Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forever pace

After failing at last year's Petite Trotte a Leon, I did some soul searching about whether I was taking this endurance racing hobby too far. Months later, I told friends that I still couldn't decide whether PTL was a valuable learning experience, or the worst thing I had ever done to myself. I joked that exploring limits is a lot less fun when you find them. I've gained so much personal enrichment from confronting difficult and frightening situations amid the parameters set by racing — which extend far beyond parameters I would have ever set for myself. But how far is too far? During PTL, an onslaught of technical terrain near the edge of my capabilities, constant focus on navigation and maneuvers, perceived dangers, internal and external pressure, and sleep deprivation drove me halfway out of my mind. It pushed me into some dark places I never wish to visit again, whether in a voluntary situation or real trauma. I race to gain control over my Monster, and PTL only revealed all the ways Monster still controls me.

I considered stepping back from racing for a while. I came close to withdrawing from the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational. And then a switch flipped. Monster doesn't control me. I don't need to slink away from adventures that feed my passion, energy, and muse just because of one bad experience. I threw my name in the White Mountains 100 lottery, and then the Hardrock 100. I agreed to join Liehann at the Freedom Challenge. And I signed up for the Tor des Geants.

I didn't write this intro to delve too deep into my personal philosophies or deeper motivations regarding racing. Only to expand on the complicated relationship I have with racing right now, and the wild swing from convincing myself I should take at least a year off to jumping headfirst into my biggest year of racing yet, culminating in the one that should scare me most of all — a 330-kilometer march around the Italian Alps, with a distance and elevation profile that very closely resembles PTL. Back into the belly of the Monster.

The allure of Tor des Geants is another complicated matter than I could ramble on about for thousands of words, but the short explanation is a desire to explore the edges of the galaxy amid the incredible setting of the Aosta Valley. Beat has completed every running of the Tor des Geants, and I've joined him to crew for three of those four years. In that time, I've developed a deep affection for this race. Hiking a handful of the route's numerous cols gave me a taste of just how physically demanding the whole loop would be — and also its potential for an intensely beautiful experience. The dream of TDG is what ultimately drew me into PTL last year, and I contended that I should have tried the "friendly" race before I jumped into the "mean" one. Not that TDG is sunshine and foot massages. It's still 200 miles of rugged terrain, with 80,000 feet of elevation gain (and, more importantly, another 80,000 feet of elevation loss) in 150 hours.

What I tend to overlook amid all of my spiritual- and emotional-enlightenment-seeking race greediness is the reality that my body is the one who needs to cash these checks. It took me longer than I care to admit to come to my senses about removing my name from the Hardrock roster. Even still, giving myself a mere two months to both recover from a 21-day strenuous bike- and hike-a-bike tour, and physically prepare for a race like TDG is ridiculous. I know that. I get that. And yet I have this dream ... the dream of forever pace ... the sweet spot where motion can persist and exploration doesn't have to cease.

I bounced back quickly from the Iditarod, resting little amid the manic opportunities of March in Alaska, and still enjoyed my best White Mountains 100 race yet a few weeks later. But post-Freedom-Challenge recovery has been more stubborn. As soon as the soreness in my arms abated there wasn't any remnant tissue damage. If fact, leg muscles and tendons seemed to be in great shape — I could hike for 11 hours without feeling remotely sore. But my cardiovascular system was worn down. I had no pep. I couldn't run. I wondered if it was a bug or perhaps residual effects from the infections in my fingers, which are still in the process of healing. I took lots of rest days — good for catching up on lots of missed work — and started using a heart rate monitor to gauge short efforts. The heart rate monitor did not inspire confidence. I was hitting Zone 5 far too soon. While riding up Montebello Road, my heart rate spiked 188 at a laughably slow pace. Beat assured me it would just take more time.

I lamented feeling terribly out of shape. And then I wondered if that was precisely the problem — I've been in forever pace for so long that I am terribly out of shape ... for short efforts.

On Sunday we planned a run in Portola State Park. Beat wanted to show me the Peter's Creek Loop — home to the largest grove of old-growth Coast Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This grove was just remote enough and difficult to access that the nearby Page Mill logging operation left it alone, and it's still remote and difficult to access.

Temperatures hit the triple digits this weekend. We actually had planned to do this run on Saturday, but were turned around by a traffic jam on Highway 9. There was a plan B, but when we stepped out of the car into a furnace blast of 98-degree air, we both looked at each other, shook our heads, and got back in the car. Sunday was going to be just as hot, but we built up a little more mojo, froze water bladders solid, and left a whole lot earlier. I left the heart rate monitor at home — it wasn't intentional, as I hoped to gauge the effect of a longer effort versus the hour-long runs. But it was just as well. Judging performance based on numbers from a watch wasn't doing me many favors. I was probably better off just moving at whatever pace made me happiest, and not worrying about where that fell in on the fitness spectrum.

So we did this run. It was 23 miles with somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 feet of climbing. It was very hot — 96 at the car upon return to Skyline, where it felt cooler than the more sun-exposed ridges. I drank 2.5 liters of ice water and then 2.5 liters more of lukewarm water refilled at the ranger station. I didn't have the heart rate monitor to tell me whether I was overtaxed or not, so I just ran forever pace. It felt good. The forest spread out above us, and happiness drove me forward. Happy legs, happy feet, happy heart.

This is the root of my "forever pace" experiment. I'm happiest on the move. Even when summer is in full force with its oppressive heat and fierce UV rays, when sweat is so thick that the annoying bugs buzzing around my face land on my skin and drown, and both social convention and personal inclinations tell me to embrace hibernation and sit indoors eating popsicles ... I still find my joy outside. Maybe I will fail spectacularly at TDG, and maybe I'll make good on past promises and take a year off of racing next year ... but I can't say I have't enjoyed the process immensely.