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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Covering ground

When it comes to preparing for a long-distance bikepacking event or tour, long days in the saddle are a requisite part of physical and mental training. I'm not sure anyone has figured out an effective way around this yet — at least, not without significant butt, back, and leg pain. No matter how meticulously fine-tuned your machine of a body is, it still needs to adjust to being all hunched over and turning pedals continuously hour after long hour. But ... I've found ... eventually they do. And the results are wonderfully freeing. You find yourself thinking increasingly about "where can I ride today?" The sky (and daylight hours) are the limit! 

For obvious reasons of daylight hours ... and money ... relative proximity to where I reside is also a limit. But my goal for the next few weeks is to put in at least one, hopefully two longish rides every week, with a sub-goal to explore as many corners of the Santa Cruz Mountains as I can manage. I don't want to just ride the same two worn-out routes every week. I want to see new places. Enjoy some day tours. That's what bikes are for. The map shows the three routes I rode since last Monday — the left is my "Santa Cruz Century," the middle is a gut-buster of a gravel extravaganza that I called the "Quicksilver Grinder," and the right is a somewhat failed exploratory loop around Loma Prieta summit. I was able to cover quite a few new-to-me miles, not to mention a large cross-section of this little mountain range by the sea. 

Liehann joined for the Quicksilver Grinder. I warned him that at our comfortable day pace, this 70-mile loop was going to take nine or ten hours. I'm not sure he believed me, but meanness sets in quick. Two 2,500- and 3,000-foot climbs are packed with 16-percent-plus grades, and the second is on loose gravel, exposed to the hot sun, with rapacious little flies hovering in an insanity cloud. Six miles up the Priest Rock Trail in Sierra Azul took two hours, and I only actually hiked about a hundred meters — most of the time I was pedaling at < 3 mph. I relish in this sort of thing — spun out on some hot dirt road, drenched in sweat, clawing at the flies buzzing my ears, only to arrive at the summit with a cool breeze wafting through the brush, look out over the valley, and think, "Ah, that was so worth it!" Why do I think it was so worth it? That's a bit more difficult to articulate than the reasons why I thought it was hard. 

My accurate time estimate put us in Quicksilver in the late afternoon. I've been to Quicksilver once before and I remember the park having hills. Compared to El Sereno and Sierra Azul, Quicksilver is pancake flat, and Liehann and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening spin. We still had to ride 25 miles back through hilly suburban streets to get home, and that was admittedly less fun. We did, however, navigate the entire route solely with paper maps that had no street or trail names listed. I managed to keep the GPS turned off the entire time. It was a win on multiple levels. 

On Sunday I went for a run with Beat. He is not so interested in long day rides or tours right now (I'm still working on him in this regard), but it's still nice to get outside together. I am still adjusting — I would say not well — to California heat. I suppose I could adjust my habit of working out in the late afternoon, but morning workouts have never gone well for me, regardless of temperature. Still, I struggle when the mercury climbs above 80, and Sunday's run kept me drenched. I managed to suck down two liters of water in two hours. Drinking lots of water is one of the things I do to cope with heat, and it's not necessarily a positive thing. My head feels better but my body has to slosh through a lot of liquid while shedding salt. I basically need to figure out a strategy of not carrying so much water that I drink too much, while still having enough to stay hydrated and not run dry (which tends to freak me out.) Still, it was a beautiful afternoon, and Beat was happy with a mellow pace. 

I blocked out Monday afternoon for my second long ride. Luckily this afternoon was overcast and cool, and I had mapped out an exciting new route near a 3,700-foot mountain called Loma Prieta. The problem with creating new routes from maps and quick Google searches is that I can never be certain if my route is passable. In Alaska and Montana, the question was always, "Does this road or trail still exist or is it completely overgrown?" In California, the question is, "Is this road or trail open and legal?" The answer is usually no.

I ran into several closed signs (somewhat vaguely worded, I decided to interpret them as just prohibiting vehicles rather than bikes), and then finally a locked gate on Loma Prieta. I wasn't even planning to go to the top of the mountain, just around it. But my whole loop depended on that connection, so I had to revise. Without a GPS line to follow or maps, I struck out along a sandy road that rolled along a ridge. The steep up-and-down with sweeping views of Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley proved to be a lot of fun despite a "no bikes" sign that someone had dubiously posted on their own property next to this public road. I descended a long way through a redwood canyon and ended up in the valley somewhere near Watsonville, meandering aimlessly because I didn't have a map. The only thing my GPS was really good for at that point was outlining the location of the sea. Luckily, vague memories pushed me toward Corralitos and Eureka Canyon, where I was able to find my way back up to Highland. I considered a quick jaunt around the downhill trails at Demo Forest, but remembered that even one loop there takes 90 minutes, and this ride was already pushing six hours, which is all I had blocked out for it.

I do love day touring. Exploring new places helps all of the hours and miles pass quickly, and before I know it, my butt is in excellent shape for some real distance. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost. So lost.

I am working on improving my navigational skills. It is a terrifying prospect. In my early 20s, I leaned on friends to handle much of the route-finding on backpacking trips through Utah's canyon country. By my late 20s, I was leaning on GPS. I had my Atlas and USGS topographic maps to piece together mountain excursions in Juneau, bikepacking trips in Utah, and jeep road explorations in Montana — but GPS was always there to lend a friendly screen as I stared bewildered into the tree- or fog-obscured wilderness. Orienteering sounded to me like a not fun sport. Constant focus and translation of maps and non-specific gadgets like compasses and altimeters took away all of the fun of hiking. I like to just hike and look up. What's so wrong with that?

Lately I have been spending more time looking at maps and am beginning to read up on orienteering techniques. Completely unrelated to my map study, on Thursday I set up a plan to meet a friend in Berkeley in the late afternoon. In an effort to beat what can often be horrific traffic, I left two hours early and figured I could kill some time writing at a coffee shop. But then I thought it sounded better to head to Tilden Park for a quick, maybe hour-long run. I'd run with Ann in Tilden Park before, and I knew the general layout and a few specific trail sections. My car's GPS was not so helpful in finding a known trailhead; after accidentally crossing the first half of the Bay Bridge (yeah, I suck at freeway navigation, too), I meandered somewhat aimlessly toward the hills until I happened upon an entrance to the park. I looked at the clock. I still had time.

The trailhead post offered free trail maps. I studied the lines and contours and determined what looked like a great five- or six-mile loop, climbing up to a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and following a creek back to the trailhead. Easy Peasy.

Disorientation set in within a half mile. There were twisty turns and unmarked trail junctions, and yet somehow I made it to the ridge, ran along the smooth and comforting rollers with lots of landmarks in view, located the turn 2.5 miles in, and dropped into the canyon. After a half mile of twisty turns through the woods, I wasn't exactly sure whether I was running west or south, or whether I was even on a mapped trail. There weren't that many other trails on the map, but there seemed to be plenty of junctions. Yes, I get it. Maps are sort of useless without a compass. Another quarter mile across a rocky creek bed and back up a steep hillside had me questioning whether I'd even started where I thought I'd started, if I was still somewhere in Berkeley, or maybe space-time had transported me to southern Oregon or an oaken hillside in the year 1886. I mean, when you feel lost, you feel lost. The ridge was still up there somewhere, so I took the first opportunity to veer onto a fire road — not signed — and began to climb up a steep, grassy hillside.

Of course the climb was about a thousand feet. Of course I ran out of water. Of course I was behind schedule. I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend — not only to inform her I'd be late, but also hopeful that if I described my surroundings, she could tell me where I was — but there was no reception. Maybe I had been transported to 1886! But no, there were the shimmering skyscrapers of San Francisco. How the hell can I be lost in Berkeley, California? How have I gone so many years and so many adventures on my own, while remaining so bad at orientation and navigation?

Finally I gained a summit with a view of San Pablo Reservoir. This was the right ridge. I just needed to find my original route. The fireroad turned in the wrong direction, and impatience had me nearly slicing through brush flourishing with poison oak, but I held off until I located an intersection. Really, not that difficult. But it's funny how panicked I become when I don't understand exactly where I am. This does not bode well for improving my navigational prowess. Not at all.

Going back the exact way I came something like five miles later wasn't even completely straightforward. I didn't remember the trail being so narrow, so steep, so brushy. Maybe I just didn't remember. Ga! By the time I stumbled back to the trailhead, I buried my face in a drinking fountain for several minutes and then sheepishly made my way through the meandering streets to my friend's house. Maybe I could tell her I got stuck in traffic and no one would ever have to know. But no, shame is probably the only way I'm ever going to get any better at this.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Weekend on the move

After several years of self-experimentation, if one were to ask me what I believe to be the best training for maximizing endurance, my answer would be back-to-back-(etc.) long days on the move, with little time for recovery in between. Doing so forces one to approach greater sustainability, while learning how to increase efficiency, more accurately interpret body signals, and build all those activity-specific slow-twitch muscles. I like to mix up my two main sports (trail running and cycling) in order to reduce repetitive motion, which, thanks to my shrinking violet attitude toward speed, has been the main catalyst of my own sports injuries over the years. (Actually, this is untrue. Clumsiness and crashing have been by far the main catalyst of my own sports injuries. Lack of natural coordination is one of the largest reasons why I have such aversion to speed.) I enjoy my cross-training volume method because it keeps me healthy for a fair number of ambitious goals while spending large amounts of time outdoors, year-round. But don't ask me how fast I can run a 5K. It is probably not a whole lot faster than one-tenth of the time I can run 50K. 

Speaking of 50K, Beat and I decided to get back on the wagon this weekend with yet another Woodside Ramble. We really enjoy running these organized fifty-kilometer trail races, which, thanks to a large and dedicated trail-running population in the larger Bay Area, happen close by nearly every weekend. They're relatively inexpensive, put together nice courses, provide useful swag (50K shirts now comprise more than half of my sports wardrobe, and race mugs and pint glasses about three-quarters of our cup collection), snacks and drinks, post-race barbecue, and a fun community. Beat makes a new friend nearly every run. I prefer to run alone for a higher percentage of the time, but I had an enjoyable chat with a woman from Calgary named Iris, with whom I share a mutual friend, Leslie in Banff. Iris was conducting her own double-trouble weekend after running the Lake Sonoma 50-miler on Saturday. 

Beat and I look a little roughed up in the starting-line photo, for good reason. We both felt significantly sleepy, nauseated, sluggish ... I haven't felt worse before a run in a long time. That's another training benefit of signing up for racing events — it motivates you to get out there regardless of how terrible you feel, and that's how you learn that things usually get better if you just give it time. 

This Woodside Ramble was tough for me because I haven't run, actually run, more than eight miles in one stretch since before the Iditarod Trail Invitational, now nearly two months ago. I love running the trails in these parks (Huddart and Wunderlich), but I was nauseated, slightly bonked because I wasn't eating due to nausea, and severely lacking in mojo during this run. Many times, even on descents, I caught myself unconsciously slowing to a walk because blah, running. I probably would have quit due to lack of interest if I'd just been out on my own time, and I'm glad I had the self-motivating perimeters of the race to stay in it. It's satisfying to learn that even "blah" legs are usually plenty strong, and the "spring slump" I've come to expect is likely less related to real physical setbacks than it is a simple failure of mojo. It's hard for me to return from Alaska to the heat and more routine outdoors opportunities of my home in California. I do enjoy it here, but any return to routine takes a period of adjustment after more engaging adventures. 

Speaking of mojo recovery, I got up bright and (not so early) Monday morning for an exciting road route I mapped out a few months ago and never got around to riding, a "Santa Cruz Century." I bumped the long ride back to Monday rather than Saturday, because I was scared enough of trying to run fifty kilometers that I wanted to do it on relatively fresh legs. This loop from my house weighed in at 105 miles with 11,200 feet of climbing, and covered quite a few new-to-me roads. I love riding secondary roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains for their narrow corridors, lack of traffic, and scenic settings. I tend to forget about frequent 15+ percent grades, teeth-rattling broken pavement, relentless hairpin turns, and surprising (for a Bay Area road route) lack of services. On a hot day like Monday (84 degrees) I actually have to haul three liters of water and most of the day's food. I only expected one gas station stop, in Felton.   

Christmas tree farm on Skyline Ridge. A bit like riding through Alaska's Farewell Burn, but about 100 degrees warmer with much prettier trees. 

Zaynte Creek. Much of the road cuts a precarious side-slope above a steep gorge, with aforementioned broken pavement and hairpins. I am not brave on skinny tires by any stretch of the imagination, and knotted up all the muscles in my shoulders while brake-throttling the descent. 

I stopped in Felton to fill up my water bladder with ice and buy a package of Famous Amos cookies and cheese pretzel Combos (I make the strangest gas station food choices on bike tours. I usually question them the moment I step outside.) I didn't eat anything right away because the heat was bearing down and my stomach was feeling iffy again. After Felton, I immediately had to start up another 2,000-foot climb on the relentless grades of Felton Empire Road. Ooof. 

I continued climbing through the redwood forest on Ice Cream Grade, and arrived at this small mesa that was much drier than the surrounding region, with sandstone cliffs and sparse fir trees. It looked a lot like the high desert mesas of Northern New Mexico. It's fascinating how widely climate zones can vary in short distances in this region. Spring was just beginning to arrive, with ferns emerging from the brown brush. 


It was a swift drop to the coast, with an impressive headwind blasting down Highway One. Northwest is the prevailing wind; I should have anticipated it, but I did not. At this point I was feeling fairly shattered, was looking forward to some flat miles, and was not thrilled to realize that the 25-30 mph headwinds would demand a harder fight than much of the climbing, and it was going to go on like this for the better part of 25 miles. Oooof. 

A little jog over Swanton Road allowed me to escape the coast but not the wind. It was an idyllic setting though — a shallow but narrow canyon filled with strawberry farms and happy-looking horses. 

I could not wait to turn east and start climbing into the mountains again. Even climbing a 15-percent grade is better than fighting strong headwinds on a highway. I started having similar urges to my walk breaks during the Woodside Ramble, when the legs just wanted to give up and do something — anything — else. Here's where the mantra "shut up legs" comes in handy; "you're not that weak, stop pretending and keep pedaling."

 I had this delusion that I could wrap up this ride in eight hours because, "road century." But the effort was not easier mile-for-mile than mountain biking, and with breaks the duration of the ride was creeping closer to ten hours. Ah well. It was a long climb out of Pescadaro and Alpine roads, with a 700-foot descent that I conveniently forgot about.

At least there was a nice sunset to reward staying out late.

And then the moon came out; I just missed the lunar eclipse. It was a few hours later. I expected to feel more tapped out toward the hundred-mile mark, but emerging darkness perked me up, I finally got down the ham sandwich I had been carrying all day, and the reality is I could have gone quite a bit farther. That's both the benefit and technique of building "forever pace," in my experience. The ability to keep going is the ability to keep seeing and experiencing. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Iditarod playlist

Someone recently asked me about the music I listened to during my recent races — an Iditarod playlist. Listening to music while exercising, training, or racing outdoors is a controversial subject. Some people are adamantly against it, and those who object to racing playlists often carry the assumptions that those who need music are emotionally weak, bored, or trying to drown out fatigue and pain. They accuse us of shutting out the world, but I don't see it that way at all. I don't use music to shut out experiences; I use it to enhance them. I connect with music much in the same way I connect with wilderness, and in my view, music and outdoor experiences intensify each other in equal parts. 

 I don't listen to music all of the time — perhaps not even most of the time during a multiday effort — but I still consider it a vital part of my experience. As such, I carried four iPod Shuffles for the 350-mile trek to McGrath, all loaded up with different playlists. There was one Shuffle that I filled days before the race with mostly new-to-me music, and a few of those songs resonated deeply during the Iditarod. It became by far my favorite Shuffle, and I ended up just recharging that one (with a battery-powered charger) and listening to it throughout the seven days I was out on the Iditarod Trail. Although there were more than 200 songs on that Shuffle and well over 800 total, if I were to pick an "Iditarod playlist," this would be it. Included are photos Beat took during our time together on the trail. 


"Black Out Days," Phantogram

If I was looking for two ongoing themes in my favorite songs during difficult endurance efforts, most are either outright silly or high-energy yet tinted with sadness. I suppose it makes sense. Emotions can be greatly exaggerated out on the trail. Music gave shape to the melancholy, while at the same time outlining an underlining joy. I remember this Phantogram song first came on during the first night of the journey, as we crossed the Dismal Swamp beneath green waves of Northern Lights. The moon was out and the trail was distinct enough that I could turn off my headlamp and walk through the darkness, gazing over my shoulder at the aurora for a long while. I often sang out loud when the lyrics resonated: "If I could paint the sky; Would all the stars shine a bloody red?"


"Reflektor," Arcade Fire

The entire Iditarod Trail is lined with reflective route markers, either permanently affixed to trees and tripods, or tied around wooded lath in the snow. During the long winter nights, these reflectors capture even the dim light of headlamps from a long distance away. Finger Lake, at mile 135, is a checkpoint at the end of a long series of frozen swamps. All of these swamps look the same, and it's the kind of place where you think you've arrived about three hours before you're actually there. As we made our way through the interminable swamps, every distant reflective marker somehow convinced me it was the lights of the lodge. Of course "Reflector" provided the perfect score for every mild disappointment I experienced when I realized I was wrong: "I thought I found a way to enter. It's just a reflector. I thought I found a connector. It's just a reflector." At one point, Beat was several hundred yards ahead and I indulged in singing loudly: "It's just a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! Of a reflection! ..."

"Jump Rope," Blue October. 

"Jump Rope" is one of those songs that just landed on my iPod, and I hated it at first. It annoyed me so much. My Shuffle was usually stuffed beneath all of my clothing layers, pressed against my skin to keep the battery warm. But if I could reach it at all, I would skip this song. For whatever reason, the random song generator really liked this one; it came on a lot. One day, we were making our way over a series of snowmobile moguls on the trail and I found myself mumbling, "Up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah ... it will get hard." After that, I became hooked on the blatant motivational theme and catchy repetitiveness.


"How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?" Bombay Bicycle Club

Sometimes, amid the physical exhaustion and encompassing focus on forward motion, I imagined the Iditarod Trail as a sentient entity that would converse with me, without prompting.  This song is a good example of how I interpret my imaginary and often abstract conversations with the Iditarod Trail. I would pose a rhetorical question like the one presented in the title, and the Iditarod Trail would answer with repetitive prodding and incessant demands — "Can I wake you up? Can I wake you up? Is it late enough? Is it late enough?"


"Good 4 It," Wallpaper

This song has a line about "zombie phone" that for whatever dumb reason made me giggle every time. It also contained more resonant lyrics than that: "How to stay alive though? How the f*** should I know?"


"Leave it Alone," Broken Bells

I had a tough morning the day we traveled between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake, miles 130 to 165. Monotone clouds and light snow deteriorated to fog and moderate sleet, and then rain. The cold soaking weather, combined with dreary skies, lack of views in what I knew to be a beautiful region, and day three (or was it four) fatigue, sapped away any energy or willpower I could muster for sled-dragging and made the miles seem endless. This song was the perfect rainy day anthem. "Could it all be over now? We've seen it all the while ...  There's no dimension to the clouds ... And the moon and world around.  That's the heart of all my pain ...  cause I don't wanna go ... Oh the distant light ... in a hue we can't describe, still we know."

"Lies," Chvrches

This was a good marching song. I also imagined it as the Iditarod Trail taunting me, which the Iditarod Trail often did in my imagination. "I can sell you lies ... You can't get enough ... Make a true believer of anyone, anyone, anyone."


"I Gotta Feeling," The Black Eyed Peas


The day after it rained, we crossed over the the far side of the Alaska Range. Several days of warm temperatures absolutely scoured the already-dry region of snow, as well as a lot of its surface-coating ice. For fifty miles we hacked through knee-deep alder tangles, standing water on top of glare ice, bare dirt, roots, ankle-deep mud, wet swamps, tussocks, and shin- to knee-deep stream crossings. This wouldn't have been a terrible trail to backpack if it was a warm day in the summer, and we were carrying backpacks rather than dragging 45- and 75-pound sleds over endless obstacles. The sled-dragging part was always my weakness in this endeavor; I never became terribly strong at it in the best of conditions, and in the worst I was absolutely at my physical limit just to maintain forward motion on the steep rollers along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. We covered two miles in a good hour. In a bad hour, sometimes closer to one.

After a series of stream crossings, some of my gear had gotten wet, my shoes and socks were soaked, my sled was filled with greasy mud, my head was spinning, and I knew that the temperature could possibly drop to 30 below overnight — as it is known to do in the Farewell Burn in February. I had a complete, mucousy, blubbering breakdown spurred by paralyzing fear and frustration, that Beat was unfortunate enough to witness. Shortly afterward, iPod brought up this Black Eyed Peas song. Knowing that we were going to be spending that night sleeping on muddy ground in the Burn, with soaked feet and gear, in an area where there probably wasn't enough snow to make more water, made this song even more wistfully relatable — "I gotta feeling. That tonight's gonna be a good night." I must have repeated it eight or ten times, using the catchy beat to motivate my body to pull harder over the roots and tussocks. I sang out loud to the part where they repeated all the days of the week — "Get with us, you know what we say, say ... Party every day ... p-p-p-party every day." ... Because that's what we do on the Iditarod Trail. :)

"Last Words," Hospitality

Another haunting song that got me through some long miles. It was beautiful amid the frozen swamps, far-sweeping horizons and spindly spruce forests of the Farewell Burn.

"Army of the Damned," Lonewolf

Beat and I agree that this death metal song is the perfect anthem for walking to Nome.  But it's appropriate for all frozen-purgatory marching occasions.

"Roar," Katy Perry. 

Yeah. I pretty much had to go there.


"Team," Lorde

One the final stretch into McGrath, I operated in a dreamlike state of mind. I was slightly low on food and rationing calories, and discovered there was a peaceful place between alert and bonked, where time lost meaning, landscape features blurred, and everything seemed magical. As Beat and I traveled the wide expanse of the Kuskokwim River, we began to approach another walker who was about a mile ahead. We knew it had to be our friend Steve, who left Nikolai the previous night just as we were arriving. While in Nikolai, Steve made a phone call and learned that his father had died, and was justifiably emotional. Rather than rest in the remote village, he opted to leave not long after sunset, facing a long night on the river in order to reach McGrath and fly home. The fact that we had caught up to him many hours later, and after what had been a cold night (20 below), raised some concern. It needn't have, as Steve just needed to be alone when he left Nikolai, and had bivied for several hours on the trail. But I was worried he was distraught or in distress on top of everything else, and Beat seemed determined to catch him. We power-hiked on the verge of running for 45 minutes, and again I was at my physical limits on rationed calories and a child-like emotional state. During that hard march, Lorde's "Team" seemed to score the strange combination of stress and bliss. "And you know, we're on each other's team."

"Happy," Wrens

The temper tantrum that erupted while listening to this song is one of my most prominent memories from my first trip to McGrath in 2008. I put it on the playlist of all four of my iPods for that reason, but in the strange way Shuffles work, "Happy" did not come up once until the final day — in almost the same spot as my 2008 emotional eruption on the Kuskokwim River. Hearing this song in a similar location but very different context underscored just how different my journey had been this time around. It was a fitting finale to my 2014 playlist as well. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Suddenly spring

 Spring is my favorite time of year in California. In this region, spring actually spans February and March; by April it's the cusp of summer, with its heat and parched hills, face-stalking flies, dusty trails, stinging nettle and robust poison oak. But for now it is still spring, and returning from white winter to hills splashed in green has been refreshing.

 Less refreshing is re-acclimating to 80-degree temperatures, discovering that SPF 15 is no longer going to cut it, and sweaty chamois. But, Alaska adventures are over and it's time to look forward to the summer projects, put in more productive screen time, and get back out there in anticipation of the rest of 2014. I'll write soon about my summer plans, but let's just say there is a lot of mountain biking *and* mountain running in my near future. This is to be the year of "forever pace," a grand experiment and one that I'm pretty excited about.

 Trying to pull myself out of White Mountains 100 and travel fatigue resulted in slow-paced plods on Thursday and Friday, but by Saturday both Beat and I were feeling more snappy and rallied for a four-hour mountain bike ride with Liehann. This was Beat's longest effort since he returned from Nome two weeks ago (was it really that recently? It feels like months at this point.) He rode the same bike I used in the White Mountains, re-fitted with 29" wheels. Beat purchased the soft-tail Moots as a mountain bike that just happened to be convertible to a fat bike, and I think this was his longest ride so far on the (decidedly slimmer) beast. He seemed pleased with the handling and agility. It is a great bike.

 Enjoying the spoils of snow biking in sunny California.

 Thirty-five miles and 5,200 feet of climbing in the "heat" admittedly felt tougher than I expected, but saddle time is my current goal, so I joined Liehann for his long ride on Sunday. We planned an 80-mile loop through Big Basin and Pescadero state parks. The winter here was exceptionally dry, but when Beat left Alaska, he took all the bad weather that had been shadowing him for two weeks and brought it home — a whole week of rain. I just missed it, bringing Alaska's unseasonably blue skies and warmth home with me, to enjoy the newly lush trails and hillsides after green-up.

It seemed cooler on the move than it was. Our lunch break in the sun quickly migrated to a lunch break in the shade, huddled in a thin sliver of a fir tree shadow — which was humorous given we were riding through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, offering a lot of places to escape the sun just below the dry and exposed ridge. For lunch I had a sad bread-and-cheese "sandwich" that I cobbled together from a relatively empty fridge in the morning. That's when Liehann pulled out an entire pound of sliced turkey and offered to share. That's an important sign of a good bike partner — the ability to complete a sandwich.

 Blasting down Gazos Creek fireroad. Photos can't really illustrate it, but this is pretty much the best descent ever, at least for a fireroad. Fast and flowing with swooping turns, steep drops, the filtered sunlight of huge redwood trees, cool shade, moss and ferns, gurgling creeks and chirpy birds to complete the tropical rainforest feel of the place. The climb back up Pescadero is equally steep, equally redwoody, and decidedly less sublime. I felt more tired and taxed than I did at any point during the White Mountains 100. But if I stopped my internal whining long enough to consider it, I realized that my legs still felt plenty strong, the head-boiling sensation would fade once acclimation kicked in, and eighty miles is really not so far. It was a big weekend — 115 miles and some 15,000 feet of climbing all told, but not a big deal. In both 2012 and 2013, I returned from Alaska feeling physically downtrodden, a mental state that carried into rough-edged summers. I'm experimenting with making this season different simply by switching up my attitude. We'll see how it plays out, but it's my new mantra: "not a big deal." No need to worry about limits if there are none.

Beat keeps asking about my Iditarod race report. I haven't started it. I'm spending my days with newspaper projects and finishing up the book about Tim Hewitt, as well as working on my book proposal for Ann Trason. With the Iditarod story, I had this idea to spend a bit more time on the writing, polish more than usual, and integrate text and photos in a more dynamic way than the blog allows. Basically, I want to make a small digital book out of it. Beat thinks there might not be enough material there, but I want to have fun with the project — after all, what's the point of writing about your own adventures if you can't have fun with the writing as well?

Since I struggle so much with finishing a full book, I'm considering the prospect of "micro-publishing" to keep the salmon wheel turning. Other authors have tried this with variable success, some slim to none, but it seems worth a shot. I recently did my taxes, and although my books are dwarfed by other sources of income, it continues to surprise me how many royalties they still bring in. This blog, which I spend hours and hours and hours on (for fun; it's my relaxation outlet) pulls in about $1,000 a year through Google Ads. The books, which I spent a few weeks writing years ago and haven't done much with since, still make considerably more than that. It's all chump change in the Silicon Valley, but it's a start. Something I really need to figure out this year, in addition to finding my forever pace, is what I really want to do as a writer/editor/publisher. Taxes make it starkly clear which efforts "pay off" and which ones really are just a hobby. I've never been one to place all or even the majority of my self worth in the things other people are willing to pay me to do, but splashes of honesty are occasionally needed when the things I've been so dedicated to just aren't working. With that said, I maintain loyalty to the downtrodden newspaper industry, and I believe even more firmly in books.