Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Week 11, Jan. 20-26

Beat and I were really hoping to get at least one winter-training weekend in before we head to Alaska, but there is almost no snow to be found in the entire state of California. Yosemite Webcam views show open fields and bare pavement, and a friend reported hiking on dry dirt on the Tahoe Rim Trail, in January. The cold-weather gear testing wouldn't do us much good anyway, when it's 40 degrees overnight at 7,000 feet. Yes, it's summer in January here on the West Coast, from California on up to Nome, Alaska (51 degrees this week!) Here in the Bay Area we have sweaty outings in the high 70s. I admit this makes me grumpy. Not only do we have to endure summer discomfort all over again (wasps, chunder trails, sunburn), but I envision actual summer turning out much like a Steinbeck novel.

The grumpiness persists because I encountered a bad batch of allergies this week. I don't know what I am allergic to, but symptoms manifest as mild congestion, an uncomfortable rash, and resulting sleep disruption. I'm not actually sick, but I feel downtrodden as though I were sick, and so I'm demotivated about things and also guilty that I feel so demotivated. Going outside seems to help with the symptoms, but it's a chore to boost myself out the door when it's hot and I know sweat is going to exacerbate the rash. Last year, my doctor speculated that laundry detergent was causing this reaction. I switched that up to a sensitive skin brand, but had another bout last summer, so I switched my body wash. Looks like I need to think of some other household products to target. Or who knows? Perhaps I am just allergic to unseasonable heat. Allergies are stupid like that.

Okay, I was going to try to keep the grump out of this post as much as possible. I did have a nice week of training, and got some decent work done despite an ongoing desire to dunk my whole body in an ice bath for hours on end. I realize there's a polar vortex on the East Coast right now, and I have a few friends and acquaintances who are enduring a long night in the deep minus 20s in the Arrowhead 135, so I do try to keep perspective. It's actually pretty nice here. Okay, it's gorgeous. Grump, grump, grump.

Monday, Jan. 20: Rest. I decided to book-end a big weekend with rest days.

Tuesday, Jan. 21: Run, 1:12, 7.3 miles, 684 feet of climbing; I slowed up my running because of IT band concerns after Steep Ravine. The issue didn't come up at all this week.

Wednesday, Jan. 22: Road bike. 1:59, 22 miles, 4,200 feet climbing. I had to run some errands anyway so took the opportunity to drive out to Woodside and ride from Kings Mountain Road to Tunitas Creek and back. I love this route; it's so smooth and zippy for a ride on winding mountain roads with a ton of climbing.

Thursday, Jan. 23: Mountain bike, 0:46, 10.1 miles; Cart tow, 3:12, 9.5 miles, 302 feet climbing. Ah, the cart tow. A friend asked me what exactly is so difficult about towing a cart and/or sled, and the truth is that, minute for minute, there's nothing terribly hard about it. I just build up expectations based on running fitness that don't, for many obvious reasons, translate directly to man-hauling. Without extra weight and resistance, 10-minute-miles are easy breezy, but add a cart or sled and suddenly the same or more effort only nets half the speed. When I think about 350 such miles, I sort of want to hurl, not even taking into account the cold, the harsh weather, the remote isolation, and all of that other stuff. Even 350 miles of similar effort on a treadmill over ten days would make me feel a little queasy. But you take it one mile at a time, one minute at a time if you must. Take care of the body and mind, stay fascinated with the small pictures and determined about the big picture, and eventually you'll get there. The challenge of the slog is a process I actually do love, but it intimidates me, too.

Friday, Jan. 24: Run, 1:22, 6.6 miles, 1,592 feet climbing. Headed out to Oakland to meet with Ann, and we went for a run in the hills with her friend Steve. I had a chance to explain my ideas for a book project, and she seemed very interested. I know my blog makes it seem like I do nothing with my life but play outside and travel and race, which is maybe partially true. But in between the lines, I managed to pile up a number of projects and contractual responsibilities, and now it's time to really focus on the ones that are most important. A book about Ann has a lot of potential, and I have some ideas to bring the story to life for a large audience of readers, not just hardcore runners. And she likes my ideas, enough to give the go-ahead on crafting a book proposal. This has nothing to do with my training log, but I'm very excited about it.

Saturday, Jan. 25: Run, 2:55, 14 miles, 2,210 feet climbing. Beat did a cart-tow, and I walked with him for the first 2.5 miles to Rancho (he was actually shuffling, but the pace qualifies as a pleasant stroll for the person without the cart.) Then Liehann and I took off up the hill and ran the remaining 11.5 miles. My allergies were bothering me a lot, and I struggled on the climb, but eventually run fatigue took my mind off the clawing itchiness, and I was able to enjoy the back half.

Sunday, Jan. 26: Road bike, 5:30, 68.4 miles, 7,936 feet climbing. Allergies were making me crazy; this ride was my own way of crawling out of my skin for a few hours. Since IT band pain never flared up this week, I thought I should put in a longer run. But temperatures were nearing 80 and a ride beneath redwood canopy sounded so much more pleasant. Also, I was still experiencing some cart-tow angst, and I wanted to do something fast and flowing. Road biking around here is so much fun. I dislike riding with traffic, which is the main reason I don't embark on long road rides more often. But on this day I picked a good route:

Nice views on Skyline Ridge.

Narrow, quiet roads.

Big Basin Redwoods. Great spot. If Beat and I can't find snow next weekend (and it's looking extremely unlikely), I may just throw out the run training altogether and ride centuries instead. No matter what I do, dragging a sled across Alaska is going to be damn hard. But for now, it's summer in California, and I suppose I should enjoy it.

Total: 16:56, 37.4 miles run, 100.5 miles ride, 16,924 feet climbing
Friday, January 24, 2014

Exercise in doubt

I suspect I am not cut out to walk 350 miles to McGrath.

On some level, I can convince myself that's okay. I wasn't cut out to ride a loaded fat bike 350 miles to McGrath back in 2008, and did it anyway. However, given the speeds bicycles can move in optimal conditions, there's more of a time buffer on a bike. Foot travelers have a much slimmer range between "slow" and "too slow" — and "too slow" is exactly that.

Beat finally got our exercise cart up and running. This has been a laborious process in itself, involving much tinkering on Beat's part. He retrofitted a bicycle trailer with an extended pole attachment and Avid BB7 disc brakes, which are partially clamped onto the wheels at all times to mimic the resistance of snow (because wheels by themselves roll much too easily.) They brakes are even hooked up to brake levers on the pole for fine-tuning the resistance level. He added a wooden board to provide a firm base so the canvas bag is strong enough to hold sixty pounds of kitty litter. The whole set-up probably weighs close to eighty pounds. Heavier than a sled (at least my sled, hopefully), but the extra weight and brake resistance should balance out the advantages of pavement and gravel surfaces.

 Today we both planned to take it out for a practice run. Beat towed the cart for his commute to work, and I pedaled out later in the afternoon to swap the bike and run the cart home. The route is a flat eight miles along a paved bike path and neighborhood streets. While riding out, I took a two-mile detour to pedal along the Bay and gawk at shorebirds, because I was still enjoying myself.

 And then it was time to tow the cart home. Out in front of the Google offices, before I got my trekking poles out, the plan was to shuffle the whole way. Yeah. I figured I could play around in the hills along the shoreline and still run the ten miles in two hours. Yeah.

The hill test was fun, especially when I started down a steep singletrack and realized that the set brake resistance was not enough to stop this eighty-pound cart from jack-knifing around and dragging my body all the way down the hill. Luckily, those brake levers really did work. But as I started down the bike path toward home, the reality of the slog quickly became apparent. And amid the monotony of a paved path that runs parallel to a freeway, there was a lot of time and mental space for internal dialogue.

Gratuitous butt shot. But it illustrates the cart well and is still PG-rated, so I included it. 
"Run. Run harder."

"I'm running as hard as I can. It feels like I'm tied to a wall."

"17-minute miles, are you serious? That isn't even close to running."

"Argh, my heart rate has to be around 170 right now. No way I can sustain this in Alaska. No way I can sustain this for even another ... okay, walking. Walking now."

"You almost hit the 15-minute-mile range there. Now it's 22. Have you done any math on this yet?"

"No. No math."

"Factor in everything. Sled weight, trail conditions, weather, nutrition, accumulating fatigue. You're going to have to plan for two miles per hour average when you're not stopped at a checkpoint or sleeping. You realize that, right? Just to do the bare minimum you are going to have to be out and moving eighteen hours a day."

"That's a worst-case scenario."

"No, I think that's more of a normal-case scenario."

"Argh, my hamstrings are so tight. They're killing me. Body parts on my list to target and strengthen if I ever get a stupid idea like this in my head again and actually have enough time to work on it: 1. Hamstrings. 2. Glutes. 3. Hamstrings. 4. Shoulders. 5. Hamstrings."

"And it's not even cold here. It's seventy degrees and you're walking on a flat bike path."

"Yes, it's really hot. To pull a sled, I think you have to become like a sled dog. Sled dogs hate the heat and love the cold. Cold makes them fast. Ugh, I can feel sweat accumulating between my toes. Unless it's like minus twenty I'll probably never keep my feet dry in Alaska, and I really don't want it to be minus twenty the whole time. But I also don't want it to be forty above with Chinook winds and rain, either. That would be worse."

"You know, you're just not a strong runner. Why do this to yourself?"

"For the beautiful and terrible challenge!"

"You feel this, too, right? Aching hamstrings? Feeling as tired as a hard run for walking speeds? This is exactly the challenge you're facing. Just take the bike. It will still be a great adventure, and unless it's a repeat of 2012 bottomless fluff or some other horrendous condition that makes pushing a bike actually harder than dragging a sled ... it will be easier."

"But I haven't done any specific training on a bike this winter. I'm probably in worse shape for snow biking than I am for dragging a sled."

"That ... must be pretty bad. What have you been doing all winter?"

"I thought ... I was training ... (whimper.)"

... Yup. Pretty much managed to crush all of my confidence with one measly three hour and twelve minute, 9.5-mile cart pull. And with that, I might as well include last week's training log. To be honest I don't have a lot to say about it right now. My endurance is solid and I don't tire out much on the normal stuff I do. Glad I've been building that up, because I definitely have some long hours in front of me next month.

Week 10: January 13 to 19

Monday, Jan. 13: Road bike, 1:32, 17.5 miles, 2,570 feet of climbing.
Tuesday, Jan. 14: Run, 0:58, 5.7 miles, 625 feet of climbing. 10:11 min/mile.
Wednesday, Jan. 15: Mountain bike, 3:07, 31 miles, 3,607 feet climbing.
Thursday, Jan. 16: Run, 1:27, 8 miles, 1,288 feet climbing. 10:58 min/mile.
Friday, Jan. 17: Rest.
Saturday, Jan. 18: Run, 7:16, 31.6 miles, 6,915 feet climbing. 13:22 min/mile (moving.)
Sunday, Jan. 19: Mountain bike, 9:03, 79.3 miles, 9,298 feet climbing.

Total: 23:23, 45.3 miles run, 127.8 miles ride, 24,303 feet climbing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Double beatdown

Thanks to the regular race schedules of the Bay Area's three trail running event organizers, and the annual regularity of our own training cycles, Beat and I have several local races that we've run many times. The Steep Ravine/Mount Tam 50K in the Marin Headlands is one of these races. I've run it five times ... five times! It's a little embarrassing, because this particular run never seems to go all that well. It makes sense, I suppose. Most of the climbing is quite steep, necessitating a walking speed, and I'm uncomfortable enough on steep descents that I end up walking or slow-shuffling a lot of the downhills as well. There's always that smidgen of hope that I'll have some kind of breakthrough in my trail running technique at Steep Ravine — which usually ends in disappointment after long hours of frustration accompanied by some kind of low-level pain.

It was a beautiful but hot day. I think California's severe drought is now well-publicized enough that I don't have to explain my grumpiness about weather that's 75 degrees and sunny in January. But the part of me that was really grumpy on this day was my IT band. I had problems with the same nagging pain back in October, but it hasn't bothered me at all since. Possibly a result of putting in too many faster running miles last week, the tightness and mild burning pain flared up again on Saturday. Specifically, it came back during the first descent in the race, on a trail called the Heather Cutoff. This rutted, dry clay, somewhat overgrown singletrack is built with what seem like a dozens of ridiculous hairpin switchbacks over the course of about 700 vertical feet, drawing out what should be a short descent interminably. My right IT band tightened like a rusty chain and I responded with quiet swearing ... "$%@$ concrete-hard %$#&*!^$ hairpins $%*!"

Admittedly, this descent pretty much set the tone for what really was a scenic run on a beautiful day.

This course consists of two 25K loops that climb and descend the face of Mount Tam four times. I met Beat before the turnaround, already three miles ahead of me. By this point I was resigned about the grumpy IT band but also resolved to work through it — by slowing down and actively taking measures not to aggravate it while continuing to make forward progress. This is, after all, what we're training for. Participating in a long haul like the Iditarod always takes a period of adjustment. By the end of the first day, nearly everything hurts. Back aches, quads burn, ankles swell and knees are sore. It seems impossible to continue but this is just part of the transition to the new normal. Bodies do adjust, but it's something the mind has to facilitate. This is why it was important to me that I get through Steep Ravine, by slowing down and working with my grumpy IT band rather than against it. When it tightened up, I backed off the pace, even when it felt snail-like, and even when I was walking down the practically level ridiculous &*$! hairpins of the Heather Cutoff.

We spent an enjoyable hour visiting with friends after the race, but it got late in the afternoon (and thus choked with traffic across the bridge and through the city) fast. I do value the improvements I manage to make in these trail races, even as training, so I can't pretend finishing in 7:16 wasn't disappointing, especially after enjoying such an effortlessly strong (and nearly two hours shorter) 50K at Crystal Springs last week. You know what they say ... sometimes days you have a great run, and some days you run the &%$! Steep Ravine. Still, I managed to stave off the "runner's knee" type condition that IT band aggravation can lead to, and running relatively slowly left me with plenty of pep for my Sunday plan:

Big mountain bike ride! I wanted to put in another back-to-back effort this weekend, and even before IT band pain crept in, I planned a ride as my second long workout. Although I do enjoy trail running quite a lot these days, I continue to believe that high mileage in training and daily running is not the best thing for my body. But there's really no such thing as too much biking — am I right? As it turned out, this plan worked extra well because cycling is one activity that doesn't seem to aggravate my IT band at all. In fact, I started out the day having a difficult time climbing out of the saddle because my right knee was so stiff, but by the end of the day the whole leg was loose and happy. Yay for biking.

During the week, I spent some time trying to map out a new loop through the Santa Cruz Mountains, hoping the bike-sploring factor would keep the ride interesting and thus keep motivation humming when I was sure to be sore and fatigued. My research ran into a bunch of road blocks in the form of private roads and too many no-bikes-allowed trails. So instead I plotted a variation of a loop through Big Basin Redwoods State Park that I've ridden before, and invited my friend Liehann to join. Liehann is a great riding partner — he pushes the pace but he's patient as well. I hoped having him along would prevent me from becoming lazy on difficult ascents or bailing altogether. On this route, there is a lot of climbing.

We started at my apartment and pedaled into the mountains up Steven's Canyon and the Grizzly Flat Trail, then onto the dry hills of Long Ridge. The first hour was rough for me, but by the time we reached the crest, I was settling nicely into comfortable endurance mode. We occasionally stopped to chat with other Sunday mountain bikers, and one woman commented on my seemingly huge backpack. The day before, during Steep Ravine, I became dehydrated and never rectified that after the race. As a result, I woke up in the middle of the night with a truly horrible hangover-like headache, which kept me awake for hours. The specter of that headache and the knowledge that there was only one known water source on our entire route prompted me to pack a lot of water, along with lights, jacket, hat, mittens, food ... I was having one of those "I'm tired and I need my security blanket" days. The big backpack makes me slower, but no water makes me miserable. Anyway, I explained that we were planning to spend the whole day riding, so I came prepared. She was impressed with the ground we'd covered so far, and we were just getting started.

After another descent and climb, we reached Big Basin Redwoods. The higher elevations of this park are an impressive contrast to the misty redwood forests below — sandy, alpine desert with chaparral brush and Douglas fir, exposed to lots of sunlight, and often significantly warmer. Drop a thousand feet and suddenly you're in an entirely different microclimate. Big Basin is an intriguing region.

My favorite aspect of Big Basin is the remote, wild sense of the place. I like that I can leave my house, which is located in crowded metropolis of 7 million, and pedal my bicycle to a space that looks and feels like real wilderness. You don't see many people here, either, even on a beautiful sunny and warm Sunday afternoon.

There are a few people among these trees, though, who seem to be delightfully quirky. We passed this elaborate treehouse as we descended into Gazos Creek Canyon. I suppose if I had property in a redwood forest, I too would be tempted to build a treehouse. And what a great spot!

The descent on intermittently chunky and loamy fireroad was fast and furious. We plummeted into a zone of towering redwoods, lush ferns, moss-coated rocks and actual water flowing in the creeks (such a novelty!) A rush of cold air made it feel as though we'd dropped into a refrigerator. The temperature was easily in the 40s after leaving a ridge basking in sun and 70s just five miles earlier. Down here is a world that doesn't see much in the way of direct sunlight — in January, probably none at all.

Although I'd felt reasonably okay all day, my blood sugar dropped, along with my appetite, on the long and steep climb up Pomponio Road. We'd made something of a hard sprint over twenty miles of flatter terrain while wrapping around Pescadero and the Old Haul fireroad, the only way to legally connect Big Basin with Portola Redwoods State Park and eventually Skyline Ridge. After that, there just wasn't a lot left in the tank. I struggled on this climb, mainly with bonky nausea and hard breathing from overworking my cardiovascular system. Just when I really started to feel wobbly, Liehann convinced me to eat an 80-calorie pack of gummy bears, which was surprisingly (actually, unsurprisingly) effective in turning my poor condition around. We crested Skyline after dark and descended Page Mill into a rush of city lights. Exhilarating and satisfying.

The ride came in at nine hours total, for 80 miles with 9,289 feet of climbing. The run was 7:16, just under 32 miles, with 6,915 feet of climbing. Sixteen hours of hard effort over two days is not much in the scheme of things, and this is the perspective I'm working on honing with these back-to-back workouts — polishing the long-term sustainable pace and practicing positivity and self-maintenance amid sore body parts and fatigue. And, grumpy IT band aside, it turned out to be a fantastic weekend. I love these long hauls most of all, so indulging in two of them with friends is a special treat. 
Friday, January 17, 2014

Driven to disperse

When I ride my bike, I am always traveling. Sometimes I travel through the past, coasting effortlessly across the landscape of my memories. Sometimes I travel in the most immediate present, a space that spans no farther than each breath and pedal rotation. Sometimes I travel into the future, through the stories I tell myself about the things that haven't happened yet. Occasionally I venture far into the future, the places beyond my own lifetime, and the stories that ignite my most unsettling existential fears. Even less frequently, I take trips far into the past, to times long before my own and places that only exist in the stories I've been told. On Wednesday, I rode my bike from home up and over a nearby mountain that I'd never before climbed, and traveled to this deep past — specifically, the journeys of ancient people who ventured across the Bering Strait and set the first human footprints on the New World.

If I could be a human at any time and place in history, I might just choose then — if only to satisfy some of my deepest curiosities and drives for adventure. The Bering Land Bridge migration is still a hotly debated theory. It's most widely accepted that small bands of people crossed over from Siberia on ice-free corridors of land some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. But even scientists who adhere to this theory don't know exactly what these people were pursuing. Big game hunting seems the most likely candidate, but some geological evidence suggests that the climate on the lowlands of Beringia was not as conducive to big game habitat as previously thought. What exactly were these trailblazers searching for when they left the world they knew, for the sparse and barren tundra that today resides below the Bering Sea? I would love to know, which, as any good reporter understands, can only come from actually being there to witness what happened. Yes, becoming a human who lived 15,000 years ago would mean choosing a life as difficult as it was simple, defined by discomfort and heavy labor, and even if I lived to old age I'd be dead already, at 34, lucky if my only contribution was successfully reproducing before I met a violent or painful end. But still, I wonder. And wonder is where I travel sometimes, when I ride my bike.

Bohlman - On Orbit turns out to be a brutally steep climb —paved, but the mountain bike requires working my quad muscles to the point of failure just to maintain respectable forward motion. The January sun beats down — it was 74 degrees when I left my house, but feels like something closer to 90. My skin is slick with sweat and black flies are buzzing around my face and becoming lodged in the sticky film near my eyes and nose. The swarm grows in number, and I can't pedal fast enough to ward them off. "Ugh, it might as well be August," I think. But it's even worse than August because it's January, and with a winter like this, who knows what summer will bring? My imagination conjures up dust storms, stifling heat, dry hillsides, and fire. "I would probably do okay in the Ice Age," I think. "I wonder how many people would take a time machine to that point in history?"

Sweeping views of the smog-blanketed Silicon Valley become more defined as I rise higher into clear air. At the ridge I join a dirt road that ripples across the spine of a 2,500-foot mountain, and this is El Sereno Open Space. As the crow flies it's probably ten miles from my house, but I've never been here before. The fact that I'm in a new place, covering new ground, fills me with renewed excitement and purpose. Suddenly I'm no longer grumpy about the January heat or the fact that my bike legs seem oddly lacking in strength. Gravel crackles beneath the wheels as I gaze left, and then right, and then left again, taking in expansive blocks of urban sprawl and oak-covered mountainsides in equal turn. The descent steepens and frequent berms appear off to the side; I ride as many of them as I dare, swooping up and down near-vertical walls with squeals of glee. Caution remains because this doubletrack trail is very dry, slicked with fine moondust and littered with loose jagged rocks, which would become a veritable cheese grater in the event of any kind of crash. The scar I incurred in my last gravel road crash, at Frog Hollow in November, still aches every time I go out in the cold. I am fearful but I am joyful, because I have never been here before. This is bike-sploration, and I love this stuff.

A popular theory holds that sport is just a modern adaptation to our evolutionary makeup — the physical traits and abilities developed over millennia but rendered less necessary for survival in modern times. Technological advances outpaced our physical evolution, and our human instincts and emotions still adhere to primitive drives. When I think about my own basic drives, the one that most stands out is a desire — no, a need — to keep moving. Some people are nesters and cultivators, and they thrive at home. Some people are hunters and conquerers, and they thrive in production and competition. And yet others are dispersers, and they thrive most when they're advancing toward an unknown horizon, unsure whether the grass is greener on the other side, but driven to take a look and find out.

The ancient dispersers spread and populated the whole world; now even Antarctica and the bottom of the oceans are mapped in detail, and most modern discovery comes from within. And yet I ride because I remain driven to disperse, to discover for myself the contours and features that make up the world. It may not be an entire previously undiscovered continent, but it's a start. 
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Week 9, Jan. 6 to 12

At the mile 26 aid station of the Crystal Springs 50K. My favorite calorie source during a long run is cold sugary carbonated beverages, but the aid stations usually run out of soda later in these races. This volunteer/photographer just happened to capture that moment of joy when I discovered they still had Sprite. It's the simple things that make life.
Post-Fairbanks training panic spurred a high-mileage week of running, as my bikes sat woefully neglected on yet another unseasonably warm and dry January week. I've had several debates about my training approach with Beat, and the conclusion seems to be that any workout I do at this point will likely have little to no impact on my overall physical preparedness for the upcoming seven- to ten-day effort. Still, I tend to thrive on higher-volume endurance training; since I started this training block ten weeks ago, I have become progressively stronger as a runner. A fast-for-me 50K and an 80-mile week of trail running had no negative impacts in terms of pain or fatigue. I definitely wouldn't have been able to manage the same volume so naturally one year ago. This coming week I'm incorporating at least one "trailer-pull" and more bike rides, because actually, I can't neglect maintaining a bike base if I want to enjoy summer (not the mention the White Mountains 100.) The Iditarod will come and go and life will go on again, I hope. If I survive.

Monday, Jan. 6: Run, 1:28, 8 miles, 1,668 feet climbing. Average pace 11:07/mile. The first of three "bonk runs" this week, up the High Meadow Trail and down PG&E in Rancho.

Tuesday, Jan. 7: Run, 0:57, 5.7 miles, 635 feet climbing. Average pace 10:08/mile. Monta Vista with Beat. I became quite dizzy at mile four.

Wednesday, Jan. 8: Run, 2:50, 15 miles, 3,049 feet climbing. Average pace 11:23/mile. Black Mountain loop, also on the low-cal plan. Some light-headedness on the steep climbs between miles two and six. Felt much better after I worked through / ignored that initial low point.

Thursday, Jan. 9: Road bike, 1:30, 17.5 miles, 2,566 feet climbing. Montebello Road. I've started to use this ride as a recovery-type effort, but a flatter route might be better for this.

Friday, Jan. 10: Run, 1:04, 5.5 miles, 1,220 feet climbing. Average pace 11:55/mile. Run in Berkeley with Ann. She was dog-sitting an unruly dog who was impossible to control on a leash, so we cut the run short and jogged/walked back. I thought we'd do something longer and faster and was initially disappointed, but this turned out to be the perfect lead-up to a great race the next day.

Beat running at Crystal Springs. So smiley. :)
Saturday, Jan. 11: Run, 5:36, 31.1 miles, 6,611 feet climbing. Average pace 10:56/mile. Crystal Springs 50K. Probably my best 50K effort yet, partly due to having run this course enough times to have it "figured out." I sometimes let my imagination ponder how well I could nail a 50K if I ever specifically and effectively trained for that distance. But the truth is, I have negative interest in the speedwork it takes to get fast (injury fears) and too much love for the long haul. Plus, all these miles I do that speedsters refer to as "junk miles," I think of as "running that is actually fun for me." But I never say never.

Sunday, Jan. 12: Run, 2:44, 13.3 miles, 2,353 feet climbing. Average pace 12:24/mile. I waited a little too long to start this run, after all of the post-race zeal had worn off, and as a result struggled with motivation. Climbing up PG&E, I had one of those "I'd rather be doing something else" moments, and after that it was difficult to fight off the lazy urges. Plus, I left late enough in the afternoon, after only a small lunch, that the final half turned into the more miserable kind of bonk run. Still, I stuck with the plan, and had surprisingly little muscle fatigue from Saturday's race.

Total: 16 hours 9 minutes, 78.6 miles run, 17.5 miles ride, 18,102 feet climbing.
Monday, January 13, 2014

50K PR

After we returned from Fairbanks, I caught a touch of the training panic. Sled-towing was so hard, and I felt so slow, that I came back to California with a number of resolutions. I need more running! Less biking, more time on my feet! More back-to-backs! More hills! More weight! The weight goal is still in progress. I opted against running with a heavy pack because it's so hard on my knees. Then Beat acquired a bike cargo trailer that he is going to outfit with disc brakes to add resistance, and today I purchased 60 pounds of kitty litter for the purpose of hauling around in the trailer. As soon as he gets the brakes set up, we'll trade off a weight-training session here and there. If I can add just a little more strength-building and volume to my routine in the next three weeks, I'll feel more confident about my conditioning for the ITI.

On Saturday we ran the Crystal Springs 50K, a pleasant trail run through the redwoods along Skyline Ridge. The course is almost identical to the Woodside Ramble 50K that I ran a month ago (directed by a different race organizer), but I do love running these trails, and Beat and I enjoy participating in these events as fun, well-supported training runs. When I caught up to Beat on the first long climb, he had already found a cute girl to run with, Celine (Beat often makes friends during races, both male and female, because running makes him happy and thus chatty and friendly. I find this endearing, even when his new friends are cute girls.) Celine looked to be in her early 20s, was running her first 50K, told us her dad worked for Google, and seemed enthralled with Beat's tales of derring do. We all ran together for about five miles before they dropped me on the descent into Wunderlich Park.

As I padded the soft dirt along Salamander Flat, it occurred to me that I was nearly 15 miles into this race, and yet hardly felt it. Somehow the first half just coasted by, so I decided that for the second, I was going to put in a decent effort. Nothing crazy — I'm not trying to injure myself with untrained speed. But I could work a little bit for it.

Beat teased me when I passed them again on the second long climb. "I can't descend worth anything so I might as well run the uphill," I called out as I motioned them to follow. They nearly caught up when I was snacking at the 20-mile aid station, but I didn't see them and took off again before they arrived. The next section is six miles of rollers. I passed quite a few people during this segment, some running the marathon distance at a slower pace, but at one point I passed a woman who had slowed to walk one of the short uphills. She blazed past me on the next downhill, and after that I noticed that any time I got close to her again, she'd speed up. "She's racing me!" I thought, and then, "Okay, it's on."

We passed each other a few times — she couldn't quite hold me off on the longer ascents, but she was more willing to let go on the descents. Finally I started to feel embarrassed about our leapfrog game, and decided just to keep her in sight. As such, I sometimes got a little rest on the climbs, and her downhill speed would spur me to take a few more risks on the descents. It was a lot of fun — relaxing and thrilling at the same time.

The final five miles has two short climbs, but it's mostly a long descent. I assumed I'd never see her again, but thought I should at least try. I managed to maintain the shadow all the way through the final mile, a much more gradual descent on a gravel road. When it was nearly flat, she started to slow. My legs felt surprisingly fresh. I pondered engaging a sprint to the finish, but the prospect of racing a random woman for one less notch in the standings seemed too embarrassing. I just can't bring myself to behave that way, which is one of many reasons I'm not much of a racer. As we coasted into the finish, I noticed the clock read 5:36. My initial reaction was that I'd mis-read the number, because that would be 15 minutes faster than I've ever run a 50K, and that didn't seem likely. You have to run hard to run fast(er), right? But as I strode back around to watch for Beat, the clock was still in the 5:30s.

Celine came in a couple minutes later, informing me that Beat was a minute or so behind after she surged to the finish, wherein Beat accused Celine of disrespecting her elders. "Mid-fives, is that pretty good for a 50K?" she asked. "It's fast for me," I answered, "and I think it's great for a first 50K trail race on a hilly course." Beat came in at 5:42, and we headed to the barbecue table just as Celine's dad approached to pick her up. Beat recognized him instantly because he was Patrick Pichette, Google's CFO. In all those hours Celine didn't share that detail. She was very down-to-earth — just a young woman from Montreal who was studying in Scotland with aspirations to become a surgeon, visiting her Google-employee father at their home in San Francisco, and running a 50K for fun. She would be running a 15K with her dad in the city the following day. I encouraged her to check to see if she won an age-group award, and that's when I learned she was 19. Nineteen! Girl's going places.

Oh, the woman who finished 8 seconds in front of me was third female, 12 minutes behind first place. Missed the podium by that much, ha!

The plan was to finish the 50K with plenty left in the tank, and then put in another moderate run on Sunday. I fluctuated with my ambitions but ended up running a 13-miler on the steep PG&E loop at Rancho San Antonio. This "tired-legs" run mainly suffered from flagging motivation and subsequent laziness, but for the most part I felt good. Little to no soreness in the legs, no issue at all with feet, some "bonkiness" (sudden blood sugar crash, felt fine before and wasn't thrilled about low-energy running this time around), and subsequent minor gastro issues.

I am pleased that I was able to run a personal best 50K time, comfortably, having fun the whole time. Tonight I was able to meet with "Sea Legs Girl" Tracy, who was interviewing at Stanford, for dinner in Palo Alto. Amid engaging conversation about overtraining patterns and life in the Bay Area, the topic turned to what part of my winter training could have helped me become faster when my entire focus has been long-term endurance building. I speculated that I'm still feeling the after-effects of the Fairbanks training, where pulling around a 30- to 40-pound sled on difficult terrain helped build uphill strength. I can actually go back and compare mile-for-mile splits to previous races on the Crystal Springs course, and almost all of my extra time was gained on the climbs, and by effectively negative-splitting the final half. If pulling a sled makes me a stronger uphiller, I still wonder whether running lots of hills can make me a stronger sled-puller. My brain expresses doubt but my heart wants to believe. Mostly because I just want to keep running. 
Friday, January 10, 2014

Like rolling waves

This week, I have been experimenting with "bonk" running. This wasn't entirely intentional — basically, I got caught up in what I was doing during the day, skipped lunch, and then headed out in the late afternoon for a run without snacks. Monday was eight miles of one long climb and descent, running on what felt like the fumes of a long-ago-incinerated breakfast. Tuesday was six with Beat, and for two of those miles I was downright dizzy. "What a hopeless carb burner I am," I thought. "But at the same time, it's not really that much worse without carbs."

Beat is still considering the experiment of walking unsupported to Nome, nearly a month on only the supplies he can carry in his sled. It's a baffling goal but also a potentially valuable learning experience toward becoming an expeditioner, for which Beat has aspirations. This has led to multiple discussions about high-calorie density foods — such as pounds and pounds of peanut butter — and the art of burning fat for fuel. Like most people I carry plenty of this around, but consider fat a terrible energy source for strenuous exercise. It's like looking at a pit of smoldering coals and saying, "You know what would really get this fire going — a huge, wet log!" Body fat or dietary fat — it's all slow-burning and sluggish.

Still, becoming a more efficient fat burner — or at least developing more confidence in what my body can already do — has the potential to enhance my own long-distance experiences. In the case of the Iditarod, I could lighten my load by subsisting on more energy-dense foods, and I potentially wouldn't have to stop and eat as often — always an intimidating chore in the deep cold. My mouth wouldn't get as torn up by constantly gnawing on frozen sugary foods, and the slow burn might aid in keeping my body temperature more consistent. It's a little too late in the game to switch to a low-carb plan. But at the same time, I would benefit from slightly curbing my carb dependency — if only to get a feel and an appreciation for running on fumes, which, for better or worse, is likely to become my default state in the Iditarod.

On Wednesday I set out a little earlier than usual, only about five hours after breakfast instead of eight, which, — after I'd defined my early-week runs as goal-oriented, rather than simply being too lazy to make lunch — felt like cheating. I laced up my Hokas and filled up a 20-ounce bottle with water, stuffed a camera and wet wipe in the hand-hold pocket, and set out. The plan was six miles. Dark clouds settled over Black Mountain as a mist of light rain wafted on the breeze. It's getting to the point of drought here in California that I tend to become irrationally excited about "bad" weather and irrationally grumpy about "good" weather. By the cut-off,  I was buzzing with happy hormones and feeling a strong desire to chase those dark clouds up the mountain. Instead of turning left, I continued climbing.

The grade steepened, and even as these undefined urges drove me forward, a haze settled over my brain. This is the real benefit of a bonk run; there's less glucose to fuel my over-active imagination, and all of the little nagging voices and unsettling or distracting thoughts begin to lose steam. What remains, interestingly, is persistent forward motion, as though that were survival instinct — "keep going." Fog obscured the top of the mountain, and I kept going.

My little water bottle was almost empty by the time I reached the summit,. The dark fog had lifted, but small pellets of rain still drove through the wind. I was only wearing a T-shirt and knee-length tights and it was fairly cold, plus I was thirsty, but still I opted to skip the half-mile spur to the backpacker camp and continue the long way down the mountain. The nearest water fountain was eight miles away. "Sometimes it's good to see how far we can go with just our shoes and our water bottle," I thought. "Or, you know, a sled filled with forty pounds of survival gear."

I enjoyed the descent immensely. There was a kind of lightness to my body, a fluidity to my movement, a freedom to simply run unburdened by anything but an empty water bottle. Hunger gnawed at my stomach and thirst trickled into my patchy thoughts — but there was no immediate danger and thus no immediate concern. We can't go forever without food and water, but in most situations, we can go a lot longer than we think.

I filled up my bottle at the farm and drank with deep satisfaction — I wasn't dehydrated yet, but just thirsty enough to truly appreciate the water. Ten minutes later, the run came to an abrupt end at my car, 15 miles after I started. It was somewhat disappointing, because I felt like I could keep going and wanted to.

I did feel slightly guilty for spending an unplanned two hours and 45 minutes of a Wednesday afternoon, just running — but at the same time, grateful for the ability to do it. "Yes, it is amazing the places one can go with shoes and a water bottle," I thought. That kind of fluid, seemingly effortless motion — rolling over terrain like waves in the ocean — is the reward of not getting too weighed down by the process. 
Monday, January 06, 2014

Weeks 6-8, Dec. 16 to Jan. 5

Mountain biking singletrack in the California sun. Okay, I did miss it.

I'm far behind with my training log, so I'm attempting to catch it up here will the workout-specific notes that I wanted to record. Most likely only interesting to me, but then again what is a blog for?

Monday, Dec. 16: Zero. Somewhat forced rest day after running 66 miles over the weekend. As often happens after big mileage push, I was still buzzing with endorphins and wanted to get back out there. This whole week was intended to be an easier week, to rest up and prepare for Alaska the following week. I'm hitting more of a stride with distance running in general. No physical issues from the weekend.

Tuesday, Dec. 17: Run, 1:07, 7.3 miles, 659 feet climbing. Average pace 9:15 min/mile. I do all of my runs based on feel, so it's interesting to see which random routine trail runs generate a faster pace. I tend to perform better after rest days, who knew? Not that it makes any difference over the haul of a seven-plus-day effort. Strength is something I should have spent more time building; I'm trying to decide what I can or should do about it at this point.

Wednesday, Dec. 18: Run, 0:57, 5.7 miles, 622 feet climbing. Average pace 10:10 min/mile.

Thursday, Dec. 19: Road bike, 2:44, 33.9 miles, 3,281 feet climbing. Highway 9 to Page Mill Loop. As usual for a winter afternoon, the well-shaded Page Mill descent was frigid. More frigid than Alaska? Maybe.

Friday, Dec. 20: Run, 1:02, 6.2 miles, 980 feet climbing. Average pace 10:12 min/mile.

Saturday, Dec. 21: Zero. Travel day to Fairbanks.

Sunday, Dec. 22: Sled-drag, 3:34, 10 miles, 83 feet climbing. Mushing trails in Fairbanks, temperature 11F. About six inches of fresh powder. Average pace 21:53 min/mile. Let the real training begin!

Week 6: 9:24, 29.2 miles run, 33.9 miles ride, 5,625 feet climbing

Oh yeah, I'm attached to this thing.
Monday, Dec. 23: Sled-drag, 1:55, 5.5 miles, 53 feet climbing. Mushing trails in Fairbanks. Temperature -16. Average pace 21:13 min/mile. By the second day I was beginning to feel some strain in my hamstrings. Some shoulder soreness, but if I adjusted the straps on my harness often enough, the variability was enough to reduce strain on any particular spot, and back soreness was minimal. I decided that minute for minute, hiking while towing a loaded sled through soft snow is at least as hard as running steep trails uphill. And it's even slower. Without downhill relief. This is beyond intimidating, but I'm going to try not to dwell on it.

Tuesday, Dec. 24: Sled-drag, 3:11, 9 miles, 259 feet climbing. Goldstream Valley. Temperature -34. 21 min/mile. Some packed trail and some soft snow. When it's this cold, any physical strains definitely take a back seat to survival instincts regarding staying warm. Had no physical issues and felt comfortable. Even still, even the slightest pauses during the effort sparked awareness of the deep cold settling around me, similar I think to the awareness of an ocean diver acknowledging that he's a long way under water.

Wednesday, Dec. 25: Sled-drag, 4:15, 10.8 miles, 1,509 feet climbing. Hike in to Tolovana Hot Springs. Temperature -15 to -20. 24 min/mile. I became quite overheated on the climb up the Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, which was strange given the low temperature, and my efforts to vent resulted in semi-frozen small body parts (ears, eyebrows froze without a hat, and shoulders became cold with only the base layer.) Bundled up again for the wind blast at the summit. Figuring out heat and moisture management is a big challenge.

Thursday, Dec. 26: Sled-drag, 3:12, 7.2 miles, 1,560 feet climbing. Day hike with fully loaded sleds, a climb to the gale. Temperature -25, wind chill likely -55. 27 min/mile, ouch. Once again I felt overheated and vented heavily on the climb, then was reduced to panic dressing into a shell, mittens, and goggles at the wind-blasted top. Valuable lessons were learned.

Friday, Dec. 27: Sled-drag, 4:50, 11 miles, 2,603 feet climbing. Tolovana out. Temperature -25, similar wind chill. Lots of fresh drift over the trail, some knee-deep postholing. Also 27-28 min/mile. Hard work day physically — for me the toughest of the trip, especially the final climb. Steep climbing + wind-drifted snow + loaded sled = Something more strenuous than anything I do at home. Probably no way to effectively train for this.

Saturday, Dec. 28: Sled-drag, 6:15, 19 miles, 1,539 feet climbing. Borealis in. Temperature -3, hot! Without the windchill it really did feel 50 degrees warmer than it had at Tolovana. The Monkey Fleece might be too warm at times, so I plan to take two interchangeable mid-layers. The Patagonia Nano-Puff or NF ThermoBall jacket should work well when it's warmer but not base-layer-only warm. Both seem to be large enough to wear over my Monkey Fleece for deeper cold with no wind, but I'll have to do some more testing. I worked quite hard on this hike, heart rate was likely 140-165 the entire time, which is 50K pace, for six hours, so effectively a 50K effort. 19:45 min/mile. Better.

Sunday, Dec. 29: Sled-drag, 4:10, 11.1 miles, 376 feet climbing. Day hike with fully loaded sleds, temperature -25. Soft snow, felt good, worked hard. 22:40 min/mile.

Week 7: 26:48, 73.6 miles "run," 7,899 feet climbing

Monday, Dec. 30: Sled-drag, 7:10, 19 miles, 2358 feet climbing. Borealis out. Garmin finally died about 1.5 miles before the trailhead but estimated pace at 22:24 min/mile. Similar to Sunday's speed but a much more relaxed effort, even with all of the climbing. Definitely my most comfortable march of the week, as I'd finally hit a stride of strength expectations and moisture management, even with fair fluctuations in temperature (started out near -30, valley temps around -18, as high as 0 to 5 above on Wickersham Dome but with light breeze along the ridge.)

Tuesday, Dec. 31: Snow bike, 2:25, 13.7 miles, 154 feet climbing. Borrowed a Salsa Mukluk and took it out for a New Year's Eve joy ride on the mushing trails. Temps around -10, possibly -15 at the lower areas. I thought this would be an easy spin; I was wrong! Trails were decently packed but for various reasons the resistance was set to 10 — I even let a bit of air out of the tires and this only made the riding slower. I tried to make up for it and ended up expending a huge amount of effort and getting soaked in sweat, which I deemed acceptable because I was close to "home." I met Liehann and Beat out snowshoeing about a mile from Joel's house, and traded tools with Liehann so he could try the snow bike. The short hike back to Joel's house was very uncomfortable; I was surprised how quickly I cooled down and only very slowly got my core temp to climb back up as we tromped through shin-deep powder. Anyway, it was another valuable lesson in "Don't get sweaty, no matter what."

Wednesday, Jan. 1: Zero. Travel day back to California. An overnight work session on Monday followed by a red-eye flight on Tuesday left me feeling completely empty on Wednesday, with something similar to jet lag. It was good to take a rest day after such a big week, and in truth I was pretty much nonfunctional.

Thursday, Jan. 2: Road bike, 1:30, 17.5 miles, 2,739 feet climbing. Mellow ride up Montebello. Legs did feel sluggish and hamstrings still tight. Funny, because I thought my hips and ankles would give me more issues during the sled-dragging sessions, but this time it was my hammies. Need to work on those.

Friday, Jan. 3: Run, 1:03, 6.2 miles, 995 feet climbing. Wildcat loop, 10:14 min/mile. I didn't feel awesome on this run thanks to the heat. It always takes time to re-acclimate after time spent in winter conditions, and even 60 degrees feels mid-summer oppressive right at first. When I set out in the early afternoon, it was 62 degrees — although still fairly cool in the shade, and it had been in the high 40s earlier that morning. As I ran up the hill feeling like I might collapse with overheating, I passed a hiker coming down who was wearing a full winter shell, hood up, and cotton mittens. I am not joking — this really happened. It provided some perspective and comic relief. Ah, California. It's good to be back.

Saturday, Jan. 4: Run, 2:20, 13.2 miles, 2,180 feet climbing. 10:37 min/mile. Ran the main Rancho loop with Beat and Liehann. I did the entire route from my house which just happens to be a half marathon distance. For the first three miles or so I felt overheated, but then we started climbing the shaded PG&E trail, and suddenly I felt like I was floating. Running is effortless with no sled! I felt like I could just go bounding up the steep hill, but restrained myself to my usual shuffle, although for the first time in a while I didn't walk any of the climb. I also descended slower than usual, not wanting to exacerbate any of my still-tight leg muscles and possibly tear something. But, wow. I did hold back, but as it was, this run felt surprisingly easy, which was eye-opening in its own regard. I have to accept that trail running, even hilly trail running, is for the most part inadequate training for the Iditarod. Which is a shame, because I really enjoy hilly trail running. I gave some more thought to dragging a tire, but to be honest I don't think I can go through with it. Not only would I be creating an annoying obstruction on trails, but I'd have to field endless questions about it. I'm considering preparing a 25-pound backpack to run with. But it is a question of how much stronger I can even get in the next six weeks, and the answer is, probably not much. I might just end up risking injury in a workout that's still fairly nonspecific to what I'll actually be doing in Alaska. We'll see.

Steven's Creek Reservoir, now almost entirely dry.
Sunday, Jan. 5: Mountain bike, 3:45, 30.7 miles, 4,040 feet climbing. So, training here is not that effective. Oh well. At least it can be fun! It had been a while, way too long, since I went mountain biking. I rode trails in Steven's Creek Canyon and along Skyline Ridge, which were in surprisingly decent shape considering it still hasn't rained. Personally I am disturbed by the lack of rain and deepening California drought. If it doesn't start raining soon, the hills may not green up at all this year, along with all of the troubling climate and water resource concerns therein. Knowing California, we'll probably just demand to start siphoning more water from the Rockies and Oregon. Sigh. But that's off topic for a training log. I enjoyed this ride and do need to build a base for summer, so I'll continue incorporating mountain biking into my routine.

Week 8: 18:13, 38.4 miles run, 61.9 miles ride, 12,466 feet climbing

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, day 10

December 31. Sunrise 10:55 a.m. Sunset 2:53 p.m. Temperature -10. Still clear. Awesome. 

I couldn't leave Alaska without getting in at least one bike ride. Happily, Joel's roommate let me borrow his Salsa Mukluk while he was out of town. He was gone all week, so I suppose it's a shame that I only managed one ride. As it turned out, even New Year's Eve was a tight squeeze. I had been awake for most of the night before finishing layout on the Alaska newspapers that I contract for, and we were flying home late that evening (we enjoyed salmon and fondue dinner, fireworks, and a raunchy card game with Joel and Erica, but spent the stroke of midnight at the Fairbanks airport, which is as sad as it sounds.) Still, snow bike ride, yay! Finally, I was going to fly!

Except the trails were still soft, and the rolling was strenuous and slow. I did not find 5 mph to be an acceptable pace, so I laid into the pedals, working near maximum capacity just to produce that feeling of actually riding a bike. I had to pull down my mask and take big ragged gulps of 10-below air. And it's amazing how frosty you can get when you really let yourself sweat. After 45 minutes I could no longer see through my icelashes.

Only after making this Fairbanks blog post series did I realize that we spent ten full days in Alaska. It passed in such a blur, like a long weekend, and suddenly it was over. If it hasn't become obvious yet, I am very happy when I am in Alaska. I acknowledge that this is largely because, since I moved away, any time I've spent there has been focused on playing and adventure. Living in the 49th state is a much broader experience, more subdued, and more trying oftentimes. But the dream remains that someday we will return for a longer period of time than a week here, a month there. I'm satisfied where I'm at right now, but "North to the Future, Again, Someday" is the dream I still hold in my heart. If I had an Alaska permanent base and work location was no concern, I think I'd most prefer either Fairbanks, Palmer, or Homer. All have their benefits and drawbacks, and it's oh-so-tough to choose. (Homer is my favorite community, but so far away from everything. Fairbanks people are fun and winters are amazing, but seven months of it probably gets old. Palmer is a pleasant town near big mountains, centrally located, but it is culturally part of the Mat-Su Valley.) And then there's Juneau. Sometimes I think I could return. When it's beautiful in Juneau, few places in the world that I've experienced can match that beauty. But then I remember that at one time I desperately needed to escape the isolation and gray, and there's probably no going back.

The winter gear-testing went well, and Fairbanks gave us a fair range of conditions in which to try out new stuff. I know such things are boring additions to a narrative blog, but I benefit from keeping these records, so I'm posting the gear list I'm working on. There are probably some things missing, and I hope to continue to tweak it and maybe shed a few items over the next few weeks (so hard for me. I do not have unbending confidence in myself or my abilities, quite the opposite, so I feel the need to be prepared for all contingencies.)

It's funny, because one of the reasons I took up running is because I was sick of all the gear-oriented focus of cycling. Running is shoes and a water bottle, right? How I continue to find myself venturing into extremely gear-oriented activities is a mystery to me, because in a different life I would *love* to be the kind of person who owned one bike, one pair of shoes, and a water bottle. But, alas, my complicated passions have rendered me as gear-crazed as the worst of them, and this is what I think I need to run (walk) 350 miles across Alaska:


Outer layer, for stopping: PHD down pants, PHD down parka, RBH Designs VaprThrm mittens
Wind layer: Skinfit shell pants, Outdoor Research Mentor Jacket
Insulation layers: Mountain Hardwear Airshield Monkey Fleece, North Face ThermoBall jacket, North Face wind pants, Skinfit primaloft shorts
Base layers: 66 North Polartec pullover, Under Armour top, GORE windstopper tights
Head: Mountain Hardwear monkey fleece hat, Mountain Hardwear windstopper hat, fleece balaclava, windstopper buff, goggles with nose piece, Beko face mask
Hands: Mountain Hardwear monkey fleece mittens, windstopper gloves, trekking pole pogies
Underwear: Isis briefs (x3), sports bras (x3)
Feet: Montrail Mountain Masochist Gore-Tex shoes, size 10.5; Acorn fleece socks, medium (x2), extra-large (x2); Integral Designs vapor barrier socks, Drymax socks (x6), Outdoor Research gaiters


Thermarest Ridge Rest SoLite; PHD down sleeping bag; Integral Designs South Col II bivy sack; Bivy bundle; Down booties.


Multitool; Spare knife; Duct tape; Flint firestarter; Lighter; Waterproof matches; Mirror; Handwarmers x4; sled repair kit? (screws, rope, allen key.)


Garmin eTrex 20; watch; personal locator beacon; Lithium AA batteries (x12-16); Lithium AAA batteries (x4); Fenix headlamp; Spare Black Diamond headlamp; Cold-O-Meter; Camera; iPod shuffle (x4); Spare camera battery.

Foot kit: 

Leukotape; {keep warm — Benzoin Tincture; Hydrolube (2 tubes?)} Blister patches (x6), safety pin; Neosporin.

Med kit: 

Wet wipes (x10); Advil; Aleve; Sudafed; Imodium; Caffeine tabs; Toothbrush/paste; Floss; Small soap; extra hair ties; Chapstick; Tums; Dermatone SPF 23; Sunscreen stick backup?


MSR Whipserlite stove; Fuel, 11 oz; Pot; Pot holder; Spoon.


Northern Sled Works 4' Racing Pulk; Pole system; Deuter duffle; Bungees (x2-3); Stuff sacks for gear and food (x3-4) Wiggy's waders; Black Diamond Ultra-Distance Z-Pole trekking poles; Backpack/harness; Camelbak Shredbak bladder 2L; Hydro Flask 40 oz; Thermos; Northern Lights snowshoes; Paper maps.
Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 7-9

December 28 to 30. Sunrise 10:57 a.m. Sunset 2:50 p.m. Temperature -3 to -25. 

 Back in Fairbanks after the Tolovana trip, the temperature was near minus 30. A smog-saturated ice fog hung over the streets like a dirty curtain, empty cars idled in parking lots, and we pulled on our down coats and went out for a burrito because this was quickly becoming our new normal. We had only about twelve hours to shop for new supplies, eat, and sleep before it was time to pack up in the pre-dawn chill and head north again, this time for a three-day trip to the White Mountains Recreation Area. This trip plan had me especially excited, as I love the White Mountains. With all of the beautiful spots in Alaska, it's difficult to explain while this particular space holds my heart so tight — the Whites are a small mountain range, dotted with anemic spruce trees and large swaths of burn, not immediately remarkable in any way. But my time here has always been filled with joy, and awe, and just enough fear and fatigue to strike a memorable chord.

On December 28, it was hot. Those words did come out of my mouth. "It's hot." Wispy clouds moved in and the temperature shot up to a few degrees below zero F. Thanks to the clouds, we actually convinced two friends to join us for the first night — Jay on his fat bike and Tom on skis. Both were not particularly interested in spending a night at the cabin, which sits in a low-lying valley on the banks of Beaver Creek, if the temperature was as low as it had been at Jay's house two nights before — minus 45 (as it turned out, the Tolovana winds prevented us from experiencing the depths of the cold snap, which dropped into the minus 40s in Fairbanks and as low as minus 58 in Chicken, Alaska.) We got a particularly late start so we could convoy with Jay and Tom to Wickersham Dome, and let them speed on ahead and warm up the cabin as we made the twenty-mile march to Borealis-Lefevre.

Beat drops down the Wickersham Wall, a 1,200-foot descent off the Dome. You can see the trail snaking out into the valley for miles ahead.

Dressing for the cold is an art, and in my experience it's not the same in similar temperatures even for individuals, depending on a multitude of other factors. I put on the same layers that felt perfectly comfortable a mere six days earlier at 11 degrees above zero, and felt uncomfortably hot at 3 below. I did the usual — took off my hat, unzipped the insulation layers, pushed down my trekking pole pogies, and made an effort to vent as much as possible without exposing my more sensitive parts or bare skin to the still-subzero cold. Along the Wickersham Creek it dropped to 9 below, which felt nice, but I was still pumping out more heat than I thought was prudent, pretending I was in a universe where a warm cabin didn't lie just a few hours away. Heat means sweat, and sweat eventually means chill. It's great to feel warm, but bad to feel hot. Still, I felt pressed to continue the strenuous output. The boys, especially Liehann, were pumping out a break-neck pace and I was determined to keep up with them. It was such hard work, this sled-dragging at three miles per hour, and again I tried to push future implications of such slowness out of my mind. "Think of Jehu, the little pony," I thought to myself. "Keep up or end up as dog food."

We arrived at Borealis after six and a half hours of marching, feeling great. I'm not sure I could afford that same high level of effort during the long march of the Iditarod, but overall it does feel better to move "fast" rather than "slow." I felt so good toward the end that I even chased after the boys, who had gotten about a quarter mile ahead of me before the descent into Beaver Creek. I looked up my pace for that downhill sprint on Strava. 7:16-minute-mile pace! Who says this stuff has to be a slog all of the time?

Spending the evening at Borealis with Jay and Tom was good times. Thanks to their faster methods of travel, they had a good fire going by the time we arrived, as well as wood gathered for the night. In this BLM area, cabins are as bare-bones as they come. There's a Coleman two-burner stove and propane lantern — you pack in the propane and matches. You also pack in your own dishes and supplies, and gather all of your own wood from the surrounding forest. Cabin etiquette stipulates that you gather and split enough wood for one extra night before you leave, so there's a fair supply when the next party arrives. This is much less work if you arrive with a snowmachine and a chainsaw than it is if you're on foot with a cabin hatchet and a small saw. Drinking water is acquired by either melting snow in a pot on the wood stove, or chopping a hole in the ice on Beaver Creek and boiling the stream water. In the 12' by 16' foot log structure, there's a small table, a counter, two bunk beds, and a heat-trapping loft that Tom calls "the dehydrator." Rather than squeeze onto one of the thin upper bunks, Liehann opted to sleep on the floor where there was a slick of ice that never melted. It's rustic living out there, but the rentals are only $25 a night, and you can't beat the awesome location at any price.

The next morning, defying a weather forecast that called for more warming and some snow, the clouds cleared out and the temperature dropped to 20 below. Tom, who was on skis, was especially annoyed by this, as cold temperatures reduce glide and make for a slower and harder ski out. "It could take seven hours," he lamented. We pointed out it would probably take us seven hours to hike out, which did not make him feel any better. I was honestly glad that it was cold again. Cold meant clear, and clear meant magic light.

Our plan for the layover day was to hike farther out the trail toward Windy Gap, as long as we felt like hiking, before turning around. Only one set of tracks had been laid since the last big storm, and the trail was very soft and — because our sleds don't glide well in cold temperatures either — extremely slow.

But I was so blissed out, comfy cozy in my fleece jacket, tights, and primaloft shorts. And while my hamstrings did ache from the hard march the day before, I quietly hoped this day's march would go on for a long while.

As the day swiftly waxed and waned, the temperature continued to drop, even though we were gaining elevation. At mile four it was down to 25 below. Beat suggested we go one more mile.

Beat and Liehann at our agreed-upon turnaround, mile five, still 25 below. "I'm really enjoying myself," I announced. "If it's all right with you guys, I'll keep going for another mile or so and then turn back."

Beat did not seem to like the idea of me striking out alone. "If you don't come back, we're not going to come looking for you," he said gruffly.

"I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the Iditarod by myself," I argued. "I have everything I need. I'm fine."

I won the argument to go on and Beat decided to accompany me. Liehann opted to turn back. We were marching toward these sun-kissed mountains and the devil on my shoulder prodded me to find a way to keep going, to continue pushing toward those mountains, deeper into the Whites. But Beat was the angel on my other side, reminding me what might be at stake. "With it clearing like this, it might drop to 40 below overnight," he reasoned. And he was right that getting too tired out the day before a twenty-mile march would not be prudent. The game really begins to change at 40 below, and operating at anything but full energy and alertness is a gamble. My worst moments in my first Iditarod Trail Invitational happened because of fatigue in the deep minus 30s. I remember them all too well. 

So Beat won the argument to turn around. The trail on the way back was considerably harder to negotiate, because a bunch of moose had come through and stomped it full of holes. Oh wait, that was us. I took the obligatory daily selfie, this one at minus 25. I'm wearing a fleece balaclava that I've owned since I was a senior in high school. I love using fleece balaclavas in cold temperatures because they can be easily adjusted to warm the skin on my face as needed, and all of that frost buildup can be beaten away to the point that it's almost dry. The front face piece does soak through with breath moisture, and of course freezes solid. But without wind, the resulting ice mask is not uncomfortable. It still catches heat from my breath and redirects it toward my face, which means no goggles are needed unless it's windy, or possibly when it's colder than 40 below. (I hate wearing goggles with a fiery passion. I do like my eyes so I will wear them if necessary.) Beat is considering a fur ruff, and that's definitely a good idea. But for something that cost $20 back in 1997, the fleece balaclava has to have the highest value ratio of any piece of gear I've purchased.

Thanks to clear skies, the Northern Lights again came out to play. We never had a spectacular display during our time in Fairbanks — activity remained moderate to low. But they were consistent, often still out hours later as we made midnight dashes to the outhouse.

I need to point out that Beat took all of the aurora photos. One of the reasons I do not consider myself a photographer is because I have no patience for fussing with camera settings. Luckily Beat took over and captured some decent ones.

Ah, Borealis. So many good memories here. This cabin serves as checkpoint four in the White Mountains 100, at mile 78 of the race. The first time I arrived at this cabin was around midnight during the 2010 race. The trail had been very difficult — lots of wind and overflow — and I was rather undertrained because, well, I had been fairly depressed during the winter of 2009-2010. As night deepened, the temperature dropped to 25 below — somewhat rare for late March — and all of the racers were suffering. The cabin was full of people with varying degrees of fatigue, some sickness, and some frost-nip. I stomped in after also letting my core temperature drop way too low. A volunteer handed me a cup of coffee, and a half minute later I became so wracked with convulsions that I spilled every last drop of it onto the floor. I spent more than an hour there thawing my butt and feet, chatting with the growing crowd, and generally soaking in the awesomeness that is the White Mountains 100 race, and the White Mountains in general. My experience in 2010 was deeply affecting. I made peace with my decision to leave Juneau, and accepted the uncertainties of the future at a time when I felt most frightened and alone and ready to retreat back to the world I knew even though it was making me unhappy. In many ways, the White Mountains changed my life. Maybe that's why I love them so much.

We were relieved when we woke up and discovered the temperature hadn't dropped much lower — 28 below on the creek bed, but the sun was on its way up, promising what minimal warmth it could bring.

Another day, another noon "sunrise."

Beat soaking up some rays as temperatures climbed into the minus teens.

I was again very comfortable and happy on this day. Twenty miles is a decent march but not outrageous. A half day in relatively friendly conditions doesn't quite venture into the territory of adversity, and thus offers its small enjoyments — a long gaze toward the pink hillsides, a frozen peanut butter cup nibbled with bare hands in the cold sunlight, indulging in some iPod listening as the boys marched on ahead. I love listening to music most when I am in a good mood, singing out loud if no one is in earshot. A song that has been one of my favorites since the PTL, "Humiliation" by The National, got put on repeat a few times. "Tunnel vision lights my way. Lead a little life today."

The Wickersham Wall loomed, and the Wickersham Wall has broken me many times. But on this day, I felt only a small hint of sadness — because this march would be over soon, and soon we would be leaving Alaska.

But for the moment, we were still in the Whites.

Maybe marching just a little bit slower, lingering on the fading pink light.

Couples selfie — a little too late for the Christmas card.

With 2,400 feet of climbing, the march out took just over seven hours. Although we'd planned to leave early so we'd get back in the afternoon, fears of 40 below caused us to skew our schedule to leave 90 minutes before the sun came up. We finished about 90 minutes after sunset, and never once had to use our headlamps in seven-plus hours outside. I know that it's dark in mid-winter in the North, but here, in the Whites, sometimes not so much.

I made it onto the roster for the 2014 White Mountains 100, so in theory I get to come back in late March, with my bike! I'm so excited. But first, the Iditarod. A daunting prospect so close and yet so far, all at the same time.