Saturday, February 22, 2014

I'm friends with the monster

I intended to write more pre-race thoughts, but this week slipped away from me and suddenly it's Saturday night in Anchorage. The Iditarod Trail Invitational is all set to begin at 2 p.m. Sunday in what looks to be generally favorable conditions for the forty cyclists and fourteen runners who are signed up this year. It's a great field this year. The bikers should fly; it wouldn't be too surprising to see last year's 67-hour McGrath record broken again. Twenty-three people are signed up to go the distance, a thousand miles to Nome. There are seven women in this year's event, and five of them are traveling on foot. A fairly large percentage of the field on foot are people I consider friends, so I'm really looking forward to spending some time out there with a quality group of crazies. Although there is still a healthy dose of nervousness and a dash of dread regarding the daunting task ahead, I now mostly feel excitement about the prospect of a week-plus of nothing but walking, shuffling, spreading out my bivy under a wash of stars, facing and conquering scary obstacles, and spending a few blissful minutes (not too many) in warm cabins with friendly faces.

My strategy for the race is to keep a steady pace but stay mostly within my comfort zone while moving, and try to limit stopped time to improve overall speed. Beat, for his own experimental purposes, is traveling fully self-supported for the first 350 miles — meaning he is hauling all of his food for that section and not planning on stopping inside of any cabins. My goal is to shadow Beat as best I can and possibly spend nights out with him, camping on the trail. I want to do this for both the wilderness experience, and as a race strategy. Cabin checkpoints are often loud, hot and crowded, and I rarely sleep well if at all inside of them. However, a simple shelter, someplace warm and surrounded by other humans, is such a huge comfort that I'm not sure I can resist the gravitational pull, even if I know for a fact I'll sleep better curled up in my bivy sack outdoors. We'll see. I'm announcing my intentions on my blog in hopes that some public accountability will hold me to it. I'd like to move in an out of checkpoints relatively quickly and grab most of my sleeps on the trail.

We've been in Anchorage since early Thursday morning, mainly doing unfun things — arranging our gear, shopping for food and last-minute supplies, rearranging our gear, obsessing about what we may have forgotten, trying to stuff butterfly stomachs with food, and rearranging gear again. We spent a couple of nights at the home of our friends Dan and Amy, and have enjoyed the calming effects of playing with their kitten, Olive.

Beat especially loves Olive. He carried her around the house in his coat, which she let him do for longer than you'd expect. I should probably check his sled to make sure he's not smuggling her for the trip to Nome.

Beat does have a friend for the journey, however — a toy husky named Bernie that he plans to prop on top of the sled. You know — the man pulling the husky rather than the other way around.

Bernie and Olive.

On Saturday morning, Beat put the Moots fat bike together, and I took it out for a short ride on the trails near Dan's house. I've obviously gone through a lot of back and forth about my decision to walk the Iditarod Trail this year, wondering if I'd regret not having a bicycle. And while I have to accept that there will inevitably be moments of longing, especially while pounding painful feet on a hard-packed trail for seemingly endless slow miles — I'm truly glad I chose to walk the Iditarod Trail this year. The slow pace will allow me to see and experience the landscape in a new way, and the longer span of time will facilitate the meditative mindset I crave. Not that I'm under any delusion that it will be a week of endless peace and quiet — there are bound to be long hours of boredom, pain, and occasional sheer terror. I think back to the last time I sought a similar experience — Petite Trotte a'Leon in France last August — and how badly that went for me. I met demons and monsters out there that I never want to meet again, and I'm almost certain I will. But that's part of the appeal and the challenge as well — facing the fear of the unknown, meeting the dark and loathsome sides of myself, and emerging wiser and more confident, in everything.

Saturday was a very good day that ended in a beautiful sunset. The last time I was here in Anchorage before an Iditarod attempt, in 2009, there was a big snowstorm, all these cars were off the road, and all I felt was doom. "I feel no doom this year; this is a good omen," I said to Beat.

"There are no such things as omens," he replied. Maybe not, but there is optimism, and that can go a long way by itself.

If you'd like to follow up with how the race is going, here are a few links. As a walker near the back of the pack, there won't be much about my progress, but the leaderboard should be updated once a day with the location of the last check-in. My best-case scenario is to finish sometime in the afternoon of Sunday, March 2. A more likely scenario is Monday or Tuesday, and the race officially ends on Wednesday, March 5.

 Race updates:
Iditarod Trail Invitational
Facebook updates
Message board

Recent media:
Rugged and crazed cyclists, runners ready for Iditarod Trail Invitational
Running Wild Alaska (TrailRunner interviewed Beat for this article)
Fairbanks fat bikers pumped for ITI 
Ultrarunner Johnston readies for Iditarod Invitational
Monday, February 17, 2014

Perfect bike for the Whites

People collect things — stamps, pennies, books, bottles of wine, bobble-head dolls. Beat, love him, likes to collect bicycles. Every time he starts musing about potential acquisitions, I tease him about enjoying the process of buying and building bikes more than actually riding bikes, when I'm almost exactly the opposite — love riding bikes, but wish they could magically fix themselves and maybe go live somewhere else when I'm not using them. He always fires back that I, the primary cyclist in this relationship, benefit the most from his collections — to which I can only agree. Since I moved to California in 2011, I've sold or given away all of my previously owned bicycles save for one (my commuter fixie). Yet, thanks to Beat, I enjoy regular rides on a wonderful titanium soft-tail mountain bike, an S-Works Specialized Roubaix, a carbon Calfee road bike, an aluminum Fatback, and now a expedition titanium fat bike that I *will* plan a proper winter expedition for, someday soon. Beat joked that I've commandeered all of the bikes and he needed one that was uniquely his own, a geared mountain bike. I put up resistance because, well, so many bikes (and he owns a trainer franken-bike, his own commuter fixie, and a single-speed mountain bike that I never borrow.)

"You don't even like mountain biking," I argued facetiously, to which Beat countered, "so?"

I lost this argument in grand fashion when Mike Curiak, who sold us the expedition fat bike, put another "Snoots" up for sale — a Moots softtail fat bike with an Action Tech Pro Shock suspension fork — kind of an old-school, lightweight full-suspension set-up for massive wheels. The kicker was this fat bike also came with a second set of 29" standard mountain bike wheels with hubs wide enough to accommodate a quick switch. With those wheels, it's very much like my own Mooto-X YBB. "It's a fat bike and a mountain bike," Beat argued, so it met the criteria he set for yet another bike purchase. Plus, as a bicycle collector, he is also a huge fan of Curiak's design aesthetic.

So, now this bike lives with us as well. I initially tried to keep my distance because this is Beat's bike. However, we recently discussed which bike I'm going to take to Alaska, to ride post-ITI and also to race in the White Mountains 100. I didn't want to bring Expedition Snoots on this particular trip because of its value, and also because it's not necessarily the best bike for a "short" race like the White Mountains. But after beginning to prep the Fatback for the trip, Beat suggested maybe I would enjoy all of the awesome features of the latest acquisition. First I had to make sure I was comfortable riding it.

Today we set out with Liehann for a three-hour fat bike tour on the new Moots, the Expedition Snoots, and Fatty Fatback. My rash, while having improved markedly in the past few days, is still irritated enough to make sitting in saddles and turning pedals unpleasant. Without getting too graphic, I'll just say that it's similar to having serious chaffing in all of the wrong places. I was stewing in misery about this for the entire 90-minute climb to the top of Black Mountain, mostly ignoring Beat's cheerful recommendations to try to dropper seatpost and questions about the handling.

The final pitch to the peak is steep enough that I always feel like I might tip over backward if I pull too hard, and I have to keep my butt planted in the saddle to maintain traction. Still, by that point today I was done with saddles — and anyway, I wanted to put Beat's Moots to a test. Standing up and leaning far over the handlebars, I purposefully pedaled in the loose gravel off to the side to mimic a steep climb on soft snow. Amazingly, the Surly Nate tire dug in, and the low gearing allowed me to spin a comfortable cadence while maintaining traction, even with the rear wheel unweighted. I was an instant fan.

The long, rolling descent was increasingly more fun. The Moots has similar comfort, agility and responsiveness as my YBB, along with the confidence-inspiring stability and bouncy fun of fat tires. Standing out of the saddle more frequently also went a long way in improving my mood. With Beat's blessing, we're going to pack up this bike for the trip north, and I am *really* looking forward to riding it in the White Mountains. The prospect of this gives me glimmers of carefree excitement amid the weighty dread I feel about the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

This dread is a good thing — it's what makes these endeavors so rewarding — but, damn, it sure makes me feel icky in the week leading up to the challenge. Both Beat and I have been a bit moody this week with our various points of panic — for Beat, it seems to be mainly gear and food planning. For me, it's obsession about my greatest fear out on the trail: Bad ice and open water. Alaska was so warm for most of January that a lot of waterways opened up, and little new snow has arrived to fill in the cracks. Although there's been decent freeze-up for the past two weeks, more warm weather is forecasted for next weekend, with the horrific prospect of "ice pellets and rain, 37F" in the Susitna Valley and on up into the Alaska Range from Saturday until at least Tuesday. Of course it's at least a week out and the weather could be something completely different — but we have to mentally prepare for what I consider the most challenging weather condition. The misery of perpetual wetness at near-freezing temperatures with gear we can't afford to soak — such things cannot be anticipated with anything but dread. And of course, I'm even more terrified of the prospect of new overflow, open leads and bad ice caused by another long stretch of above-freezing weather. All we can do is maintain flexibility, make the right decisions for ourselves, and hope for the best. But, damn, what can I say? I'm looking forward to the White Mountains 100.

As for the rash, I did see my doctor and he believes it's eczema caused by some sort of allergic reaction. It could still be a lot of things, but he did prescribe a corticosteroid cream that has been helpful in minimizing flare-ups and reducing symptoms. I opted out of Prednisone since I am already amped up with dread this week, and don't need the added insomnia from steroids. But if this doesn't clear up completely in the next few days, I'm probably going to kick myself for not insisting on drugs. The next step is to visit an allergist and see if we can pinpoint a cause. Hopefully it's not an autoimmune reaction that will only continue to worsen over time. But for now, the top concern is staying safe and as dry as possible starting next week. I am excited for this adventure — but scared, viscerally scared, which is the very part of myself I set out to overcome in such endeavors. With some luck, we'll prevail.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Week 13, Feb. 3 to 9

I didn't take my camera out much this week, so instead I'm posting a blog archive photo of Brij Potnis riding the soft trail out of Puntilla Lake during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational. For many layered reasons, this sparkling, zero-degree day was one of the best days of my life on the endurance racing spectrum — only to be immediately followed by one of the worst nights of my life. Funny how these endeavors work that way. It amazes me that this was six years ago; so much about that week remains fresh in my memory, swirling through my subconscious as though it just happened.

I'm working on building up stoke as the pre-race jitters really set in. Not helping this matter is an exasperating hiccup in my health that I can't easily solve. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a rash and congestion that I suspected were caused by allergies. The symptoms went away for about ten days, but came flaring back with a vengeance last Thursday. The symptoms are not debilitating, just uncomfortable and energy-sapping. It puts me in a funk, and the issue is complicated not just from uncertainty about what I might be allergic to, but not knowing if these are even allergies. It could be a reaction to stress, or hormones, or an infection, or who knows? I'm going to see my general practitioner on Thursday with the hope of at least ruling out some possibilities, or scoring an effective drug in time for our flight to Alaska next week. I really don't want to have to deal with this issue out on the trail, but then again, maybe by then I'll have enough to worry about that it won't even make my top five list of concerns.

That said, the mystery rash is really boosting my resolve to rest a lot during the taper, because at its worst, it hurts to move at all. Despite this, last week's training went okay, although I hoped to put in one last long effort on Sunday and did not.

Monday, Feb. 4: Road bike, 1:25, 18.8 miles, 1,980 feet climbing. Redwood Gulch loop. I had ambitions to put in a longer ride and admit I cut it short simply because I was distracted and couldn't muster the enthusiasm for three hours in the saddle. I am quite bad at training when it comes to doing things I don't feel like doing. This is evident in the fact I didn't put in any cart-tows this week. I wish I had; we were planning a big sled-dragging weekend at this point and thought I could put it off. Sigh.

Tuesday, Feb. 5: Run, 1:06, 7.6 miles, 670 feet climbing. Felt upbeat for my Tuesday "lunch hour run" and ran fast, for me at least. It's rare I put in a trail run that comes in under nine-minute-mile average. Sadly, this would be the last I felt good all week; I should have put in that long ride on Monday while I had the energy.

Wednesday, Feb. 6: Road bike, 1:34, 17.8 miles, 2,656 feet climbing. Montebello climb. Felt sluggish, and assumed it was PMS.

Thursday, Feb. 7: Run, 2:46, 15.2 miles, 2,955 feet climbing. A rash flare-up and general ickiness showed up with my period; it was not a happy day. I hoped to put in a moderate run, but preemptively cut it short due to the health woes. Still, I was enjoying the foggy, wet conditions, and running —especially steep hill climbing — is a good distraction from most anything else. After a few miles, I found a stride that allowed me to continue comfortably with a couple of stops.

Friday, Feb. 8: Run, 1:05, 6.3 miles, 1,079 feet climbing. Wildcat loop. I nearly killed this run just fifty meters from the parking lot at Rancho, because the rash had really flared up on this day and made it feel like I had shingles on my lower body. Maybe it is shingles? I don't want to think about it. I've really spent too much time on Web MD this week. But, like Thursday, after getting the legs moving a bit, the tightness subsided and I did not feel too uncomfortable during the run.

Saturday, Feb. 9: Sled drag, 4:48, 12 miles, 1,327 feet climbing. The rainy outing in Yosemite National Park. After an inch of rain saturated already wet snow, this was like snowshoeing through a Slurpee. Although our sleds were gliding well, it was still really hard work wading through that thick slush. At times during the drive to Yosemite, my discomfort made me feel downright nauseated. Still, I felt a lot better once we got out into that cold air and started working hard, so I can't say my rash impacted my pace on this outing. However, I find sled-drag pace to be disheartening in general, especially when I apply perceived effort to the mileage gained. If I ran on trails for five hours it would be easier and I'd cover at least twice as much ground, but, alas — that's not what I'm doing. I can't even conceive how I'm going to manage the physical strain of the ITI on foot — which, like it was six years ago with the bike, is one of its main appeals.

Sunday, Feb 10: Run, 0:57, 5.7 miles, 587 feet climbing. Again I was not feeling good, but joined Beat for a short run. My pep for running just continued to go downhill this week, but I'm hoping for the best. At least it's taper time now.

Total: 13:42,  46.8 miles run, 36.6 miles ride, 11,254 feet climbing
Monday, February 10, 2014

If it's not snaining, it's not training

An atmospheric river flowed into northern California with much-welcome precipitation, and finally some snow in the Sierras. Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park received a foot of new powder over bare ground. We've been waiting for quick-access snow for weeks now, so Beat, Steve, and I made plans for an sub-24-hour overnighter to Glacier Point. Forecasts predicted heavy precipitation with a freezing level at about 6,000 feet, which was iffy, but I remained optimistic. "It could be warm and wet in Alaska, too. We already got some good cold-weather training in Fairbanks, and this will give us the other end of the spectrum."

Of course, I expected (hoped for) nuking snow, but when we arrived at the ski hut in the late afternoon, it was raining. And not just a misty drizzle — it was raining hard, like a tropical downpour. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s but the new and mostly unconsolidated snowpack was already fading fast. I made only light adjustments to my sled when I should have been wrapping the thing in a garbage bag, and insisted on not wearing shell pants because "When it's this wet, you're going to get wet. Everything's going to get wet. There's no escaping it."

Onward we slogged, hoping the gradually climbing route would bring us to snow level. Steve and Beat pressed ahead into the gray sheets of rain as I ambled along in my snowshoes, lost in happy nostalgia about similar outings during my Juneau days. Ah, those were the days ... satin curtains of fog tumbling down the mountains, the duotone wash of green and gray, the slosh of slush underfoot, the incessant prattle of rain on a Gortex hood. Every mile or so, Beat and Steve would stop to wait for me and we'd all ask the inevitable question, "Are we actually planning on camping in this?"

"I used to go camping all the time before I moved to Juneau," I told them, "And lost that habit there, sadly, but for good reason."

One Juneau habit I remembered was wet layering. "My limit in weather like this is five to six hours before I start getting cold. Then I either have to change clothes, or add layers, until those too are wet. Yeah. In five years, I never figured out a better solution."

After six miles in two and a half hours, we had climbed to 7,500 feet and the rain was only beginning to shift into thick snain — a sort of blended-drink mix of chunky slush and larger droplets of rain that somehow feels even wetter than plain rain. By then, we had decided that the only real Alaska training we were going to get here was an exercise in enduring extreme misery. We'd planned to spend upwards of twelve hours hanging out in camp — cooking, practicing snow-melting, and generally enjoying ourselves because the reason we do this stuff is mainly for fun. Steve discovered his down coat was drenched, and Beat and I had also saturated various pieces of gear that we failed to move inside of dry bags, including my only pair of warm mittens. So there wasn't a feasible way to stay comfortable outside while not moving, and twelve hours inside of a damp sleeping bag beneath a water-resistant bivy sack did not bode well for not getting up in the middle of the night for a hypothermic hike out. And although it was good to learn the weaknesses in our gear systems, we had no need to practice camping in a deluge. If it really ever rained this hard in Alaska, we would not stop moving until we reached shelter, not unless we were in dire straits. It's one of those weather conditions in which it is nearly always more difficult and dangerous to stop than it is to keep moving.

We turned around, and were back in Mariposa for Mexican food and live music by 9 p.m. Ah, that's better. Steve recently returned from racing the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, one of the coldest years yet for that race. He commented, "I'd take 30 below over this any day." I think Juneau Jill would agree. As for current Jill, I'm torn. Both conditions are very difficult, but 35 above, even when accompanied by much wetness, does contain a greater margin for error. 35 below demands the utmost vigilance to keep all systems working well, but at the same time it's easier to manage in terms of stability. Once you find a system that works for you, you don't have to change much about it over the long term. But if it rains and keeps raining, over time you either have to add more sacrificial layers over your saturated clothing, or move continuously faster.

We're still bracing ourselves for difficult scenarios in Alaska. Right now, the Iditarod Dog Sled Race is considering moving the start of the race north to Fairbanks, then following the original serum run route over the Chena, Tenana, and Yukon Rivers. They're considering this because there's so little snow in the Dalzell Gorge that it may be impossible for them to build a trail at all (snow bridges are built to cover open leads in the creek), and there remains little to no snow cover in both the Susitna River Valley, and the other side of the range across the Farewell Burn. The last time the Iditarod Dog Sled Race moved north, in 2003, Alaska Ultrasport followed suit and held a 350-mile race from Fairbanks to Galena that was almost entirely on rivers. I lied awake last night stressing about this, because to be honest I am not terribly interested in walking 350 miles of wide-open river. The appeal of participating in this race on foot was to experience these well-remembered landscapes that I love in a new way. I love the variety of the Iditarod Trail, the chance to cross the Alaska Range, the sparse moonscapes and Christmas-card forests. I eventually arrived at the decision that if it's a serum run year, I would still like to participate in the short race, but I would do it on a bike. Then I realized that I don't have a proper set of boots, don't have adequately tested gear, don't have any experience with my new snow bike and too little bike training behind me this winter. As much as I'd love to bike either route, I am not prepared, not this year.

Today, the ITI race organizers announced that trail conditions still look doable to start the human-powered race in Knik. But without the support of Iditarod trailbreakers, there would be fewer trail markings and likely no trail over Rainy Pass, save for what Bill and Rob could put in themselves. Still, this sounds like an adventure and I'd be much more excited about this possibility, especially as a participant on foot. There are likely to be lots of unique challenges if there's no significant snowfall between now and then — technical travel on ice that will necessitate more foot gear and likely exacerbate the already inevitable problem of hurty, hurty feet. Also likely are open water crossings that will have to be navigated while carrying a sled whether it's 30 above or 30 below, the latter necessitating utmost precaution. Long sled drags on dirt and tussocks will be more difficult than snow due to high friction and uneven terrain, and also threaten to break sleds and pound body parts. And, if the Dalzell Gorge proves impassable, a long detour around Hell's Gate would add 40 miles — an entire day — to the trek, through an area that is notorious for glare ice and overflow.

But it's all part of the adventure, which is what we signed up for. Like all things of this sort, "it is what it is," and flexibility and adapting on the move are the most useful skills/attitudes to cultivate. Come what may, I am filled with dread and likely will be for the next two weeks. Just like the good ol' Juneau days. :-)
Friday, February 07, 2014

The February ritual

For many of the past nine Februarys, I've participated in this ritual — winding down a winter training block, amassing dishearteningly obese piles of food and gear, obsessively checking weather forecasts, and actively contributing to pre-race gloom-and-doom trail predictions whether I'm 250 miles away or 2,500 miles away. The gloom and doom right now is that there's no snow in Alaska after the January thaw, and the Iditarod Trail is made of frozen tussocks and glare ice. Temperatures have been dropping, and new snow has yet to materialize. If it doesn't, the technical challenge of the conditions can only be
The Iditarod Trail right now. Photo from Bjorn Olsen,
imagined. I think some of the cyclists are envisioning a blue highway, but I don't see it this way at all. Have you spent much time on uneven glare ice? Such trail conditions were rather common when I lived in the freeze-thaw cycle of Juneau. Even with microspikes or studded tires, that @$%! is sketchy. And the Alaska wilderness is not a convenient place to end up with a concussion. Not to mention all of the open creeks that are usually covered in snow bridges. No snow and 30 below is entirely plausible on parts of the route, and I try to imagine what that might be like. The surface of Mars comes to mind.

Still, this is Alaska, and things will change. They always do. It's one of the tantalizing appeals of this trail — you can't really count on anything, so you have to plan for everything. Here in California, weather has finally shifted to something closer to winter-like, and we've had a decent dump of rain that should continue into the weekend. I got out today for what feels like my first real Bay Area winter run this year — a fine mist wafted on the breeze as I climbed into fog so thick I could barely see my feet. Shoes sank into the clay-like mud and kicked up a storm of miniature bricks as I shook accumulating layers of cement off my soles. Today was one of those three days of the month where hormones complicate outdoor movement — more specifically, abdominal discomfort and a need to stick relatively close to a bathroom. Still, I was loving the quiet, monotone serenity of the fog and the tickle of mist on my face, and kept extending segments of my run until I ended with 15 miles on a meandering loop through Rancho San Antonio. I didn't bring a camera, or even anything besides a water bottle, but that was all I needed (well, that and two Wet Wipes.)

Getting down to the good stuff
Tonight I compiled and packed my two drop bags for the Iditarod. Handling, and the inevitable sampling, of 25,000 calories of junk food is always enough to make me strongly question my life choices. I did keep the selection pretty simple. A trail mix of dried fruit and salty nuts, a "high-octane rocket fuel" mix of candy, gummy snacks, crackers, peanut butter, and two freeze-dried meals. I have a deeply entrenched fear of running out of heat-making fuel in extreme cold, and I wanted to take the maximum number of calories of foods I know I can actually eat. Because I'm limited to ten pounds per drop, including some drugs and a few other miscellaneous items, 25,000 was what I could manage. I figure this will be my food supply for the last 220 miles and five to seven days. This will be somewhat supplemented by lodge and checkpoint food. It's also quite likely I'll be able to scavenge rejected food as one of the last racers on route, but I feel uncomfortable banking on anything out there (you can't count on anything, so you have to plan for everything.) Anyway, I feel comfortable enough with 25,000. I don't have to carry it from the start, and what isn't needed can be left behind.

The sheer bulk of junk food in most adventure racers' diet is always cause for jokes. It's certainly not about health — really, nothing about trekking the Iditarod Trail has anything to do with health, unless framed in the wider scope of sheer survival. Because it's entirely about survival. High calorie-density foods travel well and pack a long-lasting punch, and sugar burns hot and helps torch fat. It's a crucial component of simply staying warm, not to mention staying on the move for upwards of 20 hours each day. Some people probably figure out how to eat "healthy" out there. I don't know. I've never witnessed it myself. My oversimplified view on the matter is that if your body needs it, it's healthy. Still, putting it all together definitely made me feel vaguely ill. Here's my list:

Somewhat salty rocket fuel mix:
Dried berries, 8 oz 750
Pistachios, 8 oz 1,360
Almonds, 16 oz, 2,550
Chocolate-covered blueberries, 10 oz, 1,260
Dried cranberries, 8 oz, 840
Total: 50 oz, (3.125 lb) 6,760

High-octane rocket fuel mix:
Peanut butter pretzels, 16 oz, 2,100
Snickers bites, 8 oz, 1,140
PB M&Ms, 11.4 oz, 1,760
Peanut M&Ms, 19.2 oz, 2,860
Mini Peanut butter cups, 12 oz, 1,890
Kit Kat minis, 8 oz 1,050
Total, 74.6 oz (4.66 lb) 10,800

Cheese crackers, 12 oz, 1,540
Sour Patch Kids, 14 oz, 1,500
Gummy peaches, 9.5 oz, 820
Gummy bears, 7 oz, 700
Mountain House Noodles and Chicken, 9.5 oz 1,100
Peanut butter, 24 oz, 4,000

Total: 26,500 calories, 200 ounces
- minus 1,200 and 8.5 oz, overweight

25,300 calories. 12 pounds (before packaging.) 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Week 12, Jan. 27 to Feb. 2

Leah and I spotted this red-shouldered hawk in the Presidio during our Thursday night ride. 
Beat has been engaged in a gear-making frenzy for ... well, for several months now. But this week he really upped the production, sewing several things for me in the process: A custom balaclava with detachable face mask and a cupped waterproof "schnoz" to contain moisture flow, and a pair of primaloft-lined booties to pull over my shoes in the event of extremely windy or cold weather (Frostbite stories from the Arrowhead 135 scared me very much. I wanted some insurance for the possibility of windchills below minus 30.)

This week, I plan to go shopping for my two drop bags, one which will be placed at mile 135 and one at mile 210. As a walker, these locations will be about three days apart, so I need to cram three to four days of supplies in a ten-pound bag. As with my past two Susitna 100s, I plan to prepare pocket-sized baggies of "rocket fuel" — combinations of peanut butter cups, dried fruit, peanut butter pretzels, nuts, and chocolate, ideally in a 60/30/10 carb-fat-protein ratio, with about 2,000 calories to a pound. Supplemented by a bag of gummy snacks, probably five ounces per day, and peanut butter. I may plan a more substantial percentage of my daily calories from peanut butter. I'm still pondering this one. Chewing gets really tedious and eventually painful in cold weather, and although peanut butter becomes brittle when frozen, a 250-calorie block can be devoured in two bites and goes down smooth as it thaws. Peanut butter worked really well for me when I ran low on food during PTL and had to ration while feeling hungry and depleted. Cheap peanut butter has enough sugar to stave off bonks and enough fat to feel full for a while, and is pleasingly calorie dense. Tim Hewitt basically lived off of it during his unsupported trek to Nome in 2013.

That's basically it. I'm going to keep it simple. There will probably be opportunities for a hot meal every one to two days, and I'll pack one Mountain House meal at the start and with each drop. I'm planning to start with less food, but eventually carry about 5,000 calories per day, so probably 15,000 calories in each drop. If I can keep those 5,000 calories to 2.5 pounds or less, that would be ideal. I have a few more days to ponder what to send to myself.

Beyond that, it was a good week of training. More intensive than the numbers make it seem, because those cart tows are actually pretty hard workouts.

Monday, Jan. 27: Cart tow, 1:47, 6.1 miles, 468 feet climbing. I took the cart to Rancho to run on the wide trails of Rogue Valley. Played with some harness positions and got a good hamstring workout.

Tuesday, Jan. 28: Run, 1:13, 7.3 miles, 695 feet climbing. No cart, usual Tuesday route through Monta Vista. I kept it on the slow side because of IT band concerns, but I'm not sure I need to worry about that any more. It hasn't been an issue since Steep Ravine two weeks ago.

Wednesday, Jan. 29: Cart tow, 2:14, 8.3 miles, 34 feet climbing. Tow back from Google on the bike path. For some reason it's harder on the paved path than on trails; probably because there's more friction on pavement. I practiced alternating walking with a shuffle run, and realized that the shuffle running actually isn't all that hard. It's just frustrating, because I'm still "running" a 14-minute-mile and I feel like I should be moving a lot faster than that. However, walking stays in the 17- to 20-minute-mile range, and shuffling does work different muscle groups, so I should plan to make a habit of alternating strides whenever conditions allow.

Thursday, Jan. 30: Mountain bike, 2:28, 21 miles, 2,284 feet climbing. I met Leah in the city for a Thursday night ride. She's been busy and I run too much, and anyway it's been far too long. She's had some ongoing lower back pain that prompted us to cut the ride short in Rodeo Valley. Due to my training log habit, this was perhaps the first time I wore my Garmin on a night ride with Leah, and was surprised to see that cutting our route considerably shorter than normal still netted a reasonably substantial ride. No wonder I'm always so tired after night rides with Leah. Even the truncated route earned us a delicious noodle feast at Ken Ken Ramen.

Friday, Jan. 31: Cart tow, 2:12, 6.7 miles, 703 feet climbing. Went back to Rancho and veered up another trail that I didn't remember being all that steep. It was. According to Strava, some of those grades topped 25 percent. I pulled a muscle in my lower back and I have to admit it's still nagging at me, but I've been doing some mild stretching and plan to wait a few more days before attempting another tow. And no more steep hills.

Saturday, Feb. 1: Run, 8:00, 31.2 miles, 7,036 feet climbing. Big loop through the upper Pescadero drainage. So much fun, and no issues all day, not even sore feet or legs. I wouldn't have been able to say this about so much time on my feet even a year ago, so perhaps I'm in the best "running" shape of my life. Although Alaska is sure to dispel such delusions.

Sunday, Feb. 2: Run, 1:54, 10.3 miles, 1,477 feet climbing. I hoped to put in one last "back-to-back" long weekend by riding 100 miles on my road bike on Sunday, but a rainstorm prompted me to postpone the ride. As usual after the buzz of a day-long effort, I was raring to go and had all sorts of ambitions. Beat talked me down to a moderate run ... for the best, as I was actually quite tired, but otherwise had no problems.

Total: 19:48, 69.9 miles run, 21 miles ride, 12,697 feet climbing

Just under three weeks until go time, and I plan to put in a substantial taper beforehand. This week will probably be a series of shorter runs and a cart-tow or two, and then over the weekend Beat and I hope to take one last shot at finding some snow and a colder place to tow our sleds and test out some of the homemade gear. After that, probably just mellow bike rides and slow runs to keep the legs loose. I'm normally terrible at tapers, but I am terrified of this race and want to be at my physical best as a survival tactic, so hopefully that will be motivation enough to show up at the starting line well-rested. 
Sunday, February 02, 2014

Training rewards

I got out for three, two-hour cart tows this week, and for that I'm proud of myself. The best way to describe these workouts is slow, flat, and tedious — or, more simply, actual workouts, as opposed to the outdoor playing I usually engage in. I don't look forward to them at all, but they have helped me iron out some physical issues — testing out different strides, working my hamstrings without straining them, putting my butt and shoulders into a hard uphill pull rather than my back, and practicing a more efficient shuffle. Last week I averaged 19:50-minute miles on the bike path tow, and this week I improved that to 15:55-minute-miles, simply by trying to work with the cart rather than fight it (also, I suspect the brake pads are getting worn down so perhaps the resistance isn't quite as strong.) Anyway, I despise these workouts, but I also wish I started them sooner.

As feared, run-walking with "Allen" is a rather conspicuous, ridiculous thing to be doing. This photo was taken by a runner who I do not know, but made its way back to me through the network of Google+. At Rancho, an older gentleman asked if there was a baby inside the closed compartment of the cart, and another runner with a thick Italian accent gave me a lecture on how to properly use trekking poles. He actually had very good advice — hook the straps around my wrists and use them at more of an angle, which did give me more of a power push and made it easier to climb steeper slopes. I'll have to remember that the next time I embark on a mountain race in Europe.

At Rancho, I got a little too ambitious on a steep trail on Friday, and came precariously close to overstraining my back. I felt a sharp pinch on the right side of my lower back and froze in my tracks, not sure how to proceed without tearing something. As it was, the grade of that particular spot was 21 percent, and Allen and his 60 pounds of kitty litter was tugging me backward like an angry pet. Finally, I decided to bend my knees more and walk with a hunched profile that helped shift most of the weight to my lower body. I turned around shortly after that. Even with brake resistance, trying to manage the cart down those grades was terrifying.

So it was a rather mundane week of training, and I felt justified rewarding the weekday work with a relaxed weekend outing on a series of trails I've been wanting to link up for some time. Amid all the local bike-splorations I've done in the three years I've lived in California, there's a blank spot on my personal map where bikes are strictly forbidden. I caught rumors of some delicious singletrack in this area, and in truth a lot of mountain bikers poach these trails. But it's not in my personality to break such laws, and honestly I'm just as happy running on bike-free trails. I went on Strava to map out a course and discovered I'd effectively re-created the Saratoga Fatass 50K course ("Fatass" is a nonsensical term for an unofficial, usually self-supported race gathering.) It makes sense that this route already has an official designation — it's a grand tour of everything the Santa Cruz Mountains have to offer — grassy hillsides with sweeping vistas framed by the Pacific, mossy redwood forests, sandstone-dotted ridges, and manzanita tunnels. This single loop on low-traffic trails, 95 percent singletrack, just happens to be exactly fifty kilometers in length (31.2 miles.)

Our friends Harry and Martina joined us for the run starting at Saratoga Gap and Long Ridge. They were going to keep it short and run and out and back, but enticing trails spurred them to stretch out their run all the way to Big Basin.

The Slate Creek Trail in Portola Redwoods State Park had a particularly loamy surface that made it feel like we were descending on foam cushions. I loved this.

The former site of Page Mill, next to one of the few old-growth redwoods they spared due to its spiraling grain.

Butano Ridge. For the entire beautiful Saturday morning and afternoon, we saw almost no one out on these trails — just a couple of hikers and one poaching mountain biker. They're a little off the beaten path, but not that much. If you visit Big Basin Headquarters on a Saturday afternoon, you will encounter many dozens of people on the most popular trails.

The sandstone-studded Basin Trail, with views of the Pacific.

Taking it all in. Our friends expressed some regret about committing to twenty-plus miles of a run they'd planned to keep significantly shorter, but only some.

We split off at Skyline to the Sea Trail, which Beat and I followed back up the ridge to Saratoga Gap. It was an eight-hour run with seven hours of moving time, about 7,000 feet of climbing, carrying all of our food and water for the day ... and it felt really relaxed and just enjoyable the entire time. There's something to be said about trying to get into race shape by building endurance — the challenge is in the training, the test is in the race, but the rewards are days like this — an adventure run with friends, covering a lot of ground and having fun on new trails.

And we caught a nice sunset on the way back to Big Basin to pick up Harry and Martina. The link to the Strava route is here. If you're a trail runner in the Bay Area, seriously, download this track and head out ... today if possible. It's a fantastic run. And what a way to spend Super Bowl Sunday!

I had a road century all mapped out for my Sunday outing — in my opinion, Super Bowl Sunday is the best day of the year to embark on a long road ride. However, the forecast now calls for 90 percent chance of rain all day — for which I am thrilled — but dusty pavement and new rain slick and road bikes on routes with 11,000 feet of descending just don't mix. So for now I'm postponing the ride and will hopefully embark on a muddy rain run instead. I hope it rains a lot. We need it.