Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 in numbers

We managed to log one last dirt ride for the year before we head to Fairbanks this week — eight hours of soupy fog and equally soupy mud. The California drought and an attitude that "rain is running weather" has almost completely desiccated my patience for mixing bikes with mud. Hours of splooshing through a cold goo shower is just so much better when you don't involve a fast-moving, difficult-to-clean mechanical object. But I wanted to squeeze in a long ride this weekend, as we're now just three weeks out to the 200-kilometer snow bike race. Beat and I rode with our friend Jan, who had a great attitude about the grimy day. "How many times do you get to see Skyline like this?" he said, referring to fog so thick we could barely see a few meters in front of us. As I remember from March 2011, if we have a more "normal" winter ... actually, a lot.

From a "pre-holiday-party run" along Russian Ridge on Saturday.
Plugging the ride into Strava started me thinking about my "year in Strava." This is the first year I've used GPS fairly consistently to track rides and runs, which means I have a nearly complete record of my training data (the GPS did stay home from time to time.) I can be a numbers geek with the best of them. Although I don't place high personal value in my statistics (because statistics do not tell very good stories), and although I can't make much use of them because I have little interest in a structured training plan, I still have fun tracking these details. I'm glad I managed to record my activities consistently through 2014.

I thought it would be fun to crunch the numbers for 2014. I realize the year is not quite over, but like most people, my free time will be limited over the holidays, so winter solstice it is. Hikes are included in the running totals, because in my world there isn't that much of a difference between running and hiking — either way, I am trying to move in the most efficient way possible in regard to terrain, distance, and elevation change. Usually my effort levels are fairly consistent regardless of pace. Cycling is both road and mountain biking. Strava doesn't distinguish between the two.


Distance: 4,557 miles (including RASA)
Time: 321 hours, 13 minutes (not including RASA)
Elevation gain: 478,196 feet
Rides: 92


Distance: 1,570 miles
Time: 394 hours, 46 minutes
Elevation gain: 282,608 feet
Runs: 140

Cumulative distance: 6,127 miles

Cumulative elevation gain: 761,227 feet

This section of the Skyline Trail opened to bikes in November, but remnants of past discrimination linger.
It was a good year. Not even including the moving time within 21.5 days of the Race Across South Africa, I spent 716 hours on the move. That's the equivalent of 29 days — nearly a month. Some will undoubtedly ask, "Why do you spend/waste so much time training?" My answer is simple: I am consistently the most happy when I am moving through the world. Even better when I am moving through the world under my own power. In 2014 I had the privilege to spend more than one twelfth of the year in this happy place — in addition to a variety of other great experiences. Yes, 2014 was pretty fantastic. 

The month-to-month breakdown tells a better story, because there are some wild variations to the numbers. In January and February I was simultaneously training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational and the Freedom Challenge — so loaded cart pulls and long mountain bike rides. March was mostly snow biking in Alaska followed by the White Mountains 100 at the end of the month. April and May were highly training-focused with many hours on the bike, and June was the Race Across South Africa. July was a recovery month, although with Tor des Geants on the horizon I embarked on some long hikes. In August I increased the running mileage. Early September was the Tor des Geants, which ended in an LCL tear in my left knee, followed by four "zero" weeks. Once my knee started working again in October, I ramped up the bike mileage quickly, and started walking and then running again in November. I was lucky to get away with increasing my mileage as quickly as I did after my injury. I believe having a solid base of high-mileage conditioning helped. I also really did take all that time off, and my knee had a fair chance to heal. 

Beat looking good during a day of playing in the mud. 
The breakdown: 

Bike: 511.3 miles, 50,334 feet gain
Run: 195.4 miles, 35,010 feet gain

Bike: 78.7 miles, 9,718 feet gain
Run: 456.6 miles, 33,233 feet gain (Iditarod Trail Invitational) 

Bike:  327.8 miles, 16,388 feet gain (White Mountains 100)
Run: 28.8 miles, 1,349 feet gain

Bike: 490.9 miles, 61,936 feet gain
Run: 110.5 miles, 19,544 feet gain

Bike: 647.1 miles, 72,110 feet gain
Run: 137.8 miles, 27,270 feet gain

Bike: 1,450 miles, 121,391 feet gain (Race Across South Africa)
Run: 19.5 miles, 5,866 feet gain

Bike: 33.2 miles, 4,380 feet gain
Run 108.5 miles, 23,625 feet gain

Bike: 183.9 miles, 23,822 feet gain
Run: 169.7 miles, 48,323 feet gain

Bike: Big fat zero
Run: 133 miles, 48,615 feet gain (almost entirely Tor des Geants)

Bike: 494.6 miles, 59,632 feet gain
Run: 12.4 miles, 1,824 feet gain

Bike: 263.7 miles, 39,423 feet gain
Run: 93.4 miles, 17,927 feet gain

December so far
Bike: 155.2 miles, 21,893 feet gain
Run: 119 miles, 22,172 feet gain

Some bloggers ask questions at the end of their posts. This is one I'm curious about. Do you track your outdoor/training activities? How do you feel about your "year in numbers?" 
Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Almost like a comeback

 I was a bundle of nerves about this 50K on Sunday, which Beat found hilarious. "How many of these have you run now?" he asked. I've lost track of my official 50K number, but I guessed I could still count the number of times I've run a Woodside event. Three different race promoters offer two events here per year, so one rolls around seemingly once a month. It's gotten to the point where the question, "What do you want to do this weekend?" can be frequently answered by, "Let's run that 50K in Woodside."

I tallied each one I could remember. "Seven," I answered. "I think this will be my eighth Woodside."

Beat and I like to participate in these events for the same reasons people go to their favorite restaurants. They're fun social outings in a familiar and pleasant setting. We get to indulge in an activity that releases a surge of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins, and drink ginger ale in a setting that elevates the taste to something like unicorn tears (Oatmeal reference.) There are friends to visit and fun people to meet. I always enjoy these events even through occasional discomfort and nagging pains, which are as natural to a trail race as indigestion at a French restaurant. But after a June bike tour across South Africa, a tight recovery period, a failed hiking race in the Alps, and a subsequent injury, it had been more than six months since my last long run, and there hadn't been all that many miles of actual "running in between. I didn't really care about going slow at Woodside, but I was scared of my LCL giving out, or buckling my knee, or IT band agony, or damn it, tripping and falling — because eating dirt is the source of nearly every running injury I acquire.

 To get my mind off pre-race jitters, Beat suggested we take the fat bikes out for a Saturday afternoon ride. He recently installed a 1x11 drivetrain on Snoots that I needed to test out, as well as contemplate gear distribution and handlebar position for the real adventures this winter — the 200K snow race in Idaho, which in itself is just a test ride for a 250-mile tour on Alaska's western coast in March. This plan is actually scary, as opposed to the Woodside Ramble 50K, which was only scary in the ephemeral sense of fleeting pains and ego-trouncing poor performances. I'm glad there's something to keep it all in perspective.

This was the Woodside Ramble 50K, somewhere around mile 15, where I was thinking, "I'm about ready to be done running now. Yup, just about ready to be done." The first ten miles actually were quite fun, and I was buzzing with happy hormones, but I admittedly started out too fast relative to my current running fitness. One problem with running a similar course eight times is knowing exactly how well I *should* be moving at any given point. There's also the fact that even with 5,000 or so feet of climbing and sections of roots and mud, Woodside is 100 percent runnable on fresh legs. So it's difficult not to berate myself for any walking, of which I did a fair amount.

Beat loves to stroll and chat during this race, and I caught up to him near mile 19, as he and his friend Tony were distracted by shared tales of past derring do. "It's all going okay," I told Beat. "But I'm working really hard for this. It feels a lot harder than usual. My hamstrings are super tight and I'm fading. I'll have to take the descents slow."

After some stalling at the aid station, Beat surged ahead and I loped along the Skyline Trail, which is my favorite part of this enjoyable course. The trail slices a narrow path along steep slope beneath towering redwood trees, winding in and out of drainages on a rolling traverse approximately a hundred feet below Skyline Ridge. Except for aforementioned sections of mud and roots, it's not all that technical, but steep drop-offs always keep me extra vigilant on this section. Despite this focus, around mile 21 I still managed to put my right foot down at a point where there was nothing beneath it. I actually ran right off the trail, in a spot where touching down on the 45-degree-plus slope could easily result in a tumble that wouldn't end until my ragdoll body slammed into the broad trunk of a coast redwood. Somehow, the side of my foot caught the edge of the hill a few inches below the trail. I instinctively rolled my ankle to dig in some toes before setting my left foot down on safety, then flailed dramatically to the left until I had both hands punched in the mulch on the steep uphill slope.

Damn, that was close. Here I am, scared of Alaska, when I'll be lucky to survive the Woodside Ramble.

And if you're wondering whether I'm still concerned about potentially worsening problems with coordination. Yes. Yes I am. I have no idea how I stepped off such a simple trail when I was deliberately focusing attention not to do so. It's still impossible to make any tangible connections to an ongoing tally of incidents. But this one left me rattled for the final ten miles, enough to not think too much about my searing hamstrings. Either way, the downhill miles were slow.

Still, the left knee and LCL performed perfectly, until that night when it was sore in the same spot that had been injured. There were a few disconcerting hours of "what have I done?," but it proved to only be superficial soreness and was gone the next day. I went out for a four-mile run Tuesday afternoon without incident, and despite 25-mph winds and rain, I managed to not stumble and fall, not even once.

It's continued to be rainy and gray all week — which I'm also enjoying as a welcome change — but the sun came out for the half day on Sunday and we enjoyed perfect weather for the Woodside Ramble. Afterward the race organizers put out a delicious spread of fresh fruit and other snacks. I was ready to sit down and stuff my face, but Beat finished ten minutes earlier and had become so chilled in the interim that we couldn't stay long — not even long enough to pick up my age group award (third! heehee.) I didn't tell Beat about my stumble because I was deeply embarrassed about it. It's kind of funny, actually, how I can be so embarrassed about something and yet feel no qualms about blurting it out to the whole world on my blog. Funny indeed. (Sorry Beat.)

Turns out anything can be treacherous, therefore every day is an adventure. I'm glad there's something to keep it all in perspective. 
Friday, December 12, 2014

Cry me an atmospheric river

Where did this week even go? I've been wrestling with two writing projects, in that sort of phase I think most people can relate with — the phase where everything becomes drivel and I need to step away for a while before the whole project is slashed and burned. is a good diversion, a place I like to go to daydream about landing angst-free copy editing contracts that let me work on my own schedule. Twitter can erase a surprising number of minutes as well, for shouting at random into an echo chamber.

A college friend, Craig, came to visit from Alaska. We spent the weekend in the city doing city things — tapas at a Mexican restaurant; an afternoon at the de Young Museum of fine art; getting our exercise by walking eighteen blocks from the place where we actually found parking; being coerced into buying a 100-pack of fancy jasmine tea I didn't even want because, well, someone like me really shouldn't enter shops in Chinatown; late nights with other old friends talking about the best days that were now 15 (!) years ago; and attending the lively and harmonic Sunday services at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church (Craig is a Mormon, but joked it was fun to spend one Sunday worshiping the sound of saxophones.)

I finally booked all the reservations for Fairbanks at the end of the month, and became immeasurably excited about Christmas.

Somewhere in there I remembered I needed to train a little for this 200-kilometer snow bike race in Idaho that's just a month away. After a weekend getting fat on tapas and dumplings, I lumbered outside on Monday afternoon to climb the best tear-inducingly steep roads near my home. Redwood Gulch (ouch) to Skyline (tell me that doesn't start to hurt after 3,000 feet) to Montevina (2,000 more feet of !!!) The tires cut like knives into the mud as I ground the road bike over Montevina's dirt section with the fading light, then nearly burned out the rim brakes on a pitch dark, damp pavement descent down Bolman. There was a certain exhaustive quality to this four-hour ride that left me dangling on threads, but I was glad to put in some saddle time before the storm.

The storm. "Hellastorm." Also "stormaggedon" to the Twitterati. A forecast for a particularly strong flow of atmospheric moisture was played up heavily in the local media, and I'm not sure anyone thought it would live up to the hype. Everyone likes to joke about how Californians can't handle weather, even Californians. Even I shook my head and recalled past days of weathering "typical" storms in Juneau — being knocked off my feet by wind gusts on Gastineau Ridge, full days of constant rain, nearly swamping my car on inundated roads dammed by piles of slush, spending on evening on a moored boat on Juneau Harbor as 60-mph gusts rocked the vessel violently against the dock. There was no way hellastorm was going to be that bad.

However, it sort of was. Locally there was widespread flooding, flash floods, 80 mph gusts recorded on nearby peaks where I ride my bike frequently, and, as of 6 p.m., 3.93 inches of rain had been reported at the nearest weather station to my house, since midnight. I used to track weather reports religiously when I lived in Juneau, and I don't think I ever saw a 24-hour total over 2.5 inches. If 3.93 inches fell in downtown Seattle, it would be the second wettest day in recorded history for that city. (Juneau's record single-day rainfall is 17.38 inches. So yeah. There's that.)

But yes, stormaggedon made a dent. Even amid three years of exceptional drought.

Of course, I made a big deal about going for a run on Thursday afternoon. Not because I thought we would assert any semblance of Californian badassery by going out in hellastorm, but because I thought it would be hella fun. I even put in extra effort to pick up Liehann at Google, braving standing water and multiple collisions on Highway 85, just so he could join. Liehann, Beat, and I hit a nearly abandoned Rancho San Antonio park for good splashy lunchtime fun. The gustier wind had calmed, so we weren't too worried about trees falling on us. But there were a lot of trees already down, including two elderly oaks that we simply couldn't climb over or find a way around without risking a high-consequence hack through poison oak. Trails were inundated by shallow streams that carved deep ruts into the surface, and puddles were sometimes shin deep. Creeks that are usually dry gushed with brown rapids, and the hills were a vibrant shade of green, when prior to Thanksgiving the grass was so dry it was gray. This was the most fun I've had with running in a while, and I've been having a lot of fun with running since I took it up again post-knee injury.

Beat and I signed up for a 50K run in Woodside on Sunday, which is admittedly not a great idea since ten miles is the longest run I've completed since the Tor des Geants debacle in September. But I'm so stoked on running right now that I just can't let it go, even with that Fairbanks trip and the 200K fat bike race on the horizon. Beat expressed strong disapproval at my desire to go snowboarding in Utah, citing high-consequence injury risk, but he's surprisingly nonchalant about this 50K. Of course I don't intend to jeopardize winter plans; I'm not above quitting a 50K at the slightest tinge of knee pain. But I'm unabashedly looking forward to this Sunday run, especially since it's supposed to be nice and sunny again. 
Thursday, December 04, 2014

Wells, NV

I first sauntered into Wells, Nevada, while commuting to northern Utah for the Bear 100 in 2012. I just wanted a cheap place to crash for the night, and the Wells Motel 6 was a full $10 cheaper than the one in Elko. At the time I still had a blah view of the I-80 corridor and Northern Nevada in general, but Wells won me over with chicken dinner at this homestyle restaurant that reminded me of the Tour Divide, a boisterous older lady who talked me into buying locally produced cheese curds at the convenience store, and a vast swath of open space that only expanded as I drove north and east. Since then, I've made an effort to stop in Wells every time I roll by on the Interstate. 

 On Wednesday, I spent the first three hours of the drive listening to NPR and feeling disheartened by the state of affairs and the justice system. So I switched to an mP3 playlist that soon cycled through "April 26, 1992" by Sublime, which only reminded me that not much has changed in a generation in this regard. As Salt Lake radio faded away and Capital Public Radio out of Reno flickered in, I caught news of major flooding that was inundating streets and snarling traffic in Sacramento. My timeline had me going through that area right at rush hour, and it seemed prudent to stall for a couple of hours. I pulled into Wells for gas, I thought, "maybe I should go for a short run."

 Since I started engaging in this California/Utah commute, I've become more enamored with Nevada. The view from the highway corridors reveals a seemingly endless ripple of stunning mountain ranges amid the wide-open space of the basins. There's just so much out there, largely under the free-ranging jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest system, and I'm convinced Nevada has to be the most underrated outdoor destination in the United States. I must explore it! But I never make the time. I just zip through during drives between Utah and California, just like everyone else.

After topping off the tank, I pointed the car south and found a single road heading into mountains. I figured I'd just find a place to park and run on the road, since I didn't have any knowledge of trails in the region, and figured they'd be largely inaccessible this time of year anyway. A large barrier and a "road closed" sign blocked the road after five or so miles. I parked the Subaru, hoisted my backpack — which was still stocked with all the same stuff I hauled up Gobbler's Knob including four-day-old water — put on the Hokas, and started running.

 Oof, I struggled. Without acclimation I find myself getting noticeably more winded above 6,000 feet, and it's often the worst after a week (after which acclimation starts to kick in, and then it gets better.) I was shuffling and coughing as an "April 26, 1992" earworm taunted me. Eventually there was enough snow on the road that I had no choice but to hike, and finally stole chances to breathe and look up.

 This road is called Angel Camp Road, and it's just stunning. A fortress of castle-shaped peaks towered overhead, clouds streamed off the ridges like smoke, and the thunderous booms of unseen avalanches reverberated through the still air. I witnessed one avalanche erupt in a blast of powder in a gully below Greys Peak, and watched in trembling awe at the fury of this relatively small slide. I was in a safe zone on this road and grateful for that, as it was an invigorating experience to hear and witness these avalanches without feeling threatened by them.

I turned around after four miles. The snow was now knee-deep and reduced my "running" pace to a 35-minute-mile trudge. I put on spikes and once the snow cover diminished some, I embraced the power of gravity and let go, bounding down the hill like one of the many deer whose tracks I could see in the snow. The road snaked down the steep hillside, opening up invigorating views of the treeless basin and my tiny Subaru parked almost directly below. I ran and felt completely free, far away from the deluge and traffic that awaited once I crossed over the Sierras. 1:20 up, 0:40 down. A beautiful way to kill two hours in the midst of a thirteen-hour drive.

I have this idea to plan some kind of traverse of northern Nevada, maybe pack-biking style with mountain biking across the basins and backpacking over trail-less regions of these ranges. I could even plan to route to cross through Elko or Winnemucca so I could get a $7.99 New York steak and maybe drop a few bucks on the roulette table before heading back into the wide-open expanse. Who knows when and if I'll make this happen, but I'm already looking forward to my next visit to Wells. 
Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thank you notes

I headed out to Utah again, to visit my extended family for Thanksgiving. The whole Homer clan is still invited for the spread, even as the number of great-grandchildren increases on an exponential scale. I like to make the journey because Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday. Lower expectations, lower stress, and all the same cognitive dissonance when that cousin I still remember being 3 years old shows up fresh from her own journey across Alaska. Cousin Erick makes the famous potatoes, Uncle Steve makes the fresh cranberry sauce, and my mom bakes the pies. She always makes the pies, with their crisp, flaky crust and years of creme filling perfection, and no one seems to notice when she fusses over keeping the whipped cream chilled and cutting fresh banana slices. I love my mother's pies. They're a reason to go home for Thanksgiving, among many. Everything was delicious this year. Inexplicably, nothing contained Jell-O. 

 Friends and family already know by now that I love a good road trip. At least this is no longer my shameful secret. Road trips make me thankful for Pretzel M&Ms and artificially flavored hazelnut gas station coffee (another shameful no-longer-a-secret.) Twelve hours behind the wheel passes in a blink these days, but this time around I took a 2.5-hour break at Donner Pass to hike eight miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. I had my snowshoes and fleece jacket all ready to go, but then it was 62 degrees without even a wisp of snow at 8,000 feet. The trail was still coated in uneven ice and muddy slush, so it was a double disappointment of being too dicey to run, but hot and brown everywhere else. I am not thankful for California's drought or the Polar Vortex. Please, snow, come back to the West Coast.

At least I timed my summer hike well, arriving at the Salt Lake International Airport two minutes before Beat's plane touched down. He found a discount ticket and there was only one, so we worked out this odd travel arrangement so I could stay in Utah a few extra days. On the day after Thanksgiving, we set out with my dad and his friend Raj for a double-header in Big Cottonwood Canyon: a hike to Lake Blanche followed by a second hike to Desolation Lake, climbing two separate forks of the canyon.

 It was warm in Salt Lake City, too, with high temperatures shattering all-time records at nearly 60 degrees. At these upper elevations it was still in the 40s but felt fairly brisk in the gusting winds. I suppose I'm thankful for Black Friday, as the best explanation for why the trails were so empty on this beautiful day. I don't fault people for enjoying a shopping holiday, but I'll never understand. The indiscriminate consumerism, stress and crowds that characterize Black Friday would be my own private version of Hell. Some people's Hells would contain sideways blizzards and slogging through knee-deep snow at 40 below. Mine would be forever stuck in a shopping mall on Black Friday.

It was gorgeous on the empty trails. We left our snowshoes behind for Desolation Lake, and ended up having to break trail for half the distance. We gave up about 0.25 miles shy of the actual lake, because we'd already put in six hours of hard effort and decided the field we were standing in had a good view and looked a bit like a frozen lake, anyway.

 On Saturday, Beat and I dragged my dad out for another Big Cottonwood adventure. We put in fourteen miles and 5,000 feet of snow trekking on Friday, and opted for something shorter — Gobbler's Knob, a 10,250-foot peak that climbs 3,500 feet in four miles, one-way. Sounds not as difficult, right? Ha! We followed a trail mainly used by hunters this time of year, climbing a steep drainage to the Mill A Basin. Beyond a minor ridge, the trail rapidly deteriorated into a set of deep postholes that had been solidified to hard ice by the freeze-thaw cycle. Circling around the basin, there was only this narrow corridor to follow through the thick brush and aspens. This "trail" had been trampled to the ankle-twisting consistency of an Alpine boulder field.

 It was exhausting work, this flat traverse. The elevation left me feeling winded and dizzy. "I wondered whether five weeks of my new strength training routine was helping with my balance issues," I said to Beat as I teetered on frozen footprints and stumbled repeatedly into knee-deep crusted powder. "I guess the answer is, not yet."

It was a relief to reach the saddle and strap on snowshoes for a steep ascent up the ridge of Gobbler's Knob. The crust was wind-scoured to an icy sheen, and there were occasions of skittering sideways above a yawning abyss of steep exposure with only the dull teeth of snowshoe crampons digging a shallow anchor into the ice. All the while, 40-mph gusts of wind ripped along the ridge, carrying powder blasts up from the depths, and even though it was "warm," it was not really all that warm. By the time we reached the peak, Beat said, "Wow, that turned out to be pretty epic." As you can see, my dad is stoked that we finally made it.

Descending was as difficult as climbing had been. After five and a half hours, we wrapped up our eight-mile hike on the verge of exhaustion. My poor dad. He was in fine shape for the adventure, but I think he'd had enough of the slogtastic version of fun.

I'm thankful for the slogtastic version of fun. It's still one of my favorite types of fun, for what are probably deep-seated psychological reasons that are impossible to explain or justify. But I keep trying anyway, as my own way of reaching out to others who might be like me. "Doesn't everyone love life at 1.3 mph?" But there's something to be said about going outside in this weird November weather that doesn't really work for anyone, putting in a wearying effort for a relatively paltry distance, and drawing a thin line of footprints along the expansive canvas of the world. 
Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cone Peak getaway

While blogging about Alaska for the past three weeks, I've had a full November here in California, including rapidly expanding my range of mobility, exploring new bike routes, and relishing the freedom of running again. There's really no better way to gain new appreciation for something then to have it taken away, even for a short eight weeks. I'm slowly gaining confidence in my knee stability and have worked up to eight-mile runs. Even on my boring old routine trails from home, I feel an almost manic buzz when returning from a run — along with tight IT bands. Eventually both of these things will balance out, but I'm enjoying the fun while I can. 

 On Sunday my friend Leah and I stole away for an overnight bike trip in the Big Sur region, climbing to Cone Peak and then looping around the Coast Ridge back to Highway 1. I have a tendency to fixate on planning larger trips, and all too often neglect quick getaways from home. After chatting with Leah earlier this week, we both realized how easy it would be — just cobble our bikepacking gear together, scope out a route to maximize the scenery-to-effort ratio, and hit the road.

 Cone Peak is a striking mountain — a marble pyramid that rises to 5,160 feet a mere three miles from tidewater, for one of the steepest vertical reliefs in the coastal ranges of North America. The Santa Lucia mountains ripple east to the Salinas River Valley, and the Pacific Ocean sprawls over the western horizon.

  We got a characteristically late start at Kirk Creek on Highway 1. But we enjoyed lunch with a view at the campground before pedaling up the sinuous pavement of Nacimiento Road and Cone Peak fireroad. These miles were climby but relaxed, with views everywhere.

Cone Peak is located in the Ventana Wilderness, so we parked the bikes at 3,800 feet and continued on foot in the deepening afternoon light.

 The Santa Lucia mountains have a unique look and feel — rounded slopes and grassy hillsides that I associate with California's coastal mountains, along with rugged peaks and granite outcrops that are more characteristic of the high Sierra. The marine layer rises to about 2,000 feet, and above and below this line are two completely different climate zones. In the lower zone, the state's southernmost Coast Redwood groves reside in narrow gullies, and fog-happy coastal plants thrive. Above the marine layer are oak trees, cypress, douglas fir, chaparral, and other drought-resistant plants. The air is noticeably drier (and in the winter, cooler) up high.

 And the views! Three horizontal miles from the Pacific, and one vertical mile up.

 Cone Peak at sunset. We had discussed packing up our camping gear by hand and sleeping up here, but a cold November wind made us glad that we were only on the peak for a short visit.

 More Pacific views. Although windy, it would have been nice to linger.

 Descending with the last beams of sunlight on the Santa Lucias.

 Sunset over the ocean.

 The sliver moon. We made nice camp spot beneath large oak trees, with my Big Agnes tent and Leah's jet boil for bikepacking luxuries. However, we didn't have access to water and had to conserve what we'd hauled up from sea level. Limited drinking water plus high-sodium Mountain House Chicken and Noodles for dinner resulted in one of the worst midnight muscle cramps I've ever experienced. Two days later, there's still a massive knot in my left calf that hasn't let go. People have asked me why I'm limping, and I've had to reply "Sleeping injury."

 But we did save enough water for the most important thing — morning coffee. We hiked back up the Cone Peak trail a little ways to take in the views with freshly ground drip coffee courtesy of one of Leah's cross team sponsors. She was still recovering from a race on Saturday, and I had that knotted-up calf to limit my moving enthusiasm. We drew out the morning lounging as long as possible.

 Then it was on to Coast Ridge Road. I was a little nervous about the water situation, as we hadn't found a single natural source and were rolling along the spine of mountains. But down the paved road a short distance there was a fire station with an outside tap, and a friendly black cat who wanted her own bowl filled.

 We took a short detour out Prewitt Ridge to find a nice spot to eat our lunch. Oak tree swing with sweeping views of Cone Peak, and a warm, clear day in November. What more could you ask for?

 The ancient oak tree was completely hollowed out, but alive.

 Heading back to the coast on a brake burner of a descent.

Big Sur and Cone Peak. Our two afternoons of riding and hiking came in just shy of fifty miles, with 10,000 feet of climbing. This really is the kind of route that packs a big payout in a small number of miles. Why don't we do this every weekend? I'm determined to return to this nearby mountain range for more winter explorations (especially through the wilderness areas, on foot.) But for now, Beat and I are headed out to Utah for some turkey and, hopefully, some snow. Happy Thanksgiving! 
Friday, November 21, 2014

Iditarod Again, part nine

As dusk faded, a thick, subzero cold oozed back into the Kuskokwim Valley, as though daylight had been the only force holding it at bay. We were coated in frost by the time we arrived in Nikolai, barraging the Petruskas all at once with five hungry walkers who hadn’t stepped inside a building in three days. The house was just a few notches below roasting thanks to a cavernous wood stove, and we clustered in the doorway as we raced to remove as much clothing as possible before the sweat glands kicked in. 

Anne had already returned to Nikolai and flown out — we waved to her from the ground as her husband's small plane passed overhead. Steve was there and had been for a few hours, but he was already packing up to leave again. It was just after 8 p.m. and this night promised to be insidiously cold. There was much commotion in the room, and I was about to tease Steve for being antisocial, when he informed us that he just learned his father had died. He’d made phone calls and determined there were no flights out of McGrath until the day after next, and so he still planned to finish the journey to McGrath and wait for the next flight. He said he was leaving now because “I’m not going to sleep anyway” and he wanted to be alone for a while. 

I did not know Steve’s father, but I was stunned by this news. These long journeys already have a way of unveiling every crack in the armor, ripping away defenses and exposing your raw core to the brutal, indifferent world. This is part of the “why” of doing them, because of everything we stand to learn about self and life and love. But in the midst of the battle, we’re completely vulnerable to the wild swings of emotions, to the point where the simplest frustrations can trigger a meltdown. I couldn’t even fathom what it might be like to learn that my father died, feel my whole world crumble away underneath me, and then pick up my already emotionally and physically exhausted body and head out into the frigid, exceedingly dark night to walk fifty miles to McGrath, on no sleep, alone. My chin started to quiver and I had nothing to say, so I joined Beat and wrapping my arms around Steve and imploring him to be careful. 

After Steve suited up and left, I told Beat, “I’m really worried about Steve. I mean, not just worried, but scared for him. Do you think he’s going to be okay?” 

“I hope so,” Beat said. “He’s capable. If he gets tired he can stop and bivy.”

I was haunted by this image of Steve out on the frozen swamps, alone with his grief. Not only because Steve is my friend, but my own splintered emotions magnified the empathy. I'd imagine myself in his place until I was almost overcome with sadness, and then switch off the tears and fixate on base physical needs: hunger, fatigue, and the weird grayness of emotion (which I might call indifference for lack of a better word) surrounding everything else that didn’t address these immediate desires. It was a strange emotional state, swinging on the pendulum between these two extremes. 

We sat down for dinner — spaghetti with moose meat sauce and yellow cake, which was delicious but portioned out a bit smaller than I would have liked when divided among the five of us. Still, my appetite had reached a place of wild swings as well — I was either ravenous or repulsed, and often one would follow the other within seconds. For the first few bites I was wolfing down my spaghetti greedily, and after that I had to force it down. I did enjoy the cake, though. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can nearly always pound some sugar. 

Rick, Loreen, and Tim took one bedroom, and Beat and I shared the other with Donald the Scottish biker. I haven’t mentioned Donald much in my reports because for us he was like a ghost — he’d be asleep at checkpoints when we arrived and when we left, and then he’d pass us somewhere on the trail, spinning pedals with his big overboots and grinning, and by the time we reached the next checkpoint, he was asleep again. “I like my sleep,” he told us. “You runners never sleep. I don’t see how you can do that.” Tim especially seemed bemused by Donald’s marathon sleeping, but I couldn’t fault him for enjoying himself. 

I sprawled my half-wet sleeping bag onto the bed (to dry) and plopped on top. We set an alarm for 2 a.m., and I woke up three times in three hours to pee. I couldn’t even figure out where it was all coming from, since I’d had all of maybe four liters to drink, if that, in the forty hours since we left Rohn, and maybe another liter and a half since we arrived in Nikolai. And yet more water than that seemed to be gushing out of me. It was mildly alarming. 

When the alarm blared, my body made it clear that it had every intention of shutting me down. As I sat up I was overcome with nausea so severe that I had to immediately lay back down, and started hyperventilating. I was gasping and gulping and struggling with the effort of breathing while not vomiting at the same time. I laid in bed, doing just that for about five minutes when Beat shook me again. “I need to … lay here … for a while longer … to not … throw up,” I gasped. Beat said okay, and then my small child emotions kicked in. 

“Why do we have to get up so early?” I whined. “I mean, really, why?”

Beat asked me if I wanted to sleep longer. I did! But at the same time, I knew that more sleep wasn’t actually going to remedy whatever I had going on, and wasn’t going to put me any closer to being done with the task in front of me. It seemed my mind decided fifty miles was “nearly done,” and it let the misconception slip to my body, which unleashed the toxic flood of recovery chemicals. Electrolyte imbalance or caffeine withdrawals or any number of chemical reactions were the real culprit for my malaise, but the endurance game is a mind game, and I needed to reign in control. 

As we packed up, I partitioned out my remaining food and realized there was not much left — a bag and a half of Jill Feed, and four single-serving peanut butter containers. It amounted to about 2,500 calories. “How did I eat all of my food already?” was my first thought. I hate eating. I didn’t remember eating it. But it was gone. 

Rick was making peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen. There was only a small portion of bread left, and I never want to be greedy at the Petruskas, who live in a remote region where resources are scarce and expensive, and who are so generous to take the whole lot of us in during this race. I resolved to eat one sandwich, but was not having success in forcing the thing into my churning stomach. I’d take a few bites, audibly choke and cough, wait a half minute, and take another bite. This process again was going very slowly. Tim and Loreen hauled out more than a half hour before we finally made our way into the pre-dawn stillness.

The frigid depths had indeed returned to Alaska; stepping outside from the Petruskas’ balmy house amounted to nearly a hundred-degree swing. The cold shock pumped some life back into my blood and curbed the nausea to some degree. My shoes, which I’d left propped on a chair next to the wood stove for five hours, were still pretty much soaking wet. Putting them on my feet and stepping outside was horribly uncomfortable; I liked them better when they were frozen solid. The sled and bottom of the duffel were still coated in thick chunks of ice left over from the stream crossings. I tried to break off as much dead weight as possible before my fingers froze, and then it was time to haul out. 

Nikolai is typical of rural Alaska villages — a cluster of somewhat disorganized streets, pre-fabricated buildings and log cabins, crude outbuildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers, few if any trucks or vehicles. We made our way through the maze underneath the eerie yellow glow of flickering street lights before dropping back onto the Kuskokwim River. Out on the ice the temperature was 20 below zero, and the lights of meager civilization quickly faded into a yawning darkness. 

My body, which had rebelled so violently from a 2 a.m wakeup call, was swiftly beaten into compliance. I don’t even know what achieved this — the blast of cold, the brick-like peanut butter sandwich in my stomach, or my brain finally saying to my body, “Psych! We actually have fifty more miles to go.” But I was grateful for whatever fixed it, because I was no longer sick or gasping, and my legs were moving pretty well. The pain in my shins had been excruciating when we started out, but a mile of walking beat those into submission as well, and I morphed back into the forward motion machine that I wanted to be.

The first ten miles passed in a seeming instant. Darkness persisted and the river meandered lazily as headlamp-illuminated puffs of breath added swirling clouds to the starry sky. I was indirectly aware of the passing of time, but the absence of change put me into a kind of hypnosis, walking and gazing at stars, and, yes, still stopping to pee every twenty minutes (I really don’t get it. Where does it come from?) Beat was ahead, his reflectors still resembling a hockey goalie forever maneuvering to block my shot. I fixated on the swaying glow until I was free of thought and emotion. The meditative disconnect left me feeling deeply content, as though I’d ventured away from my own consciousness to touch a greater form of understanding, and returned with no memory of what I learned, but the satisfaction remained. 

When emotions did start to creep back in, however, they were filled with darkness. I again felt unfocused grief, and frustration for this pace that was so hard to keep above three miles per hour, and my feet were cold, and my shins hurt, and I had to pee, again, and this made me angry. Malaise, grumpiness and despondency closed in like a pack of wolves  … and that’s when it occurred to me that I should eat something. I’d already resolved to ration Jill Feed and only eat the peanut butter servings as “meals” every three or four hours. I popped a few pinches of nuts and fruit into my mouth, and after a hundred or so calories, that airy, happy feeling soon returned. 

It was quite the revelation — I was essentially running in bonk mode, taking in just enough sugar to keep the pilot light burning. Once that went out, survival mode turned back, using all of its emotion-wringing tactics to urge me to find more food. When I did feed the furnace, it was only just enough to turn the pilot light back on — but this was a beautiful thing. Not so much food that I became a hundred percent alert and aware, but not so little that I was clawing and desperate. Finding that balance became an overarching goal — and I did succeed in it for quite some time. 

Dawn emerged as we passed through the swamps of Guitar Lake, with far-ranging horizons drenched in warm light. When I looked over my shoulder I could once again see Mount Foraker and Denali, dominating the open landscape much as they had on day two of the journey. But their profiles had changed and their positions had switched, because we were now on the opposite side of these great mountains. The distance of our journey had a tangible, awe-inspiring perspective.  

We passed Tim, Loreen, and Rick as they rested on the trail, with Loreen curled up in her down coat on top of her sled. I looked at her feet, sticking out of the coat in the 20-below air, and was amazed that she could achieve a stop of any length — let alone sleep — without being menaced by foot pain. My feet always hurt, and it wasn’t the kind of pain I could just hope “went numb,” because numbness meant my toes really were freezing, not just cold. The mesh of my shoes was coated in thick ice, but the insides were still felt wet. I’d actually tried my vapor barrier socks the previous day, after our dawn bivy, and decided they did little to help my comfort level and only pruned the skin and caused new pain, so I didn’t put them back on after our lunch stop. It seemed as though there was nothing more I could do for my feet, but I think the lesson here is, “Don’t soak your shoes and then go hiking at 20 below.”

As the landscape opened up with the expanding daylight, we saw another figure in the far distance. At first I thought it was a moose, and it took a few minutes for it to become clear that it was not only another human, but another person on foot. It had to be Steve. This was cause for some concern, as he’d left Nikolai nearly six hours earlier than us, and had been out all night at 20 below or lower. Although the likeliest outcome was that he’d stopped to bivy for a few hours, we couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t in distress or injured, so Beat was determined to catch him. These open swamps stretch for miles, and Steve was at least a mile ahead, if not more. 

Beat increased his stride and I rushed to follow, digging my poles into the snow and stretching out my tired hamstrings and painful shins. Really, all we were doing was slightly increasing our walking pace, but it was amazingly strenuous. If 20-minute miles were just on the edge of sustainability, then 18-minute miles were a sprint. My heart rate increased and I had to pull down my buff as I gulped icy air. My muscles were searing and I wasn’t even running, but wondered if I should just run, like I had in the Farewell Burn. Maybe it was my limited access to carbohydrates or a subconscious resistance, but my body seemed incapable of running and had to struggle for this fast walk. Still, I wanted to catch Steve, too, and it was going to be a race until we did. 

We marched and I narrowed my focus as though I were running a marathon, concentrating on breathing, pace, and the gradual reeling in of a tiny silhouette in a broad, white landscape. I turned on my Shuffle and found comfort in “Team” by Lorde, so I put it on repeat, singing along to the lyrics with my raspy exhalations. “And you know, we’re on each other’s team.” I thought about our little group of Iditarod walkers — now down to the Pennsylvanians and the Californians — and how we loosely banded together as we moved across this vast swath of empty space. I went through my first Iditarod experience utterly alone, and this time around was very different — not by virtue of walking instead of biking, or by virtue of the inevitable differences in weather and trail conditions, but by virtue of the people around me. 

And of course, Beat is the one who made all the difference. With my body wrung out and the core of my soul exposed, I felt new depths of love and appreciation for him that I couldn’t adequately express, but could wholly absorb because he was right there. Admittedly, sharing raw emotion is not well-trodden territory for me. I do tend to hold the people I love at arm’s length, and up until recently was more adamant about taking on endurance challenges on my own. This is because I’m not fully comfortable confronting emotional and physical vulnerabilities in the presence of others, nor expressing feelings until I can adequately absorb, process, and organize them (which is what I do with writing, even in public spaces such as this blog. I’m not a private person, just a reserved person, if that makes any sense.) In the 2014 Iditarod, Beat stuck by my side through the whole messy process — the wild elation, the meltdown, the anxiety and the tedium. Even though we ultimately had to deal with our own issues in our own ways — just as we do in day-to-day-life — bonding together in shared joy and misery is the core of our most valuable experiences, and meaningful partnerships. 

As I pushed my body beyond perceived physical limits in an effort to catch Steve, I was filled with a sense of camaraderie for everyone in our clan, and an admittedly silly wish that we could all finish together holding hands and hugging and crying. Most of us, however, weren’t actually headed for a finish. Except for me and Steve, everyone else was only making a pit stop in McGrath before they went on toward Nome, which was still a long, long, long way away. I could not fathom it. 

Beat caught Steve while I was still a hundred or so meters behind, and I slowed down because I genuinely thought I might black out from exertion. Steve and Beat walked together while I shadowed them for more than a mile. While I inferred that Steve wasn’t in distress, I didn’t hear how his night went, or how he was coping with his father's death. I finally caught up when they waited for me at a small bluff off the river, where Steve seemed to be in good spirits. Maybe his night out on the river alone had helped him work through some of his grief. 

We walked together for a while and Beat talked more about taking a break soon. We’d agreed to it earlier because fifty miles is a long continuous push, and it wouldn't serve Beat well for his ongoing journey to Nome. Just getting off the feet and resting tired bones for one hour can make a big difference between an enjoyable day, and an enjoyable half day followed by another half day of aching-leg death march. Strategically timed rests can actually help a person move faster overall. I was seeing my own loss in efficiency firsthand with the display on my Garmin eTrex. Even though I thought I was working just as hard, my pace was on a downward curve below a self-imposed three miles per hour. Soon 22-minute-miles were feeling pretty hurty and difficult. Beat and I found a nice spot in the sun on a slough paralleling the Kuskokwim, and bid Steve goodbye one last time. 

I enjoyed this final bivy immensely. It wasn’t entirely useful for me — it was only sixty minutes of "sleep" where I didn’t sleep at all, and still involved the usual thirty minutes of set-up and break-down. But just laying in the cold sunlight wrapped in my cocoon, which had mostly dried in Nikolai, left a lasting feeling of satisfaction. I snuggled in deeper with one single-serving container of peanut butter, nibbled on the rich, fudge-like morsel, and realized I actually wasn’t quite ready for this journey to be done. Nome may have been an unfathomably long way away, but McGrath was just too soon. 

Everyone else, including Donald the biker, passed as we rested. Beat and I were in the back of the group again. As we packed up I mentioned that the clan went by, and Beat suggested that we should push for a while to try to catch Loreen. 

“Why? We’ll see them again in McGrath,” I replied.

“Maybe you can win?” he said.

Win? Win what? Oh, this race! It was weird to think of this journey as a race, but it was still an organized event where times were recorded and weighed against others as part of the overall challenge. Five women had started the Iditarod Trail Invitational in the foot division, and now we were down to four. Shawn and Carole were still somewhere behind us, but Loreen was the only one ahead. I was bemused by the thought of trying to compete with another person when the "race" had been this grueling, seven-day march across the barren mountains into Interior Alaska. Loreen was aiming for the long haul of Nome, so it was hardly a fair point of comparison. And anyway, I didn’t want to chase any more people at strenuous 18-minute miles today, nor did I want to subject Loreen to head-to-head “racing” if she was feeling at all competitive about it, given she had to get up and do it all over again the next day. Tim and Loreen also passed by near the beginning of our nap, and now had more than an hour on us with only 25 miles left to go. But Beat thought our rest would give us a boost to push for a while, and I agreed. 

When I started walking again, the pain in my shins was excruciating. At this point, a stop of any length would require a half hour or so of warm-up, wherein every step was nearly unbearable. Then, as I forced more steps, the throbbing tissue along my tibia would slowly loosen and I could walk more easily, although not comfortably. I told Beat about my shin splints and how it seemed utterly impossible to endure this for another seven hundred miles to Nome. He replied, “It would go away, eventually.” 

We marched along the sparkling river, and I continued nibbling on just enough Jill Feed to stave off grumpiness. I thought often about how magical this day had been. “Someday I will go to Nome,” I decided. “But not on foot. It is way too far to walk.” 

The sun again sank low on the horizon, closing the curtains on my final night on this journey. I was full of nostalgia for my first trip into McGrath, the grueling slog through wind-drift on the Kuskokwim River, as well as more recent, fonder memories — finishing the 2011 Susitna 100 with Beat, greeting him and Marco at Cape Nome before his first thousand-mile finish in 2013. The Iditarod Trail has been such a meaningful entity in my life. In many ways, it’s been the “stage” for every major life change I’ve embarked on since I moved to Alaska in 2005. It's remained that way even now that I've lived away from Alaska for nearly as long as I lived there. 

Over the past few months, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could write about this latest experience on the Iditarod Trail to convey its connections to past experiences and the ongoing significance. In the end I failed to find words to express this. This long-form, nine-part, mini-novel is my race report — what we did, how I felt. But someday I will figure out a succinct way to express what it has meant, and what I’ve discovered and continue to discover amid these returns. Although I haven’t found the distillation of words to express the "why," I can't shake this strong desire to loop back to the proverbial point of no return, to pound myself against my limits until pieces are scattered all over the tundra, then to gather them back up with only enough time in the cold air to keep the pieces that matter, the ones that remain. 

It's true that "You Can’t Go Home Again.” But you can embrace the relentless march of time in the pursuit of experience, and shared experience, knowing that ultimately, meaning is not something we find, but something we create. 

Ten miles from McGrath, we turned off the Kuskokwim River and made our way through the woods in the fading light. I’d actually rationed my Jill Feed well and had a fair amount remaining, so I indulged in a higher calorie intake than earlier in the day. This soothed the gnawing hunger pangs, but it also kickstarted the part of my brain that was hell-bent on complaining loudly about every other physical discomfort. I saw the sign that said “McGrath: 10 Miles” and told my body, “Yay! We’re Done!” when actually three hours of difficult marching still remained. I soon resented every step, and was angry at myself for lapsing into this bad attitude here, so close to the end of the journey. I tried to cling to the reflective awe of it all, but I admit once we hit that last three miles on the road into town, I thought mostly of what I always end up thinking about at the end of these long foot races, which is, "Ow, my feet hurt." 

We arrived the home of Peter and Tracy at 9:50 p.m. Sunday, March 2, for a final time of 7 days 7 hours and 50 minutes. Loreen and Tim arrived more than an hour earlier, having kicked it into an impressively high gear into McGrath. As others have written about before, Peter and Tracy maintain a wonderful oasis on the tundra, offering finishers an endless supply of warm food, hot showers, and spots to curl up in front of a wood stove, and they welcome you to stay as long as you'd like. We enjoyed a big plate of lasagna warmed up for us by Jason Buffington, a fast runner who had been basking in the hospitality for two days.

Loreen went on to set a new women's record in the thousand-mile race to Nome, finishing alongside Tim, who logged his eighth complete journey to Nome. Later this summer Tim and I released a book about his adventures. If you enjoyed this account of my little journey to McGrath, you'll be amazed by Tim's story. (Link here.)

Beat was second overall in the race Nome, logging his second thousand-mile finish in 25 days, 12 hours, and 52 minutes. He'll be back next year aiming for a third — just as hooked as anyone.

Rick decided to stop in McGrath, declaring that he found his limit and was happy where he stood. We'll see. This trail has a way of luring people back.

Steve is signed up for the 2015 race to Nome on the notoriously difficult Southern Route. I'm sure his dad would be proud.

Dave Johnston was the first runner to arrive in McGrath, shattering the limits of what most of us in this community believed to be possible: 4 days, 1 hour, and 38 minutes. Breaking four days — once the realm of the fastest bikers — is his next goal.

54 racers started the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational and 49 finished in McGrath, with another disqualified for a rule violation. Sixteen went on to Nome, and of those, all finished.

Bike records were shattered across the board thanks to low- to no-snow conditions. 2014 will go down in race lore as the amazingly fast year for everyone, because no one will remember the runners who are not Dave Johnston. But we did not have it easy out there, of that much I'm certain.

As for me, I once again found myself gazing out the window of Peter and Tracy's house, watching a bright moon light up the frosty yard and pondering the experiences I keep circling back to, and the ways everything has changed. I'm not done with the Iditarod Trail, and I already have new ideas and ambitions for next season. Perhaps in 2016 Beat and I will find ourselves standing side-by-side on Knik Lake once again, looking toward Nome. If I have my way, we'll both be straddling bikes.