Monday, May 27, 2013

So maybe I overdid it

 Late spring is such a beautiful time of year on the Wasatch Front, and so brief. I forget. There's a short window between the snow and withering heat of summer, when the mountains come alive with electric greens and vibrant wildflowers. It's intoxicating. I must have some, I told myself, even when I woke up Sunday morning with deep-set stiffness and a hungover feeling of fatigue. Saturday's Twin Peaks attempt was as hard on my body as any 50K trail race; probably harder, as I engaged all kinds of muscles I hardly use and bashed plenty of body parts in the process. I promised myself I would take Sunday off, I really did. But when the morning dawned as gorgeous as it did, I groped for justification. "It's not like I can just come back any time." "Really, it's my quads and calves that are sore. Those things are resilient." "It will be good for the soul. Hundred-milers are soul efforts anyway."

West Ridge of Grandeur Peak. I effectively had three hours between the time I made the decision to go hiking and the time my parents and I were leaving to visit the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, as well as my living grandmother. Grandeur Peak is a "little" mountain at 8,300 feet, so it seemed doable. I chose the West Ridge approach because I hadn't been there before, the trail was only 2.5 miles, it was a closer drive than the Church Fork trailhead, and didn't involve dealing with holiday weekend crowds in Millcreek Canyon. But that also meant starting in the city, near 5,000 feet elevation. There was perhaps a bit of willful avoidance regarding the simple math in that equation.

 I do love climbing a seriously steep trail. With a few small dips, the West Ridge actually gains 3,400 feet in 2.5 miles, or a vertical kilometer over 4K. I could climb trails like this all day and be a happy hiker, if not for the inevitable equally steep descent. I made decent time to the peak, 1:17, and started down at a fast march in an effort to match it (I'm generally slower on descents.) At the first little dip that required climbing, an excruciating cramp seized my left calf. It clamped down and wouldn't let go; felt like someone was applying a tourniquet to my muscle. I used to experience these calf cramps frequently when I lived in Juneau, and back then I interpreted them as a sign that I was overtired from steep hiking. I stopped to writhe through the pain for a few seconds, and then spent another minute trying to knead the knot. No luck. I was just going to have to get myself down the mountain with this tight muscle.

 It hurt. I hate descending a seriously steep trail. I could descend trails like this all day, and that would be my proof that Hell is indeed real and I have gone there. I know I need to get over this loathing in order to pursue my first love, but it's hard to tolerate when calf muscles are pinching and pulsing as I'm trying to sidestep down some loose gravelly slope. Still, I made it down not really worse for the wear. It was a cramp, after all. Those things have short shelf lives.


So, Monday. I went to bed at midnight on Sunday night and slept solidly for ten hours. I had no intention of sleeping that much. My dad and I had planned to squeeze in another hike, but he came down with a stomach bug on Sunday and I had assumed he wouldn't want to go. He was feeling marginally better Monday morning so we decided to use the short window of time we had to go to Bell Canyon.

 My mom thinks it's weird that my dad was sick and I was obviously tired and we went hiking anyway. She's right. It's just that we don't get these opportunities often. The justifications came back out. "It's 70 and sunny." "I need one more good test for my shin, which I think is in great shape again anyway." "I'll rest for the next three days, no problem."

 Bell Canyon has a reputation for being one of the few family-friendly hikes in Wasatch, and was proportionately crowded on Memorial Day. It's still a Stairmaster of a trail; the route to the Upper Falls is 7 miles round trip with 2,600 feet of climbing. My left calf was twitching, and it would sometimes seize up when we had to stop while climbing to let someone by (which was frequently.) Dad was nauseated and also not enthused about dealing with the crowds. Can we admit that we regret going out today? I dunno. I was so happy to be there. I met a couple of old friends on the trail. And we finally broke away from the crowds and enjoyed a peaceful break gazing up at the roaring hydraulics of the Upper Falls. Good for the soul, I assured myself. Good for the soul.

 I think there's a chance I'm coming down with the bug my dad has. I'm not feeling so good. I have to work all day Tuesday and lots to get done for final race prep on Wednesday, plus it's supposed to rain, so at least the mountain temptations are removed. Beat had me promise that if I ended up going on a mountain bender in Utah, there would be no whining at Bryce. There will be no whining, I promise. But panic before then, that I can't prevent.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bold return to the Wasatch

I spent all day Friday driving from the Bay Area to the Salt Lake Valley. Eight hundred miles on a desolate yet crowded Interstate 80. I actually quite enjoy long solo drives, for many of the same reasons that I enjoy long solo runs or rides — I can retreat into my quiet personal bubble, ponder all of the deep thoughts that I don't mind forgetting later, view intriguing landscapes, listen to music, sing out loud if I feel like it, get worked up over news, and snack on junk food. I also dislike long solo drives for the same reasons I dislike long solo runs — some boredom is unavoidable, as is at least one segment when I struggle not to doze off on my feet/at the wheel. I can't always find good places to stop and pee. My legs cramp up. I eat too much junk food and then I feel icky. Then, once it's all over, I'm really tired and feel vaguely hungover. Yeah, that's endurance running driving. 

 But doing the whole 800 miles in one push was all worth it when I woke up early on Saturday morning to attempt a Twin Peaks summit with my dad. Not knowing what kind of spring snow conditions we would encounter, we packed all of our snow gear. Knowing the day's forecast called for 85 degrees, we also packed a ton of water. Heavy packs and a hike that starts at 6,000 feet altitude. I knew that no matter what conditions the day brought, it was going to be a big effort just to keep up with my dad.

We took the standard Broads Fork drainage, starting in the bright green foliage of early summer and quickly losing seasons as we climbed.

Late spring became early spring, with tiny green buds and lots of deadfall.

Continuing to ascend into late winter.

8,500 feet — the hard part begins.

I was a bit nervous about encountering rotten snow conditions and rockfall, but the bowl was filled with old avalanche debris and the resulting base felt solid. Both my experience and skillset in steep snow conditions are limited, so I try to be mindful of variables and extremely conservative in my approach. Still, I had some anxieties. Now that I live away from big mountains, I tell myself that what I miss the most is the beautiful scenery and challenging terrain. But I forget another benefit of mountain living — the opportunity to get out and do things that scare me.

The long climb up the bowl was fairly straightforward, but there were signs of rotten snowpack, at times sinking thigh-deep into jagged postholes. By the time the slope steepened, I was sucking so much wind I could hardly see straight. I've noticed that when I come directly from sea level, 9,000 feet is about my threshold of manageable altitude; beyond that, I'm going to struggle no matter how fresh I am. And of course, the more tired I become, the lower that threshold gets. This was one of my worries about the Bryce 100 and one of the reasons I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to come out to Utah a week early. I hope to avoid this cross-eyed breathlessness if at all possible.


Things got steep while I was fixated on my own oxygen deprivation. On top of that, the avalanche-scoured snowpack had all the structural integrity of a tattered piece of lace. It was effectively a thin layer on top of a large boulder field, and much of the snow below the surface had melted and run off. We couldn't see the boulders, but we started to punch through the cracks between them, wrenching knees, bashing shins, thrashing to pull stuck feet out of holes. I experienced several anxious minutes when I wasn't sure if my dad was going to be able to pull himself out of a hole, and I hadn't found a spot that could hold my weight close enough to help (he was leading, so unfortunately did most of the deep hole finding, too.)

By the time the conditions really started to seem unworkable, we had nearly reached the saddle. I thought the descent would be okay because we could follow our own steps and pick our way around the holes. But there was some really sketchy stuff near the point were we had no choice but to climb onto the rocks — effectively crevasses between car-sized boulders with no way to gain purchase on the crumbling slush "bridges."


So we were both a little spooked when we reached the saddle, and it took us exactly zero seconds to call "no way" on the summit push to Twin Peaks. There was an even steeper and likely more rotten snowfield on the south face, and the other option is a Class 4 scramble on the exposed knife ridge that had its own razor sharp point of snow. A harsh and surprisingly cold wind nearly knocked us over, and we were happy to just look at the view and turn around.

Lovely view it was. Little Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley from 10,815 feet.

But we still had to go down. It was tough. In this photo my dad is trying to work his way around a hole where he fell up to his shoulder on one side. That was the hole where he solicited an adrenaline jolt to scramble out while I scouted for purchase in a spot close enough to pull him out. We descended most of this mountain slower than we climbed it — every step deliberately kicked many times before any foot was planted — and it was even more strenuous and wind-sucking at times. On the positive side, I effectively climbed the mountain twice — in both effort and position, so I don't have any downhill-induced shin pain to show for a 7.5-hour adventure.

Hokas and crampons. Not a bad combination. Usually when I wear my spikes with soft-soled shoes, I can feel the point pressure on the bottom of my foot. But with Hokas, all that cushioning does what it does best.

When we got down to the more stable snowpack, we were finally able to get off our feet for a few minutes.

This gully was filled with the remains of a massive avalanche. At first I thought the slide was recent, but on closer inspection, it probably happened a while ago.

Still, the avalanche left its mark. Our 7.5-hour hike ended up netting my training log a total of 8.5 miles and just over 5,000 feet of climbing. The numbers don't even come close to depicting how tough the effort was. At one point I was gasping for air when my watch buzzed in a 102-minute mile. Impressive.

Proper taper? I might have to take an extra rest day to get over this one. It was still worth it. A grand adventure with what was really just the right amount of scary, careful management, and success, topped off with some jaw-dropping scenery. I do miss you, Wasatch Mountains. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Alaskaversary


It occurred to me today that this week would be the tenth anniversary of the day I first set foot in Alaska. Of all of the moments in life to commemorate, this is one that stands out for me — a turning point, or point of no return, depending on how I look at it.

I had to dig through the very old archives of the Wayback Machine to find the exact date — May 30, 2003. Three friends and I had been meandering north for almost a month, living out of a 1990 Ford Econoline Van with a custom roof, retrofitted electrical wiring and the high luxuries of a television, cell-phone based dial-up internet connection (as in, we actually plugged our laptops into a phone) and a small refrigerator. Perishable food was hard to come by in the north, we were discovering, and the fridge stayed mostly empty except for foil-wrapped Dolly Varden and grayling that we pulled out of tiny streams in British Columbia, and cans of Pepsi that I insisted on keeping cool. After a month on the road I was only starting to conceptualize what a big continent North America really is, and the past week had instilled a sense of isolation via a bewildering expanse of black spruce forest, birch groves, and snow-capped mountains over the farthest horizons. Towns came in flashes of log buildings and gas pumps, and then they were gone. The sun wasn't setting until midnight. I thought I had experienced remoteness after days of backpacking into desert canyons in Utah — but when that feeling came via motorized transportation on a highway, I knew we were really out there.

But the place had a sameness to it as well — endless miles of black spruce forest, birch groves, and snow-capped mountains — and after a month I was starting to feel road-weary. "Everything moves slower out here," I wrote. "The sun, the time, the progress of life. The end of May. Everyone has hit a one-month lull. The novelty has worn off. This is our life now. Putting up tents and making pancakes is our job; the remote dirt road through this continuous expanse of wilderness is our commute. "

We spent much of May 30 lingering in Dawson, Yukon, where we camped on the edge of the Klondike River so Chris and Geoff could pan for gold. They used Frisbees from our kitchen stash — the same ones we used as dinner plates in camp — and were quite serious about the endeavor, squatting in the cold water and sifting through mounds of sand and gravel that they'd hauled from the hillside in stuff sacks.

"I walked up the hill and surveyed the remaining buildings – collapsed and corroded wooden cabins leaning over the steep slopes above the creek," I wrote. "The gold rushers once lived here. The people that traversed barren snowfields in the rigid cold of endless night, seeking a dream. I’d like to think I’d do the same, but I’ve never had a dream so intense, so overpowering, as to drive me into the glacial dark with only a faint glimmer of hope for success."

I smile now, when I read this, thinking back at the wide-eyed naivety of 23-year-old me. If only she knew.

"Chris and Geoff gave up on their dream after about 45 minutes, minuscule flakes of sparkling 'gold' still stuck to their legs and arms, mud dripping from their hands. Discovery is not preemptive. This is the frustration of gold panning. This is the frustration of traveling. At this moment we drive along the Top of the World Highway, across the Yukon River and less than 50 miles from the Alaska border. Our destination. And perhaps the cause of our discontent. We could turn the van around right now and never be the worse for it. There may be nothing on this horizon save the reluctant sun, but we’ll never know until we go."

There wasn't a bridge across the Yukon River this far north, so we crossed on a ferry, standing just outside the van as the boat plied across the silty water. On the other side of the Yukon was a narrow, dusty gravel road that spat rocks into our open windows as we rumbled higher into the mountains, truly the top of the world. Crossing the border was anticlimactic — just another tiny outpost lined with thick alder groves and more black spruce. Alaska looked a lot like everything else here in the far north. But we were back in the United States and there was a feeling of coming home. But not quite. I'd lived in Utah for most of my life, and the feeling of homesickness was strong in those final days of May. I remember daydreaming about redrock cliffs, missing the suburbs, and imagining the West Desert in November while we traversed a brown and white patchwork of tundra, still locked in winter in early June. I didn't yet realize that the roots of my homesickness would shift, and ten years later, I'd be out on a highway en route to Utah, daydreaming about those first days in Alaska.

"The landscape here is diverse and frightening; it commands joy but demands respect. Everything borders on extreme – daylight, temperature, seasons and life. Survival out here is also extreme, something I don’t feel adequately designed and conditioned for. My body is too weak and too susceptible to sun and bug bites, too unaccustomed to hunger and thirst and cold. Maybe this is the cause of my nostalgia for strip malls and suburbs. However, it is also the cause of an extreme respect and fascination with this place they call the Arctic Circle."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Horseshoe Lake 50K

Heat training and Oreo lips
On Sunday we did our last long run before the Bryce 100, the Horseshoe Lake 50K. It was a beautiful morning, with saturated light at clear views over the big blue Pacific. The race was sold out and I think there were close to 200 people at the start. I was drawn into all the excitement of "yay running" and went out too fast on the first climb, which resulted in being caught in a faster group for the punchy descents. Not wanting to get mowed down on the singletrack, I did my best to keep the pace by resorting to toe running.

I've done a bit of research on common causes of shin pain. There are a lot of different theories about which motions and/or tight muscles lead to tibial stress. My experiment of one so far shows that braking or landing hard with my forefoot, which is my tendency when descending or accelerating, seems to exacerbate the pain. Subsequently, slowing my downhill pace, shortening my stride, and deliberately engaging full foot strikes (trying to get that heel on the ground) brought quick relief. I was unhappy at mile six and suspected I would need to stop once I reached the first return to the start at mile 13. But at the half marathon point, after seven miles of mitigation efforts, I felt considerably better. I decided that continued experimentation with shin pain management would be more beneficial for my upcoming race than quitting early and hoping this will somehow work itself out in ten days. If it was a full-blown injury, I would certainly be more cautious. But this still qualifies as a minor nagging pain, and it doesn't seem to be worsening. Most sources I found say that shin splints typically take three to six weeks to go away, but it's possible to continue training during recovery as long as pain doesn't get worse.

Beyond that, the run was fairly uneventful. It was warm — probably into the mid-80s — but there was a nice breeze whisking along the ridge to take the edge off the heat. I felt strong, so my purposefully slowed pace caused some frustration and dissatisfaction ("I feel good. I can do better than this. But I shouldn't. But I can. Grrr.") In the aftermath, I feel my stride experimentation was beneficial, but there were plenty of points during the race when all I really wanted was to run faster — or climb faster, because a determined power-hike up a steep grade also involves getting up on the toes. But I dialed it back and finished strong, happy, and essentially pain-free. One week after the 50-miler, the Horseshoe Lake 50K was a good confidence boost in my endurance ahead of the Bryce 100.

I finished in 6:32. I raced this same course back in October and felt compelled to look up my former time, to see how it compared. Also 6:32. Apparently, getting stung by a wasp and minor shin splints cause me the exact same degree of pain-induced slowness.

I'm not planning to do any more running before Bryce. I'm headed out to Utah a week before the race to visit my family, and my dad and I are going to go for a few hikes in the Wasatch this weekend. The whole course is between 7,000 and 9,500 feet, so I could use all the pre-race acclimation I can get. My friends claim this is an unfair advantage, and they're right. But they're also all stronger runners than me, and the 34-hour cutoff looms.

I'm really looking forward to the Bryce 100. These 50K and 50-mile efforts are fun, but there's something intimately engaging about pressing through the night and emerging into a second day. Hundred-mile runs and multi-day bike races have their own life spans, and they always linger in my memories long after these smaller adventures fade into the distance. In a sense, long efforts are my way of extending my own life, because I live so intensely and experience so much in a relatively short time span. I often emerge feeling like I've made weeks, months, and sometimes years of individual progress. Many will argue that these efforts are inherently unhealthy, and they're not wrong. But in my opinion, the benefits of hundred-milers could never be quantified in any tangible way. From an outside perspective, they're nothing but stupid ... but inside, they're an integral part of an invaluable education.

And with that, I missed a week but I am still trying to keep track of my training for the summer. Blogs are good for that kind of tangible nonsense.

Week May 6-12
Monday: Trail run, 6.5 miles, 976 feet of climbing
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: Road bike, 17.5 miles, 2,553 feet of climbing
Thursday: 0
Friday: 0
Saturday: Trail run, 50 miles, 8,799 feet of climbing
Sunday: 0
Total: 56.5 miles run, 17.5 miles ride, 12,328 feet of climbing

Week May 13-19
Monday: Road bike, 16 miles, 2,143 feet of climbing
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: Trail run, 9.1 miles, 1,327 feet of climbing
                     Mountain bike, 8.9 miles, 1,844 feet of climbing
Thursday: Trail run, 7 miles, 1,675 feet of climbing
Friday: Road bike, 17.5 miles, 2,535 feet of climbing
Saturday: Mountain bike, 20 miles, 2,740 feet of climbing
Sunday: Trail run, 31.1 miles, 5,671 feet of climbing
Total: 47.2 miles run, 62.4 miles ride, 17,935 feet of climbing


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Strava hubris

This was supposed to be a mellow pre-race spin up Black Mountain, but after just two miles I knew it was going to be a grind. My legs were empty, like an unseen force had drained out the muscles and injected them with gelatin. The week had been going great up to a point, but then it took a dramatic turnaround. What happened? "I blame Strava," I grumbled to Beat as I struggled to hold his wheel.

Speed. Most of the time, I prefer to pursue longevity-promoting balance. Do something at 100 percent of your capabilities and you might need a week to recover, but at 80 percent you can go for half a day, and at 60 percent exponentially longer. Eventually you come to the conclusion that if distance is your ultimate goal, speed isn't the way to go about it. Still, I admit that it's intriguing take something you do all the time and try to do it faster. Every once in a while, I get sucked into the temptation.

It started with the AMGEN Tour of California, and considering my own PRs on my favorite routes. I realized that just about every "record" I've set happened in the first year I lived here, between March 2011 and March 2012. I don't like to believe that I'm getting worse at biking, although every statistic and intuition I have points to the likelihood that this is happening. But I like to think that the abilities are still there, somewhere, hidden deep inside me, and they just need a little coaxing to come out.

For the record, I think Strava is ridiculous. I do. I did enjoy the record-tracking program right up until I started to receive those "uh oh" e-mails three times I day, informing me I lost the queen of the mountain / course record on yet another 0.2-mile segment. I was able to ignore these e-mails until a segment came through that was in Fairbanks, Alaska. My interest was piqued enough to check it out. This particular segment was none other than the Wickersham Wall, the seemingly vertical snowmobile trail up the Wickersham Dome that starts at mile 94 of the White Mountains 100. If I'm ever achieved a speed faster than 0.5 mph while pushing my bike up that thing, I'd be surprised. Queen of the Mountain? Bah. Strava's ridiculous. I pretty much stopped using it that day, although I do go back from time to time and mass-upload the Garmin data on my computer.

But there is one Strava segment I do care about, even if I don't like to admit it to myself — Montebello Road. At 5.2 miles with 1,941 feet of climbing, it's my go-to road climb and one of the few things I do that I can benchmark around every turn. My best time on this segment, according to Strava, is 39:08, achieved on February 6, 2012. It's good enough for 16th out of 163 women, and I'm fairly certain I can do better if only I tried. Okay, maybe I should do some road-cycling specific training first, but isn't trying enough? No? Well, on May 17, 2013, I set out to try.

The segment starts at about mile 3.4 of my regular ride from home to the Montebello gate and back. I always forget to check my watch at the turn, but it usually happens between minutes 12 and 15 depending on traffic lights, which means I need to hit 51 minutes or better to assure busting out a sub-39. This is the easiest thing to track, although I also have this notion that I need to keep my minutes-per-mile pace above 9:00 at all times. This is about the slowest I can go over the toughest mile to actually achieve the 8 mph average I need.

So that's the basic tracking system. The first mile is the steepest, though, and after that I'm too maxed out to understand my watch anyway. That's why I cling to the 9-minute-mile thing, because I can always look at that number and understand whether I'm moving faster or slower. So there I was, churning pedals, unapologetically gasping for air and shooting snot rockets, with eyes fixed solely on the prize — avenging 15 months of Strava mediocrity. I made it through the hard climb, raced over the flatter miles three through four, and tucked my head for the final climb when the numbers shot skyward. 9:10 pace. Then 9:34. Then 10:02. Oh no! I was melting down. My legs felt like they were shooting flames, and I couldn't imagine where I was going to find the overdrive to maintain my pace. And somewhere in the back of my mind, that little trail running angel came to sit on my shoulder and said, "remember that little training race you have on Sunday? The Horseshoe 50K? It's on Sunday. What are you doing?"

"I don't want my legs to die," I thought, so I gave up. I kept pedaling but I stopped looking at my watch. At the top, it read 53:41. "Hmm, if it's minus fifteen minutes to the bottom of Montebello, than it just might be good enough. Even if it's just minus twelve, it's not bad. But no, I stopped trying. It's not good enough. It's never good enough if you don't try."

I admit I haven't uploaded the track yet. Part of me does not want to know, at least not until Sunday's race is over. I can't believe I roped myself into a silly Strava race and now my legs admittedly feel pretty tired, when they were just fine for Wednesday's double-header and Thursday's 7.5-mile hill run on the Black Mountain trail. Speed. I get why it's needed to, you know, actually get faster. But it is hard on the body and in the face of longer distances, it seems like a bit of a waste. When you're trying to maximize gas mileage, it's probably not the wisest move to keep the pedal pressed to the floor.

Speed is fun, though. Oh, sub-39-minute Montebello. I will get you, and prove to you I can still ride a bicycle. Someday.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Over the slump?

Recovery is a difficult equation to solve. For most of April I felt blah. I had a difficult time with regular running routes, acquired hints of a minor injury, took it sort of easy but not really, and then ran a fifty-mile trail race. And this week, ever since the morning after the fifty miler, I've felt great. Minimal soreness, no new aching in the shin, and an abundance of energy. It seems all it takes is one fun endurance adventure to reset my psyche — "Oh, right, we really enjoy this stuff. We're not tired, not tired at all. Carry on, body." And my body, since it's way stronger than my mind regardless of what my egotistical mind likes to think, just shrugs and says, "Oh, okay." And off we go.

I have continued to take it easy for the sake of my shin. There's also the matter that I am decidedly in taper mode now. I have one more long run this weekend and then I have to focus on being prepared for the Bryce 100 on May 31. There was a miniature scandal this week when the race director decided to reroute the course to hit more singletrack and more scenic areas around Bryce Canyon. After measuring the new course with his GPS, he shifted the elevation profile from 14,000 feet to 26,000 feet climbing — a *significant* difference. Panic ensued. And just as I and other participants were coming to terms with the change and getting excited about the climby new course, the RD returned with an "oops, my bad, I had some other people analyze it with mapping software and there's only 18,500 feet of climbing." So ... who knows? In a way, it doesn't matter. I've attempted hundreds with 2,000 feet of climbing and 18,000 feet of climbing and 23,000 feet of climbing and they were all really, really hard. Usually climby courses work out in my favor, because I'm a much stronger hiker than runner.

But I had a great run today. Headed out at 1 p.m. and it was actually somewhat cool, about 75 degrees. I kept my effort level just below "zone out" (when I am working too hard to think about anything) and wrapped up 9 miles and 1,800 feet of climbing in 1:29. Then I saw an e-mail from my friend Leah about going riding in the evening at Skeggs. Sure, why not?

Every time I ride at Skeggs, I wonder why I don't spend more time there. It's beautiful, steep, often misty and damp from coastal fog, and full of flowing singletrack. But then I come to a technical section like this and narrowly avert disaster doing something silly. I am starting to come to terms with the reality that I am not hard-wired for technical mountain biking. I've always felt a disconnect with my sense of balance (i.e. clumsiness) and these movements don't come naturally to me. It would take a lot of practice to gain the proficiency I need. Technical running trips me up too, but at least at running speeds, when I fall (frequently), I just get banged up. When I make a mistake at mountain biking speed, (less frequent) falls have sent me to the hospital. Leah disagrees with my assessment and thinks I just need more practice.

But we had a great ride. Some of the climbing sections put me deep into the red zone, so when I checked my GPS, I was surprised to see that our route was only 9 miles with 1:48 riding time. It did have 2,300 feet of climbing, and a decent amount of downtime (while I played with my new camera.) Still, it makes me smile that I was able to run 9 miles faster than I could ride 9 miles today, and the ride felt considerably harder. Maybe Leah is right that I don't practice mountain biking often enough.

But yes, I received a new camera yesterday. Beat gave it to me as a surprise, for no real occasion — so it was a very nice surprise. It's a Sony Nex-5R. I've been using a Sony Nex-3 as my primary camera for three years now, and have been really pleased with it. Although it doesn't come on all my adventures, it has taken its fair share of abuse in the past three years. I've used it in dust storms and rainy days and temperatures down to 25 below. But it's not one of those tough cameras — it's a medium-sized point-and-shoot with several near-DSLR capabilities, and interchangeable lenses. The Nex series is a good choice for anyone who wants some of the features of a DSLR without the expense or bulk. It's been a great camera for me.

I'm still getting used to the Nex-5R so I didn't necessarily have it on the best settings for my "shoot" this evening. I also couldn't figure out the macro settings, so you don't get to see a picture of the cool wasp exoskeleton that Leah and I found. But I had fun playing with my new camera today, and hope it will see its fair share of adventures.

Looking back toward Skyline Ridge and Skeggs during the drive home. You can see all that fog we were riding around in. It was decidedly cool — around 50 degrees with some fierce winds — and felt wonderful. A great day for a 9-miler-times-two run and ride. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bustin out at the Quicksilver 50M

For what was supposed to be one of the early and therefore "easy" efforts in a succession of test runs before PTL, I was feeling an inordinate amount of dread for the Quicksilver 50-mile. Its "early test run" status is what made it so scary — I really needed Quicksilver to go well before I can approach the big efforts in front of me with any sort of confidence. If I couldn't hold it together for a fifty-mile race in May, what hope do I have for 200 miles in August?

It felt like fate was conspiring against my tenuous confidence. I'm already daunted by the 50-mile distance — it's effectively a 50K-level effort for nearly double the amount of time. But I'd been having a tough time finding consistency in my running this spring, even before I felt hints of a shin splint in my left leg. I played it conservative for a couple of weeks, but my shin was still bothering me after a short run on Monday. I effectively took the rest of the week off — bike ride on Wednesday, and nothing on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I did all the little things I could for my shin — massage, ice, compression. But on Friday I was still feeling occasional sharp pains, and knew I'd have to take it easy on the descents to avoid aggravating it. In order to keep the consistent pace I'd need to finish, I thought, I'd have to push a little harder than usual on the climbs.

Saturday's weather — with its forecasted high of 92 degrees — did not instill confidence for a hard push of any sort.

The race started at the brutal hour of 6 a.m., just to add to the physical stress. We were standing around the start at 5:30 wearing only T-shirts and shorts and feeling completely comfortable. Harry said, "The last time I was at a race that felt this warm in the morning, it got up to 95 during the day." My friends teased me because I had frozen two liters of water to a solid block of ice, and then brought an extra bottle of liquid water to drink for the first few miles. They passed around my backpack and laughed about how heavy it felt, but I insisted that it was worth it. I'm a psychological racer through and through. Any physical disadvantage of an unnecessarily heavy pack is more than overruled by the mental boost of a shot of icy cold water during a climb into a 90-degree breezeless oven of a canyon. (As it turns out, Quicksilver is a luxury trail race and had coolers full of ice cubes at most of the aid stations, which were spaced an average of five miles apart. Once again, I remind myself that I should read race packets more closely.)

My week of rest left me feeling pretty sharp, but I could not escape the electric shock pain in my shin if I landed too hard during a descent. One of the issues with my downhill running form is that I tend to land directly on my forefoot while simultaneously braking hard. On steep descents my heel hardly touches the ground; I'm effectively running on my tippy toes. This puts a lot of pressure on the front of my legs, which I think is what makes me more prone to shin splints and also raises concern about stress fractures. During Quicksilver, I tried to make a conscious effort to land more directly on my heels and spread the impact. I can't say running like this feels good to me, but it did have the needed effect of holding me to small steps and slowing me down, reducing impact all around.

The Quicksilver race is one of the older trail ultra races in the Bay area, and thus is one of the more popular events. As a newcomer to the sport and the region, I tend to carry a bit of prejudice about the "old school" trail races in California — a belief that they remain hugely popular due to their history alone, and usually don't offer the most interesting courses. This is apparently a misplaced prejudice, as I've always enjoyed the ones I've tried — the Ohlone 50K, and now Quicksilver. The 50-miler makes three big loops around Almaden Quicksilver County Park, which is yet another one of those parks that is fairly close to my house, but which I've never explored. The sheer distance of the race makes Quicksilver effectively a grand tour of the park — we covered nearly every trail, passing by intriguing old mining equipment, bright yellow corridors of field mustard, and big views of Mount Umunhum and fog (okay, haze)-shrouded San Jose. It's a nice way to spend the day — feeling like I'm covering ground and making compelling new discoveries, rather than just plodding out miles for the sake of miles. It keeps my brain engaged, and my body is less likely to make whiny protestations about the effort.

I admit, I still insert the "well, it ain't Alaska" disclaimer into my outdoor experiences here. But this is a beautiful place and it does make me happy to spend a whole day chasing the dappled shade of these oak trees, even if it does have to be 90 degrees.

I'm not sure how high the temperature rose on Saturday afternoon. We checked the current temperature in the valley at 5 p.m., when it was 92 degrees. In some of those windless, heat-trapping canyons, I was convinced the ambient temperature topped 100. Heat is not my friend in any capacity, but it reached a tipping point where misery poured over into ridiculousness, and I am actually more okay with ridiculous. I kept a steady pace on the climbs, sipped my ice water, and snacked on Honey Stinger Chews that I carried with me, as well as a few choice morsels from the aid stations (jello cubes and quartered turkey-avocado sandwiches. The turkey sitting out in 90-degree weather was a risk but so tasty.) My skin was so drenched in sweat that I could wipe my hand over my forearms and flick visible droplets onto the dirt. The two liters of ice water went fast and I continued to chug nearly a liter between aid stations. I am a water hog. It works for me. (When I run out of water, though, I am a sad case indeed, which is why I'm inclined to carry more than I need.)

Photo by Chihping Fu
Beat and I shared a fun moment on the eight-mile spur. I was about two miles behind him at that point, but still moving better than either of us thought I would. We were both buzzing on endorphins; grinning like idiots as we loped along the dusty gravel road. He reached out for a sweaty kiss, and then told me they had popsicles at the mile 42 aid station. Popsicles! The very notion sent a surge of desire through my cooked heart. I picked up my pace as the grade steepened, thinking only of the pure joy an icy chunk of sugar water would bring. Popsicle, popsicle, popsicle. My heart was racing and my vision was blurring by the time I reached the aid station. I really should have passed out or at least become nauseated from the hard push, but instead I grabbed a handful of grapes and panted "popsicle?" The friendly volunteer reached into a cooler and handed me a small icy treat, and it was purple, my favorite. I took a big bite that instantly numbed my mouth and gasped, "Cold, so cold," as though completely caught off guard by the effect (which I was.) Even now, no longer addled with endorphins, it's difficult for me to understand why I was so blissed out by a popsicle. Deliriously happy would be one way to describe it. The feeling seemed to carry me almost effortlessly through the next five miles. I wasn't moving particularly fast, but no slower than my usual fun pace. And I was having fun, even with nine hours on my legs already.

The final 2.5 miles was a roller coaster of predominantly steep descents, which brought back shin soreness and killed my buzz, leading to a slightly grumpy finish. It was short-lived, however, because I soon discovered the shaved ice station at the finish. For whatever reason, the snowcone didn't have the same life-affirming effect as the purple popsicle, but it was delicious nonetheless. My time was 10:50, with a 50K split of 6:23. The 50-mile course has about 8,800 feet of climbing. At the finish, I received a framed print signed by a local artist, and learned I was first in my age group. It was surprising, as usually the 30-39 age group is more competitive, but I'm not sure how many people dropped due to the heat. I wouldn't be surprised if the attrition rate was higher than normal — it wasn't a perfect day for fast. But it was a decent day for a steady run slightly slowed by a bum shin. I feel great a day later and slightly more prepared for the summer ahead.