Sunday, April 27, 2014

Practice makes perfect (fun)

 There was a time when I called the training I did "practicing." Sometimes I think I should go back to that term. Athletic training implies all kinds of complex notions —specificity, scheduling, structure, repetition, targeting, nutrition, rigidity ... Practicing, on the other hand, is comparatively simple. You want to improve something? Practice that exact thing. You want it to become second nature? Practice more.

 My friend Leah paid me a nice compliment as we climbed out of Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands on Thursday evening. "You seem stronger," she said. "I feel stronger," I replied. The difference between now and any other time in the past year is now I'm spending more time really practicing on the bike — putting in long days, climbing lots, carrying big packs, and piggybacking on a solid winter running base with an activity that I'm naturally stronger at. I still run during the week — keeping a base at about 15-20 miles per week — but the bike practicing has really improved since I got on the fat bike shortly after the Iditarod Trail Invitational seven weeks ago. During the winter, a nine-hour ride was fairly taxing; now I can do nine solid hours with lots of climbing and finish not even feeling sore.

Of course, the kind of "practicing" I do is what athletic trainers call base building — operating below lactate threshold as much as possible, keeping the heart rate moderate, and maintaining a steady pace throughout long hours in the saddle — i.e., not slowing down later on in the ride. It works for me to practice this, because it's exactly what I'd do every day of a multiday endurance effort . When you have little time to recover for the following day, you can't pump a bunch of lactic acid into your muscles and rev up the heart. Everything you do has to be sustainable if you can manage it (Sometimes, especially in Alps foot races, even the slowest you can possibly move is still unsustainable.) But it's interesting, because even though I'm doing nothing for my high end, the threshold of my moderate zone is increasing. I can go somewhat faster with the same effort; but, more importantly, I can go longer.

For Liehann's and my Saturday ride, I designed a mountain bike tour of Santa Cruz, linking up major trail systems — Henry Cowell, Pogonip, UC Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch, Forest of the Nisene Marks, and Demo Forest (alas, my route was 100-percent legal. Santa Cruz has a lot of trail restrictions; as a result, there's an entrenched poaching culture complete with secret trails that I am not privy to, and not necessarily interested in getting caught up in the politics.) Starting from the intersection of Summit Road and Highway 17, it's about 74 miles with 9,400 feet of climbing. Route info here.

 Liehann on Mountain Charlie Road, a narrow and rough paved road that made for a swooping descent. We started the ride with a ten-mile downhill, which was a fun indulgence. I imagined that we were shuttled to the top and would only have to do that one descent all day. The thought actually made me feel grateful it wasn't the case, because how boring would that be?

 We made an effort to navigate by map again, with limited success. We have't found great maps of the region yet — our topo maps don't include street or trail names, and it's too easy to lose track of the route amid dozens of turns in urban areas. I had a lot more success with cue sheets and an odometer, although a couple of reroutes off my original track necessitated math for the remainder of the day.

 My favorite segment of the ride was Henry Cowell Redwoods, even though stupid rules nudged us off of the trails we planned to ride. We ended up on a makeshift reroute, no real idea where we were going, pedaling a rollercoaster of ridiculously steep climbs and descents through an enchanted forest.

 Crossing the San Lorenzo River, the perfect cap to our adventures through Henry Cowell.

 Wilder Ranch was a fast but bumpy descent along a grassy hillside, with one rainforest-like diversion on the Enchanted Loop Trail.

 Contouring the coast on a sandy farm road — another favorite of mine because it's all about the scenery, which is suddenly so different. Pelicans, sculpted bluffs, surfers, salty breezes, and waves crashing on rocks.

Sand Point Overlook, about midway through the long climb up Aptos Creek Fireroad. Here's yet another favorite — soft mulch dirt, traffic-free, mellow grades that make you feel like a powerhouse, more enchanted forest, and long-range views of the coast. I was feeling fresh for having ~50 miles on the legs already. I've been experimenting by eating less on long rides, as my own way of developing better fuel efficiency (useful for when unlimited calories aren't readily accessible for days or weeks.) On Saturday, I had only had a few handfuls of fruit and nuts by the time Liehann and I stopped for a picnic lunch at hour five of the ride. That was a little too low; I was ravenous and mowed through a ham sandwich and a giant rice crispy treat. After initially feeling icky with a full stomach, I had my sugar surge and powered up that climb feeling on top of the world.

The Braille Trail in Demonstration Forest. A little on the rutted side. This area is a popular shuttle spot and it was strange not to see another rider up here on a Saturday — although it was late in the day, and cool as well (45 degrees by the time we got back to the car.) I have deeply mixed feelings about technical trails, but I'm much happier when I have them all to myself and there's no one to witness me clunking around or to come screaming from behind. Every time I attempt techy riding I give more thought to the real value of improving my skills, at my age and with my inclinations. I think, "maybe someday I'll spend real time on this." But for now, I'm primarily a "bike tourist." I like dirt, off-the-beaten path routes, scenery, and distance. And I feel less and less need to apologize for anything else that doesn't fit into the mold of a specific type of cyclist.

Late evening on Highland Way. It was the perfect way to end the day, high on a ridge with views of the many places we'd just ridden. This was an aesthetic, fun loop, and I'm glad I've invented reasons to keep on practicing bikes.