand Canyon gear — ever the optimist — and wasn't well equipped for winter conditions in the mountains. But I had rain gear so we set out on Thursday for a peaceful and sleety hike to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon. I enjoyed the brisk weather and time with my dad. 

By Friday we were feeling ambitious and decided to check out the conditions on Mount Timpanogos, starting from Aspen Grove near Sundance Ski Resort. We should have known better, given we tried this route last year around Thanksgiving and discovered that it's not doable under snow cover given the steepness of this aspect. But I was hopeful that the recent snow was just a dusting and we'd be able to follow the summer trail. 

Starting out around 8:15 a.m., temperatures were in the low 30s and it looked like it would be a fabulous bluebird day. 

A low fog moved in but the sun continued to needle through, highlighting a fading but diverse pallet of fall colors. 

The snow cover quickly became deeper as we gained elevation, and was already windblown enough that drifts frequently buried the trail. Soon the steep switchbacks were entirely hidden underneath a smooth, powdery snow slope, climbing at 35- to 45-degree angles, sometimes steeper. The powder snow didn't consolidate underneath our feet and we had a lot of difficulty gaining traction as we crawled up the slope on our hands and knees. Of course it didn't take long to lose the route. And from this aspect of Timpanogos, you really have to stick to the route because everything else is a cliff. We ended up right back where we were last year, somewhere around 9,500 feet altitude, staring up at the cliffs in bewilderment and declaring a dead end. 

I've never hiked to Timpanogos from Aspen Grove, even in the summer, so I didn't know where the route was. But after observing the rim earlier, I had a sense that it was likely cut into a more open drainage to the right, and I was determined to find a way over there, "just to look and see." I punched a trench up this near-vertical gully and then picked my way along the base of an imposing cliff band. Although I told my dad I'd return after my scouting trip, he followed my tracks along the meandering and sometimes precarious route. Later, we would look up at this spot from below and be flabbergasted at how we managed to pick our way through that section; it all looked like cliffs. But I never sensed it was too dangerous (not enough snow cover for avalanches), and sure enough we did find our way back to the discernible outline of a switchbacking trail. 

 Of course, even trail travel wasn't easy, with shin-deep snow drifted to thigh-deep in sections. We crested the rim of the cliffs and reached the Emerald Lake basin, where the trail was still nearly impossible to follow. So we just punched tracks over hidden boulders and stumbled frequently.

Meanwhile, snow was ripping off the Timpanogos summit at an alarming rate. When I lived in Juneau, I learned how to gauge summit wind speeds by observing the movement of clouds streaming off the ridge. I'm rusty on this skill, but based on past experience I'd say it was easily blowing 50 to 60 miles per hour up there. And it was not warm. My Camelback valve and hose froze outside my coat, indicating temperatures below freezing at that elevation. Even in the relative protection of the basin, the wind blew 20 to 30 miles per hour, and windchills cut through to the core. 

I'd just spent the past month doing nightly sauna training and biking in 80-degree heat just so I'd be well acclimated in case it was a hot year in the Grand Canyon. All of that preparation did me exactly no good here in the Wasatch. These were full winter conditions, complete with fierce wind and sugary snow. My gear was not great — Hoka trail-running shoes and a single pair of Drymax socks on my feet, a single pair of fleece gloves that was neither water nor windproof on my hands, and an old rain coat instead of a real winter shell. But I had a great new Patagonia primaloft puffy that I'd recently acquired for Alaska, and I was very grateful to have that piece. Because my torso was toasty warm, my extremities managed to stay relatively comfortable. My dad struggled a bit more with his hands and feet, and had to break out the handwarmers. 

We climbed above Emerald Lake Basin to the edge of the cliffs over the Timpooneke basin, 500 feet below. The first 200 feet are a sheer drop, and the mountain tumbles steeply into them. In the summer there's a good trail carved into this rim, but it was entirely obscured by wind-loaded powder. Sometimes we be flailing around in waist-deep drifts, only to have the next step be onto slippery, ice-coated rocks covered in about an inch of polished snow crust. Meanwhile, the sideslope became steeper, the cliffs grew closer, and both my dad and I were nervous. At this point the saddle wasn't far, and we were nearly as high in altitude, but I had strong doubts we'd want to continue to the summit. "The windchill is going to be zero degrees or lower up there," I reasoned, "and the wind is probably so strong that we'll feel like we're getting blown off the mountain." Continuing this sketchy traverse where any slip on hidden ice would likely mean a 500-foot death plunge, just to reach a saddle where we'd turn around right away, did not seem worth it. My dad asked if I was disappointed that we missed a summit yet again. Hell no. "I've had enough terror hiking this summer," I told him.

We ate a quick and uncomfortable lunch in the little hut above Emerald Lake. The back wall, the one facing the wind, was half blown off and the shelter provided little protection from the brutal windchill. "Just think," I said to my dad. "Right about now we'd be at Phantom Ranch, sitting in the shade in 80-degree sunshine and sipping on fresh lemonade. But the Grand Canyon shut down so instead we're here!" I'm not sure he found this as humorous as I did. He didn't laugh. 

Luckily, we found the real trail to follow downhill, so the descent was uneventful. The cold wind only picked up in strength as we lost elevation, making me feel grateful we didn't attempt to climb higher. 

It is gorgeous, this mountain and its surrounding valleys. 

Oh, Timpanogos. You win again.

Timpanogos was the first mountain I ever climbed, back in the summer of 1995. I haven't been back to the top since 2000. But I will return someday. Dad says I should try visiting during a proper summer month, the time of year when one can run to the top on a nice, smooth trail. But I do enjoy the challenges of the shoulder seasons, even if they shut me down time and time again. 
Monday, October 07, 2013

Day touring the Diablo Range

You know what I really love? Bike touring!

Sure, purists will argue that unless a cyclist has camping gear strapped to their frame, or at least plans to spend one whole night away from their own bed, their ride is not a tour. But the way I look at it, bicycles are the ideal exploration vehicle, and any ride conducted with exploration in mind takes on the best characteristics of a bike tour: gawking at scenery, connecting geographic puzzles, snacking on potato chips and purple Gatorade on a weathered picnic table in front of some tiny backroad bar. "Day touring" is also a great way to cover some new ground relatively close to home, that one might overlook if planning a longer trip.

Just a few weeks after his double 200-milers in Europe, Beat was already jonesing for a long trail run, so he signed up for the Diablo 50K on Saturday. I was emphatically not interested in running 50 kilometers so soon after being severely ground down by my own Alpine adventures. However, I saw an opportunity to embark on a ride I've wanted to try for more than a year now — linking up the two most prominent mountains in the East Bay — Mount Diablo (3,864 feet) and Mount Hamilton (4,196 feet.) It's difficult to do this without riding at least 100 miles, so I took advantage of the one-way opportunity. With little prior experience in most of that area, I solicited the help of Strava Route Builder to design a route. In a matter of minutes and just a few clicks, I had a map linking "Strava preferred" popular cycling segments, as well as the total distance, elevation profile, and even the estimated moving time based on my own past cycling stats, along with a .gpx track to load onto my Garmin eTrex. The ease and usefulness of this tool is impressive. I have been a Strava skeptic in the past, but with this tool I am fully on board. Well done, Strava.

Several friends were also running the Diablo 50K, including Jochen who was visiting with his wife and baby after moving to Shanghai a couple of years ago. Beat and I headed out the night before to visit our friend Steve and spent the night at his mom's house in Concord to avoid the long drive first thing in the morning. There were several other familiar faces at the race start — quite the early-morning social gathering. Once there, I was filled with FOMO about not running this race —perhaps a good sign that I'm turning around on my resolve to quit trail running and maybe even endurance racing altogether. (Ha ha, not really. Mostly.)

But once I got on the road, regret about skipping the race dissolved into stoke about the flow and ease of two wheels rolling on pavement. I had a lot of new ground to cover and was excited about the possibilities.

There was a big wildfire on Diablo one month ago, and the scars across the hillsides were still fresh. I caught up with several runners at road crossings, including Steve, but just missed seeing Beat. The summit museum was closed for construction, and vehicle traffic was almost nonexistent. Just a solid climbing grade, a blood-pumping effort, and sweeping views. Pure bikey bliss.

As expected, the daytime heat started cranking around 10 a.m. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the mid- to high-80s in the valley, and the air often feels at least 10 degrees warmer in the breezeless oven of these Diablo Range canyons. Beads of sweat formed on my skin even at reasonable biking speeds, and I started to feel grumpy about the prospect of cooking in the sun all day long. However, for nontechnical bike tours I have become fairly good at willfully ignoring minor physical discomforts — thanks to a well-tuned autopilot mode. By the time I descended from yellow rolling hills and farmland of south Diablo into the town of Livermore, I was "in the zone" deep enough that a red traffic light was a jarring sight.

Beyond Livermore was the big unknown — fifty miles of two relatively remote backroads through the heart of this small mountain range. I expected typical California secondary road construction — steep grades, narrow sweepers, hairpin curves, and no shoulder. This road was exactly that, but with the noticeable and almost complete absence of vehicular traffic. There's really just nothing out there for people to drive to — a few ranches, and that's about it. On a Saturday afternoon, I saw about ten cyclists — all in the first five miles — and more motorcycles, perhaps two dozen. Maybe five cars and trucks? In fifty miles of pavement located in close proximity to a metropolis of 7 million people. The road climbed to about 2,000 feet elevation and snaked through a narrow canyon for miles of rolling climbs and descents, swooping curves, and more empty vistas. Road cycling has its pros and cons, but pedaling a winding, open stretch of pavement at full throttle is as close to the sensation of flying as I've experienced. Pure bikey bliss.

The little discomforts did start to stack up, though. My senses were now fully engaged in the excitement of "discovery mode" and thus sharp enough to highlight nagging pains. I left Livermore with three liters of water, but started rationing early when I drank half of my supply before I even hit the top of the ridge. I had some beta that there was a small bar at a road junction leading out to the Central Valley, about 35 miles from Livermore, but had no idea if it was open and didn't feel comfortable relying on it. The air was stiflingly still at climbing speeds, the heat burned straight into my core, and the little sips of tepid water did almost nothing to quench my thirst. Also, I just haven't put in much time in the saddle this summer, and my out-of-shape lower back muscles were sore and spasming. Happily, a little bar called "The Junction" — probably the only service establishment in a 30-mile radius — was open with a few items for sale. The rehydration break did wonders for my deteriorating mood.

But my back soreness was only getting worse, to the point where I did a bicycle version of "downward dog" anytime I had a chance to coast for a while. The legs finally chimed in with "we're tired and done" right when I came to the crux of the whole ride — the climb up East Hamilton. Thanks to a couple of steep rollers it gains nearly 3,000 feet in a scant five miles — a steep lung-buster that would probably be fun with zero-mile legs, but is decidedly crushing on 95-mile legs. A cloud of bickering filled my head. The legs and back said, "We want to walk." I said, "No, this is a road ride. We can't walk." The stomach said, "This is stupid. I want ice cream. And a Slurpee." I couldn't argue with that. But my legs were in near revolt and my lower back was twitching painfully, so I made a deal. "Next bend, we'll walk." Then stomach chimed in. "Walking's too slow. It will take too long. I want a cold drink. And ice cream. Don't be such a pansy." I couldn't argue with that. The legs and back continued to mount protests any time I rounded another bend and didn't stop, but I didn't stop.

The trip odometer clicked over to 100 miles right when I crested 4,200 feet and caught sight of the big white domes of the observatory. Victory! I had conquered Mount Hamilton! The summit came in a rush of relief and satisfaction because I had nearly crushed myself to get there — dizzy, aching, hungry, thirsty, but immensely happy. I often don't dig that deep even when I'm racing, but it felt especially rewarding in this context — a meaningless little victory, but it mattered to me.

I had to resort to stiff, brake-throttling coasting down the first miles of the descent just to recover from the shattering climb, all while stuffing my face with jelly beans because I had really let my blood sugar crash. But once my legs came back around I felt surprisingly strong — proof yet again that the feeling of being broken is usually a wrong assumption pushed by the mind in moments of weakness. The 18 miles down into the Santa Clara Valley followed by 18 "commuter" miles across San Jose passed in what felt like a few minutes. Strava even took me on a pleasant route through the city, following quiet neighborhood streets and connector roads with wide bike lanes. Thanks Strava! Final stats were 135 miles with 11,159 feet of climbing, and 10:16 moving time (Strava estimated 10:09 — impressive accuracy.)

Beat finished his 50K, which had 8,000 feet of climbing and was just as hot, in 6:50. He was fifth overall. And felt good. Of course. He seems to have discovered the secret to near-endless endurance, which I'm still trying to crack.

Now that I've discovered this route building tool, I'm excited about the prospect of designing more new-to-me bike tours and local link-ups. Next up, I'm thinking "A hundred miles of Santa Cruz Mountains" mountain bike tour. Oh, the possibilities.