Wednesday, May 27, 2015

We all try harder as the days run out

For days the Santa Cruz Mountains were enveloped in a freight train of fog, as apparently thirsty inland winds sucked moisture from the coast. I climbed into it each afternoon, Tuesday through Saturday, in a two-dimensional world where I had to squint to discern the blurry silhouettes of trees from flickering clouds. There was no context or familiarity; vertigo pulled at me as I descended through gray tunnels. I would shiver, even with a puffy coat and mittens, which was such a treat here in California in late May. The cold makes me feel alive.

I had this goal to put some hurt in the legs. Seven moderate to long days, with at least 3,000 feet of climbing each day, on up to 9,000. I felt so strong on Wednesday, chopping a minute off my PR of the mile-long, 800-foot ascent of Indian Creek trail, without even breathing hard. On Thursday I attacked Redwood Gulch on my road bike and imploded in spectacular fashion, heart beating 195 while snot and tears streamed down my neck. Near the end of this mile-long, 800-foot ascent, the fog hit my searing lungs like water on a skillet. "I have no top end, no top end at all," I thought with a smirk. I knew that single mile was going be the only reason my legs hurt at all the next day. Friday had 5,000 feet of climbing, but I took it at a more reasonable effort, and was fully recovered for Saturday's 13-mile run.

As Beat and I ascended Black Mountain into a white ceiling, I listened to the new Sufjan Stevens and Lord Huron albums and imagined I was doing something relaxing, like laying in the sauna. Cold wind licked at my clammy skin and I settled into a soothing rhythm, a place of deep breaths and dreaming about riding a motorcycle across Africa (which is what I frequently imagine when I listen to Lord Huron.) I was happily sedate, and yet I was running up a mountain. "Resting in motion," I thought. "This is resting in motion." I wondered how effectively I'd be able to employ this meditative technique when motion really became difficult. The wind-driven clouds roared past, enveloping me in their paradoxical calm.

Sunday morning we were up bright and early to drive to Oakhurst for an overnight bikepacking trip that I planned. Oakhurst is a town near Fresno, in the foothills of the Western Sierras, which I effectively chose at random. I found a vague recommendation for a touring loop, and drew a GPS track over unknown squiggles on Google Maps. I had no idea how difficult this route would be, whether it would be scenic or bland, and what the percentage of pavement to jeep road to faint forest track might be. Most people would probably do more research for weekend tour where they were effectively guiding their friends through a new place, but that is not necessarily my modus operandi. I prefer a little ignorance in my explorations, with all of the surprises and disappointments.

 I warned Beat and Liehann that I knew nothing about this route beyond some interesting topographic lines on the map and the fact it was just south of Yosemite, and hoped they didn't set their expectations too high. The initial climb was a tedious grunt, climbing 5,000 feet in 18 miles into a gray pall of storm clouds that looked lightly threatening. Air is thin at 7,500 feet for sea-level-dwellers. Still, I felt peaceful and relaxed, refusing to hurry up the hill while I rested in motion. The guys seemed to interpret this as crawling, and based on their demeanors, I was worried they were going turn around and race back to low-elevation sunshine. Slowly, the paved road began to break apart and wind its way out of the dense forest, to more open views of granite domes and jagged spires. The Sierras.

 For lunch we went for a short hike to better views on a granite ridge. The guys carried their bikes part-way for Freedom Challenge training. The wind up here was almost winter-like in its briskness, and we huddled against boulders to eat lunch.

 After riding chunky dirt, climbing some more, descending a whole bunch, and collecting many liters of water from a stream, we climbed after dark to camp on a sandy knoll where we hoped the views would be nice in the morning. I was trying out my new Outdoor Research Helium bivy for the first time, as well as a new pair of nylon three-quarter running tights (I found the bivy cozy and slept well, better than I usually do when bikepacking, actually. I also decided I prefer no chamois during longer rides, and did not miss the wet diaper feel and occasional pinching on sensitive parts.) We used up four liters of water (which Beat carried) making multiple hot chocolates and dinner. Liehann raved about his Mountain House lasagna, declaring it as delicious as anything he could eat at home.

 "I challenge you to try one of these meals at home, and tell me what you think about it then," I teased him. Then we all told stories of the most amazing meals we'd ever experienced, which all shared the theme of mediocre food eaten after a long, difficult effort. The sky had cleared to a palette of stars. A thin film of flowing mist, illuminated faintly by moonlight, made the stars appear to wobble. It was strange to watch stars dance about. I imagined fiery orbs rocketing through outer space as planets spun around them. Rest is the illusion; everything is always in motion.

 Day two was a coaster of a day with mild climbs and lots of descending. We wove through a maze of forest roads in varying states of erosion, with almost no traffic on Memorial Day (a few motorcycles close to campgrounds.) Ah, relaxation. The guys seemed to enjoy this day's set of squiggly lines much better than the first, as I'd luckily chosen more dirt and more rugged terrain.

The scenery was not too bad either, even as we descended down, down toward the furnace of the Central Valley, where it was somehow, inexplicably, 90 degrees. (I'd almost convinced myself that we were having February in May, to match the May we had in February.) I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but felt like I had failed in my goal to exact some punishment in my legs during this bulky training week. Still, when I think about my preferred state of fitness, relaxation and contentedness are better indicators than soreness and suffering. Isn't this how I'd want to feel, if I wanted to be nearly always in motion?

Week's totals: 227 miles ride, 13 miles run, 33,200 feet climbing


  1. Gorgeous. It's like I can smell those trees from here.

    Back when I was really, really, really out of shape (not just really out of shape like I am now), I was in heaven while eating a Mountain House pasta primavera in Havasu Canyon - the hike in had exhausted me, even though it was all downhill. I loved that pasta so much that my husband and I actually did try to eat it for dinner back in the real world once, and let's just say it proved the theory that freeze-dried meals definitely need a hard day's work to make them edible.

    1. Ha ha. I had a terrible time trying to ingest freeze-dried meals while deathly ill during my 250-km ultra in Nepal, and I still associate them with that experience. There are only a few I can stomach — as long as they're bland and relatively tasteless, I'm okay. My favorite is the Chicken Noodles.

      In my early 20s, we used to cook these elaborate dinners while backpacking. Sauteed vegetables, pasta, soaked beans, etc. Sometimes I miss the days when I wasn't so lazy. :P

  2. "Resting in motion", what a great mindset to have in your epic repertoire! 33,200 feet of climbing in 240 miles of motion for the week and you feel like you were slacking. Well, not really, but it does sound like you’re feeling pretty dang good right now.
    Interesting coincidence that you reported on launching from Oakhurst into the Sierra’s in the same week that I made hotel reservations in Oakhurst. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been on the West coast and I am psyched to have a 2-week trip planned for this summer that kicks off with 3 days in downtown SF and includes 4 days in Yosemite Valley.

    1. Sounds like a great trip! So much to see in two weeks, but you picked some of the best places to visit in California (in my biased opinion.)

  3. Sounds like a big week to me! What shorts are you wearing to bike in if not using Chamois bike shorts?

    1. Running capris. The pair I used this weekend are the Pearl Izumi Aurora Splice. I decided I prefer three-quarter tights for sun protection — my skin is so sun-sensitive that I'm better off (cooler) when I cover myself up in hot weather, given I can vent well. These tights have mesh openings behind the knees for that purpose. The only complaint I have is that the calf hem is pretty tight (I do have tree trunk calves), so I worry about how they'll feel when my legs are swollen. I may get a larger pair of similar tights for this reason.

      For me, the cons of chamois outweigh the pros during a long ride, and I have been through some long rides without chamois (I've never used a chamois in any of my winter ultras.) Cons include discomfort when wet, skin reactions, bunching, and bacterial infections from unwashed chamois (I had a reaction during and after the Stagecoach 400 that was just horrific. I would rather burn my butt with an iron and sit all day on a saddle than experience that again.) So ... a little more pressure on my butt seems like a fair tradeoff.

    2. I tried the no-chamois today and I can only say the underwear choice is key. I wasn't comfortable - the lack of padding was ok, but I actually had more friction than with good bike shorts. My favorite bike bibs are from Skinfit - they have a super-thin chamois (3-4mm! and it's pretty tiny, too) that also lacks the usual elaborate different-density stuff etc. It is perforated and it has a layer of fabric that can slide underneath - think double layer socks - to reduce friction I presume. I believe skinfit is used a lot by triathletes, so it seems designed to be worn wet. Although at first sight somewhat unimpressive, it turns out it's awesome for me on the bike. Less friction, no bunching of material, good moisture management. After 9ish hours in the saddle last weekend I had no issues whatsoever. We'll see how it works on multiday stuff. But I'm also sold on thin chamois for sure.

  4. This part of Sierras is an off the beaten path gem. We went camping and hiking pct last summer at Mono hot springs and I thought Kaiser Pass Rd would be great for a bikepacking trip. Plenty of fire roads too. Although there is so much good singletrack MTB around Tahoe that it's hard for me to think about fire road bicycling.


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