Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in photos

It's become a tradition each December to post my favorite photos from the past year, one for each month, with a top favorite photo of the year. Favorite photos often become so because they capture a particularly memorable moment or event during the month, which is why I consider myself more of a "photo documentarian" than a "photographer." My favorite photos always evoke strong emotions, and this one is, from a personal standpoint, one of the most powerful snapshots I've ever taken. I look at it and feel a flood of emotions, questions, longing, and uncertainty, every time. It's a photo of Mont Blanc at sunrise, on the fourth and final morning I spent in the Petite Trotte a Leon, with my race teammates Giorgio (wearing the silly cape) and Ana descending a pass shortly after crossing into Italy. I was so blissed out in this moment; it's one of the few times during that experience that I was able to step outside of my fear and malaise and be purely happy. I'm still trying to parse out what that whole experience meant, but every time I look at this photo, I get a little closer to understanding.

January: Yosemite Falls

During January, we took a couple of trips to Yosemite National Park so Beat and Steve could get some overnight training for the Iditarod. We opted to camp on top of the 8,000-foot Sentinel Dome to ensure as much cold and wind exposure as possible. Those were actually some long nights, but the upside was waking up at dawn to watch the light show that happens when light from the rising sun hits the freezing mist of Yosemite Falls — a spectacular, dynamic rainbow.

February: The Great One 

My awesome Alaskan pilot friend Dan Bailey took me on another flyover of the first 90 miles of the Iditarod Trail on the second day of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. This photo is two cyclists pedaling up the Yentna River with Denali and the Alaska Range looming on the horizon. It was a beautiful, clear day, and we were able to spot Beat and other friends several times on the river, and even landed at Skwentna Roadhouse to chat with a friend who was leading the foot race, Dave Johnston, and a few cyclists. The thing I'm going to miss the most about actually racing the ITI this year: My flyover with Dan.

 March: The Invisible Highway

Three friends and I embarked on an amazing and grueling three-day bike tour of the Denali Highway in early March. I chose this picture of the road sign Maclaren Summit at dawn on the third day because I relish in the idea that we were four women riding a "highway" that in actuality was a barely-there handful of snowmachine tracks at 10 below with the whole sweeping wilderness of the Alaska Range all around us. Wow, I loved that trip. I really loved everything about my month in Alaska. I was so happy there.

April: Back to California

And then, in April, we returned to California. I acknowledge I have a fortunate existence and there are many things I love about my life here, but I have to be honest. I was bummed out for a while. I did not make the transition well, and felt run-down and burnt out, even though Beat — who actually walked a thousand miles across Alaska — had no issues rolling back into the routine. The week after we returned, my friend Leah and I planned a weekend trip to the Santa Lucia Mountains. Temperatures were in the 80s, the roads and trails were dusty, the riding was tough, and Leah and I were hungry and thirsty ... and it was everything I needed. Great trip, and a reminder of why California is pretty amazing, too.

May: Beat's Birthday Run

Ah, the Bryce 100. A bout of what I can only assume was altitude sickness caught up to me at mile ten, and I was pretty miserable without relief for the next ninety miles of slog. As a result, the photos I took during the race were rather uninspired, but it wasn't for lack of trying on the landscape's part. For a hundred-mile ultramarathon, the Bryce 100 has to be one of the most inspired routes in the United States, except for of course those grueling final twenty miles on jeep road (which I heard have been removed for next year's race.) This photo brings back all of the magic — feeling like death in a beautiful place.

June: Tangled

The Laurel Highlands 70-miler. Not my worst idea of the summer ... not quite. But Beat was headed out to Pennsylvania on business and the timing coincided with a race that a friend of ours directs, and that I ran last year and loved. The bad part about the timing was that it was one week after the Bryce 100, which gutted my health. I wasn't nearly recovered by the time we had to get on a plane, fly to the East Coast, and wake up at what amounted to 12:30 a.m. Pacific Time to run a tough, rocky, hilly, rocky, 70-mile trail run. I thought it would be good training for the PTL — relentless forward motion when I wasn't feeling well. I suppose it was realistic training, but I lost enough time to squatting in the woods that I missed a cut-off at mile 46. I like this photo because it depicts the a bit of the misty, ethereal feel that the forest began to take on once I really became depleted. The Laurel Highlands were the leaping point into a summer of injury and disappointment.

July: Bench With a View

Okay, okay, summer was pretty awesome. I certainly can't complain. But a knee injury incurred during a fall in mid-June lingered for weeks and led to much angst and frustration, not to mention limited training at a time when I felt I really needed to be putting in the miles ahead of PTL. At the end of July, Beat and I traveled to Switzerland to celebrate his brother's wedding anniversary. Since we were en route to Iceland, Beat opted to spend the layover week working at the Google office in Zurich, and I had some free time to go exploring. My knee was just starting to come around, so I packed my hiking gear and hopped on a train headed toward the Alps, picking a destination at random. I arrived at a beautiful town on a cerulean lake, Lungern, and started hiking up a mountain right from the train station. After 4,500 vertical feet I arrived at the crest of a ridge to find a rugged jeep road, this bench, and a well-dressed older couple quietly enjoying a sweeping view of the Bernese Alps, which I was seeing for the first time because the clouds had just then started to clear.

August: Iceland

I loved Iceland. It is truly a unique place — a volcanic outcropping on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, stark and colorful, with a culture that is at once modern and lost in time. I loved the moonscapes and the lush valleys, the mineral-rich mountains and the black sand coast. And although I joke about my year of bad races, Racing the Planet Iceleand was one that went quite well for me — almost flawlessly, all things considered. Before this 250-kilometer stage race started, I joked that I hadn't run since May, because I was so sick at Bryce and Laurel Highlands, and then became injured shortly after that. But hoisting a thirty-pound pack and trekking over rough terrain is my kind of thing; I took it conservatively and finished each day feeling strong, relishing in every mile of scenery. The weather was overall horrible, but that was expected; ultimately the 50-mph winds and frigid rain added to the memorability of the experience. Someday, hopefully soon, I will return to Iceland, in the winter, with Snoots in tow.

September: Down the Col, Down the Col

Beat has now raced the Tor des Geants in Italy, with its 80,000 feet of climbing over 200 miles, four times. The route climbs 25 passes — or "cols" — and it's become an expression of ours, when faced with a difficult task, to whimper in a defeated tone, "Up the Col, Up the Col." Beat started this year's race one week after he finished PTL, and I helped crew for him and hauled my own ragged body up and down several of the cols, because regardless of how tired you are, that's really what you should do when you're in the Italian Alps. This is a photo of Beat descending the highest pass on the route, Col Loson, which is where he really started to hit his stride and become stronger after a predictably rough start. I was so amazed at his resilience when I was still reeling through the emotional turmoil of my own experience at PTL — coming down, as they say.

October: Foiled Again

I had a lot of photos from October that I liked, and it was difficult to pick one. I settled on this photo of my dad descending Mount Timpanogos shortly after unpredictable snow and ice conditions turned us around before the saddle. This was the second year in a row that Dad and I attempted a late-season ascent of what can be the most benign of hikes during the summer, but seems to become a real mountaineering challenge when you throw a little snow in the mix — well, enough snow to bury the summer trail. This photo has a formidable look to it that matches my own impression of Mount Timpanogos.

November: A Beautiful Sort of Monotony 

After four years, I think I've finally ridden enough laps around Frog Town. As years go by, I've found myself feeling less and less interested in racing for the sake of racing — such as using turtle strategy to knock out a respectable finish at a 25-hour mountain bike race. Those competitive spirit days are probably gone now if they were ever really there, but in Utah this November I realized that all-day-all-night lap racing no longer has the same fun appeal that it once did. Even though my heart wasn't really in it, the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow was a fun and beautiful diversion, and a chance to visit with friends who I haven't seen in a long while. Crashing out after ten laps wasn't the way I intended to finish, of course, but it's probably a fitting way for someone like me to exit mountain bike racing (at least of the non-winter and non-multiday-bikepacking variety), maybe forever.

December: Golden Hour

I'm pulling out a December photo early this year because Beat and I are headed to Alaska for the holidays, and I'm not sure how much time I'll have for blogging between now and January 1. This is a photo of Marshall Beach near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, were I went for a quick training run. One of the best aspects of setting big, possibly unattainable goals is that they force me out of complacency and provide a defensible reason to go out and have little adventures, whenever I can. With only about an hour and a half to burn before a meeting in the city, I set out on an unknown beach, crawling over rocks, skirting foamy waves, discovering hidden coves and scaling old military structures, all in the name of "training." I admit that I'm an adult who simply wants to go out and play, because that's how I view life — a passage of an infinitesimally small allotment of time on a swiftly changing planet, meaningful only as far as you believe it to be. I find moving through the world to be endlessly purposeful, even as I struggle to define that meaning in the absence of tangible products. I spent hours of 2013 taking photos, and probably days of time writing in this blog, if only to make a record. But the meaning is still out there, written in simple footprints in the sand for a moment before the ocean sweeps them away.

Photo posts from years past:
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010 part one, part two
2011
2012

Monday, December 16, 2013

Week 5, Dec. 9 to 16

Monday: Run, 1:18, 4.6 miles, 768 feet climbing. I was in the city for a meeting so I grabbed a quick run at Marshall Beach. I had no prior experience with the area and didn't know where I was going, so I also spent time scrambling on rocks and clawing up a sand ladder, but there was some beach running thrown in during my short but hard workout. Running on sand is great for ankle and calf strengthening, and I wish I had better beach access. If anyone has suggestions for exercises that mimic the conditioning of sand running, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday: Run, 0:53, 5.7 miles, 607 feet climbing. Monta Vista loop.

Wednesday: Zero. Had lots to do, and I do need more rest days in the mix.

Thursday: Mountain bike, 4:36, 41.1 miles, 4,081 feet climbing. For the most part, this was just under four hours of mellow riding with about 45 minutes of being maxed out while mashing pedals up the Limekiln Trail in Sierra Azul. I was genuinely tapped out after this ride, which is usually what happens after redline efforts, and this is exactly why I don't like to peg it very often. One can go many happy hours at 75 percent, but turn the dial up to 90 and suddenly you're overcooked after 45 minutes. I know, I know. It's good for me.

Friday: Road bike, 1:33, 17.5 miles, 2,719 feet climbing. Heart rate felt high and legs felt dull after Thursday's effort. I should get my heart rate monitor up and running again so I can track the patterns versus how I feel. By this point I already knew I had a big weekend planned, so I should have just rested ... but I already used up my zero day, on Wednesday. Ha. I'm so terrible at self-coaching. Luckily, the goals I focus on depend much more on mental endurance than physical fine-tuning. Although, as I told Beat on Sunday, I think this quasi-focused training is good for me. I genuinely feel stronger now than I did over the summer.

Saturday: Trail run, 7:30, 35 miles, 6,448 feet climbing. I felt great all day. There were no problems keeping up with the group until they started pushing the pace toward the end, and I opted to hang back rather than risk an effort that would leave me with nagging pains on Sunday. I'm starting to gain a better sense of how "hard" I can run without blowing up.

Sunday: Trail run, 6:40, 31 miles, 6,432 feet climbing. Can't lie, I was tired. I'm apt to blame glycogen depletion and sleep deprivation as much as the long run on Saturday, because overall there were few pains and a decent enough spark to my climbing legs as soon as I got enough Shot Bloks in my system. There was some minor sharp pain in the right knee cap, and some cramping in my glutes on and off, especially in the first six miles of the race (I find this interesting, because usually the only times I experience muscle cramps are a result of prolonged steep climbing, mostly while hiking, and always in my calves. Butt cramping is a new one, probably more related to repetitive motions in my running stride.) Walking with an exaggerated marching motion seemed to help a lot in this regard; the cramps would go away and wouldn't return for miles after stretching. I'll have to remember techniques like that for the ITI. Repetitive motion is the worst, and there's lots of it in sled dragging.

Total: 22:30, 58.6 miles ride, 76.3 miles run, 21,055 feet climbing

I know these weekly training logs are the most boring of all, but it is helping me to keep a record of the numbers and physical responses. I'm pleased that I was able to run a 76-mile week with no lingering issues. This coming week will be fairly quiet, a recovery week of sorts, as Beat and I get ready to travel to Fairbanks for the holidays. Lots of quality training will happen the following week.

And I know I can Google such things, but if anyone out there has recommendations for their own favorite ankle-strengthening exercises, I'd love to hear them. I'm determined not to place so much dependency on snowshoes as I have in the past; the ITI will be difficult enough without anchors on my feet, but I'll need strong ankles to cope with the variable surfaces of the trail.

I need to work on my hips as well. Hip flexor pain was one of my larger issues last year during the relatively easy Chena River 25-mile / Homer Epic 100K combo that I ran last spring.

Really, trail running is sort of a lousy excuse for training for an effort like the Iditarod, but it's what I have. My friend Anne in Anchorage, who will be aiming for Nome this year, often puts in 8-plus hours of sled dragging every day that she doesn't work, and gets up at 4 a.m. on work days to hit the gym and the pool and tow her sled through the morning darkness on the trails behind her house. Anne is dedicated. I am just making up excuses to have adventures. I loved running 14 hours this weekend; I should do double runs and/or long rides more often. 

Going long

This week is my third anniversary of ultrarunning; my first long run was the Rodeo Beach 50K on Dec. 18, 2010. Three years ... time does fly. I think back to what running was like for me then; I can say with confidence that it hurts a whole lot less than it used to. I never got much faster, but then again speed is never something I've sought. Naturally awkward non-runners forcing their bodies into loping movements can only lope faster with lots of focus and specific work. And the risks of speed are — in my opinion — too high. In cycling, there's a popular mantra for choosing a bicycle: Light, Strong, and Cheap — Pick Two. When deciding what kind of runner to be, I'm pretty sure it's: Fast, Long, and Forever — Pick Two. Fast, of course, meaning fast relative to your individual ability. It must be obvious that I'd choose long and forever. My ultimate goal would be to develop an efficient "forever" pace, a pace that maximized distance and minimized body breakdown, and was still challenging and enjoyable. I'll probably search for this ability as long as I'm a runner without finding it, but the process itself is fun. 

On Saturday, Ann invited me to join her and a few of her friends on an adventure run from Point Reyes to the Golden Gate Bridge, essentially traversing the length of the Marin Headlands in one 30-ish-mile, point-to-point run. I was signed up for a 50K trail race on Sunday, but thought, "Two back-to-back ultras — every single day of the Iditarod is going to be harder than any 50K, so I could use the training."

It was a beautifully frosty morning as we started out in the lowlands along Olema Creek. Ann has all of these memories from these trails that are a decade or more old; she hasn't run since then, pretty much at all, and it's so interesting to watch her slide back into it so naturally. She commented that these pastures are usually a huge mud bog. We lucked out with that ice.

We started out with two guys who form the core of her Wednesday Night Run group, which has been meeting every week nonstop since 1983. Old-school trail runners. They have plenty of fun stories for a new-school interloper such as myself.

Near the Bolinas Ridge we met up with three others to become a group of seven, and even though they all wanted a mellow-paced run, I was starting to feel outnumbered by fast people. I was having real performance anxiety.

Ann complains about being out of shape and slow (she's not), but she does have an amazing forever pace. She holds it on the downhills, she holds it on the climbs, she just holds it unceasingly until someone else in the group decides it's time for a snack break. I brought a big pack full of snacks and supplies ("It's a hold-over from my Alaska days," I explained. "Up there if you get hurt on a trail, no one is going to find you for hours, so you have to be prepared for all contingencies." They laughed at me, but after several hours of eating Gu, my Sweet and Salty M&Ms trail mix was a big hit with the fast runners.

Overlook into Stinson Beach from the Coastal Trail on Mount Tam.

There were still plenty of climbs and valleys before we reached our final ridge on the SCA Trail, dropping toward the Golden Gate Bridge. A bit of competitive drive sparked toward the end, and the group started running all of the long climbs. Runnable they were, but after thirty miles my legs were begging for a different gear, a slower one. I practiced that mantra I'm going to have to get much better at using, which is "Shut up, legs."

We ended at the bridge right at sunset with 35 miles and 6,448 feet of climbing. Big day. I felt relatively good with only a small amount of lingering stiffness in my hamstrings, but arrived at home somewhat late and didn't eat much for dinner, then didn't sleep well overnight, which had more of an effect on the following day than the run itself.

 The Woodside Ramble 50K — a fun jaunt through the redwoods along Skyline Ridge. Beat is still in Germany, and it occurred to me that this is the first 50K event I've run without him. I didn't know anyone at the start, so this felt like a lonely outing despite the large turnout. One guy asked me, "Is this your first 50K?" "No," I answered. "When was you're last one?" he asked. I wanted to say "Yesterday," but that seemed braggy or stupid, so instead I said, "Oh, about two months ago."

I had a rough go in the early miles with glute cramping and low energy. Not enough glycogen in my system, I think. At the first aid station I ate six shot blocks and three Oreos and started to feel better, but there still wasn't much oomph to the legs. Since I was under no self-obligation to run "fast" in any sense of the term, I just kicked back and enjoyed the mellow pace on a beautiful day. But I was tired, and the way I was feeling brought back reminiscences from PTL. I had a new revelation about that experience today. In the months before the race, I had a reoccurring dream about PTL involving a raging thunderstorm, lightning and rain, and a scenario where my two teammates and I were all crouched in different places on a jagged ridge, shouting things that the others couldn't hear. I remembered this dream, and then realized that it effectively came true, on the second night of the race when we climbed a mudslide during a heavy rainstorm.

There wasn't any lightning, but there was sleet and ice. We scrambled up this steep slope while the ground oozed out from underneath us, only to arrive at a shale headwall near the top of the pass. We split off to search for a viable way to climb the cliffs. At one point Ana was near the bottom of a small sub-ridge, Giorgio was at the top, and I was clinging to a wall off to the side screaming that there was no way to climb up to the pass from there, but my teammates couldn't hear me and kept looking for a way to climb toward me. Finally I gestured enough that they continued climbing the ridge, and I ended up leaping a veritable slide of smooth, wet shale, and then tried to scramble up the grassy side of the gully. The gully steepened and narrowed until I was back on rock, and I was nearly to a ledge on the ridge when I realized that my feet were balancing on tiny pebbles atop wet shale — like wearing roller skates while climbing a slide. My handholds were not secure; if I moved at all I would probably slip and who knows how far I'd go careening down that chute before I stopped? I was filled with such a deep, impenetrable dread that my vision went black for a moment. Just then, a guy from another team came scooting along the ledge, and I reached out my right hand toward his feet and said, "Please, please help me."

I don't think he understood English, but he reached down and grabbed my wrist, and as soon as he did my shoes slipped and all of my weight shifted to the arm he held as my body lurched backward. He kept the grip; he didn't let me fall. I'm still not sure what would have happened if he did lose his grip or if he wasn't there. After he pulled me up, I had a strong sense that this guy saved me from grave injury. I placed my hands on his shoulders and said "Thank you. Thank you so much." I wanted to hug him and start bawling, but I did not want to be revealed as the hysterical chick in the PTL, and it was still early enough in the race that I was capable of controlling my emotions. I never found out who he was, never properly thanked him. I'm not sure I've told this part of the Col de l'Oulettaz story yet, because I was very traumatized by that particular moment in a way that I actively tried to shut it out of my mind. But it all came flooding back in vivid detail today. Damn, I hated the PTL. But at least, because of it, nothing else seems so hard anymore. Except, of course, the Iditarod.

Ah ... where was I? Oh yes, Woodside. Easy peasy. I had some minor but sharp knee pain, so I opted to run all the downhills slowly. I don't want to do anything to risk injury right now, and refuse to run through any pain. Slowing the downhills made the knee pain go away, and I was still able to run many of the climbs at what felt like a strong pace. Another runner late in the race even told me I looked "fresh" when I passed him on a climb. Still, I finished the event in 6:40, which is about a half hour slower than any of my prior Woodside/Crystal Springs times. Despite this, I still got third place in my age group. This is, of course, a fluke of there not being that many 30-something women on the course that day despite a sold-out field. Still, I actually collected my medal this time, so I had to take the obligatory tired-eyes selfie.

But it was a fun weekend, and not too depleting. A little too fast for any "forever pace" approximations, but close enough to to feel a bit more confidence for the ITI. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Waiting area

Lately, I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed with the "Things to Do" list. "I'm so busy," I'd grumble to myself, while at the same time acknowledging that yes, I don't have children, and, yes, I'm self-employed in a mostly open-ended way with only one or two deadlines a week, and because of that I cannot be "busy." I chose this lifestyle because I value freedom, time, and self-exploration over traditional societal markers of success, such as personal wealth, status, and busyness.

And yet, and yet, I'm so busy. Have to, have to finish this book project this winter, but the effort feels so clunky right now and I hate writing clunky, better to flow, can't force flow, even my blogs have been crappy and neglected lately, but I need to start on that book editing project and all that Web content I promised, and my boss in Alaska wants to change around all of the newspaper deadlines for the holiday week, the same week we'll be in Fairbanks tromping around in the frozen wilderness, and I have to gather all of my preferred winter gear and get it dialed in and ready right now because we leave next week, which reminds me to mail out those Christmas presents, so grateful for online shopping, and I have to get stuff ready for that 50K trail race this weekend as well, and I'm considering joining a long group run in Marin the day before because two back-to-back long runs will be good Iditarod training too, but sort of scary, sixty miles in two days? ... shouldn't seem that much, actually, all things considered, but it means I won't do well in Woodside, and damn I really need to vacuum ... I should clean the carpet as well while Beat is out of town, and hit the store to get some trail snacks and pick up that prescription, and cat supplies for Cady's next trip to the catsitter, need to schedule that, when does Beat get back from Germany? Oh yeah, I have that car appointment. Argh!

The customer service rep at the Subaru dealership told me Subey's 30,000-mile service was going to take four to five hours. Four to five hours? What are they going to do, install a new transmission? "We're backed up," she apologized. Then why bother scheduling appointments? "Will you be waiting here or coming back later?" she asked. I'm not sure what most people do when they're marooned at a car dealership. I usually bring my laptop, drink bad coffee, and try to get some work done. On this day, luckily, I brought my bike.

"I guess I have all afternoon," I thought. First thing was to escape San Jose as quickly as possible by pedaling due south on some traffic-clogged six-lane street before locating the Los Gatos Creek trail toward Lexington Reservoir and a nearby open space preserve that I've never visited, Sierra Azul. Around here, I never cease to be amazed by how quickly one can shift from smog-filled sprawl to a place that looks and feels like the middle of nowhere. The Limekiln Canyon fireroad is just steep and gut-busting enough to ward off the masses, and I fought to find my climbing legs as I rose out of the smog into what was turning out to be a beautiful, quiet, warm winter day.

California fire roads are mean, mean, mean. I remember when 3,000-foot climbs would feel like a breeze, back in Montana where dirt roads are built with switchbacks at reasonable grades. Here in California, there's no snow and ice to contend with and utility vehicles can apparently climb walls, so they build their roads straight up the mountain. Limekiln was killing me and I was loving it. The rear wheel spun furiously through the loose gravel, and my quads were on fire in a way I haven't felt in weeks, even though GPS told me that I could probably achieve a faster pace if I were on foot. For whatever reason, when I work on becoming a stronger runner, I seem to become less strong on a bike. I guess that's the way it goes, but it's frustrating and motivating at the same time.

It was all worth it to stand at the top of a nondescript peak 3,000 feet over the Silicon Valley, surveying the smoggy kingdom and knowing I still had plenty of time to take the long way home. I descended an oak-shaded canyon with frost still clinging to the road beside the imposing and inaccessible fortress atop Mount Unumhum.

The Subaru rep called when I was about two miles out. "Your car is done," she said. "We apologize for the inconvenience." I looked at my watch. Four and a half hours. "What a great way to waste an afternoon," I thought.

Some afternoons, maybe most afternoons, are better whittled away than busied away. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Physiology of Cold

Sandy beach run in San Francisco — almost like real training
Today I headed out to Stanford University to give a video interview about physiological responses in cold-weather endurance events. Beat and I were both recruited to give some experiential insight for an online class called "Your Body and the World: Adapting to your next big adventure." My kind of class! The instructor, Dr. Anne Friedlander, has been conducting all kinds of research into exercise physiology in extreme conditions — dunking her TAs in an ice bath, having them exercise in heated rooms. Like I said, my kind of class. 

Dr. Friedlander also is interested in having me be a guinea pig for her scientific research, toting a core temperature reader and heart rate monitor in the Iditarod Invitational. I really want to do this; I hope it works out. I've long hoped that more scientific research would focus directly on ultra-endurance sports — it's fantastic that Stanford is involved, and I'd love to be involved as well. Beat was unable to attend the interview so I had to hold down the fort. I was really nervous, so I made a few notes based on some practice questions she sent me. The interview went well I think, and my notes provide a bit of an intro into something people often question me about — "Why do you like cold-weather racing so much?"


1. It sounds like you didn’t even ride a bike until your early 20s; how did you get into ultra-endurance bike adventures? 

I started hiking as a teenager, and did quite a bit of hiking and backpacking as a youth. Around age 22 I picked up cycling because I wanted to try touring, or traveling by bicycle, and found that I loved the simplicity and ease of movement on a bike. When I was 26 I moved to Homer, Alaska, to work for a newspaper. We moved there in September and I realized that if I didn't pick up a cold-weather outdoor hobby, I was probably going to go crazy during the long, dark winter. I considered skiing, but then I discovered that some cyclists up in Alaska rode throughout the winter, on snow-covered trails. Shortly after that, I learned about the Susitna 100, a 100-mile endurance race on the Iditarod Trail. At the time I wasn't really an athlete; I didn't train and had never competed in a race of any sort. But for reasons still unknown to me, the Susitna 100 captured my imagination. Everyone who knew me thought I was nuts to jump into an event like that off the couch, but suddenly I had this wonderful excuse to go out for bike rides at night, in blizzards, at 10 below. Every day was a new adventure. I loved it. The race itself was unbelievably difficult. Trails were soft, and then it rained, which turned everything to slush, and I couldn't ride my bike at all. I was walking, I was soaking wet, and it was still 33 degrees outside, not warm. I was borderline hypothermic for hours, pushing and shivering, wavering between wanting to hit a panic button and just sitting in the snow and giving up on life. But I made it. I finished in 25 hours. It was the worst thing I had ever done to myself, and at the finish line I announced "never again." But I was smiling. And, of course, I was hooked.


2. Why are you so drawn to races in the cold?

This probably sounds insincere from someone who chooses to live in one of the friendliest climates in the United States, but cold weather is my favorite weather. There's something magical about the subzero range; the air is often so clear that far horizons become visible, details appear sharper, the low angle of the winter sun casts the world in golden light, and snow sparkles like a sea of shattered glass. When there's no wind, a deep quiet settles over the land, and any sound becomes crystal clear. Sometimes in subzero temperatures, I can stop on a wide-open plain and hear footsteps from an animal that I can't see — something that's probably a half mile away, but sounds like it's walking beside me. Also below zero, ice crystals in the air make a tingling sound, like tiny bells. It's such a beautiful, surreal setting. There's also a life-affirming value to extreme cold — it's a death-like environment, and yet I am very much alive, moving freely in my own self-contained bubble of warmth and life. 


3.  What are the primary things you need to consider when racing in the cold as opposed to “normal” ultra-endurance racing?

Your primary consideration is regulating core temperature. You of course don't want to let your body temperature drop into hypothermic ranges, but you have to avoid overheating as well. During strenuous exercise you output a lot of heat, even in extreme cold, but at the same time you have to wear insulating clothing to keep your skin and extremities from cooling too much. The result is that you're going to sweat, and if you don't vent the moisture, it will collect in your clothing and freeze, diminishing the insulating properties and turning your body into a human snow-making machine. Having a system that's too well ventilated, or too light in insulation, can be dangerous as well, as you will burn up a lot of energy making heat while increasing your risk of frostbite. Finding that balance is extremely difficult, especially over extended periods of time. I've played with a lot of different gear set-ups and found that, at the end of a long day, my base layers end up soaked no matter what I try. So I opt for a "warm when damp and windproof" system of synthetic layers and Gortex, and carry a big down parka for instances when I need to stop moving for more than a minute or two. 


4.  What do you notice about your performance and physiology when racing in the cold?

The first thing I notice is how directly temperature affects my speed — the colder it is, the slower I move even when I feel like I'm expending the same effort. I suspect this happens because muscles never fully warm up — like an old car engine sputtering down the street on a frosty morning. Subzero temperatures definitely diminish my performance no matter how good my gear is. But at the same time, this adds to the challenge and thus the intrigue. 


5. What are some of the scariest situations you’ve been in during these cold adventures?

During the 2009 Iditarod Invitational, while crossing a frozen lake just 25 miles in, I punched through some thin ice and dunked my right leg almost to my hip joint. At the time it was about zero degrees with a strong wind, and the temperature was plummeting. I opted to get off the lake and into tree shelter to deal with my wet boot, but by the time I got there, my whole leg was encased in ice. So I made a second poor decision to continue onto the first checkpoint, which was still 30 miles away. The snow was soft and travel was slow. I would ride 10 minutes and run for 2 or 3 in an effort to keep my feet warm, but temperatures dropped down to 35 or 40 below according to others who were out there. When I reached the checkpoint, all of the ice in my boot was frozen solid with my foot inside. By the time enough ice finally melted to get my foot out, my right foot was chalk white. Rewarming my foot was one of the most painful experiences I've ever endured, and afterward blisters and black spots formed on all of my toes. I had to drop from the race, and it took several months to recover from frostbite. I still have nerve damage from that, five years later. 

There were times that I bivied in the snow, when I was so tired and the air was so cold that I felt deep and terrifying anxiety that I would fall asleep and never wake up. But the single scariest moment was perhaps during the 2011 Susitna 100, which Beat and I ran together, on foot. Temperatures had been cold all day, probably never warmer than 5 below, but we were running fairly hard and were dressed very light. When the sun set, temperatures plummeted and the wind really started cranking. We turned onto the Susitna River to face a full blast of wind and a chill that later was estimated at 50 below. I went from feeling comfortable to desperately cold in a matter of minutes, and still I waited just a few minutes too long before I finally stopped to dig my down coat out of my sled. Those few stalled minutes were enough to send my core temperature into a nose dive. I'd removed my mittens to grab my coat, and my hands froze almost immediately. They were rigid, like a claw, and useless. I got my coat on, but couldn't zip it up. I felt very cold and I was nearing panic. Beat was there and helped me zip up my coat. If I had been alone, things would have probably gotten worse before they got better. It was an important reminder about how quickly one's condition can change out there. You really have to stay on top of every little thing. 

6. What drives you to keep pushing your limits and putting yourself at risk in these ways?

I relish in the experience of being alive, and nothing makes me feel more intensely alive than seeking the edge of livability and peering out into the void. Pushing my body to its limits in a cold environment, a place where there is no margin for error, has an intensity of experience that makes it seem as though I've lived a lifetime in a matter of days. When I emerge on the other side, it feels like years have passed and I've changed and grown as a person. At the same time, I relish in the simplicity that endurance racing evokes. Like anyone, I have my petty worries, my irrational fears, my pessimistic world views and my existential despair. A hard endurance effort strips all of that excess away, exposing the basic core of who I am. By necessity, I have to let the abstract thoughts go and focus on the immediate. What will I eat? Where will I sleep? How will I get through this storm? I revert to a basic animal state, which is not only liberating, but also casts a brighter light on the parts of life that are truly important to me. 

7. What adventures or races do you have planned for the future?  Or what’s on your bucket list for that matter?


Well, of course the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in February, which I plan to race with or near Beat on foot. And beyond that — I'd love to do some winter bike touring in remote locations. Greenland, Iceland, Finland, and Baffin Island are all on my wish list. I'd love to visit Antarctica. I don't need to bike there or go to the South Pole — I'm not sure I would enjoy an expedition of that length — but just experiencing Antarctica would be a dream. And then, of course, the 1,000-mile ride to Nome. Beat thinks I should go this year, but I'm not ready. I need to gain more fresh experience first. I haven't lived in Alaska for three years, and I'm definitely getting rusty on the whole cold-weather endurance thing. 

Monday, December 09, 2013

Week 4, Dec. 2 to 8

Monday: Run, 1:27, 8 miles, 1,342 feet climbing. I flew out of Salt Lake City in the early afternoon, but was able to squeeze in a 90-minute trail run with my dad before I left town. We ran an out-and-back on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Corner Canyon, which he'd never run or hiked before. Despite spending the rest of the week in California, Monday was by far my warmest day, with temperatures near 60 degrees and a strong warm wind out of the east.

Tuesday: Run, 0:54, 5.8 miles, 614 feet climbing. The standard Tuesday run — Monta Vista loop between 4 and 5 p.m. I like having one workout that's exactly the same every single week. In future weeks I might try to designate Tuesday as a rest day. I finally changed out my shoes this week, a pair of Hoka Mafate 2s that I've had for a while but were nearly new. And the pain on top of my left foot went away entirely. I suppose I was right about the theory that my Mafate 3s were worn out.

Wednesday: Road bike, 2:27, 33.5 miles, 3,719 feet climbing. I was woefully underdressed for this ride with temperatures in the low 30s and a downhill windchill that must have approached 20 degrees. I know I'm California soft now, but this had all of the hallmarks of extreme cold training, with numbness slowly creeping all the way up my extremities, involuntary shivering, and a dramatic drop in core temperature that took most of the evening to recover. I forget just how exhausting this process is — the rewarming took more out of me than the ride itself. It was a useful reminder for real winter conditions, to always stop and deal with body chill before it gets out of control — it's not only dangerous, but it's also a massive energy drain.

Thursday: 0:57, 6.3 miles, 942 feet climbing. For this run I met up with Chris, who is a San Jose local that I met on the flight to Salt Lake City last week. We spent the whole 2.5-hour flight talking about Bitcoin and growing up in Utah. Yes, I sat next to someone on a plane and actually made a new friend. I am not a chatty person, so this was a new experience for me. Chris is a triathlete and mainly a road runner, and I was hoping to draw him to the light side of trail running with my favorite 10K loop in Rancho while heavily talking up a 50K race in Woodside. Maybe I'll see him there on Sunday.

Friday: Run, 1:55, 10 miles, 1,988 feet climbing. I drove out to El Cerrito to meet with Ann Trason, and before our coffee date we went for a run in the Berkeley Hills. She's laid back and a lot of fun to
run with, especially after we got lost and had to crawl up a super steep, cow-stomped slope. She told a few great stories during the run but then admitted she doesn't like talking about herself later that afternoon. If we ever end up doing formal interviews, they'll likely be best on the move.

Saturday: Run, 6:27, 23 miles, 5,232 feet climbing. Pacing for 9 miles and then rambling on my own for another 14 in the Marin Headlands, at a mellow pace all around. But after standing around for much of the morning at the Stinson Beach aid station, it was a decent day on my feet, which I think is the best kind of physical Iditarod Training. There was even a strong, cold wind on the ridge tops to simulate Alaska just a little.

Sunday: Road bike, 1:46, 17.7 miles, 2,495 feet climbing. Beat played with the Snoots and I enjoyed a leisurely climb. It was another clear, cold day, with near-freezing temperatures on top of Montebello. Beat and I both brought our windproof fleece jackets to test on the descent. I admit I had to put mine on two thirds of the way up the climb, because I was too cold. We still didn't wear adequate gloves, tights, or footgear, so we still froze on the descent, although not to the extent of Wednesday. I'm definitely California soft now, but I feel like I got some real cold-weather training in this week. I also had a chance to run with several new and interesting people, which was a fun diversion from my usual solo style.

Total: 15:53, 53.1 miles run, 51.2 miles ride, 16,332 feet climbing

Beat is traveling to Germany this week to attend his step-father's funeral. My goal for this coming week is, of course, the 50K trail run on Sunday, and then perhaps a long ride on Monday. I want to start incorporating some back-to-back long efforts without the risk of ramping up running mileage too much. I'm also giving more thought to the whole tire-dragging thing, but I don't think I can deal with being that conspicuous on local trails. I wish there was a way to simulate sled dragging in a snowless climate without looking like an idiot. A heavy backpack on hills might work.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A distant goodbye

Just as a corporate championship race with more than a thousand participants was drawing to a close, I was a half dozen miles away on the Coastal Trail, a solo runner among the otherwise stoic cliffs. Earlier in the day, I hopped a shuttle bus and spent several hours among the crowds at Stinson Beach, cheering for runners in the North Face 50-mile Endurance Challenge — because it's fun to spectate a big race. Then I helped pace an acquaintance from Colorado who unfortunately was having a bad day and missed a cut-off at mile 36. After that, there wasn't much left to do but run back to where I started, so I took a long way, meandering along the high ridges of the Marin Headlands.

A cold wind blasted the cliffs, carrying a salty mist hundreds of feet above the crashing waves. The setting sun rendered the hillside in purple light and sharpened the chill, which, thanks to the wind, felt more threatening than the mild temperature might imply. I rounded a corner and caught a gleam from the last light of the sun in the eyes of a young bobcat, who stared at me for a long second before turning around and sauntering down the trail. Bobcat was running but with no real urgency, its long legs and big paws stirring a fine layer of dust that had been kicked up by hundreds of runners early that morning. A couple of times, the bobcat glanced back as if to say, "Are you still following me? This is my trail." I love spotting bobcats in the hills; they remind me of my imagined spirit animal, Lynx, which I conjure for comfort in times of fear and pain. After the bobcat finally darted back into the brush, I decided our brief run together was a good omen.


A few hours later, Beat texted to tell me that his mother's partner Peter had died. It was not unexpected; he had terminal cancer, but the quickness of his passing came as a surprise. And regardless of the circumstances, it's never easy to accept that someone you knew and appreciated is suddenly, simply, no longer there. When Beat and I visited his mother in Germany, Peter and I would occasionally take long walks on the paths and trails of Bielefeld. He spoke only a little English and I speak even less German, but he used our limited shared vocabulary and enthusiastic gestures to piece together a compelling portrait of the city and his life there. He was kind and intelligent and always had a sparkle in his eye, a zest for life that even a crescendo of near-constant pain couldn't dampen. He was fond of aphorisms and walking. Peter was once a very quick marathoner but unfortunately a longterm smoker; complications of smoking nearly took his legs, but he was able to save them through sheer determination and exercise. He walked nearly every day, sometimes 20 or 30 kilometers, and it was difficult to watch as cancer took this joy away from him as well. He was always supportive of Beat and me and enthusiastic about all of our crazy adventures; he treated me like a daughter-in-law despite the lack of legal definition, liked all of my Facebook posts, and greeted me with a long-armed embrace whenever we visited. And Peter absolutely adored cats. I thought about the running bobcat when I learned he was gone. Peter would have loved that story.

I will miss him.

Saturday was a beautiful day. After a deluge of rain on Friday night, the morning dawned clear and cold, with pre-dawn temperatures again hovering near freezing. I headed out to the Headlands to meet up with Shelby, a woman from Colorado who traveled to San Francisco to take part in the North Face 50, which is largest and most prestigious trail race of the year in this region. I think they have something like 500 sign-ups in each of the 50-mile, 50K, marathon, and marathon relay races, including a large number of elite and international runners. If you add in volunteers, pacers, crew, and sponsors, you have well over 2,000 people involved. Those are big numbers for trail running, which is the main reason I never sign up for this event. But then December rolls around and all the excitement drums up and I want to get involved. Shelby invited me to pace her from Stinson Beach to the finish, about 22 miles. Sadly, her stomach turned shortly before we linked up and there's not much I could do to help but sympathize. We reached the Muir Woods checkpoint just five minutes late, but it was a hard cut-off. Shelby, who's a little burnt out after a long season of racing, was cheerfully accepting of the outcome, and grabbed a race shuttle back to the start. Since my car was parked at Tennessee Woods, I decided to continue on the course and added a bonus loop after the stars came out and the cold wind really started cranking. I loved it, even though I missed most of the race action.

Also on Saturday, I was drawn in the lottery for the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile mountain run in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado next July. That text from Beat came a couple of hours before the one about Peter, as I was cheerfully running down the Marincello Trail to wrap up my long run. My response was a blunt but succinct "WTF?!?" Because of the way Hardrock divides up their entries, there were 1,010 people vying for 35 spots. Every year a runner signs up for the lottery, they're given an exponential increase in the number of "tickets" they receive. This was my second year giving it a go, so I had two tickets. People who have tried for years with no luck can have upwards of 128 tickets. Needless to say, I did not have a high chance of "winning." And if you want to increase your chances each year, you have to play the game. With only two tickets and the possibility of increasing that to four next year, I threw my name in the hat.

It was drawn. I very much want to run Hardrock. I would be a great adventure run, in one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the United States, and the organization itself creates a family-like atmosphere that one can't help but embrace. And its very inaccessibility in terms of entry has contributed to Hardrock becoming perhaps the most widely coveted 100-mile mountain run in the world. All that said, I was forming other adventure ambitions for the summer of 2014, and Hardrock just doesn't quite fit. I might be able to make it all work with excessive adventure greediness, perhaps demanding the impossible from myself, and of course even that would be a grand experiment. Either way, I'll have to do some serious soul searching about this in the coming weeks. It would be unwise to give up what will likely be my only chance to run Hardrock. Just qualifying for this run is a whole lot of commitment that I'm not willing to wedge myself into — training for and running the same 100-mile races every year.

This has certainly been my year for race lotteries. A few months ago I applied for the White Mountains 100, thinking, "I don't really want to take on a 100-mile snow bike race so soon after the ITI, but it's my favorite race ever and I'm not going to get in anyway." I got in. Now Hardrock. It's almost as though the so-called "lottery gods" are testing the conviction I had back in September that maybe I should dial back the whole adventure racing thing, that maybe it's getting out of control ...

It's a good problem to have, of course — too many things I really want to do with my time. The problem lies in wanting to have it all.


Thursday, December 05, 2013

Simulated cold

Like many, I am a creature of habit. I have the daily work routine, the foods I like, the diversions I enjoy, the routes I ride or run, the clothing I wear. Like many, my habits bring comfort, but comfort in turn brings complacency. I didn't give a second thought to my attire when I set out for a ride on Wednesday — jersey and shorts, ultralight Pearl Izumi pullover, and a day-glo vest. Roadie layers, designed for what passes for winter here in the Bay Area. Outside there was a nip to the air, and a confirmed temperature of 42 degrees at 300 feet. But it felt pleasant, pedaling hard up Highway 9 and working up a lather of sweat. Just as I crested the hill at 2,700 feet, the sun slipped below the ridge line. Suddenly the air felt ten degrees colder than it had in the shaded canyon. Condensed breath swirled around my face. I reached in the pocket of my now-soaked jersey and pulled out the only extra layers I brought with me — a knit cap and a thin pair of gloves. In front of me was seven miles of fast rolling followed by a ten-mile, winding descent. There would be no more lather of sweat, no more body heat generated by hard work — only wind chill, and the inevitable law that what goes up must come down.

The experience of cold is relative. I've felt toasty at 30 below and near-hypothermic at 45 above. It all comes down to expectation and preparation, and here in California, there's always at least one cold day in December that catches me off guard and re-teaches me that hard lesson. Wednesday was that day. The fingers went first, followed by feet, clad as they were in only well-ventilated shoes and thin socks. Then my face joined my limbs in wooden rigidity. Tingling numbness crept up my arms like a spider, until it became difficult to steer and I involuntarily maneuvered the handlebars into scary jerking motions because my muscles were no longer sending the right signals to my brain. The flash freeze. I am a cyclist prone to complacency, so I know it well.

But I've also accumulated enough cold-weather experience to know this is not the end of the world, at least at these still-forgiving temperatures near freezing with an end close in sight. At 10 degrees or 0 or 30 below, you'd never catch me venturing outside in roadie clothing. "Leave it to cycling companies to make the most useless warm gear ever," I laughed to myself as my teeth chattered audibly. My ears began to burn. My feet grew heavy. My legs felt like they were wrapped in cold meat. The capillaries on my skin tingled with electric sharpness. It was painful and yet it felt so lively, so invigorating, so real. I smiled in spite of myself, a lopsided grin that had to chisel its way through ice-hard cheeks. "This is awful. I can't wait to go to Alaska," I laughed again.

Back in the relative warmth of the valley, I jumped off my bike at a red light and started running in place. A well-bundled bike commuter rolled up beside me. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"Fine," I said, teeth still chattering. "My feet are cold, just trying to get the feeling back."

"It's supposed to freeze tonight, 28 degrees," she said. "That's cold for around here."

"Yeah," I said. "I know."

Elsewhere, winter abides. Single digits in Utah. Deep subzero in Montana. Freezing rain in Alaska. Here in California, I cuddle up in my fleece blanket and daydream about the cold, the hard-edged kind that draws every life force to the surface and sharpens the senses with renewed vitality. Habits and comfort are often good things; hubris and mistakes often are not. But when the latter gives way to the former, a beautiful cycle of experience begins to happen.




Monday, December 02, 2013

Week 3, Nov. 25 to Dec. 1


Monday: Run, 1:16, 6.3 miles, 1,015 feet climbing. I was traveling out to the city to visit a friend, so I planned a pre-dinner run on Sweeney Ridge in San Bruno. I enjoyed the route but felt horrible on this run, like my veins had been injected with liquid lead. My stomach was unsettled as well. Then I took some photos of the sunset over Pacifica, but accidentally deleted the card before I downloaded them. All in all, a wash of an outing.

Tuesday: Run, 1:02, 5.8 miles, 722 feet climbing. I took it easy because I didn't want to push possible recovery issues that resulted in the bad run on Monday. One issue I wanted to note in the training log, which I first noticed a couple of hours after this run, was a slight soreness in the top of my left foot. I don't feel it at all when I'm running, only afterward. My suspicion is minor tendonitis caused by shoes; the uppers on my birthday Hokas are pretty much falling apart. I'm guessing these shoes have about 500 miles of combined rugged hiking and trail running now, so it's not entirely surprising. But I've been pulling the drawstring laces tighter lately, because the upper feels so loose. I have a newer pair of shoes that I'll try out this week, and hopefully a higher volume of biking will help as well.

Wednesday: Hike, 2:18, 4.7 miles, 1,719 feet climbing. Leisurely stroll up Bells Canyon with Dad. I think it's fair to count this as a rest day, but with a decent amount of time on my feet. A good combination for Iditarod-specific training if you ask me.

Thursday: Run, 1:02, 6.6 miles, 323 feet climbing. I joined my dad for the classic pre-turkey-and-pie Thanksgiving neighborhood run. It was fun to follow him on his regular route as he pointed out all of the sights — yards he admires, the dead deer that has been slowly rotting next to the road for months, the spot where he once found a package of brand new socks. It was a beautiful, warm, sunshiney morning. With the exception of snow on the trails, most of this week felt like I never left home in terms of weather. I admit this was rather disappointing for Iditarod training.

Friday: Hike, 4:30, 7.8 miles, 3,214 feet climbing. Gobblers Knob with Dad. This was a strenuous outing — steep climbing on hardpack snow the first 1.5 miles, awkward maneuvering through patchy snow on a fairly level half mile, super slog through knee-deep sun crust in the trees, off trail, for the next mile, and a !!! steep ascent on rocks atop a breaking snow crust, at an elevation that my lungs did not appreciate, with a bunch of gear I shlepped up the mountain in hopes I'd find cold wind at the top (I did not), and until the last 1.5 miles the descent was not much easier. This hike had it all. The numbers are modest, but in terms of overall effort I'd put it almost on par with the long run I did in Point Reyes last week. And it was a most gorgeous day.

Saturday: Mountain bike, 3:43, 32 miles, 2,949 feet climbing. Took Kim out for a spin around the Bonneville Shoreline Trail before riding west and then north along pavement to deliver her to my sister. I was feeling nostalgic and did a lot of soft-pedaling and stopping on the trail, but burned up so much time meandering that it was all business into the wind on 12600 South. I discovered the Mountain West bike path, which is a fantastic, surprisingly empty corridor near the 5600 West meridian. Honestly, if I ever moved back to Salt Lake City, I would likely drift away from running and fall back into a bike / hike pattern, spending all of my outdoor time bike-sploring and climbing steep mountains.

Sunday: Hike, 3:06, 6.6 miles, 3,826 feet climbing. Quick "run" up Mount Olympus. I hoped to do the whole peak and back in my three-hour allotment, but I managed to drift off the well-trodden trail and spent way too much time thrashing through brush during the climb. There was a lot of ice above 7,000 feet and my well-worn microspikes were not quite up to the challenge on those grades. The final half mile to the summit is a class-three scramble and I could see the patches of glare ice continuing up the face of the mountain when I arrived at the saddle. Time was exhausted anyway so I started down from there; had to tiptoe down the ice, but ran the final two miles.

Total: 15:57, 37.8 miles run/hike, 32 miles ride, 13,768 feet climbing. Lower mileage this week, no long runs, although I think the Gobbler's Knob hike qualifies as a long effort. Besides the minor foot pain and mysteriously horrible run on Monday, I felt good all week despite spending most of it at high altitude, and despite the fact that my mother and both sisters were sick. Fun week of training, courtesy of a Thanksgiving visit to Utah.