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.