Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pursuit of experience

Between the high-pitched moan of the wind and the rasping of my lungs, I didn't hear all of the air burp out of the rear tire, again. It was sometime around midnight along the spine of the Continental Divide, amid blasting wind, dagger-like snow, and fog. The curtain was so thick and opaque that, when illuminated by a headlamp, it had the strange effect of making midnight look like a very gloomy, gray day. A dreadful place to have a flat. I didn't notice at first, either, while churning the pedals to propel my two-wheeled tank over a soft carpet of snow. The effort was always hard, and a completely flat tire made it only incrementally harder. Only when the dark spots appeared in my eyes did I think to stop, because I had to, because I couldn't breathe. When I checked the tire, as had become my habit over the day, I discovered that I had been rolling on the rim. 

Tubeless tires and snow bikes. It's an idea that could work, in theory, and that main reason I was here on the border of Montana and Idaho was to test that theory, among others. Problem is, the low tire pressures necessary to float on top of snow that had been softened by above-freezing temperatures, then churned up by snowmobile traffic, were too low to hold an air seal. Bouncing or mashing pedals would cause air to burp out of the rims until it was all gone. This had been an ongoing problem for much of the day, and I again chastised myself for holding onto optimism and not putting in a tube sooner. But now the weather was really inhospitable to a fifteen-minute chore like that.

"Bikes are so stupid," I grumbled as I knelt down with a pump that I had also grown to hate, because it screwed onto the valve and this was a difficult thing to do with cold fingers. This bike was a heartless taskmaster, making me work as hard as I was capable just to pedal at 3 mph up hills. Then, when I was no longer strong enough to keep pedaling uphill, the bike would push back on my shoulders and wrists until they ached. Sure, maybe I'm just not strong and that's my fault, but then then there are these mechanicals! My heart was still racing as I pulled on gloves and attached the pump. When am I going to learn to be better at these things, and why shouldn't I just take a sled and snowshoes to Unalakleet instead of this heavy bike, and where did all the air go, up here at 8,000 feet? When I faced the wind directly, it had a metallic taste, as though it was whisking all the oxygen from my mouth and injecting it with lead. 

My core temperature steadily dropped as I filled up the balloon tire with tiny gasps of deoxygenated air, then unscrewed the pump. To my dismay, the valve stem came out with it, releasing all the air in a loud sigh. I stood up, threw a small tantrum, and then screwed the valve stem back in after I calmed down. With fingers I could no longer feel, I tried to get it as tight as I could, then commenced pumping again. And again, I couldn't remove the pump without taking the valve stem with it. "This is impossible. I'm just going to walk to the highway from here. How far is it? Twenty miles? Bikes are so stupid." 

Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly, or I would have acknowledged that it would be simple enough to push the bike to the nearest wind-protected spot, put on all my warm clothing, and either put in a tube or try again with pliers to tighten the valve stem. But no, my head was reeling backward. My hands had gone numb and my core was shivering. "If I can't do this then I'll never survive the Norton Sound. This is easy stuff." Out of the fog, a headlight approached. I knew it had to be Beat, who left checkpoint two shortly after me. After an unsuccessful try with the pump himself, he suggested the obvious and chastised me for not even bothering to put on my down coat, let alone my poor choice to stop in worst spot of the whole race to pump up a tire. 

"But it was completely flat!" I protested. 

We pushed our bikes together along the ridge; I finally put my down coat on, and was struggling to get my core temperature back up. This pass was called Two Top Divide, because it crosses into Idaho and then back into Montana and then into Idaho again. I'd already lost track of whether we'd seen the first top yet, or not. The grade steepened, and I struggled more. Beat disappeared into the fog. I became irrationally terrified of losing him. I pushed harder, and my heart rate spiked, and then my airways closed up. No matter how many wheezing gasps of air I tried to push down my throat, my lungs stayed empty. Hyperventilating accelerated. "Asthma attack!" I panicked. I've never had symptoms of asthma before, nor an asthma attack, but this is what I imagined it must feel like. Regardless of cause, this was certainly what it felt like to not breathe, and not breathing was very scary. 

"Pressure breathing. Try pressure breathing. It helps," Beat said to me. He'd heard me wheezing. He'd been there all along. Black spots were appearing again in my eyes. 

"I'm over-exerting myself," I gasped when I finally had enough air to speak. "I'm sorry; I just can't work this hard." I was already moving about as slowly as possible within the definition of forward motion. Basically what I was saying was I had to stop. But I didn't do that. 

Jay P's Backyard Fat Pursuit was a 200-kilometer snow bike race put on by Jay Petervary, a well-known endurance biker and record-holding veteran of the Iditarod Trail. The race started in Island Park, Idaho, then traveled over the Continental Divide to West Yellowstone, Montana, before making its way back to Island Park on a series of snowmobile trails through the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park. 

Beat, Liehann and I all traveled out from California to race the Fat Pursuit, despite limited training in this specific regard. We were all just out here for "fun," to explore new trails scouted by an experienced rider who we respect, and enjoy a social reunion with several good friends and others in the tight-knit and inherently wonderful fat bike community. Endurance races are all about community; I think even the most competitive riders would agree. Plus, the impetus of 200 kilometers was appealing. I have an intimidating plan for an Iditarod Trail tour later this winter, and needed a good long ride to get my mind and body better tuned in to the reality of this plan. I needed experience. 

While I could certainly race a lighter bike with less gear, the loaded Snoots isn't *that* heavy. I didn't think I'd be competitive, but I also didn't expect to struggle for most of the distance. But with low mileage and limited high-resistance training these past few months, I haven't really developed my "snow" muscles. The trails were recently groomed, but above-freezing temperatures ensured this smooth surface stayed soft. And as soon as a group of snowmobiles zoomed past — which was not an infrequent occurrence — they whipped up the snow into a creamy mush. Pedaling on top of this required a lot of power output, and the mountainous terrain ensured consistent climbing and descending rather than more forgiving flat terrain. It was quite strenuous, and almost impossible to not venture into the high-intensity range, even while pushing. Remembering how I felt two weeks earlier after riding just 20 miles in difficult conditions out to Borealis cabin in the White Mountains, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be a long race." 

None of it was going to be easy, but in so many ways, spending an entire day (and sometimes more) on the move is still my favorite thing to do. The flow of forward motion calms my mind and quiets inner chaos. The physical aspect is both invigorating and soothing, even through the difficulties. I have the experience behind me to understand that discomforts are just discomforts, and negative emotions are often just a chemical response to physical deficits. The nagging pains and fatigue fade away quickly, but the satisfaction remains. 

Sometimes, when you give yourself enough time and distance, many hours will pass in a peaceful trance. The barriers between the snowy forest and your own finite body are blurred, and the landscape of your mind becomes as expansive and limitless as the universe itself. Time bends over itself, night opens amid the quiet murmurs of your heart, and the world narrows into a soft beam of light, a place of shadows and memories. It's a beautiful experience. I do not tire of the pursuit for this perspective. Unfortunately, my body sometimes does. 

 Not being able to breathe was a frustrating development, but not exactly surprising. Consistently over-exerting myself at high altitudes, when I was still recovering from a cold I caught in Alaska, was a sure path to physical breakdown. Up on Two Top Divide, I crossed a line from which I was not going to be able to return. My throat was on fire, my nostrils tingled, my head became light and my vision dark. There were 40 miles left in the race, and no way to slow down without stopping, so I'd just have to demand that my lungs keep sucking limited oxygen through a straw. Hopefully, I wouldn't lose consciousness before I finished. If nothing else, it would be a learning experience.

Beat stuck with me, as we often do in races even when we decide not to, because we enjoy each other's company and quietly worry about each other. We arrived at a wind-protecting cluster of trees and managed to fix the tire, then continued toward a steep and jerky descent down the torn-up trail into Idaho. I was in too much respiratory distress to feel sleepy, and the long night stretched out indefinitely. I thought about the things I'd do differently in Alaska: Tubes in the tires. A flip-top pump. An extra pump. Always always put on my down coat when stopped. A better multi-tool. Maybe bring some thicker gloves rather than mittens. A better face mask to protect my lungs. Do some exercises to strengthen my wrists. Wish I could make myself stronger in general, but there's probably not enough time. Still, ultimately, most of my gear performed well. Despite projecting anger onto Snoots, it's a great bike — responsive and surprisingly agile for its girth, and as I mentioned, not *that* heavy. My only complaints were my rear tire and lungs, with their infuriating refusals to hold air.

Beat and I arrived at checkpoint three just before sunrise. When it's not a checkpoint, the "Man Cave" is a frequent respite for touring cyclists — a kind of garage with a corner kitchen and a giant bison head on the wall. We enjoyed sourdough pancakes, bacon and coffee while chatting with the friendly volunteers. I was feeling downright loopy — probably from sleep deprivation, although I suspected mild hypoxia. My brain hadn't been getting enough oxygen for many hours. I was mildly buzzed, drunk on the effort and a strong desire to just sleep it off.

I finally convinced Beat we had slummed at the checkpoint long enough. We were already close to the back of the race — which I admittedly found disheartening, because although I'd taken my sweet time in a lot of respects, I'd also been trying really hard. We had 21 more miles to get'er done. A woman from Fairbanks named Andrea joined us after her short nap at the checkpoint. She'd decided to stick with us for the remainder of the race, even though I was struggling mightily and slowing even more. Andrea is registered for her first Iditarod Trail Invitational in March. She wanted to chat about that race, and was a fun conversationalist even though I was often gasping too much to exhale more than a few syllables at a time. To Andrea: I'm sorry if I came across as terse or unfriendly. I enjoyed talking with you, I just was often too winded to speak.

We arrived at the finish line just after noon, which just happened to coincide with the after-race party under the arch. Because of this, there was a large crowd at the finish, and we received quite the reception. The final four miles of the course had been especially slow, torn up my heavy snowmobile traffic, and my head was spinning with the effort of just maintaining forward motion for that distance. Grunting over the final line took every last molecule of oxygen reserve, and I very nearly blacked out (I passed out and collapsed a few months ago after stepping out of a sauna, and I now know what it feels like right before you faint — the blood pressure crash and the intense dizziness.) The crowd was gathering around us and I could feel my knees weakening. I fought it, embarrassed, but eventually I had to lay down in the snow before my body did so involuntarily.

I spent the next hour feeling heavily buzzed, tilting my head to see things clearly and laughing at everything that was said to me, funny or not. I don't remember much about that time. I had to say goodbye to good friends who I don't see often, and congratulate the podium finishers who'd been done for twelve hours. It was a great group of folks. Jay P puts on a good event, well-planned and executed with just the right amount of checkpoint support. He told us that next year he might make Fat Pursuit a multi-day distance, which I wholeheartedly support. Let the fast folks experience what it's like to venture drunkenly into the next day, and the next, with only your own untrustworthy wits and past experience to rely on.

I still can't believe I had a near meltdown over a flat tire, or that I apparently need oxygen tanks to take a loaded fat bike above 8,000 feet. But I certainly learned a lot in my pursuit of experience. I always do. 


  1. Well, there is something about extended exertion and meltdowns. I am familiar with this phenomenon. Sometimes the only thing to do is just have it and be done. Sounds like a good experience overall. Nice to have someone watching out for you as well.

  2. Wow sounds like a tough race! As a long time asthmatic I always carry Albuterol inhaler on rides. Virus and cold air is a sure recipe to trigger breathing problems.

  3. Sounds like a tough race! It was fun to watch your blue dots on track leaders. Andrea said it was great biking with you. She totally had a middle of the night bonk so she was worried she was holding you guys up! Recover and hope your lungs are back to normal again. At least no elevation problems when you do your coast ride!


Feedback is always appreciated!