Monday, April 27, 2015

Finding Mars


I admit, during the past week, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Tour Divide. I blame, in part, a book I've been reading: "Finding Mars" by Fairbanks-based science journalist Ned Rozell. It's one of thirty or so paperbacks I still have on a bookshelf after culling my collection substantially over the past ten years. Since returning from Alaska, I've commenced nightly sauna "heat training." Because I can't read my Kindle in the sauna, I rifled through my bookshelf for old paperbacks to sacrifice to the cause (high heat causes books to fall apart.) I think Rozell's publisher sent me a copy of "Finding Mars" when I was still an Alaska journalist — anyway, I've had this book for four or more years, and assumed I'd already read it. Somehow I must have overlooked it, because while this "second reading" hasn't jogged my memory, much about this book has captured my imagination.

"Finding Mars" is a first-person account from Rozell as he follows a Japanese permafrost researcher, Kenji Yoshikawa, on a 750-mile field-testing trip by snowmobile across Northwest Alaska. Along with anecdotes about science and history of the region, Rozell also expounds on Kenji's fascinating life: a victim of hopeless wanderlust, Kenji spent his childhood in overcrowded Tokyo, dreaming of traveling to Mars. He dedicated his early adulthood to pursing the next best thing — he pulled a wheeled cart across the Sahara Desert, pedaled a bike across Australia, skied to the South Pole, and spent an winter in a sailboat frozen in the sea ice north of Barrow. From Rozell's writing, I could sense a kind of kindred spirit in Kenji — someone who yearns for open spaces in which to let perspectives expand and thoughts flow freely. My favorite chapter of the book describes the experiences Kenji and his partners enjoyed while skiing across Antarctica. 

"In Antarctica, every day was the same, same, same, same, same — for two months. But that sameness was very important for us, because we could think of many things every day. It was like Zen meditation."

Rozell writes, "A professor at Kyoto University later analyzed Kenji's dreams as the walk went on. In the early days of the trip, Kenji's dreams most often included, in order: (1) a prizefight featuring himself against a big-name boxer. (2) money. (3) women. (4) food. In the middle days, Kenji dreamed about (1) famous people who he admired. (2) foreign countries. (3) food. During the last two weeks of the trip, Kenji dreamed about (1) the ski across Antarctica. (2) food."

 The reductive nature of arduous journeys is often regarded as a liability, not a benefit. Still, I believe this to be one of the more valuable aspects of adventure. Paring one's life down to bare necessities has a way of sharping perspective, giving us the ability to look beyond all the confusion and noise, and see ourselves and the world around us with renewed clarity. The appeal of Kenji's simple outlook echoed in my own desire to take my bike to Canada, point it south, and do nothing else but ride it for (ideally) 20 days. If I keep my body fueled, my thoughts focused, and my legs moving, perhaps I can capture that rare opportunity to experience a mind as free and open as the Antarctic Plateau.

The timing this summer is about as ideal as it can be, with Beat heading to South Africa for a month in early June, (finally) nearing the finish of one book project, and receiving the go-ahead and a fairly open timeline for another. My fitness could certainly be better, but then I remind myself that I got by okay in 2009 after spending two months recovering from frostbite that largely kept me off my bike, followed by only seven weeks of real training. Six years have passed since my first Tour Divide experience, which is almost unfathomable, and I realize it's also been that long since I engaged in a substantial solo effort. If I have serious aspirations to take a bike to Nome in 2016, I could use a refresher in self-management and self-sufficiency when shattered. I couldn't plan a much better "training ride" than the Tour Divide.


When considering the Tour Divide, I was most concerned about my "mental fitness" — possibly lacking the mojo to stick it out to the finish. The common refrain echoes in my head as well — "Why do the same thing again?" I considered ideas for bike tours in different countries, but to be entirely honest, I just couldn't build enough excitement to get past the initial planning stages. I don't have any excuses — solo international travel is undoubtedly a wonderful experience, but it might just not be for me right now. When weighing the logistics, planning, and expenses, it wasn't what I wanted. I joked with Beat that maybe the two of us would get this endurance bug out of our systems, and then we could plan more relaxed treks across New Zealand or the Himalaya together. (Okay, this isn't a joke, but rather something I want to happen someday.) But while my body is still capable and mind willing, I do want to continue engaging in endurance challenges to explore far reaches of my inner galaxy. I want to find Mars.

Perhaps this is simply an excuse to take three weeks off from the world and ride my bike. Either way, it's been on my mind all week, to the point where I ordered new GDMBR maps and have spent some time researching potential updates to my circa-2009 budget gear. (Sleeping bag, water purification, sleeping pad, bivy sack, battery-powered lights — actually I could use some recommendations.) I also continue to conduct training with an eye toward the Tour Divide — basically, long days in the saddle, and lots of climbing. Since Beat is training for the Freedom Challenge, we've indulged in frequent biking and running dates, which I'm enjoying.  

After one rather rough recovery week following the White Mountains 100, for each of the past three weeks I've logged around 20 hours of running or cycling, with 20,000-22,000 feet of climbing. My goal for the month of May is to match or exceed that, with a couple of overnight trips, and the Ohlone 50K (May 17) — mostly because I love the Ohlone 50K. But for cycling, the goal is to ride tired, shore up mental fitness, gauge whether my mind and body is close to where I'd like it to be, and then decide whether to buy a ticket to Calgary in June. Of course I'll put together gear and dial in my bike before then. But as of now I'm not ready to commit one way or the other, and doubt I will before the first of June. (Which, incidentally, is not unlike my emotional commitment level before the race in 2009.) The Tour Divide is something I want to do again only if I'm going to commit to racing the full distance — to the limits of my capabilities. There are always ways I could be better, but the appeal of such a journey lies in seeking the hard edges. If I wanted to ride purely in the interest of touring, I would go somewhere new. 

 There will still be lots of running in May, of course. I believe running has made me a better cyclist — my knees are largely pain-free these days (at least, they're pain-free when I haven't recently torn or bruised something because I fell while running. But my knees nearly always hurt to some degree when I was predominantly a cyclist, before 2010.) My feet are tougher and I'm less prone to achilles and ankle pain (whenever cyclists ask about shoe recommendations to avoid such pains, I can only shrug and recommend running.) Running has also led to feeling stronger while climbing on a bike, and improved my long-term endurance.

Riding a bicycle, however, does not make me a better runner — I share the attitude that the only way to improve in running is to run. Even in the best of times, the time I spend cycling means I run relatively low mileage for a distance runner. But that's okay. My participation in UTMB may be put in jeopardy if I commit to the Tour Divide. Last year, I gave up the Hardrock 100 to ride the Freedom Challenge. I suppose when it comes down to it, I'll always be a cyclist first and a runner second, but I value my ability to liberally indulge in both.

 On Saturday Beat and I ran one of our favorite local routes, from Long Ridge down into Peter's Creek and back. The route accesses one of the few remaining old-growth redwood groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and also is one of the more rugged and remote trails in the region. It's 16 miles that always ends up feeling like 30 — stressfully steep descending, loose dirt, mud, roots, stream crossings, huge deadfall obstacles, tough climbs, repeat.

 Now that it's spring, the route also includes a continuous gauntlet of poison oak, billowing into the trail on both sides. We tried our best to ginger-step around it, to the point of contorting our bodies dramatically just to avoid touching anything green. I bathed myself in half a bottle of Technu after the run, but I'm still expecting to come down with a rash in a week. We love Peter's Creek, but I doubt we'll be back anytime soon. Poison oak is not a hazard to be trifled with, and it's everywhere after a drought-stricken, warm winter. It makes me want to avoid singletrack altogether.

 Long Ridge is still in nice shape, with a nice Friday-night rainstorm yielding gooey mud that turned to hero dirt before the day was over.

 That run is always tougher than it looks on paper. Peter's Creek, combined with a few overindulgences at a friend's dinner party on Saturday night, put me in rough shape for our planned nine-hour ride on Sunday. I was feeling sluggish from the start, and Beat asked me if I wanted to quit early. No! I couldn't ask for better training conditions.

For the past three weeks, most of my rides and runs have felt a little too easy. Finally, I could get outside with tired, achy legs and a grumpy disposition, and try to turn that all around. It actually worked pretty well. It took most of the day to not feel like a slug, but I worked hard at massaging my attitude while coaxing my legs. Finally, about 6.5 hours in, I devoured a bunch of fruit snacks and put in a strong effort up the final long climb.

We made good enough time that we were able to venture into Montebello Open Space before the park closed at sunset (rangers do hang out there, and they will ticket people.) Ascending the Bella Vista trail in warm evening light was a nice reward for our efforts. Even though I was feeling much better, I had to pedal hard to keep up with Beat. He has had a tough recovery from his Alaska journey, but he's finally starting to come around. I'm going to miss those few rides in April where I was still a little bit stronger than him. I think those days are over, but I'm glad he's feeling more confident about the Freedom Challenge.

Around here, there are few better places to be than the top of Black Mountain at sunset. It's simple and comforting to think about spending the next few months in California, sticking to my routine, planning some weekend backpacking trips, training for UTMB, and working on book projects. As recently as one week ago, this was my plan. But the fact that the easy plan is so appealing leads me to believe this is the wrong decision to make. As always, I like to keep my options open. 

20 comments:

  1. Aaargh! That poison oak! Made me itch to see that picture. You know to take a cold shower, not hot, right?;

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  2. Nice...LOVE the entire Saratoga Gap/BART trail network! One of my fav's is start at Hwy9/Saratoga Gap to Longview, descend down and take the left fork up to Grizzly Flats (cross Skyline here), down to Stevens Creek, go left and UP Bella Vista to the top of Black Mt, then return down Bella Vista, down Stevens Creek to Table Mt trail, which ends up bringing you back to Saratoga Gap. Maybe that's a few hours 'short' for you and Beat...but it's perfect for me. LOVE those redwoods!

    Anyway...I'm stoked that you are thinking about doing GDR again (I live vicariously through you and Beat these many years). I followed you day by day/hour by hour last time...are you going to do the call-in messages that we can listen to again? I loved those...not only was I able to follow you on the SPOT Track-Leader maps, but the daily phone-in's made the race all that more exciting! (and then your book was the icing on the cake). Stay healthy Jill (Beat too!) and enjoy your training!

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    1. Thanks! Sounds like a solid route. We consider this trail system our "backyard," as we live a couple of miles from Steven's Creek Reservoir, and vary most of our routes between Montebello Open Space, Steven's Creek Canyon, Skyline Ridge, Long Ridge, Saratoga Gap, sometimes Russian Ridge, and now Sanborn. Yours is a good way to hit a lot of the local singletrack, but I can't think of a single time I've climbed the Table Mountain Trail and thought, "I'm so glad to be climbing the Table Mountain Trail." Not my favorite. :P

      Not sure how much broadcasting I'd do during the Tour Divide. I'd like to think I'll keep all of my focus on riding and shut out a lot of that, but it might be hard to resist a Facebook update here and there. I'm not sure about call-ins. There will likely be 130+ people out there this year, and the traditional methods of reporting seem like they'd get really crowded. (I don't consider 130 starters to be an unreasonable crowd on this route, however. These are mostly forest roads, that can support vehicular traffic, and reasonably large towns. The UTMB has 2,500 starters for crying out loud, and the world doesn't fall apart.) But we shall see! I have no doubt much has changed since 2009.

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  3. I am allergic to poison oak, too. Four out of five people are. My last one happened in March after crashing a demo bike straight into a juicy bush. It was really bad and lasted for four weeks. But the web is full of myths about PO. As a biologist with strong interest in molecular immunology, I researched it. The plant oil, actually, a resin, will became an allergen only after irreversibly binding to a human skin protein. This bond happens within minutes after exposure. After that, it is just a matter of how your immune system responds, some people get rash in 30 min, for me it takes 7 days. So the only semi effective remedy is to wash it off with an organic solvent, such as Tecnu, right when you know you touched it, or it touched you. Warm shower only helps the itching later and since the urushiol is not water soluble, unless you shower in gasoline, does not matter. So carry Tecnu on you. Funny thing is, I never get the rash by just brushing by it on the bike, it needs more solid contact with bare skin to get through the top layer of keratinocytes. Many people swear by their remedies, but we also know the placebo effect is real, actually genetically determined. So science aside, everyone should do what works for them.

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    1. Interesting. Good information! I get skin rashes frequently, and it's difficult if not impossible for me to determine the source. I'm strongly allergic to grass pollen — even being whipped by the stalks causes my skin to break out in hives — so I'm not a big fan of this time of year in general. I assume I'm allergic to poison oak, but haven't yet figured out if any rash was directly caused by poison oak. Once I fell while running in the late summer and scraped up my knee, and the wound became badly inflamed and itchy. I wondered if this may have been caused by dried poison oak leaves, which littered the trail.

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    2. Great info indeed. I presume some isopropyl alcohol and wetwipes would quickly remove the resin as well as tecnu - what do you think? Sure would be a lot cheaper ;)

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    3. Liquid DAWN dish soap at full strength works the best for me. Although, sometimes I need a second application the next day.

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  4. So excited to hear you considering the Tour Divide again, I'll be happy to follow you from the proverbial armchair. Good luck in your (and Beat's!) training!

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  5. This thing you're trying to achieve? It's easier than you think. Why ruin it with the distraction of competition? You could jump on the TransAmerica and by the fourth day, you'll slip into the mindfulness zone. Yes, there will still be some distractions, but making time won't really be one of them.
    I've done it on bicycle, hiking (PCT or AT), motorcycling, he'll, even raking leaves, lol!
    It's a good place to go to, and the more you do it the better you'll get at it and the better off you'll be.
    Just sayin'.

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  6. Glad it's going well for you two. It sounds like Mars and all the planets are aligning for the Tour Divide. I sure hope so for my own selfish sake!

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  7. "Finding Mars" sounds like a good read, but a bit pricey on Kindle. I am tracking it on ereaderiq.com for a price drop. The Divide Ride sounds like another epic in the making. Good luck!

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    1. I agree. I'm still learning the publisher game, but I can't figure out why publishers charge so much for eBooks. "Finding Mars" is a good read, and based on Amazon statistics, it seems like it never sold that well, at least outside local bookstores. I've been dealing more with traditional publishers recently, while trying to secure a book deal for my Ann Trason project. And truthfully, it just makes me all the more grateful to have chosen self-publishing initially. The Trason project needs a mass-market publisher, but I'm sticking to self-publishing for future efforts, unless I see compelling evidence that my eBooks aren't going to cost $18.99 and sell 30 copies a year.

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  8. Has it really been six years?? That means I've been living vicariously through you for a very long time, and I definitely wouldn't mind living vicariously again as you adventure your way down the Divide.

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  9. Excited to hear that you have almost committed to the Tour Divide! Let me know what you and Beat figure out about bike lights. Been researching it ourselves.
    Kenji is quite the character. I thought Ned did a great job in writing his story. We know his family so if you want to meet him the next time you are in town, let me know and I'll see what we can do!

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  10. Anonymous7:30 AM

    do La Ruta... www.adventurerace.com

    definitely "Paring one's life down to bare necessities has a way of sharping perspective, giving us the ability to look beyond all the confusion and noise, and see ourselves and the world around us with renewed clarity. "

    as that race is one tough race... tests one's limits

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  11. High, girly!
    I gotta lotta thots and stories in our 22 blogs…
    and I’m mmmore than happy to share
    and give to you what God has granted me - a steward
    in this finite existence, this lifelong demise.
    And why not?
    Aren’t we all in the same family made by God?
    Faith, hope, and love -
    the greatest of these is love:
    jump into faith...
    and you'll see with love.
    Doesn’t matter if you don’t believe
    (what I write);
    God believes in you.
    God. Bless. You.
    Meet me Upstairs where the Son never goes down…

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  12. High, girly!
    I gotta lotta thots and stories in our 22 blogs…
    and I’m mmmore than happy to share
    and give to you what God has granted me - a steward
    in this finite existence, this lifelong demise.
    And why not?
    Aren’t we all in the same family made by God?
    Faith, hope, and love -
    the greatest of these is love:
    jump into faith...
    and you'll see with love.
    Doesn’t matter if you don’t believe
    (what I write);
    God believes in you.
    God. Bless. You.
    Meet me Upstairs where the Son never goes down…

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  13. I also want to go to such a beautiful places ...

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  14. Anonymous1:47 PM

    Glad to here you are considering the Tour Divide again! Maybe you should try it South to North this time for a different perspective!

    Mark

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  15. Anonymous12:36 AM

    I was skeptical about Kindle prices staying low so didn't buy one since I didn't really need the high density of an e-reader.

    I do buy a lot of Amazon used books. I prefer buying when Prime free shipping is available, but "Mars" doesn't have that right now. But there are some options for $6 including shipping.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/1602231222/ref=olp_tab_all?ie=UTF8&qid=1430691745&sr=8-1

    Not being an author, I'm not sure how "they" feel about used books, but it feels good from a cost and environmental standpoint.

    Tom
    Fairbanks

    ReplyDelete