Monday, May 26, 2014

Beat's gadget genius

I was laughing at the glut of gadgets for my mountain bike's dashboard, which include (but are not limited to) an odometer, a headlight, a rotating map holder (not pictured), a compass (also not pictured) and Beat's electronic cue-sheet gizmo. I find the cue-sheet gizmo immensely endearing, because of the thought and creativity that went into it. What it does is display turn-by-turn directions based on digitalized maps and distance readings from a magnet on the front wheel. So, without tapping into the Global Positioning System, it can alert me to upcoming turns as long as I'm on my intended course. It has buttons to reset and backtrack if I'm not. And it also features pre-programmed notes on the route (while nearing the top of Black Mountain on Thursday, it informed me that "Woot Woot" was coming up in 0.2 kilometers.) It's a fun device. Beat made it himself.

By made it himself, I mean that he compiled the various parts, soldered the circuit board, wrote the software, programmed the device, and designed and printed the plastic casing on his 3D printer. He takes the art of geekery to impressive levels that I never knew were possible for a hobbyist until I knew him. It involved dozens of hours of late-night tinkering to create a wonderful little device that serves few practical purposes outside my unique need for fast-moving, route-specific, GPS-free navigation. It's not that I'd be lost without this device (well, in fairness, I'll probably get lost no matter what ...) But he enjoys this kind of work. Some people paint. Some people write in their blog. Beat creates esoteric outdoor gear and even more arcane gadgets. That's one of the many things I love about him.

I was going to aim for the "peak" week of training this past week, but in many ways, I wasn't feeling it, and there's a point where perceived drawbacks outweigh diminishing returns. It was a trifecta of nagging Achilles tendon after the Ohlone 50K, trying to spend more time polishing a manuscript so I can get it to my editor — finally — before I leave, and allergies that were on a particularly sharp tear. I was alternating between Claratin and Benedryl and trying to decide which drug made any difference at all, arriving at different conclusions mostly based in how much more time I forced myself to stay outside in the grass pollen haze. Liehann and I planned our last long ride on Saturday and actually convinced Beat to join, as well as a roadie friend of Liehann's, Giles. It was a fun day; we rode virtually the same route I took on Wednesday, but backwards. Through lots of sputtering and wheezing, I managed to feel stronger as the day went on.

Over a 55-mile ride with 8,500 feet of climbing, we threw a final insult into the mix with a climb that gains 841 feet in just over a mile. Liehann hasn't been running, so he decided to push his bike up the climb, reasoning that he needed more hike-a-bike conditioning. Based on that logic, I need more experience pedaling up ridiculous grades that are probably faster to push, so I resolved to stay in the saddle. Given my general performance this week, I thought I'd be a sputtering mess by the end. But I broke through that wall, and felt great all the way to top.

Beat hasn't been riding much beyond his daily commute to work, and dug deep for the eight-hour ride, on his fat bike. He's just an all-around sweet guy like that. I'm happy to have little bike gizmos to remind me of him while I'm away. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Loaded down

Days remaining to get ready for a ride across South Africa are dwindling, and I'm working on making final decisions about gear. This trip is particularly scary because mechanically, I'm virtually on my own. The Freedom Trail travels through rural and remote parts of South Africa, and bike shop availability is even more slim than it was on the Great Divide. As such, I'm bringing an entire mini-kit of spare parts that I can only hope I don't actually need to use, as I have low confidence in my own field repairs. (I get it, if you're going to be a cyclist, it pays to work on your own bikes. But trust me, you would not want to ride any bike that I took apart and put back together, and neither do I.)

So, top of my list, spare parts. Next on the list is gadgets. When a race organization explicitly forbids GPS, you need a lot of gadgets to make up for it: Odometer, spare odometer after mud inevitably kills the first one, spare magnets, compass, handlebar map holder, and an ingenious little electronic cue-direction device that Beat has designed, built, and programmed. Hopefully I'll have a chance to write more about this device after I have a chance to test it more extensively. It has high potential for usefulness and also for being broken by me. But it's made with love, and that is reason enough to value it highly. Gadgets also include a handlebar and helmet light, spare batteries, battery charger, camera, camera charger, cell phone, iPods, and a South Africa plug adaptor. You should see this plug adaptor; it's the size of a rear derailleur. Seriously, everything is bigger in Africa.

Liehann and I won't be carrying camping gear, as we plan to utilize the support stations set up by the Freedom Challenge organization, even if it means pulling an extra long night ride to make it to the next stop, or stopping early if the next station is too far away. Cowboy camping in rural South Africa is discouraged, and I figure the farm house accommodations will be part of the whole cultural experience. There are also occasional warnings on the maps such as "watch out for rhinos" ... so yeah, there's that. I do have a robust emergency bivy (that won't fall apart if I need to use it), fire starters, and extra clothing for potential unexpected long stops.

And clothing. South Africa is located at a subtropical latitude with oceans on three sides, so winters are relatively mild. Storms can be more frequent and severe during the winter months, but the Interior is usually characterized by crisp, sunny days and frosty nights. It actually seems comparable to a coastal California winter — 80-degree heat is a possibility, but so are temperatures in the low 20s. There are also points on the route that climb near 3,000 meters (10,000 feet.) Even coastal California is a not-so-nice place in the winter at those elevations, and one poorly timed storm could bury us in snow. Liehann warned that we could also spend a lot of time soaking wet, so I'm carrying a lot of the same clothing I took on the Iditarod Trail in February — Gore-Tex shell, rain pants, wind tights, nanopuff jacket, windproof hat, windproof buff, mitten shells, fleece socks and vapor barrier socks. I even purchased a pair of size 10 Montrail Mountain Masochist shoes to accommodate extra sock layers, with the added bonus of not being Gore-Tex (as are my current winter shoes) for better ventilation. My everyday kit is a Castelli skort and Patagonia capaline mock turtleneck long-sleeve shirt — which I also wore in the Iditarod, and believe to be the best shirt for all occasions. It's somehow sun-protective yet cooling when it's hot, and reasonably insulating when it's cold. I'm also carrying a pair of light running shorts and a T-shirt for sleeping, and also for wearing on the bike if the chamois become a problem (Over long distances or rainy days, chamois take on some of the properties of a dirty diaper, and that is a problem.)


I loaded up my bike and backpack with the lot of it, as well as a day's food and water, and set out this afternoon for a weighted ride. I planned a particularly climb-intensive route to get a feel for the heft on steep terrain, but started to feel bad surprisingly early. So bad, actually, that when I slashed a brand new tire at mile 3.5, I very seriously considered pulling the plug on the whole ride. There was a dime-sized shard of glass stuck between tread, and sealant was spewing all over the place. But when I pulled out the glass and spun the wheel, the sealant seemed to hold. A few pumps of air was all it took to get everything back to normal. I had my entire spare-part kit with me, including tire boots, two spare tubes, extra sealant, and a patch kit, but I was trying to justify my way out of riding. "Maybe the sealant won't hold. I should just go home."

Maybe feeling this way was predictable. Allergy season is in full swing, so there's that. I also had a blood draw in the morning. Fasted for twelve hours, gave three vials full of blood for different tests, ate two bowls of cereal and coffee, and set out for a 50-mile ride with 8,000 feet of climbing on a loaded mountain bike. But it wasn't *that* much blood, so I was incredulous. "Why do I feel so weak? This bike isn't *that* heavy. I'm just being lazy."

By the time I hit the Waterwheel Trail, I was feeling lightheaded, almost dizzy. But it's good learning experience to practice recovery on the bike — dialing back the effort level and trying to recapture energy while maintaining forward motion. I ate a few fruit snacks but my appetite was low and I didn't want to add nausea to the mix. Still, I had so much fun descending Bella Vista and Alpine trails that I forgot all about the dizziness.

That is, until it was time to climb up Windy Hill. Grades sometimes approach 20 percent, and I could not stay on the bike without feeling like I might black out. I stumbled and wove as I pushed up the loose gravel fire road, wondering how I could possibly become so weak and delirious with this scant extra weight — I can usually ride up this trail without issue. About a half mile from the top, I finally sat down in the high grass that ignites my allergies and ate two Clif Bars. Results weren't immediate, but I started to feel a whole lot better within the next twenty minutes. It seems obvious as I write this, but at the time — before Clif Bars — my world was crashing down on me. I was too weak to pedal a loaded bike. My legs were shot. This Africa trip was going to be a disaster. Low blood sugar — such a humorous physical state, when you think about it.

Anyway, it was a great ride — scenic loop, rolling steep hills, lots of singletrack, almost all dirt between the first and last eight miles, and it starts right out my front door. Even with low blood sugar and loaded for touring, it's fun. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hot lips

 Have you ever had an extremely minor injury catch you off guard and take over your life for a few days? This was my week. I sunburned my lips. It happened during my long ride over Diablo and Hamilton on Saturday. I'm usually very meticulous with the lip and face sunscreen; I keep a stick of SPF 50 within reach at all times, and Saturday was not an exception. Maybe it was the wind and excessive licking or maybe I just lapsed from my burned-in (ha!) sunscreen habit, but I fried my lower lip.

On Sunday it hurt a little, but something erupted on Monday and it bubbled into a full oozing blister complete with frequent bleeding and intense pain. Symptoms also included difficulty eating, drinking coffee and all other liquids through a straw, inability to sleep at night because it felt like a hot iron was pressed against my mouth at all hours, and uncharacteristic reluctance to venture outside. I had absolutely zero interest in the hot sun and anything under it, but figured this wasn't the best timing to sit inside for a week nursing this "injury." I slathered the third-degree mess in a thick layer of sunscreen and balm and forced myself out for a few short runs, reasoning that running is slower than biking and thus less likely to produce pain-inducing wind. But my spring allergies are also a mess right now; I can only breathe through my mouth, and every breath was like sucking fire. Argh. I was in such agony, but how much can you sulk over things you do to yourself, and silly things at that?

On Thursday, I headed down to Orange County to visit my little sisters. My youngest sister, Sara, lives in Huntington Beach, and Lisa was flying from Utah for the weekend as a birthday gift to herself. It was the perfect opportunity for quality sister time, and it was also sunny and 106 degrees in Los Angeles on Thursday. The lips were still a mess; it was embarrassing. I purchased some zinc oxide and enjoyed several fun outings that all three of us could enjoy, including an afternoon on the beach.

We had some fun re-enacting a favorite family photo. I took the photo when I was 11 and my sisters were 8 and 3, during a vacation to Southern California. I remember the camera; it was a purple Mickey Mouse Kodak point-and-shoot that ran 110 film cartridges. It was my first camera, and I relished the freedom to shoot my own images and capture my own memories. Shortly after I took the top photo, a church group was putting together time capsules that we were to open when we turned 25. That beach photo went in the mix, and was forgotten until I found the sealed can in my parent's basement and opened it in 2004. The photo was badly damaged in a misguided attempt to laminate it, but I retouched it in Photoshop and ordered a large print for my mother. My parents love that photo, and I thought it would be fun to recreate a 2014 version.

All in all it was a sister fantastic trip — we watched chick flicks, tried Shabu-Shabu (Lisa referred to the dish as "Japanese fondue"), ate frozen bananas on Balboa Island, and did the kinds of things sisters tend to do in So-Cal. My lip blister had almost sealed (not healed, I did mean sealed) when I drove home on Saturday. I'm pretty sure I'll have some permanent scarring from this incident.

 Sunday was the Ohlone Wilderness 50K. My friend Ann offered an entry to this race back in February, and of course I said yes because I love local 50K races and Ohlone is possibly my favorite. What's not to love about a classic point-to-point run through a scenic cross-section of the Diablo Range, with 8,000 feet of climbing in 31 miles, frequent and friendly aid stations, and a huge barbecue at the finish? Beat was en route to Nome when I signed up, and I forgot to ask about signing him up as well. The race was full by the time he returned. He volunteered for pre-race course checking, so he had the privilege of running the whole route two hours early and received the much-coveted tie-dye volunteer T-shirt.

I had a decent run at Ohlone. One couldn't ask for better weather (65-75 degrees, foggy in the morning and a fierce but refreshing wind in the afternoon.) The wind made the grass pollen situation quite bad; allergies got to the point where I could hear chirpy birds in every breath, so I blitzed the wheezing with two Benadryl pills. The drowsy side effect usually hits me hard, but this race necessitated such an early rise (4:30!) that it was difficult to tell whether the medication increased already prevalent drowsiness. It definitely opened my airways. Before Benadryl, I was becoming genuinely concerned about my ability to keep running; after Benadryl, I could breathe.

Besides the allergies I felt strong until a series of steep descents after Rose Peak, where I discovered that my downhill running technique is back to being sucky again. I suppose my running mileage has been reduced over the past few months and probably led to a lapse in confidence and return to bad habits. Every step was stiff and jerky; there was frequent skidding on the loose dirt, picking bad lines through the rocks and stumbling, panicking about hurting myself and and doing more downhill walking than anyone who calls themselves a trail runner should do. Pathetic. I shouldn't be running like this anymore, even if I took a substantial amount of time off. And I'm still running through my bike training, so I'm not exactly sure what happened today. At least uphill strength managed to pick up some of the slack. I mostly stayed near the same set of folks through the end of the race, so I finished where I should have. (Not sure where that was. 7:18 was the time. Nineteen minutes slower than the 6:59 in 2012 that I thought was fantastic, because Ohlone is not a fast 50K for most.) But yeah. Running. So hard. Why is it so hard? I do have fun with running though, in no small part because nothing about it comes easily.

I didn't do a single bike ride this week. I blame lips. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Flow motion

There are a lot of roads to nowhere; many are fun and scenic places to ride bikes. Rare, however, are the collision of factors that tiptoe toward a more transcendent experience. On this day: A cold northwest wind, much cooler than we anticipated for the East Bay in mid-May. A steep, rolling backroad cut high above a gorge, waiting for the canyon to come to it. A 146-mile day ride over two big mountains and the physical reactions associated with that effort. Mile 89 — the gorge rises to road level and suddenly we're wending along a trickle of a stream. The grade is just uphill enough to always have to work for it, to never coast, and the route begins to trend southeast. Crosswind becomes a tailwind; I spin the pedals harder until I feel no air at all. The wind and I are moving in the same direction at the same speed. Everything becomes silent; even bike vibrations quiet, as though the wheels have lifted off the pavement. I feel everything else more intensely — the tension and release of leg muscles, the relaxation of shoulders, the hard leans into turns, acceleration against gravity. My hands, hot and calloused. My skin, chilled and sweaty. My breathing, soft and urgent. Everything else stands very, very still, as though I am moving in direct correlation with the Earth. Centered.

Just recently I came across the story of "Slomo." You may have heard about Slomo, as a documentary about him was recently featured in the New York Times and has since been brought up in discussions about the biology of bliss. Slomo is the alter-ego of John Kitchin, a 69-year-old former neurologist who has spent the past fifteen years skating the same stretch of boardwalk on Pacific Beach in San Diego. He's perfected an odd-looking technique of balancing on one leg for as long as possible, giving the appearance that he's skating in slow motion. This is effectively how he spends the majority of his waking hours. Skating up and down Pacific Beach. Every day. For fifteen years.

Ever since I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" last year, I've been fascinated by the different techniques people use to achieve, as Kitchin calls the state he's seeking, "The Zone." My friend who recommended the book plays the saxophone; some people paint or compose music, others ski, surf, run, ride bikes. Some people find flow in meditation and yoga, others while working an assembly line, still others engaged in pastimes as mundane as generating repetitive rhythms with their fingers. What's intriguing is all of these wildly different activities aim to achieve the same end. There are many short and long ways to describe "Flow" (the book is quite long.) But they way I see Flow is an alignment — to, at least briefly, tap into the pattern underlying the chaos of life, shed self-consciousness and all the baggage of ego and individual perception, and just be.

When I contemplate my happiest moments on a bike, patterns emerge — I am usually somewhere surrounded by subtle beauty, a place that feels remote, riding a road or smooth piece of singletrack that traces the contour of the land. The terrain is generally nontechnical, so I feel no stress, and requires my physical input to create motion — meaning long downhill coasting doesn't usually generate the same level of joy. Another integral component is the endurance factor. The accumulation of distance and effort wears down mental barriers and helps pry open the gateway to this state of mind. If I were to ride the wending contours of Mines Road at mile three of a day's bike ride, I would find the experience enjoyable, pleasant, still completely worthwhile ... but bliss, that only comes later.

On Saturday Liehann and I set out to ride from the start of a 50K trail race Beat was running in Oakland, and ride home via the summits of Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton. We pedaled through the Oakland hills in cool morning air but then had to cross a long swath of freeways and crowded streets in Walnut Creek. I have a love-hate relationship with road cycling. I love how much ground I can cover and all the things I can see riding roads, but don't cope well with traffic, and sometimes other cyclists. Diablo was an unsettling experience. It was a beautiful spring day and there were lots of bikes on the road — which is great, but there were some tensions. I got a few derisive comments about my backpack and platform pedals (I get it, I'm a dorky tourist who likes my comforts.) There was one narrowly avoided head-on collision with a cyclist who took a sharp curve really wide. And the descent was just terrifying — mostly because impatient drivers pulled out to pass long groups of climbing cyclists and other cars, with no regard for those already in the lane, riding at 20-plus miles per hour downhill.

As we rode away from the mountain, I thought this road ride was a mistake. But as we passed into more rural areas, I began to perk up because it was still a beautiful spring day, traffic became far less of an issue, and the joy of distance was beginning to set in. We devoured chips with Coke and Gatorade while propped against the window outside a gas station in Livermore. (Liehann said, "I feel so classy," and I said, "This is the best part of bike touring. You just don't care.") Then it was on to Mines Road, rolling through the remote heart of the Diablo Range.

By the time we descended into the San Antonio Valley, I had savored a few moments of bliss and felt genuinely excited about the next section — turning directly into that 20 mph northwest wind and climbing the steep backside of Mount Hamilton. We were north of a century and pedaling a section of road that climbs about 2,500 feet in five miles — punishing, but wonderful. I rode up to the closed observatory on the peak, gazed out across far horizons, and put on a thin wind jacket for what promised to be a frigid descent. My surly Mount Diablo demeanor had turned into a big dopey Mount Hamilton grin. When I thought about the reasons why, I thought about Slomo.

Slomo's lifestyle is based in advice to "do what you want," and one of the best parts of life is a freedom to do so. That freedom is a privilege, no doubt, but it takes courage, too — the courage to seek those things that spark passion, and do them for one reason — the sake of doing them. Life of course is more complicated than a quest for bliss, and Slomo's philosophy of a simple, individual path to happiness certainly has a lot of detractors. But it's an important thing to consider, especially after rare moments when the slate of self-consciousness is briefly erased. Questions like, "what is a life?" and "what does it mean, to do what you want?" 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Adventures, with and without anchors

Photo by Liehann Loots
This was an enjoyable but full week effort-wise. I'm hoping to pull a sort of "peak" week in two weeks, but this one will be hard to top — 28 hours, 29,178 feet climbing, 26.1 miles running and 214.2 miles cycling in all of five workouts. And yet the fun, beautiful and adventurous nature of those five workouts made them feel like no work at all — abundant playtime, tempered by above-average work productivity because I've more than satisfied my outdoor cravings and am grateful for the couch time. 

On Saturday Beat and I set out to run the Slate Creek Trail down to Portola Redwoods State Park. Portola is a place you can drive to, but we like to pretend it's only accessible by descending from the grassy spine of Long Ridge into the bowels of an ancient forest.

Portola is home to some Coast Redwoods that have seen some things in their time, including the decimation of most of their kin. A few big trees still stand, and it's always awe-inspiring to stand at the foot of primordial giants. 

We dilly-dallied on a meandering loop around the base of the park, and went to visit Old Tree, a 297-foot monster that's estimated to be more than 1,200 years old.

Beat was buzzed about the chance to touch something that's been alive since the year 800. There are very few objects of any sort in North America that are that old, and it's interesting to contemplate something so enduring as a 1,200-year-old tree. The wildfires it's seen, the storms, the earthquakes, the succession of hundreds of generations of animals, the climate changes, and finally the plague of people that chopped down everything surrounding it. I have much respect for Old Tree.

Slate Creek Trail is such a fantastic place to run — loamy soil, rich green vegetation, swoopy singletrack and the shelter of hundred-foot-high "young" redwoods. Add another to the list of trails I want to run as often as possible this coming summer ... Slate Creek, Lonely Trail, Black Mountain, the list keeps on growing. This run was sixteen miles and had 4,000 feet of climbing — not a small effort, but relatively relaxed compared to what I had in store the next day (Beat would opt to run a 50K loop around this area with Steve on Sunday, rather than submit himself to my plan.)

Meanwhile, Liehann and I headed out to Henry Coe State Park. Coe is an idiosyncratic spot in the Bay Area —an isolated and surprisingly remote enclave just a half hour south of San Jose. It's an arid place that comes alive for a very short time in the spring, and sees few visitors for such close proximity to a heavily populated valley. Coe's biggest tourism draw is the Fall Tarantula Festival, and visitors are also likely to run into rattlesnakes, territorial turkeys, wild pigs, bobcats, coyotes, and lots and lots of ticks. The topography of the southern Diablo Range is relentlessly steep, and remote enough that if you fell and broke a leg somewhere farther back in the park, it's possible you wouldn't be found for days. Coe is also mountain bike friendly, and is uncharacteristically relaxed (for California) with its rules — giving wheels almost free reign of many trails and fire roads throughout the park.

 The reason Coe isn't overrun by mountain bikers is because not everyone with a mountain bike will find this kind of riding to be "fun" — at least in terms of Type One fun. Gluttons for 30-percent grades, skilled downhillers who don't mind paying a steep price for their descents, geocachers, and dirt tourists with camping gear and no fear are the main citizens of the Coe cycling community. I can't honestly say I fit into any of these categories. I love a good relentless climb, but all some point bikes become more of an anchor than a useful machine. Unless you want to burn all of your leg matches on the first climb, hike-a-bike is usually in order. Singletrack is always steep, often loose, and cut for hikers and horses rather than wheels, so descending is also a strenuous affair. Five miles per hour is a reasonable average speed at Coe; I can maintain a running pace near that fast for long distances, and it tends to be less stressful for me than wrangling a bike. Still, hike-a-biking is a good training practice, and damn if I shouldn't take a few more chances with downhilling ... so I agreed to my first Coe outing since I visited the park with a bike in August 2011 and have been purposefully avoiding it ever since.

 It was a beautiful day at Coe, with green hills and wildflowers blooming. One aspect about Coe that I appreciate is the vistas — thanks to the relentlessly steep terrain, there are many, and at each one you can look out over the rippling hillsides and see no sign of civilization. Cities, buildings, highways, smog, and people are all safely tucked away beyond the horizon.

 We parked at Hunting Hollow and started the day by climbing 1,500 feet in 1.5 miles because, well, what else is there in Coe? My hike-a-bike muscles are clearly lacking, as my shoulders ached within minutes. I had also frozen three liters of my water to a block of ice, then stuck it in my 25-liter Salomon pack that I am testing out for biking purposes (It's a newer version of my PTL pack, which is robust and waterproof, and I am a glutton for big packs.) But the resulting looseness of the pack caused the ice block to bounce against my spine, and I soon regretted my brilliant plan to ensure cold water for the entire ride. Okay, it's going to a hurty sort of day. At least expectations were cemented early.

 Cresting a 2,500-foot hill was rewarded by a fun singletrack descent. As soon as we dropped into the woods, we were inundated with poison oak, which is flourishing in late spring moisture and had overgrown across the narrow trail like a poisonous tunnel. Yikes. Even though I was wearing pants, I skidded to a stop in front of the thickest patches so I could tiptoe through the minefield. Great, downhill hike-a-biking to go along with the uphill pushing. At least expectations were cemented early.

 The most fun sections were along the grassy hillsides, navigating barely-there trails across steep rollers. We'd plummet down one pitch and surge up the next, punching the pedals and breathing fire. I tended to lose heart while trying to pedal up the many steep fireroad climbs, but was more willing to give that extra rocket boost for singletrack, where it's more difficult to push a bike.

 For about two miles we followed the bed of Coyote Creek. For much of the year, the creek is dry and bikers just ride the cobbles. Dab-free lines are harder accomplish when there are several inches of water, and wet feet resulted in blisters later in the day.

Riding through hub-deep eddies and over wet cobbles made for one of the most fun sections of the route, although just as exhausting as the rest of it. Only about four percent of Coe is what one might consider flat, and even flat terrain provides little reprieve from the shoulder-burning climbs and focused technical descents. I feel the need to explain my outfit since it was visibly dorky. I wore hiking pants because baggy nylon is more effective than tights at warding off brushes with poison oak and stinging nettle, as well as another (as yet unidentified) spiny plant that I'm allergic to, and causes a rash when it cuts my skin. Hiking gaiters to keep out ticks. And sleeved elbow pads because I took a hard fall while running with Beat in Portola the day before, and bashed up my right elbow. This elbow has been extremely sensitive since I ripped it open in a mountain bike crash three years ago. Now, every time I fall on the scar tissue, the resulting bruising and bleeding hurts much more than it should. It already felt like raw nerves were exposed, and I feared another fall would render the arm too painful to use. The light elbow pads were a precaution against further damage, and three Aleve pills helped temper the remnant pain from my running crash.

 We diverged away from Coyote Creek and began the climb up Bear Mountain, on a fall-line road so steep it's ridiculous. Seriously, who drives up this stuff? First you climb 1,100 feet in one mile, and then proceed along a series of heartlessly steep rollers for the next two miles to gain a mere 300 extra feet of elevation. Mean, mean, mean. Liehann took the challenge to ride most of it. I had a tough walk, having just re-upped my water supply in Coyote Creek and feeling acute soreness in my shoulders and elbow. The upper body, as usual, needs work, which is why it's good to do such silly things as hike-a-bike training ... but also why I greatly prefer my hikes without bikes.

One of the early pitches of the Bear Mountain fire road. Hard to depict the steepness, really. Liehann did walk the sections that were nearly impossible (25-percent grades on loose dirt and chunky gravel.) But he did ride most of it, arriving at the top fifteen minutes before me.

 Bear Mountain is one of those places you can look around and see nothing but oak-dotted mountains and grassy hillsides, over every horizon. It's a cool spot to stand in coastal California.

 At the top of Bear Mountain, we had traveled a whole 23 miles in nearly six hours, after much strain and only enough stops to filter water and take a few snapshots. At this rate on our original planned route, we weren't going to find our way home until nearly midnight. So we made some route adjustments and cut out some trail to finish up with a rolling fireroad descent. I won't call it a long fireroad descent, because nothing in Coe is that flat. Every mile was punctured with multiple climbs of one or two hundred feet, and we didn't really start to lose elevation until the sun was low on the horizon.

Still, it was wicked fun, after such a grueling day, to just sit in the saddle and flow, even for a relatively short period of time. The ride clocked in at 45.5 miles with 8,200 feet of climbing, nine hours total and 7:51 of that moving time (I think moving time was actually higher than that. There were probably just times I was moving so slowly that GPS thought I was stopped.) Route map here.

There's something inherently ridiculous about working as hard as you can for nine hours to ride (and haul) a bike 45 miles, and yet also something so satisfying about it. I still wonder if I'd fare better on foot, but the next time I return to visit Coe, it will probably be with a bike. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

What's next

Wednesday was the target for a mid-week long ride — before I learned about the latest California heat wave that's making the rounds in weather news. High of 92 degrees, not so comfortable any time of year, but especially rough in the early season. Since I'm training to haul weight anyway, I figured I could go full-bore with the water — a gallon of liquid, half water and half solid ice, which would offer cold water access for the better part of a ten-hour day. Crowd-sourcing ideas on Twitter had netted a great route plan from a local road rider named Janeen. Road rides around here often fit in a unique space between true road cycling and mountain gravel grinding. This was that kind of route, bouncing along broken pavement and narrow backroads between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz.

Schulties Road was seemingly in the process of converting back to forest — badly eroded dirt with broken chunks of pavement and loose gravel. My mind hadn't made the conversion from mountain bike to road bike, and I was descending way too fast for skinny tires. I somehow narrowly avoided a spectacular crash when the rear wheel skidded and slipped sideways, forcing me to throw down a shoe and drag the dirt at about 20 mph. (Thank you, platform pedals, even if you seem ridiculous on a road bike. I probably would have terrible road rash right now if I had been clipped in at the time.) After that, descending slowly with both rim brakes locked resulted in a blister on my right palm.

But I do love long rides all to myself. As the heat bore down, I slipped into a peaceful headspace, mapping out my Iditarod race report in my mind. Images of Alaska, of Beat, of ice and snow and many happy and harrowing moments filtered through the present like sunlight through the trees. Sometimes I'd come to after miles-long lapses, still rolling under redwood trees and thinking, "My, this is pretty. Wow, is it hot." I ran out of my gallon of water, just as I was climbing a short diversion out of Santa Cruz at mile 75. Coping with being out of water was easy; I just disappeared into ice dreams until I found a nice city park to refill my huge bladder and eat a sandwich. Most of the day passed like this, actually. I tend to do my best writing when I'm out on a long, solo ride or run. Sadly, it disappears as quickly as it comes, like scrawling thousands of words with an inkless pen. I suppose that's appropriate for a long ride — writing only for the moment, and nothing more.

The park picnic returned me to normalcy long enough to realize that I had sustained a patchy but bad sunburn on my upper legs and hands, and a bunch of bug bites around my ankles. I was feeling feverish and bummed that I was out of cold water. Argh, summer, you are just not my ally. I called Beat to let him know that this ride was stretching out longer than anticipated (actually what really happened was a much-too-late start) and I was going to be home late, as usual. Twilight settled in as I crested the long climb up Mountain Charlie Road. Although heat remained, the lack of sun made me feel peppier, and I took a few longer diversions on the way home to stay away from traffic (and also, admittedly, to bump the distance up to 200 kilometers.) Total was 125 miles with about 11,000 feet of climbing. Only a couple of big climbs, but constant steep ups and downs. Route overview:


My training ... er, practicing plan right now calls for two long rides a week, one (and sometimes two!) rest days, and three runs. Because I opt to run with Beat as one of our favorite couples activities, these runs are typically not short or easy. My overall volume of activity is pretty high right now, but it's working well. I'm feeling stronger and experiencing fewer nagging issues, with the exception of sunburns and bug bites.

 On Sunday we joined Steve for explorations of the semi-secret trails through Teague Hill in Woodside. It was fun singletrack, steep and relatively technical for this region. We wrapped up the loop with a descent of the ironically well-established Lonely Trail. If I could practice descending Lonely Trail once a week, I would probably greatly improve my downhill running confidence — it's technical and steep but not to the level that makes me feel insecure enough to soft-step everything. Project for later.

On Monday, our friend Daniel from Colorado came to visit on business, and we went for a run to the top of Black Mountain via Rhus Ridge. Daniel is trying to convince me to stick with Hardrock this July. I suppose I haven't actually blogged much about that yet, nor what I'm currently training for  — the Freedom Challenge, a 2,300-kilometer mountain bike race across South Africa that follows a similar structure, albeit slightly more supported, as the Tour Divide. My friend Liehann had signed up for this June's event and wanted company; he's from South Africa and has participated in the Freedom Challenge before. A plan to ride with him took the edge off some uneasiness I had about being alone in rural parts of Africa. The landscape looks incredible, stark and diverse. I've never visited Africa, and this route takes riders through some definitively remote spots that will undoubtedly provide unique cultural experiences. Plus, June is winter there, which means challenging weather conditions. Frequent rain, possible snow, temperatures ranging from 20F to 90F, horrendous mud  ... just like Tour Divide! Freedom Challenge has more singletrack and more hike-a-bike sections as well.

I wrestled with it for a while but decided I couldn't justifiably turn down an opportunity to ride a mountain bike across South Africa for three weeks in favor of two days of grueling hiking/shuffling through the San Juan Mountains. Even Beat agrees, and has been amazingly supportive of the whole endeavor (he's even invented and is currently refining a little cue-sheet device to aid in navigation, which is a hugely daunting part of this race. No GPS allowed.) But Hardrock is a shot that only comes once in a lifetime, especially if you're me and don't plan to run qualifying hundred-mile races every year. I know I need to withdraw from Hardrock, but I can't bring myself to do so, as FOMO burns strong within. Schedule-wise I could participate in both, but would have no chance to acclimate to high altitude and thus almost no chance of actually finishing Hardrock. There's probably someone high on the wait list who will read this and start sending me thinly veiled death threats if I don't opt out soon. The culture surrounding Hardrock is funny like that.

Still, every day that I feel stronger on the bike, and every day that I spend more time staring at maps, and every little favor Beat does to help me get ready, have accumulated in zealous excitement about the Freedom Challenge. It's yet another amazing opportunity. I'm a lucky person, I get it.