Thursday, October 03, 2013

I see stars and go weak

Autumn isn't the prettiest season in the Bay Area. The hot, cloudless days of summer have given way to parched hills, crackling brush and dusty trails that mimic a sheet of Teflon coated in corn starch. The leaves of oak trees turn a sickly shade of green; maples might change yellow in November if the leaves don't dry up and fall off first. Even the poison oak, which turns a stunning shade of crimson in the late summer, has started to drop singed leaves that will soon disintegrate to itchy dust. Grass has withered, creeks have dried up, and even the redwoods seem to sag with a certain weariness. Thirst. Autumn is a thirsty season. We're all just waiting for the winter rains to revitalize the trees, green up the hills, and add some tack to these slippery chunder trails.

Revitalization. It feels far away, yet inevitable, like the waning daylight and winter clouds. In September my spirit felt withered; sometimes I'd go to quiet places and ponder the reasons why. The motions were there but the zest for the activities I love was missing. "I'm still recovering," I'd tell myself, but I knew it cut deeper than that. "I met demons out there, in the shadows of those beautiful Alps. They were heartless and cruel, they showed me the worst sides of myself, the apathy and hopelessness and unfocused fear. They brought out the worst in me and I did not vanquish them. No, they won."

So I went through the motions. I did some work. I did some writing. I did some oblivious staring off into space. I'd get out when I could. Some nights when I woke up at odd hours, I'd walk out on the deck, lean over the railing and gaze at stars. Maybe you recall when I wrote a few weeks ago about seeing a shooting star in France and believing that it was a person who had fallen off the mountain? That memory still haunts me. Even though I know it wasn't real. The mind is strange like that.

In the afternoons, I'd embark on my daily exercise — mellow rides or runs. I didn't feel great, and I didn't push it, but I had a strong sense that couch sitting was not going to aid in my recovery. After all, most of the damage was not in my body, but my mind. Going outside for at least a short time every day was the best course of action. So I cranked out some heavy-legged rides, and plodded through the most basic newbie running pains, like IT band soreness and side stitches. The weekend came, and Beat installed a blingy new drivetrain on the Fatback, so of course I had to go for a fat-bike ride. Beat and I rode four and a half hours over the parched hills, churning up dust and tentatively reintroducing ourselves to loose descents. I cranked Fatback's new teeny-tiny granny gear up a steep hill until I felt dizzy and pukey and had to get off and hike. I made it a little farther than Beat did on his medium-geared singlespeed ... but not much.

"I'm out of shape," I'd shrug. "I'll get it back."

"2013," I remarked to Beat, "has not been my best year for racing." I'd think about this year's races and wonder where they'd left me. I'd chat with friends about training rides and remark that I sometimes regretted having such a thorough record of my routine activities. "All of my best times are more than two years old," I'd lament. "I really was a better cyclist back in 2011, and not that much worse of a runner." What's happening? Age? Too much racing? Or am I just losing heart?

Today after a productive but mentally exhausting morning of writing, I decided to head out an hour early on the road bike. With about three hours to burn, I opted to pedal a favorite loop, from home up Highway 9, along Skyline Drive to Page Mill and back. The ride is about 34 miles with 3,700 feet of climbing. It's a climby loop with bone-shaking chipseal and a hairpin descent, and consistently beautiful even amid the bland hues of autumn. I used to ride this route frequently when I first moved to California in 2011, but it's become more of a once-a-month-or-less outing these days. As I spun along Foothill Boulevard, I noticed my legs felt peppy today. Maybe peppy is not the right word, but they felt a bit less like chunks of cement. I rolled along the shoreline of what was once Stevens Creek Reservoir but is now a stagnant puddle amid a cracked mudflat, and reflected on memories of the route. "Back in 2011 I use to ride in the rain. There was sleet, actual sleet, on Skyline, remember that? Oh, I miss the rain here. It needs to rain."

My best time on the whole loop was something in the low 2:20s. I remembered that, and I wondered how much longer it would take me to ride the route today. But as I spun up the Mount Eden climb, that tiny little voice that I so seldom listen to — I'll call her my competitive spirit — said, "Screw 2011 Jill and her strong cycling legs. We could ride faster if we wanted to."

And that was that. It was on! I had soft-pedaled most of first six miles, so I'd have to make up some time. The Mount Eden descent is mostly broken pavement, but it was as good of a place as any to lay on the throttle. There was one bucking bounce that nearly launched my body skyward, but soon enough I was settling into the 2,500-foot climb to the top of Skyline Drive.

I tried to hit that sweet spot of efficient climbing, where a bit of bile burns in my throat but I don't have to resort to open-mouth breathing. It felt like I reached the crest in no time, and then there was the chipseal to contend with. My wrists won't soon forgive me, and there were two pavement crack bounces that convinced me I'd squeezed all of the air out of my tubeless rear tire (thankfully I did not.) But I ignored the rough surface and throttled that rolling traverse before turning onto Page Mill. Last weekend there was tons of loose gravel on Page Mill, and rangers have told me horror stories about peeling injured and bloody road bikers off the pavement, so I took the descent easy. But back on Foothill it was on again, cranking the big ring past a long line of backed-up rush hour traffic. Back at my home intersection, I hit stop on my watch and looked at it for the first time since I consciously started "racing." 2:17:41!

At home I did some digging in Garmin Connect and concluded that 2:17 is a new PR, possibly my first "frequently ridden cycling route" PR of 2013. Of course I had to go upload my track to Strava to check my status against the geeky Strava'ing subgroup of the Bay Area road cyclist community. Moved up to ninth on the popular Highway 9 climb segment. That's definitely an improvement over 2011 Jill's standing, I'm certain. Yay. Another small victory in the battle of matter over mind. Sometimes all it takes is acting strong to feel strong, which in turn leads to becoming strong.

The wind eventually sweeps the withered remnants of autumn away. Winter is coming. :)


  1. Morning Jill,

    I'd like to suggest another challenge for you: Randonneuring and Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) in 2015.

    Given your ultra history you prolly know about randonneuring and brevets. If ye doesn't, there's this thing called the internet. :o)

    PBP only occurs once every four years so it's not an event where you can say: "Oh, I'll do it next year." PBP is the "olympics" of brevets. And it requires qualifiers in the PBP year: Complete a series consisting of 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km before June me thinks.

    One of the challenges of a brevet is that 50% of it is 90% mental. Right up your alley.

    Instead of "Being John Malkovitch", I'd enjoy your writing about PBP so I could "Be Jill Outside" on the journey.

    Plus, it's France and the experience of the helpful country side folks is a treasure to wrap your arms and heart around.

    Ride Long and Prosper

  2. My running times are so much slower now. I don't know if it is age or really because I don't care. Probably a combination. I really think you should do triathlons!

  3. I would take dry hills over ten days of cold rain any day.
    Jill - have you thought about riding this route in the opposite direction? Warm up on foothill, page mill climb which I liked more than descending on it, skyline rollers and down on 9 - much safer going down at 45mph when cars do 35 IMHO than climbing. And it is a great surface for fast downhill. Then pierce and mt Eden climbs as a cherry before cruising down from the reservoir?

  4. Randonneuring — I've considered it, but for whatever reason haven't made the leap to organized events yet. I go through phases with my enthusiasm for riding long distances on pavement, but right now the idea seems awesome. Just as long as there are lots of hills thrown it. It's like fast touring.

    With Triathlon, I'm not a swimmer. I can chop through water but I have no technique, and just enough pathological fear of water to struggle with putting my face in the water. I realize I can get over this fear and learn technique. But dirt triathlons are more limited and I have no interest in running on pavement. It's fine for "commuting" or a quick outing in places where there's limited trail access, but for the most part road running is just not for me.

    Jan — I have ridden that loop both directions. It's a great workout because the climb up Page Mill is tough, and then you're generally climbing Skyline rather than descending. But I don't like the descent down Highway 9 because I never go the same speed as cars and there are a lot more cars on Highway 9. Climbing Highway 9, on the other hand, is very enjoyable because it's a more even grade and there's a nice, wide shoulder, unlike climbing narrow Page Mill alongside cars. There's never much traffic on Page Mill, at least on weekdays, so I feel more comfortable descending that road even though it's slower.

    When I do descend Highway 9, I always cheat and drop down Redwood Gulch rather than make the climb over Mount Eden. I climb that way too when I'm feeling saucy, but it's a crazy steep grade for the first half mile, as I'm sure you remember.

    And I do remember what weeks of cold rain is like. I sympathize with you.

  5. Hi Jill

    You said: "..haven't made the leap to organized events..."

    Please ejukate the ignorant me, but what's the difference tween PBP (self soupported, control times) and an event like PTL (organized, cut off times at controls, etc)?

    For the curious......

    Thank you

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I meant organized brevets, specifically. I've looked into them, including some fantastic-looking 200K and 300K routes north of San Francisco. But I haven't showed up at the start line yet.

  8. P.S. ooops me thinks you were talkn about "pavedroad" organized events. Yah?

  9. Got it..our posts collided. Also santa cruz and davis area brevets.

    Hope you add em to your to do list. PBP is awesome.


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