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 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.
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.