Saturday, March 29, 2014

Following the White Mountains 100

 Beat revived a tracking page that he set up for the White Mountains 100 a few years ago, so I'm going to carry a SPOT tracker so friends and family can follow along with the race. If I recall correctly, the icon of a little person riding a fat bike plots my progress along the course, and changes to a little person pushing a bike when forward progress slows enough to indicate walking pace. Afterward you can replay the track, so it's a fun record to keep. The tracking page is here:

http://www.beultra.com/routes/main_new.php?course=WM14_b

And if that doesn't work, this is a direct link to the SPOT page.

The White Mountains 100 race doesn't have GPS tracking, so this is just a personal page that doesn't indicate my position in the race. But the race volunteers do post regular updates to the Facebook page as well as the official race Web site.

I'm excited to get started. I attended the pre-race meeting along with several people on the wait list who were hoping to nab a spot. Someone on the roster drove all the way up from Anchorage and showed up 15 minutes late, only to learn his spot had been given away to Jay Cable, who I believe is the last remaining person to have participated in all five years of the event (Myself and others have managed to make it into four; I rode in 2010, 2011, and 2012.) I'm not sure who lost their spot but word is they were pretty miffed, understandably. That's the cutthroat nature of popular endurance races. Getting in is the hard part. I set two alarms to ensure I don't sleep in, or I'll lose my spot as well.

I enjoyed Thai dinner with a bunch of runners — the trio from Juneau, Joe Grant, and a few others. Some were under the impression that I was running the event as well; one even asked me about my sled. The concept has become so foreign to me at this point that I just stared blankly for a few seconds ... ("Sled? What sled? Oh, no, I have a bike.") Most of the runners are only carrying small packs anyway, as the White Mountains 100 does not have required gear. It should be a fast race for them as well. Weather looks like it will be partly cloudy with daytime temperatures in the high 20s to low 30s, and nighttime temperatures in the single digits, down to 10 below in low-lying areas.

I packed all the clothing I think I'll want to wear on the bike if it gets down to 10 below, spare hat and gloves, repair stuff, a small med kit, microspikes for my boots (my black ice incident in Anchorage has me spooked about attempting to ride anything icy), two headlamps, spare batteries, camera, and about 3,000 calories of fruit snacks, peanut butter cups, and bagel chips. My food plan is to mostly nosh on this stuff and perhaps checkpoint cookies until Windy Gap at mile 62. The Cache Mountain baked potato always makes me feel icky going over the Divide, so I'm going to try to resist it (no promises). I have a good amount of experience on this course, plenty of endurance and a lot of enthusiasm. The only thing I'm missing is fast legs. But I hope to find the stamina and happy knee place to push as hard as I can tomorrow.

Speaking of enthusiasm, I went out today for one last shakedown spin that turned into a 20-mile ride through the Goldstream Valley and up 1,200 feet on the Eldorado Creek trail. Beat, Liehann and I dragged our sleds for half that distance on this route back in December at -34 degrees, chasing the fading early afternoon sunlight up the ridge for a strenuous three-plus hours. This ride was just about the polar opposite of that — warm, glaring sun, and absolutely flying (well, relatively flying) on a fat bike. With all of the happy slogging I've done this winter, the sheer efficiency of a bike still astounds me. I can't wait for the Whites! 

Cramming

Right around the equinox, springtime came to Alaska in a big way —glaringly clear skies, sunlight, and temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s. Although Beat returned to California on Monday, I'm lingering for a few more days thanks to plans to race the White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks. Beat had to quickly go back to work and routines — always a difficult transition amid the mental and physical recovery of a month-long journey. I feel guilty about remaining in Alaska to play, but I also have been struggling with feeling overwhelmed myself — managing logistics and deadlines amid a tight timeline, thinking about the many projects I need to finish, the summer plans I need to begin preparing for, and also just wanting to be home with Beat. I feel like I should smack myself in the head because it's early spring in Alaska, the weather is beautiful, trail conditions are superb, and I need to DO ALL THE THINGS before it's too late. 

Perhaps I'm a little travel weary. Just about the only hours I don't feel anxious or overwhelmed are when I'm outside riding my bike. I also got in one great run this week, my best since before the ITI. I ran six and a half reasonably fast miles on the packed snow of the Chester Creek Trail on Tuesday evening, after it finally became "cool" enough to run. (The mid-day "heat" here, although barely scraping the 40s if that, still feels abnormally warm under direct sunlight. I have no idea how I'm going to cope with 80-plus degrees once I return to California.) I was stoked about this run because I felt strong for the first time in weeks, with none of the shin pain or dead leg fatigue that I experienced in Juneau.

So I had a good run, but mainly I have been putting in some medium-length rides on my bike to assess both bike and body conditions ahead of the White Mountains 100. The front brake of the Moots fat bike somehow imploded. After two weeks of adjusting the lever and riding it when I possibly should not have been, I realized the caliper was leaking fluid and had to have it replaced with a mechanical disc brake (Argh. But I can't ride the hilly White Mountains 100 with my skills and only one brake.) As for my body, I have some concerns about my left knee, which begins to develop sharp patellar pain (my usual knee-bike issue) after three hours. I'm going to try testing different saddle heights, but it already feels the best when the saddle is on the cusp of being too high. All pre-race reports point to fast and largely rideable trail conditions, so I might have to adapt for long hours in the saddle without much pushing. To be honest, 100 miles of biking kind of scares me right now. I suppose this is a good thing.

On Monday I managed a 36-mile ride in Anchorage that was almost entirely on snow. I love that I can leave my friends' house in the middle of town, and in two minutes reach a groomed pedestrian path that leads to a huge network of well-packed singletrack throughout the Chugach foothills. Anchorage is awesome in that regard — you can ride dozens of miles in city limits entirely away from vehicular traffic and often on trails. One thing I don't deal with very well are singletrack mazes. I get disoriented easily and it doesn't take long before I have no idea where I am or which direction I'm going. After riding a fun trail called Moose Meadow, I could not relocate the Rover's Run connection. I inexplicably kept returning to the same intersection until I thought I might be losing my mind. This intersection was in view of a paved road, so I opted to veer over to the road and coast a mile down to a known trailhead. The sun was setting, and all of the day's snowmelt had solidified into black ice. I still didn't have a front brake at this point. Coasting down the road at 20-plus miles per hour, I lightly tapped the back brake, which sent the rear wheel into a sharp skid that jack-knifed the bike sideways. I really thought I was going down; I even envisioned the impact in slow motion, the way you sometimes do in that heart-sinking second before an inevitable big crash. But as I let off the brake, the bike somehow righted itself, and I was able to coast to the bottom of the hill with terrifying momentum because I knew I couldn't hit the brake. Once I reached the trailhead and returned to the safety of snow, I could not stop shaking. I put on all of the clothing layers I was carrying, but it didn't help. I was a shivering wreck for all of the six miles home.

Wednesday's ride went much more smoothly. I sprinted out the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park to check out the trails there. The hillsides of Kincaid were nearly snow-free, and in some ways reminded me of trails I ride in California during the wintertime — golden hillsides, narrow singletrack cut into steep side slopes, and big, gnarled trees that resemble the oaks back home. Could I actually be feeling homesick for California while riding in Alaska? Hard to accept, bit I think that was the case. The Kincaid Trails were not California friendly, though. They were pretty much a sheet of ice covered in a thin layer of loosely packed powder — about as slippery as surfaces get. Without studded tires I was not able to ride much. I was about to give up anyway when I encountered a moose blocking the trail, so I turned around and sprinted home. Not counting time wasted on trail ambling, that ride netted 29 miles in just over two hours. Super fast snow conditions.

On Thursday I headed north, opting to rent a car and drive up to Fairbanks. I love this drive, probably because I've only done it in good weather, but Thursday was an absolutely spectacular day for a cruise on the Parks Highway. The big mountain was out in a big way, and I'd stop at all of the still-closed roadside viewpoints and stomp through the snow to get another glimpse outside the car. Denali is such an impressive mountain. Standing at a point near sea level and staring up at something 20,000 feet higher gives me chills, every time.

I hadn't necessarily planned to ride on Thursday. But as I approached the small town of Cantwell, I wondered about the conditions of the Denali Highway. This 135-mile gravel road is unmaintained in the winter, but is well-traveled by snowmachines thanks to a couple of lodges along the way. Three friends and I bike-toured part of this route from the Paxson side last year, when trail conditions were so soft that we had to work hard to maintain a 4-mph average. Thanks to the low snow year, current conditions are smooth and hard-packed. Having ridden the much of this chunky gravel road in the summer, I'd say the Denali Highway is in better shape for biking right now than it is in June. There was some glare ice that I had to walk around, and further out the road the surface started to become progressively softer. A stiff headwind fought forward motion on the inbound ride, and made the 25-degree afternoon feel quite brisk. But wow — fast and fun conditions right now.

I had some dinner plans in Fairbanks, but the fun riding and amazing scenery kept pulling me eastward. I finally tore myself away after 17 miles, when a long climb was really starting to become tedious and guilt about being late for dinner and "saving the legs" for the White Mountains 100 started to kick in. Still, 34 miles in three hours, not too shabby for the Denali Highway during the winter.

Today, my friends Joel and Erica guided me on an 11-mile loop on equally fast and fun trails in Fairbanks. So I actually managed a solid week of fat bike training, 110 miles. Yes, it was the week before the race, when I should have been tapering, but I figured it was the only training I was going to get. Anyway, it was important to get re-acquainted with the fat bike, and work out a few kinks. The White Mountains 100 begins Sunday morning. I'll try to post an update on Saturday with some links. All in all I feel pretty good about the race. I'm worried about my knee, and feel some pre-emptive regret about squandering a potential "fast" year when I feel a lot less than fast. But I have confidence in my endurance, and a plan to waste as little time as possible (there probably will still be plenty of photos and inevitable checkpoint slumming.) I'll do the best I can, and love it because it's the Whites.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trail's end

Shana and I stayed up late again, carving away the small hours with dark chocolate and stories about her childhood in Papua New Guinea versus mine in suburban Salt Lake City. We'd just met 36 hours prior, when I showed up at her doorstep in Nome with a suitcase and a forlorn homeless puppy look on my face. She graciously offered a bit of floor space to sleep while I waited for Beat to reach the end of his journey. And in typical small-town Alaska fashion, Shana opened a broad window into her life until I felt like we were old friends and I'd lived in Nome for years. I'd run the ice-coated streets at sunset, waving at drivers on four-wheelers and children playing without hats or mittens at 20 degrees. Jumbled sea ice piled up against the horizon, not so far from Russia, but even that stark and forbidding view felt familiar. This tends to be my pattern in Alaska — wherever I go, it feels like home.

As we cleaned up the remaining dishes from dinner — a conglomeration of wilted, end-of-the-road vegetables that somehow transformed into a delicious curry — Beat called one last time from the trail. He was about eight miles outside of town, he told me. "But still a long ways out," he added. It was just after 1 a.m. I suited up and left the warm comfort of Shana's home to greet a stiff Northeast wind, piercing the eerie silence of night in far western Alaska.

Beat warned me he'd be slow on the sugary trail. I knew its condition, because I tried to ride out that way earlier in the afternoon. I borrowed a fat bike from Nome hospital administrator Phil Hofstetter, who recently completed the human-powered journey to his hometown, finishing the Iditarod Trail Invitational in just over 12 days. His bike was slightly worn out from the trip, with tires that couldn't be aired down without going flat. The Iditarod Trail was covered in new snow and wind drift. The soft surface had been churned up by racing snowmachines, and was only marginally rideable on a fat bike. Running parallel to the trail is a gravel road that is unmaintained and apparently not widely used by anyone in the winter. But I wondered if I'd make better progress braving the drifts and glare ice of the road rather than pushing the bike through the flat sugar trough that the Iditarod Trail had become. I might not make better time, I thought, but at least I'd have more fun.

Heavy machinery had cut and piled solidified snow chunks up to four feet high, which served as a wind barrier to capture all of the drifting snow. I waded in drifts up to my thighs, then rode 100 feet of glare ice, and then waded for another quarter mile or more — and then repeated this slow pattern for more than seven miles. Why I kept at it, I'm not sure. Hours trickled by. The sun drifted low on the horizon. I was moving well under three miles per hour, and Beat was still many miles away. If I'd been able to ride, I would have covered enough distance to spot him; but at this pace, no way, not unless I waded around out here until midnight. Still, the irrational hope remained. It had been so long, and he'd come so far.

At mile 13, the setting sun and the fact it was going to take another three and a half hours to get back coaxed me to turn around. On the return trip, I took advantage of low light to spot shimmering surfaces of rideable crust near the road. Riding cross-country over the windswept tundra was actually faster than adhering to the oppressive conditions of the road or trail — a freeing notion.

With the onset of darkness, I knew I'd have to stick to the trail to see Beat. I figured I'd only outpace him by a small margin, probably 5 mph versus 3, and I'd have to ride for about an hour to spot him. My legs felt heavy and a bit stiff after "riding" six hours earlier in the day. But then again, any effort compared to a Nome effort is not much of anything; so I shrugged it off and pedaled as hard as I could, which is the minimum such trail conditions demand. Temperatures had dropped to single digits under clear skies, but the wind made it feel much colder, and I shivered as I worked up an unavoidable sweat.

Just as I began to resent that I'd decided to come out here rather than snuggle up in my sleeping bag at Shana's house, I passed the final electric light at the edge of town and looked forward into unbending darkness. A sliver of moonlight framed the sharp edges of white mountains, and the northern horizon was filled with an undulating band of green light. I turned off my headlight and craned my necked sideways to stare at the Northern Lights, as slack-jawed and wonder-filled as I was the first time I watched them. The way they shimmer, the way they dance as though directed by some kind of cosmic choreographer. The bike swerved and pitched off the trail, and I didn't mind.

The wind moaned but everything else was quiet, almost unnervingly so. The flight from Anchorage to Nome spans hundreds of miles of pretty much nothing — no roads, very few visible lights, very few signs of any kind that modern humans could and have traversed that distance under their own power. I varied my gaze from the sky to the vast darkness in front of me and wondered at the world Beat had come to know over the past 17 days since he left me behind in McGrath. How magnificent the landscape must seem, and how tiny one must feel in comparison.

Through my sustained fixation on the Northern Lights, I nearly missed the unmistakable glow of a headlamp making its way toward me. I pedaled harder until the headlamp glow framed a dark silhouette, and then my own headlamp caught the reflective tape patterns I'd come to know so well over 350 miles of trail to McGrath. They danced in their familiar way for the final seconds before Beat and I were standing next to each other. He was so focused on the task at hand that he continued facing forward and marching toward the city lights I had so recently left behind. We chatted about the kind of things you chat about on the Trail — weather, surface conditions since he left White Mountain, how long he stopped to rest, how much further he had to go. "Four miles," he announced after looking at his GPS. I knew the number already, of course, but I nodded in that vague way I use to muster eternal if misinformed optimism. "Maybe less," I agreed.

After several minutes I pedaled forward to let Beat enjoy the final miles of his journey in his own head space, which is the way such miles should be savored. Twenty minutes went by and I could still look back on the sea ice and see his headlamp, and then my cell phone rang. "Do you see the Northern Lights? They're so amazing!" Indeed, the green band had spread across most of the sky, shimmering and dancing with renewed vigor as virgin white streaks sliced through the heart of the arch. Back in town, I returned the bike to Phil and walked over to Iditarod's burled arch, which marks the official finish. Front Street was completely deserted at 3 a.m., save for a single rusted taxi that rolled up and down the empty street, probably hoping I would change my mind about loitering and request a ride.

Beat waited until he passed the Nome Liquor Store to veer off the sea ice and climb the bank to Front Street, arriving in Nome at 3:52 a.m. after 25 days, 12 hours, and 52 minutes on the Iditarod Trail. It was his second finish of the thousand-mile trek, one of each on the Southern and Northern Routes. He let me give him a hug but refused to let me help him lift his heavy sled onto the platform, reasoning that he couldn't accept help until he "finished."

"How do you feel?" I asked.

He leaned against the wooden pillar and smiled. "Tired," he answered. "Pretty much just tired."

I didn't have the long perspective of the walk, and couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. "I'm so proud of you," I said, and hugged him again.

"I'm glad to be done," Beat said. But as he spoke I noticed him glancing west, as though looking for the trail's non-existent continuation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Modern Romance, part four

Four years ago, I wrote a series of posts about communing with a mountain in Juneau called Thunder Mountain during the winter of 2009-2010. You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Rain patters the windshield, accumulating in a conga line of drops dancing joyfully as the wipers chase them off stage. I watch this with old eyes, a strip of exposed film that was long ago shot, and forgotten, and unintentionally spooled through the camera again. The double exposure confuses me. I am driving on memory auto-pilot, but where am I going? "Oh yes, this is Egan Drive, and soon there's going to be a turn. What was the name of the road? Glacier Road? Mendenhall Loop? And then there was another turn, on a neighborhood street. What made me think I'd remember the exact turn? It's been four years since I've been here. But, four years, how is that possible? Where have I been?" The rain continues to fall as it always falls, at least in the view of my old eyes.

I park the car and launch a familiar ritual — strapping snowshoes haphazardly to a pack, pulling up the hood of my waterproof shell, putting mittens on my hands and microspikes over my shoes. Standing up straight, I see a familiar profile coyly lurking behind satin curtains of mist.

 Hello, Thunder Mountain.

 My old eyes scan the forest floor for hints of a trail. An inch of new snow covers the mulch and moss, effortlessly erasing any sign of the path. There are pieces I remember — the blueberry bush mud shoot, the deadfall staircase, the root wall. But I have to admit to myself that these distinct fragments are just that; they do not form a whole, and they won't guide me through the maze of moss-coated spruce and skeletal devil's club. My mind flips through the double-exposed film, exposing it again. There's the creek that the rotten wood boards spanned in the summer time. There's the big overturned stump whose image always enters my thoughts when I ride my bike through redwood forests near my home in California. California? Is that where I've been? Did all of that really happen?

 I begin the mittens-on-roots climb up the mountainside when I locate tracks. Human tracks, three sets of them, so far only pointed in one direction, and at least one set distinctly belongs to a person wearing XtraTufs. Who around here wears rubber boots to hike up this particular mountain in decidedly crappy weather on a Monday? A grin spreads across my face. "Bjorn," I think. Bjorn is an old Juneau friend who introduced the basic mountaineering concepts that enabled me to begin visiting these steep mountains in the wintertime. Thanks to his simple tips and encouragement, I found new courage to pick my way up an icy slope, trudge through thigh-deep drifts, chip ax steps up a snow wall, and face the mountains in their quietest, harshest, most raw state of beauty. I could see them with new eyes, and fall in love in a whole new way.

 After another 800 vertical feet in something like a quarter mile, I encounter the makers of the tracks I was so gratefully following, making their return trip. Sure enough, it was Bjorn and his brothers, and I so expected the tracks to belong to him that the serendipitous nature of the encounter didn't even register. Bjorn and I actually met on a mountain, in much the same way, and I can barely remember ever seeing him off the mountains. We embrace, exchange quick catch-ups, and he warns me about fresh wolf tracks near the trail. And that's it — just a short reunion, but it gives me pause. "It's kind of strange," I think, "to just bump into Geoff on a mountain on Friday, and then Bjorn today." In both cases, their groups were the only other people I saw out there, in four-plus hours on the trail. People flicker in and out of our lives so unceremoniously, like blurred figures burned into double-exposed film. They look like ghosts now, but there was a time when we stood side-by-side at focal points, sharp moments in our lives when all of the noise of the present converged, and we could see the lines to our futures, and everything changed.

 After another 700 vertical feet, my cell phone rings. Beat is calling on his satellite phone from a shelter cabin between Koyuk and Elim, two weather-ravaged villages on the Bering Sea Coast, about 150 miles from Nome. His voice sounds more ragged every day. It breaks my heart, every time, even though I can hear the happiness in his words, too. I don't cope well with thoughts of his suffering, even while I relate to the intense dynamic of it all, the soaring highs and soul-rending lows of life on the Trail. My own life is far away now — in Juneau, in the recent past — and I struggle back to the surface to take in everything he has to say. His current conditions report is falling snow, and wind, and snowshoeing through deep and sticky powder at 31 degrees. He asks me how my day is going. "I'm out for a snowshoe hike," I say. "It's snowing, and windy, and yeah, I'm pretty sure it's even 31 degrees. I'm in the trees now, but once I get up on the ridge, the wind is probably going to be really bad. I will go there, and I will think of you."

 The ridge juts skyward at almost impossibly steep grades, covered knee-deep in wet powder, and my progress slows to almost a standstill. One step forward nets two sliding back, scrambling on all fours like a goat trying to climb a water slide. I have no intention of going all the way to the top of the mountain, as the final pitch is a twenty-foot vertical headwall that Bjorn, in the past, has described as "avalanchey" in new snow events. But I figured I could climb to a hundred or so feet below the headwall, down in the last stand of scraggly trees on the ridge, before turning around. Still, this effort is ridiculous. The headwind is ripping through cracks between hastily applied goggles and a buff. Occasional gusts drive brief whiteout blizzards so intense that snow packs into the arm openings of my coat. The surface has almost zero traction — heavy powder sitting on top of an icy crust layer. I wouldn't make much slower forward progress if I started crawling backward. But I think of Beat, and his struggle, every day in storms for so many miles, so much worse than this. Solidarity is as good a reason to climb a mountain as any.

 Thunder Mountain, I already know, does not care about love and solidarity. Thunder Mountain does not care that four years have passed since I walked its slopes, bearing my soul to the wind and to the silence. Thunder Mountain does not care that it was right here, on this ridge, that I found the courage and made the decision to quit my job, leave this town, and strike out into the unknown without even knowing what I was looking for. Thunder Mountain does not care that I since went on to move away from this state I so love, met an amazing person who has helped me explore a much wider range of the world, formed a new passion for traveling long distances on foot, and found the freedom to pursue something that has been a core part of my identity since I first took a red crayon to lined paper and organized known letters into still-unknown words. Thunder Mountain does not care that an infinitely small amount of time has still managed to accumulate a lifetime's worth of incredible experiences, and burned them onto the filmstrip of my memories with bright and bold colors that shine through on the grayest of days. I think about Beat and feel a murmur in my heart as cold blood sinks to my toes. Four years ago I convinced myself I could love only mountains and live with the ghosts. But now I know that I was wrong. I cannot live with ghosts alone. Beat is far away and here on Thunder Mountain I feel only the icy sting of loneliness, because Thunder Mountain does not care.


Time is on fast-forward now, moving too quickly, swirling through the snow before it's whisked into the gray expanse. I see a set of big canine tracks running parallel to my own, and remember that Bjorn and his brothers did not have a dog with them. Once I return to the relative safety of the forest, I turn on my iPod to chip away at the unsettling quiet. After shuffling through several songs, but not enough to make it seem anything but serendipitous, I find "Modern Romance" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In a rare showing of Shuffle patience, I listen to all the minutes of static silence after the song, which arrives at the hidden track:

"Baby, I'm afraid of a lot of things 
But I ain't scared of loving you. 
And baby I know you're afraid of a lot of things 
But don't be scared of love."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Juneau, again

I lived in Juneau for all of four years, between 2006 and 2010, after one year of living in Homer. I've already surpassed the three-year mark in Los Altos, a number that unsettles me because I'm dangerously close to becoming more of a Californian than I ever was an Alaskan. I also suspect I'll always be more of a rambler than a homebody, but a couple of places just feel like home. Salt Lake City — the place where I grew up — obviously. And Juneau, Alaska.

On Thursday, I boarded another plane and flew home for a visit. When I stepped out of the airport, the thermometer read 39 degrees and a mist of rain wafted on a stiff breeze. I walked across the wet tarmac with the knowledge that this was the last time all week that my shoes would be dry, stopped a moment to blink droplets off my eyelashes, and smiled. Oh, so good to be home.

 The fat bike stayed in Anchorage, so this weekend I struck back out on foot, facing a host of minor physical issues that the the bike allowed me to ignore up until now. My legs just feel tired; muscle aches, especially in my quads, crop up early and stay the whole way. My right shin is still sensitive, IT bands are tight, and the skin on both feet is a mess. Even after just an hour of being wet again, it shrivels up and makes my toes look like mummified grasshoppers, and the bottoms of my feet start to hurt in that same aggravating way all over again. But March in Alaska is not about recovery, it's about cramming as much experience into limited windows as possible. And in Juneau, when it's 30-something degrees and intermittently and sometimes simultaneously raining, snaining, blizzarding, and blasting wind, one does not rest. One hikes!

I got out on the Dan Moller Trail for a rainy day snowshoe through heavy wet slush on Friday. This turned into an 11-mile, 4.5-hour outing when I bumped into my ex-boyfriend Geoff, who was running with a group of friends. He lives in Juneau during the summers but currently spends most of the year in Colorado. He just happened to be in town because a friend of his recently died. I doubled back on another ascent toward the ridge to chat, but turned around when a hard bonk hit and I was starting to fade from the group anyway.

After catching up more at dinner last night, Geoff and I planned another outing today on Mount Roberts with our friend Dan and his girlfriend, Marisha. Geoff and I share a dynamic similar to old friends: We're not close, we only infrequently e-mail each other, and we haven't spoken face-to-face in 18 months. But put us together again and within five minutes we're avidly discussing events that happened in 2003 as though they happened last week. This is probably true of a lot of former relationships, but it's rewarding to learn what remains when all of the hurt and confusion finally fades away. Just like memories of a grueling race — we let time whittle away the excess and keep what's left at the core: Good times.

 Good times like taking a beating in Juneau's infamous Taku Wind. Today's conditions were a little breezy. I am woefully out of practice in both snowshoeing and Juneau-specific hiking, and took an unnerving tumble while trudging uphill at what felt like a 45 degree angle leaning into the crosswind. Lying with my face half buried in snow, I plunged one trekking pole into the crust out of instinct and nearly lost the other to the gusts. I wasn't actually going to blow off the mountain, but it sure felt like it. When the group reconvened again, everyone was discussing the various reasons they weren't necessarily feeling it today. Dan, who is training to run the White Mountains 100, already ran 24 miles before he met up with us. Geoff has health issues that seem to be exacerbated by travel and sleep deprivation, and was feeling downtrodden. I couldn't hear Marisha over the wind, but I cited being "a lot less than sure-footed" as my reason for being perfectly happy with turning around.

Down we ran, back to the iced-over, muddy safety of the Sitka spruce forest. The weather here is so terrible. I missed it, so much. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Alaska rambling

 Good thing no one reads blogs any more. I may never get around to my Iditarod report. But I might as well keep up with the Alaska scrapbooking and bike photos. After I booked a month-long trip to Alaska earlier this year, I didn't make any plans past the ITI. Instead, I hoped to just organically flow where the wind happened to take me. Rambling through Alaska. I recommend it.

 Of course, all good rambling requires the kindness of friends who are willing to put up with you for a few days. I spent a few days in Anchorage with Dan and Amy, an awesome couple who have generously let me and others set up winter race base camp at their home for the past three years.

 On Sunday they took me on a tour of their favorite trails in the foothills east of the city. Everyone was tired from weekend adventuring (Dan and Amy biked 68 miles of the Denali Highway in tough conditions.) But I looked at the weather and realized this would be the last bluebird day for a while, so we rallied for a ride.

I guess no Dan-and-Amy ride is complete without a stop at the Hillside Ski Area for snacks. It was such a nice day that I ordered a jug of Diet Pepsi with ice, my favorite, and gulped the whole thing down in less than ten minutes. Of course my core was frozen for about an hour afterward. "You need to remind me not to drink the big soda on a winter ride," I told Dan.

On Sunday afternoon I headed north to Willow to spend a few days with Dave Johnston, the undisputed master of sled running. Dave tells the best stories, and his 2014 Iditarod experience is mind-boggling. I really need to get it down in type, and hope to, eventually.

Willow is largely a mushing community, and is criss-crossed by a maze of fantastic trails. I did spend a too-short time exploring them on Tuesday (without the camera, sadly.) But as a visitor with only a short month to spend in Alaska, I feel drawn to destination rides. So on Monday I set out to climb Hatcher Pass Road, which is closed in the winter but well-traveled on the Willow side.

 It was a blustery day, and the road was in not-great shape for riding: Lots of wind drifts over solid ice. Imagine deep sand on top of ice: You're swerving all over the place and suddenly the wheels wash out from underneath you. I did wipe out once. Luckily Dan let me borrow a helmet, because I smacked the side of it reasonably hard. Although the road climbs 1,600 feet in ten miles, the grades are rarely steep, and I found enough traction in the spindrift to do most of the climbing in the saddle. The wind was blasting in my face at upwards of 25-30 mph; I had to wear a full face mask and goggles even though it was a balmy 27 degrees. Still, the harsh wind gave the ride a raw and adventurous feel, and I love this kind of stuff (in small doses.) I pedaled ten miles up to Lucky Shot Mine, turned my back to the wind, and rode a full-throttle rocket ship downhill. I wanted enough momentum to plow through the deeper drifts, so I let the bike go. Traction felt solid in the fluff, and I was shocked how fast I could coast with that wind.

I had ambitions to make my way up to Denali this week, but the turn in the weather discouraged me from bothering with the long drive. Scenery is sort of the same everywhere when it snows. I still wanted to explore a new area, so this morning I pulled out Dave's gazetteer and decided to check out Petersville Road, which is near Denali State Park and is also unmaintained in the winter (and thus a logical snowmachine route.)

 There was a trail. It was soft. But I drove an hour to get there, so I gave it a shot. The route started out with lots of rollers that would climb 100 to 150 feet and lose nearly that much elevation in a half mile. This new bike of Beat's impresses me with its grippy churning abilities, though. I was actually able to ride most of the climbs, even though I still had to pedal hard to maintain momentum downhill.

 After five miles the snowmachine tracks veered off to a lodge. So I struck out on my own, briefly, with predictable results. At least it was a solid White Mountains training ride. Those measly ten miles required well over two hours of sustained hard work. Nothing like pedaling a bike at running efforts for walking speeds.

With plenty of daylight left in the afternoon (thanks, March and Daylight Savings Time!), I still had a few hours to head over to Talkeetna and check out the winter trails that I'd heard were great for biking. They probably are, but it seemed no one had used them since this latest storm. Even over a nice base, 4 to 6 inches of wet powder is sure to make you earn every inch. I got in another seven miles in 1:45, and I was wiped. Today was my first sustained hard effort since the race, and my lungs reminded me that they're not quite recovered yet. Surprisingly, my legs feel strong. Anything that's not walking, they're fine with. I may attempt my first post-ITI run tomorrow, just to see how it feels.

I've been chatting with Beat every day, but because I post updates on Facebook, I didn't think to repeat them here. He's doing well. Since he left McGrath he's been traveling in close proximity to Tim and Loreen, and camps with them, much like we did before McGrath. It's been tough going since they reached the Yukon River. A cold snap moved in with temperatures down to 30 below, followed by a wind event that drifted in the trail, slowing their progress and forcing them to walk through their exhaustion all night a few days ago because it was just too cold and windy to stop. They're approaching the coast now, less than thirty miles from Unalakleet, but now a winter storm is moving in that could dump 5 to 10 inches of snow on the region. Fans of this race will probably always remember 2014 as the "easy" year for human-powered travel on the Iditarod Trail — but things are *never* easy for the walkers, and they're out there long enough that the weather can and will throw everything their way. I toss and turn every night because I feel so anxious for Beat out there. I get wiped out by four hours of biking, and I just can't imagine how he keeps going everyday, taking care of himself while dealing with such dangerous weather conditions in such a remote area. But every time he calls, he's bursting with positive emotions, and hasn't yet revealed any hints of resignation or despair. He loves this, and of course I relate to his feelings, but it's still difficult to really understand everything he's going through mentally and physically.

On some levels, I wish I was still out there as well. But I'm also glad to be curled up in a warm bed this night, planning small these small adventures. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Onto the adventures

 With Beat now making his way to Nome, I'm planning to bounce around various locales in Alaska until the White Mountains 100 at the end of the month. As such, I've been enable to embark on a few great rides amid the work I *am* trying to complete (thus limited blogging, still.) Since my first post-ITI physical effort, a two-hour fat bike ride on Thursday, I went for three more longish rides (first was 3.5 hours, the second was nearly 7, the third on Sunday was another 3 hours) with few issues. My body is well-equipped for endurance right now, but I seem to have no power in areas where I am usually much stronger, such as steep climbs and bike pushes. However, spinning pedals and breathing cold, crisp air has been fantastic for recovery. I feel great.

Dave Johnston, the runner who finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational in an unfathomable record of 4 days 1 hour 38 minutes, told me, "You must have had a pretty easy time out there if you're already riding this much." I had to laugh. Maybe I did take it too easy out on the Iditarod Trail, but traveling 350 miles on foot was unknown territory to me, let alone doing it in a week, with a 45-pound sled, in highly variable winter weather conditions. I stayed where I thought I needed to stay to survive and reach the finish, which I did. Now I know a whole lot more than I used to.

As for Dave, hearing his stories about the experience were absolutely mind-boggling. I think it would be generous to say that I ran 5 percent of the trail (and this was often shuffling, not a whole lot faster than my walking pace.) Dave walked 5 percent and ran 95 percent of the time, often up to 9-minute-mile pace. Even after his sled broke into two pieces on the dirt at mile 220, he lashed it together with rope and dragged the shattered remains another 130 miles. And he did it nearly without stopping. He slept a total of six hours, basically only ate just a little more than once a day in checkpoints (because he couldn't eat on the move without getting sick, he hardly bothered with trail food!) and when he ran out of water, he didn't stop to melt snow — he was just out of water, sometimes for many hours. He justified this with the explanation that, back in ancient times, people traveled without stopping for days, and they didn't get food and water every thirty minutes. And they lived and went on the reproduce the offspring that became wimpy us.

"People think they need all of this stuff, and they don't," he said.

I said, "Dave, what you did out there doesn't seem possible."

He replied, "I know. Everyone told me I couldn't do it, and even now people still tell me it's not possible. But I did it."

In my admittedly biased opinion, I think Dave's feat on the Iditarod Trail to McGrath is one of the most incredible ultra-long-distance running accomplishments by anyone, anywhere. I hope to write a longer article about it when I get a minute to breathe. Hopefully soon! I'm falling behind on everything.

And I'm falling behind thanks to this — Alaska, and its incredible playground at everybody's back door. On Friday, my friend Jill M. in Anchorage had this great idea to try to ride snow bikes at Turnagain Pass, an area popular with backcountry skiers and snowmachiners. Her reasoning was that recent warmth and sun might have left rideable crust, and thanks to lack of snow, the snowmachine area was currently closed to motorized use. We initially tried the Tin Can drainage along an old skin track. But I was not faring well with the steep pushing, and it was beginning to look like that's all it would be for the foreseeable future. We were able to ride the mile downhill at a grin-inducing clip, but I'm glad we didn't commit to doing that with our bikes all day long (it's funny, because usually I am all about long and punishing hike-a-bikes. But on this day, my legs and feet said no.)


Instead, we crossed the Seward Highway to hit the nicely packed and blissfully quiet snowmachine side, rolling along the valley on punchy but fun crust.

Jill shot this photo of me busting across an open creek. We had a ton of fun doing what often felt like sandy desert / slickrock riding on an incredible bluebird day in the Chugach Mountains.

 On Saturday, Jill and I joined her friends Scott and Sue near the Portage railroad station to look for a winter route to Spencer Glacier. We initially tried to follow a faint snowmachine trail next to the train tracks, but found mainly breakable crust that seemed reluctant to support my weight. Scott, who is a big guy, was also busting through, but Jill and Sue fared much better. All of the women were about the same size, so I can only assume crust-floating technique is an acquired skill that I currently lack thanks to my limited snow bike practice during the past few years. I tend to mash pedals and feather the handlebars too much, which quickly plants one of the tires deep into the snow.

 Even the frustrating trail scouting took place in a beautiful setting, with sparkling hoarfrost and mountains surrounding us on all sides.

 Temperatures were in the single digits rising to the low teens, and winds were light, which meant ideal conditions fat bike travel.

 About 2.5 miles in, it was beginning to look like we'd have to bushwhack across the valley to locate the main snowmachine track, which we avoided because we knew it crossed open water in several spots. At the time, Jill was a half mile ahead and seemed keen on crossing the valley even though it meant also crossing the Placer River, which was likely to contain a lot of open water and thin breakable ice. As it turned out, she just wanted to scout out a potential route and head back to the railroad tracks if necessary, but all I could see were sketchy ice crossings in our future and I wanted no part of that. Scott and Sue also weren't thrilled about our current bike-pushing route, so the three of us opted to turn around, cross the highway bridge, and try the snowmachine trail. Jill continued forward.

After an hour of essentially backtracking, we made it to the other side of the valley and a veritable snowmachine highway. Riding was super fast and life was good.

We crossed a few open or thinly iced-over streams, but thought we had it made until we hit the first open braid of the Placer, which looked to be about knee deep even at the shallowest crossings. I had brought a pair of lightweight waders with me, which allow me to keep my feet dry in stream crossings up to thigh deep. But this first crossing was more than a hundred feet wide, and there was no way for us to share one pair of waders. We walked up and down the bank, looking for an ice bridge, when we encountered a snowmachine tour group crossing the river. They splashed down as water rose well above their own boots, and I walked over to talk to the guide while he waited for the group to make it across. He told us there were five such river crossings, and they were all about equal depth. Ice shelves on both sides would prevent us from riding bikes across, and even if we were willing to ride or wade, the risk wasn't worth it. Wet feet for hours in single digits is a good way to get frostbite.

 So, we turned around. And of course, Jill — who chose to stick close to the tracks — was able to cross the river on railroad bridges and successfully accessed the Spencer Glacier. Scott, Sue, and I were a bit bummed to put in all that effort for a "DNF" (all-in-all, we rode or pushed thirty miles over seven hours, albeit at a relaxed pace with lots of stops.) But I can't deny that it was a grand day out in a beautiful valley. I would have liked to see some blue ice, but I don't regret leaving the railroad tracks to follow the more aesthetic trail. The scenery was incredible.

And no shortage of picture taking opportunities, either.

Scott took this picture of me riding back down the valley. This encapsulates what I love so much about being here: Wide open spaces, wild terrain, mountains, big skies, and an environment that makes accessing these beautiful places deeply challenging — and worth it.