Tuesday, October 27, 2015

ITI training, week two

Monday: Road bike, 1:32, 17.4 miles, 2,424 feet climbing — I'm starting to feel a little stronger on my bike. But I'm still terrified about the deca-Montebello coming up on Nov. 7. Sadly, Beat was diagnosed with pneumonia this week. He hasn't been able to log any hard training in more than two weeks, so 100 Miles of Nowhere is definitely out for him. He's starting to feel better, but damn, it's been a rough year for our respiratory systems.

Tuesday: Trail run, 0:54, 5.6 miles, 701 feet climbing — In an effort to inject a whisper of "speed work" into my routine, I'm going to make an effort to improve on my regular Tuesday run, a hilly half-pavement, half-trail loop. This pace is about 9:34-minute-mile average. I'm going to work on getting that under 9-minute-miles. Also, I'm hoping to break the top three times for a half-mile downhill segment called "Hill Trail Descent" on Strava. Currently I'm 6th out of 181 women. Isn't Strava fun? I think Strava's fun.

Wednesday: Fat bike, 3:29, 31.3 miles, 4,481 feet climbing — I took Snoots, our expedition Moots fat bike, out for the first time since last winter. Ah, I missed Snoots. She's so sluggish on pavement, and yet so airy on trails. I feel it's an indignity to take her on anything but snow, however, I need to get reacquainted with the nuances of fat bikes. A slog up Highway 9 was rewarded with fun rollers on Skyline Ridge and the always-gleeful John Nichols Trail descent just as the sun was setting.

Thursday: Weight lifting at gym. As this was my first time at the gym, I treated this as a practice session. I tried out all the machines at different weights until I reached my limit, then did a handful of reps two notches below that weight. After reading several texts on the subject, I've decided circuit training with machines will best fit my needs for now. In hoping to continue with 12 exercises, 12 reps times two, two times per week. But for just playing around, I was *really* sore the next day. Beat could make me wince just poking my shoulders. This is disconcerting, I have to admit.

Friday: Trail run, 1:28, 8.3 miles, 1,169 feet climbing. My upper body felt too sore for bike riding. Hmph. Running, I felt pretty good, albeit a little on the slugglish side.

Saturday: Mountain bike, 4:08, 37.2 miles, 5,376 feet climbing. Liehann set out for his weekly hill climb ride. He aims for four-hour rides, which is a good block of riding for me right now. We rode up Grizzly Flat and along Long Ridge, including my nemesis, the Sunny Jim Trail. I can't always climb Sunny Jim without dabbing, but I made it on Saturday. I also managed a Grizzly Flat climb PR, which tells me I'm probably stronger right now than I think.

Sunday: Trail run and hike, 5:30, 23.4 miles, 3,922 feet climbing. A out-and-back variation of the Cal Loop on the Western States Trail outside Auburn. I ran the first 14 miles at a fairly fast pace with Bruce and then hiked the last 10 with Bruce and Ann. As a workout, I think run/hike is a good format for my winter training, as I get a wide range of intensity plus longer time on my feet without the beatdown of a long run. In many ways, it's most difficult to stay in shape for long bouts of walking, yet this may prove to be a decent percentage of the "ride" to Nome, depending on conditions. Everything depends on conditions, which is what makes training for this event such a puzzle. I need to hedge my bets with a little of everything.

Total: 17:03, 85.9 miles ride, 37.3 miles run, 18,072 feet climbing.

Moving forward on the Western States Trail

This weekend I traveled out to Auburn to record a few interviews with Ann Trason. I've been wanting to work on a biography about Ann for two years now, but pushed the project to the back-burner last year when we reached what I felt was an impasse. I operate best as a visual writer, which requires a lot more details than a bullet list of of accomplishments with quotes from people who were on the periphery. Since I wasn't there to witness any of the events I want to write about, I have to rely on Ann for these details. It's a problem, because Ann feels mortified by even the idea of talking about herself. She's an extremely private person, and that's okay. But as self-effacing as she can be, I think she understands that she's led an extraordinary life, and has a story that's worth telling.

The only window I've ever found with Ann is when she's running — out on the trails, she lets the stories flow out, and they're wonderful. Somewhat belatedly, I realized that I need to carry a voice recorder with me when she invites me for a run, collect the steam-of-consciousness, approach her contacts with questions to fill in the holes, and then use existing archives to connect stories and facts on a timeline. The issue, of course, is carving out the time to do the journalistic detective work needed to reconstruct a narrative. And lately, there's also been the issue of injury. Ann recently had knee surgery and probably needs another. She hasn't been running, and without her outlet, the quiet settles back in.

Two weeks ago, Ann purchased her dream home: an airy 1940s single-level house with a large garden at the top of Robie Point in Auburn, California — mile 99 of the Western States course. Ann feels a deep connection with the Western States 100 race and trail, and understanding that connection, I believe, is one of the keys to unlocking her narrative. She's been able to walk longer distances recently, so she invited me to join her and a friend for a run/hike on the Cal Loop segment this weekend.

The plan was for her friend, Bruce, and I to run segment along the river to collect leftover ribbons from the 50K trail race she organized last weekend, then loop back and meet her as she hiked down from Foresthill. Bruce, an old-school ultrarunner who has been around long enough to consider Ann one of the "kids," pulled me along at what I did not consider a conversational pace, chatting up a storm about the sport in the early 1980s. He coached me on my downhill technique — "Run like you're running in place. Don't think too hard about it. Look ahead, don't look at the ground" — and then flew up hills as I gasped behind him and tried to ask questions when I could catch my breath. Here's a guy in his 60s who has been running long distances for 40-plus years, and still runs hard.

"What's the secret to your longevity?" I asked him.

"Don't think too hard about it," Bruce recommended. "Just run."

After 15 miles of running we caught up with Ann and hiked with her for nine miles. We told her we filtered water out of the American River and she wondered why we didn't just wait until a perennial stream that was a half mile ahead.

"I didn't know about that stream," Bruce answered, and she wondered aloud with a tone of innocent amazement how he'd forgotten about that particular stream. Ann knows this trail inside and out, and still loves it after all these years, after all these miles, even when she can only walk its corridors at what to her is a frustratingly stilted pace. From my perspective — as someone who finds the California foothills pretty, but not stunning, and the climate unpleasantly dry and hot — it's an interesting intellectual challenge to surmise the root of her passion. She's traveled all over the world, gone on many adventures, won many races, and still she returns her love here, to this dusty trail where it all started.

I wonder if it's as simple as that. This is where it all started — where a friend took a high school track star who had a disappointing college career on a 30-mile trail run that launched 14 Western States wins and a lifelong relationship with this place. Although I can't relate to her level of success, I do see my love of the Susitna River Valley mirrored in Ann's Western States Trail. Ann's oak-dotted hills and yellow pine forests are my frozen swamps and black spruce stands. Maybe it's as simple as that.

After unwinding with the 18-mile hike, Ann was ready to retackle her home-improvement projects on Monday. I spent the day holed up in the crawl space of her new home, plying through boxes and file cabinets filled of old newspaper clippings, magazines, and correspondence. It was a fascinating if brief journey into her past, and helped me form a clearer picture of the depth of her accomplishments. In doing so, I realized that the reason I want so much to write about Ann is not because she was great, and not even because she was great outright in an era heavily dominated by men. I admire Ann for her passion. Finding a way through all the barriers into the bright core of this passion will be an adventure in itself, and an honor.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

I ♥ races

This is my favorite portrait from any of my races, taken by a volunteer at the Eaglesong Lodge/mile 46 checkpoint during the 2006 Susitna 100 — my first race. I love the floppy overboots, the dangling Camelbak hose, the 2003 Gary Fisher Sugar with 26" studded tires and plastic pedals, the bulging stuff-sack bundle on a seatpoast rack. Most of all, I love that blissed-out look on my face. I was in awe of the expansive Susitna Valley, the notion of being 46 miles from anywhere in Alaska, and the fact that I was out there, and I was doing it.

This was quite the revelation, and set me on a path that I continue to follow a decade later — seeking out endurance races as a way to focus my emotions, expand my perceptions, find flow, and experience life at an intensity that never ceases to amaze me. Although this is all possible in non-race adventures, I appreciate organized races for their community and support, and also because perimeters force me to think and act outside my own boxes. Ultimately my goal with racing is to see how far I can go. Unless something about my life changes substantially, I imagine I'll continue to participate in races for years to come.

For a while now I've wanted to archive all the race reports scattered throughout this blog. Long-time reader Slo Joe planted the idea to list all of my races (with links to reports) on one page. I do love a good "quantified self" project. So I compiled a list and created a race page in header bar. The numbers are only interesting to me, but it was fun to quantify a decade of racing experiences. A few things I learned:

• I've participated in 80 races since February 2006 — 22 bicycle races, 57 foot races, and one triathlon.

• The most races I participated in one year was 20 in 2012 — three bicycle races and 17 foot races.

• Before I even considered myself a runner (2006-2009), I participated in five foot races and one triathlon.

• My longest race was the 2009 Tour Divide — 2,745 miles — and my shortest was the 2008 Spring Tide Scramble — 4 miles.

• The fastest time I ever posted in a bicycle race was 11:35 in the 2014 White Mountains 100; I never spent fewer than 11.5 hours racing a bicycle.

• I've participated in seven 24-hour mountain bike races.

• I've finished 43 ultramarathons (foot races 50 kilometers or longer)

• The number of multi-day bikepacking races I've finished is just four (in my defense, these are always the most time-consuming endeavors.)

• I've DNF'd eight races — three bike and five foot races. The reasons I listed were "timed out" (4), "frostbite" (1), "achilles pain and lost heart" (1), "knee injury" (1), "pneumonia" (1).

• I hold the course record in one race, the Berry Creek Falls 50K in Big Basin State Park. I finished in seven hours and 50 minutes, but it was the only year the 50K distance was offered at this race, and I was the only woman. I know, I know. The race director for Coastal Trail Runs still reminds me this is an official course record nearly every time he sees me.

• Because I aim to find out "how far can I go?" and never took the traditional path of training for speed while slowly increasing distance, my personal records for traditional distances are mostly pretty humorous:

5K: 31:52(!!) (This was my 5K time during the 2006 Homer Sea to Ski Triathlon, when I was definitely not a runner. Of course I log faster 5K segments nearly every time I go for a run, but this is my only official 5K race.)

Half Marathon: 2:06 (Insert frowny face here. Someday I will sign up for another half marathon so I can finish one under two hours. But probably not anytime soon.)

Marathon: 6:58 (2012 Diablo Marathon, hella hard trail run, 8,000 feet of climbing, I got lost and ran closer to 29 miles, but it's still the only marathon I've run.)

50K: 5:36 (2014 Crystal Springs 50K — my favorite local race — well, this or the Ohlone 50K. Another fun fact: Between Crystal Springs and the Woodside Ramble, I've run nine 50-kilometer races on this particular course.)

50M: 10:50 (2013 Quicksilver 50)

100K: 19:53 (2013 Homer Epic, winter race with sled.)

100M: 29:53 (2015 White Mountains 100, winter race with pack.)

• My race list may seem obsessively lengthy, but it pales in comparison to Beat's.

The link to my Race Page is here. Included are links to 80 occasionally multi-part race reports, which must be up to the 10-million-word range by now. Fun airplane reading. 
Monday, October 19, 2015

ITI training, week 1

I only got one photo on Saturday before my camera battery died. Not my best work for a week of outings, I know.
So, there are about 19 weeks until the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Feb. 28, 2016. I wanted to revive my weekly training log from winter 2013-14 because it proved to be a useful record. Since the Firetrails 50 was a re-set of sorts, I'm starting with the following week — Oct. 12 to 18.

I'm a little embarrassed because I haven't started a weight training routine yet. I decided to join a small gym near my neighborhood, and it's been a frustratingly slow process. But my membership is set to start on Wednesday, so I hope to report back next week. The benefit of this gym, besides being relatively inexpensive, is there is one trainer there for a few hours each day who can work with me as long as they're not already occupied with other clients. It's not as good as personal training, but at least I can ask questions and receive feedback. This is all new to me, so obviously the first few weeks will be about treading lightly and focusing on form. Hopefully once I get the exercises down, I can start loading my weak little arms and shoulders more heavily so they adapt into something more useful.

Beyond that, I plan to continue with both riding and running/hiking, and if I can stay disciplined, start to add more weight to both my bike and back on these outings. There will be rides where I purposefully push my bike up a steep hill again and again. I may even do a few cart-dragging "runs." Whether I'll manage any snow training is still in question. El Nino heat may bring another snowless winter to the Sierras. I feel strongly that I need at least one week of real cold-weather camping practice, so I'm hoping to make a trip to Alaska in December. Also, Beat and I signed up for 200-mile version of JayP's Fat Pursuit in Idaho in January as a shakedown tour.

Monday: Road bike, 1:29, 16.2 miles, 2,232 feet climbing. My next big "event" is a nutty little outing that I proposed as part of Elden "The Fat Cyclist" Nelson's annual 100 Miles of Nowhere charity ride. On Nov. 7, people from all over the world donate money for the privilege of riding a century either on trainers at their homes, or on an outdoor course that effectively goes nowhere. For several years I've wanted to attempt "100 Miles of Montebello Road," which is ten climbs and descents on my go-to hill climb. The end result is a road century with 20,000 feet of climbing. As you can imagine for any stretch of road that squeezes 2,000 feet of climbing into five miles, there is nothing flat about Montebello Road. As I was grinding up the pavement on Monday, there may have been a few swear words uttered. (#$%! How am I ever going to get through two of these, let alone ten???) It will definitely take some work to get my cycling legs back. It's good I set this impossible standard for myself in three weeks.

Tuesday: Trail run, 0:59, 5.6 miles, 696 feet climbing. Running! Now that's more like it. I'm definitely better trained for running right now. My IT band was still bothering me after Firetrails, so I shuffled the descents.

Wednesday: Mountain bike, 2:22, 23.4 miles, 3,184 feet climbing. Moots is still covered in clumps of mud that are almost certainly from the Tour Divide, and Beat finally became annoyed with the rear tire that has been consistently flat for three months, and added sealant himself. My mountain bike has been neglected. As I pedaled over Black Mountain and began to descent into Stevens Creek Canyon, I realized I hadn't visited my home trails since May. May! It's been wonderful to get back on my bike, but I can definitely feel the burn in my butt and legs. It's been a while.

Thursday: Trail run, 0:57, 5.6 miles, 702 feet climbing. I got a massage on Thursday morning, and suddenly my IT band felt 100 percent better. Even though I ran this loop at an easier pace than my Tuesday run, I finished it faster simply because I wasn't protecting the descents.

Friday: Road bike, 1:18, 15.5 miles, 2,073 feet climbing. This is another cheater Montebello ride where I wanted to practice my "100-mile pace" and didn't even ride all the way to the top. I don't remember why. But this 100 Miles of Nowhere thing is really starting to freak me out. Also, if you're a Bay Area cyclist and think this nutty century sounds at all fun, please considering joining us. There are at least six people right now who say they're going to show up at 6 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 7. We may even have a bit of an aid station at the bottom of the hill. (However, this is a fully self-supported, unofficial, untimed group ride.) If you want more information, e-mail me at jillhomer66@hotmail.com.

Saturday: Mountain bike, 3:58, 34.8 miles, 5,212 feet climbing. My friend Liehann recently started training with Coach Lynda, but he found a way to work me into his Saturday plan. We pedaled trails toward Russian Ridge, and I managed to keep a solid pace up until the final climb, when my legs just died. I've definitely lost some power in my quads.

Sunday: Trail run, 2:19, 13.1 miles, 2,246 feet climbing. Beat has been battling a veritable plague all week, and I haven't caught it, which is weird, because it seems like my immune system really gave up this year. Still, I'm currently healthy, so I set out to do my own thing — a half-marathon-length loop up the brutally steep PG&E trail and down the mellow and fun High Meadow Trail in Rancho. I felt fantastic on this run, with this giddy zeal that I also experienced while riding with Liehann on Saturday. It's funny, because with a few exceptions, I haven't felt this strong in a while. Months, really. In early October I had a few terrible runs and one especially terrible mountain bike ride, and I told Beat that if I couldn't finish the Firetrails 50, I was definitely going to withdraw from the ITI. It wasn't about the trail run; there was just something wrong with me, and I needed to figure it out.

Cue the visit to the allergist, and the assurance from a professional that "oh, there's probably nothing really wrong with you — except you're really allergic to grass." And just like that, I feel great. It's not about grass pollen; that's been gone for a couple of months now. It's more about increased confidence that this unseen anvil has been lifted. When I charge up a hill, I'm no longer afraid that it's going to come crushing down, so I push harder and feel better. Funny what happens when negative thoughts are flipped around.

Total: 13:26, 89.9 miles ride, 24.3 miles run, 16,346 feet climbing

Saturday, October 17, 2015

As it turns out, I am allergic to summer

This week I went in to see an allergist in hopes that the doctor could provide insight into my recent breathing difficulties. Skin tests came up negative for mold, dust mites, weeds, and most animals. I only showed mild allergies to a handful of tree pollens. But when the doctor arrived at the spot on my back that felt like a tiny piranha tearing into my skin, she exhaled loudly and said, "Oh, yeah, grass is really blowing up. Wow."

I get hay fever every spring and always suspected I was allergic to grass pollen, but it turns out I am severely allergic to grass pollen. The doctor was surprised I'd never sought allergy treatments in the past. She said people with allergies occasionally experience a tipping point when they contract a cold or the flu during allergy season. Productive coughing creates an environment in which allergens are held in the mucus lining the bronchial tubes, exacerbating the inflammation and causing more mucus buildup, which in turn bolsters the virus. Left untreated, the infection pushes deeper into the airways, leading to prolonged inflammation and higher sensitivity to allergens.

"It could take months to clear up," the doctor said, and cheerfully added, "which may be why you're feeling so much better now."

I am feeling so much better now. Grass pollen season is finally over. But a grass allergy could explain why I became so sick during the Tour Divide. Pollen counts were already high when I set out to ride my bicycle across the Rockies in mid-June. I developed some type of upper respiratory infection that caused a sore throat and coughing on the first day of the trip. Then I continued to stay outside all day, every day, breathing in large quantities of pollen and coughing up a lot of crud. At the time I became convinced that the air was "toxic," but of course pushed that notion aside because it was mostly absurd. Now I don't think that inclination was entirely off base. The grass allergy would explain why I felt a little better after spending a night indoors, and why I struggled so much more with my breathing in high winds and heat. It wasn't the dust, which is what I assumed I was choking on. It was pollen.

A grass allergy would also explain a little more about my general health since I moved to California ... why I always feel lousy in April and May (my annual "spring slump" after "too much fun" during March travels in Alaska), why I often continue to struggle on a lesser scale through the summer (I tended to blame high temperatures and a touch of burnout) and why I'm suddenly so much more peppy in the fall (I credited excitement about upcoming Alaska adventures and a slight reduction of heat.) Maybe having an immune system set to overdrive for half of the year isn't so good for energy levels.

The allergist recommended I see her again next April to assess my symptoms and decide how to proceed. In general, allergies just blow. Immunotherapy can take years to become effective, over-the-counter meds can be hit-or-miss, steroid inhalers and other asthma treatments are medicine for the rest of your life. The general advice is to avoid going outside during allergy season.

Or, you know, move to Alaska. Ha.

During this visit I also learned the terrible, terrible news that I'm allergic to cats. Not dogs, not horses, not mice. Just cats. I actually scored in the moderate to severe category for this allergy. This may explain all the seemingly random skin rashes that have cropped up over the years. Because of all of our traveling that was becoming increasingly difficult for my 12-year-old cat Cady, Beat and I recently sent her to live with her long-time cat sitter, who loves Cady and needed a companion for a difficult time she's going through. I've been struggling with this decision, but I suppose the move was a good thing for me as well. Still, I'm a hopeless cat person and I don't plan to never have a pet again. I'll live with the eczema if I must.

But for now, I can de-cat my house and rejoice that long-suffering summer is over. Soon it will be my season. Superwoman season. Winter. Bring it on. 
Monday, October 12, 2015

Bustin' out at the Firetrails 50-mile

Mountain biking at Tilden Park outside Berkeley earlier this month. I really need to get back on a bike.
Every September, Beat returns from the Tor des Geants buzzing on run-bliss and eager to sign up for all of the fall races. This is also about the time he acknowledges he doesn't have any vacation days left, so the smattering of hundred-milers left in the year are scratched out, and we usually end up at a local 50K. My Ultra Signup profile contains a handful of October and November races that have caused me to wonder, "Wait, why did I run that one? Oh, yeah, Beat's TDG chaser."

October is also the month when I need to launch my winter training. It's the "on" season, when I need to mentally and physically prepare for the grueling Alaska slog that always comprises my favorite endeavor of the year. I haven't wanted to talk or write about 2016 because of the level of cognitive dissonance it takes to contemplate a thousand miles to Nome. Beat hasn't enjoyed hearing me talk about it either, because the conversation always devolves into sniveling about the many uncertainties surrounding my health and strength and resolve. He makes an inarguable point, though — my insecurities are pointless. The Iditarod Trail does not care. Either I'm all in, or I'm out. I need to decide.

It's difficult to decide how to train, because I want to be conservative but the goal is so audacious. I want to increase my muscle strength and endurance so I can manage heavy loads in deep or drifted snow, while continuing to build cardiovascular strength and endurance so I can travel long distances — or at least long hours — every day for most of a month. I want to stay conditioned for both walking/running and cycling, since taking a bike to Nome — if that's what I choose to do, and I want to keep my options open during this El NiƱo season — involves plenty of both. I've been reading books and blogs on strength training and trying to formulate a plan that won't interfere with endurance training — the many hours in the saddle that I know I need. Of course resting is a big part of building strength, so I need to figure out where and how to focus my efforts. Helpful guidance has been difficult to find. People have all kinds of things they train for, but a month-long, heavy-lifting expedition isn't usually one of them.

Meanwhile, summer inertia lingers, as I've been frightened of most workouts since the Tour Divide. Every time my heart rate pegs or my breathing becomes heavy, I panic just a little bit. Earlier this month, I was at Tilden Park in Berkeley for what was only my second mountain bike ride since the Tour Divide, largely because I'm so intimidated by mountain biking right now. Each time I started up a steep hill, I'd get nervous about my breathing, step off the bike, and walk. The thing is — I'm not even sure I have any kind of conventional breathing problem. I become less convinced of this every day. Maybe — probably — I'd be just fine at higher intensities, but I'm still a little too scared of asthma attacks to try. I'm going to see an allergist on Thursday, and hope some guidance in that regard will help.

This is turning into a long intro, but it's my attempt to summarize where I'm at. Cautiously optimistic? That's not really the right phrase, but I'm not so hopelessly pessimistic as I have been in the past few months. I do feel myself becoming progressively stronger, which is what I'd hope and expect if I was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. That's why, when Beat suggested the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-mile run as a fun TDG chaser, I jumped on board. It would be good for me, I reasoned, to take on a frightening and yet not too risky challenge. I've been doing a lot of hiking over the past two months, so my legs and feet are in good shape, and the cut-offs where tight enough to force a solid effort.

Then I thought, "Wait, those cut-offs are pretty tight. I've been hiking a lot but not running that much. When I do run, it's been fairly slow relative to my usual paces. Can I actually hit those cut-offs? What if I don't? What if I DNF the Firetrails 50? There goes my last shred of confidence."

On Wednesday, after my weekend in the Grand Canyon, I set out for a practice run on one of my regular loops — eight miles up PG&E and down the High Meadow and Wildcat trails in Rancho San Antonio park. I pushed the pace just a bit too hard on the climb and developed cramping in my hamstrings, which expanded to a horrible side-stitch on the descent. From there everything deteriorated into one of those "worst runs ever" that included shuffling awkwardly to a pit toilet and still needing to effectively walk the last mile of an eight-mile run. Oof. That was not a confidence builder.

And with that, I took two days off and woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning for 50 miles of hills in Oakland. Firetrails is one of the classic Bay Area trail races, dating back to 1983. It's more or less an out-and-back, from Lake Chabot to Tilden Regional Park through the redwood forests and oaken hillsides along the suburban communities surrounding Oakland. There are 8,000 feet of climbing over the duration, which makes for a tough but mostly runnable course. Given it takes place within shouting distance of such a large metro area, Firetrails is uniquely secluded — the course covers 26 miles of bike paths, narrow fire roads, and singletrack, all closed to motorized traffic, and only crosses two or three roads. It's scenic as well, if I do say so myself, although I don't have any pictures because I unintentionally forgot my camera (and it's funny how no photos deflates my desire to post on social media.) But there are miles of mossy forests, views of rippling golden hills and blue reservoirs, and occasional glimpses into the fog-shrouded San Francisco skyline.

The race started in pre-dawn darkness at 6:30 a.m. It was foggy and warm, already over 70 degrees. I opted to bring a headlamp because dawn was still 30 minutes away, and I fully expected to be out after the 6:30 p.m. sunset. This race is well-structured for more limited daylight with paved bike paths at both the beginning and end, so most runners forgo headlamps, but the last thing I needed was to trip on a curb and break a wrist at mile 0.5.

Firetrails is fairly large for a trail race — last year there were more than 300 people at the starting line, and probably a similar number this year. The group fanned out and after eight miles I caught up to Beat and also Iris, a woman from Calgary who I frequently see at these Bay Area trail races. Iris and I have run together at the Woodside Ramble and Golden Gate 50K, and it's gotten to the point where I almost expect to see her out there, even though she travels all the way from Canada and we never plan these meet-ups. She was running with her friend Scott, and I made an effort to keep up with them, chatting the morning away. I felt really good. I wasn't about to push my luck with a 50-miler, but by mile 20 I was cautiously optimistic that I might finish this thing pretty well.

Temperatures rose into the 80s and the fog burned off, but humidity stayed high. After Beat ran ahead for the last time, Iris commented on how drenched he was in sweat. Her hair was soaked, and when I looked down at my own sweat-beaded skin and dripping shirt, I had to conclude that we all looked like we had jumped into lakes. The hot humidity made things difficult, but there were aid stations every five miles with Clif Shot Bloks, ice and salt tabs. I was enamored with these luxuries that really took the edge off.

At the 26-mile turnaround, I changed my socks and made the mistake of eating one of those boiled potatoes, which tasted rotten. I had shoved the whole thing in my mouth, and the garbage can was surrounded by runners, so I made myself swallow it, which was a larger mistake. I stuck around for five or so more minutes gagging and trying to wash the horrible taste away with Coke. Should have stuck with Shot Bloks. Always stick with Shot Bloks.

Despite a now-iffy stomach, the next section coming up was the only one for which I was reasonable trained: a 1,300-foot climb. I marched up the steep fireroad that was harshly exposed to the hot, hot sun, and actually felt better by the time I reached the top. I coasted into the 31-mile aid station thinking I had this race in the bag.

The problem is, most of my long trail runs have been 50Ks, and my body seems to have this pre-set kill button once 50 kilometers have passed. Fifty miles is really a whole lot further, so struggles out of the blue with 19 miles to go are frustrating. Just as soon as I left the aid station, my IT band started acting up. This didn't come as a surprise, since I had IT-band pain in Europe, but it certainly wasn't welcome. I started shuffling the downhills more slowly, then walked a few. Climbs were my only relief. I wasn't about to turn this IT band aggravation into a more long-term thing, so I kept the pressure off, but I continued to monitor my watch. DNF might still be worse. Yes, it might.

Iris and Scott caught and passed me, and I became more and more grumpy toward the end as my knee ached and aid station after aid station told me they had no toilet (I really wanted one, but knew I could keep going without, so I didn't go rushing off into the suburban woods.)

I arrived at the finish in 11 hours and 35 minutes. It was mildly disappointing after I'd briefly convinced myself that sub-11 was within my reach, but at the same time I can only shake my head at these thoughts because it's all so arbitrary. Beat finished an hour before me, and fetched me a cup of peach gelato as I rubbed my aching legs and complained, "So much running. That was just so much running." But it was all gone within a few hours; even the IT band pain had settled, and all that was left was that warm glow. "You didn't DNF. You're still okay. Hopefully." 
Thursday, October 08, 2015

Adventures in roadtripping

I love long drives. I love traveling at 80 miles per hour across vast empty landscapes, shamelessly guzzling cheap gas station coffee, listening to NPR and singing out loud with pop radio. I love glancing toward the mountains and imagining adventures along their contours. I make the commute between California and Utah at least a couple times per year, and recently decided to start acting out some of these daydreams. Twelve hours is a long time to sit in a car, and I've found it goes a lot smoother if I punctuate the drive with two or three hours of off-highway adventuring somewhere in the middle.

Light rain pattered the windshield as I pulled off an exit near Donner Pass on the eastbound trip. Castle Peak is a prominent landmark just off I-80, but I didn't know exactly how to get there. The Pacific Crest Trail climbs to Castle Pass here, so it seemed like the appropriate route. With the long Grand Canyon trek coming up, I was feeling lazy. Although I set out with an intention to run, I mostly jogged and hiked as the path meandered through the woods and under the freeway via a dark pedestrian tunnel.

Through this flat, forested basin, the trail became less defined. Although it seemed odd to be crossing over increasing deadfall and brush, a fair amount of distance passed before I realized I wasn't on a trail at all. From what I've read about it, the PCT is one of the most manicured trails in the American West, and I'd managed to lose it. And although I'd turned on my Garmin eTrex at the start, two miles later it had yet to find satellites, so I had no points of reference. I continued to meander through the deadfall-strewn forest until I found a dirt road, climbing gradually in the direction of Castle Peak. From there I located a fantastic trail that was definitely not the PCT — the dust was rippled with bike tracks and there wasn't a footprint to be found — and followed it uphill.

When I reached the ridge, Castle Peak looked to still be at least a half hour away, and I'd already burned up nearly 90 minutes bumbling around for five miles. I took a couple of photos from what I later learned was Andesite Peak, and started down. The sky opened up with hard rain just as I passed two mountain bikers who were stopped at an overlook, so I picked up my pace on the fun, swooping descent (trails built for mountain biking are also generally the most enjoyable to run. Banked turns are the best.) I could hear the mountain bikers' brakes screeching as they descended somewhere close overhead, and constantly looked over my shoulder to let them by, but strangely they didn't catch me. They finally passed on the road, yelling, "Rain! Run away!" (I was dressed like a hiker with baggy pants and a fleece top, and was walking when they first saw me.)  I pushed to maintain my relative sprint because I was soaked, a little bit cold and hadn't planned my supplies well for this impromptu trip (I had a 12-liter pack full of pretty much all of my Grand Canyon snacks and two liters of water, but no rain jacket.) All the steam went out about a half mile from my car. Although I didn't reach my intended peak, it turned out to be a diverse little outing with jogging, 'shwacking, hiking, a tiny bit of scrambling, fast downhilling, road sprinting, and back to plodding when the bonk hit hard (yeah, all those snacks in my pack. I didn't eat any of them.)

Oh well, more room for gas station M&Ms.

For the westbound trip on Monday, I decided to exit I-80 at Wells, Nevada. I first learned about this mountain paradise last December during another road-trip outing, a snowy run on Angel Lake Road. October is early enough in the season to climb snow-free peaks in the Humboldt Range, so I set my sights on Greys Peak, elevation 10,674. SummitPost informed me that the peak was only two miles from the campground, there was no trail, but the route was Class 2 scrambling with cairns leading the way. Easy peasy, right? I budgeted two hours and set out under clear skies with temperatures in the low 60s.

Sometimes I think the contributors to SummitPost are either elitist mountaineers or liars. Okay, so the information in the Greys Peak entry was mostly accurate, except for the cairns part. This image is the only photo I took during the approach, because I was either sliding backward in ankle-deep loose dirt down a 40-degree slope, squinting for the slightest evidence of a rock cairn while squatting on all fours atop a boulder, or clinging precipitously to a rock ledge. Still, I think this photo gives a snapshot of the scrambling experience. I had to pick my way along this ridge, traversing boulder-strewn slopes and then climbing ledges to cross over the spine and look for another traversable slope on the other side. None of the scrambling was exposed, but there were enough sheer drop-offs to make route-finding tricky. There were not enough cairns to be helpful, but just enough that I could occasionally confirm — with a baffled shake of my head — that I was still following the intended route. On this ridge, unless one was willing to venture onto some pretty harrowing Class 4 terrain, there probably was just one viable route. But it wasn't easy to find.

I stayed on the ridge for far longer than I needed to, and crawled over a bunch of car-sized boulders that I didn't have to, because I'd become so spooked about leaving the ridge (the terrain on the slope below was steep, often loose, and occasionally ended in cliffs.) I admit I had my Delorme out and readily accessible so I could alert Beat in what seemed to be the likely event of breaking a wrist or ankle. But when I reached the summit ridge, it was all worth it — empty ranges and basins as far as the eye can see. I love Nevada. I'm always rushing through this state, and every time I stop for even a moment, I promise that I will return soon for an extended stay.

Looking down at Angel Lake and a splash of fall color in the desert. My time for the ascent was 95 minutes, which was more than I'd budgeted, but how long could the descent take, now that I knew the way? An hour, maybe?

The summit ridge itself would actually be a relatively easy and fun ridge walk. Someday I will return with more than just a few hours to burn.

For the descent, I switched my GPS watch to its tracking mode so I could follow my own breadcrumb trail. Even with an exact line to follow that was easily viewable on my wrist, I still frequently lost the route while crabwalking down loose, boulder-strewn dirt. The footing was just really bad. It definitely wasn't my shoes — worn-out, torn uppers, almost-bald Hokas (maybe the shoes were a little bit to blame.) Back on the knife ridge, I frequently found myself standing at the edge of a cliff, with my GPS watch telling me I was 50 feet away from the spot where I climbed up, and I was completely baffled as to where that was. In hindsight, I probably would have been better off feeling out the route rather than tethering myself to the GPS track, although who knows where I would have ended up if I just descended freely. Probably in the wrong basin. Or at the bottom of one of those cliffs.

Anyway, by the time I returned to my car, 3 hours and 34 minutes had passed, which means it took me two hours to descend two miles. My triceps and lats were quite sore, which was another important reminder that I need to focus on upper-body strengthening this season. I also had to call Beat and let him know I was going to home a little later than I hoped.

Still, those last 9 hours of driving went by really fast. I was buzzing on adrenaline, and before I knew it, I was home. These road trip side-adventures are not only fun, but they're also a great way to generate driving energy. Even better than gas station coffee!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The tradition

When I tell friends I'm heading to Arizona to hike across the Grand Canyon, I've heard the response, "Didn't you do that last year?"

"Well, yes," I'd answer. "I do this most every year."


"I go there with my dad. We hike together."

"Don't you and your dad want to do something different one of these years?"

"Well, no. It wouldn't be the same. Rim-to-rim is the tradition."

 Tradition is an interesting concept, isn't it? Repeating the same activities, year after year, generation after generation. Tradition has perpetuated things nobody likes, such as fruit cake and Black Friday, but it also generates a sense of familial belonging and stability. One could argue that the best traditions combine the warm fuzzies of familiarity with elements of awe and wonder. Fall Grand Canyon is top shelf in this regard.

 I'm not sure my dad was setting out to create a tradition when he invited me to join him and a group of family friends for my first rim-to-rim hike in October 2004. Among this group was a guy my age who was something of a childhood nemesis when we were classmates at Sprucewood Elementary School. He would openly mock me for being bad at the team sports were were compelled to play together in gym, and I would quietly seethe about it and then scrawl his name in my Trapper Keeper with "I hate" in bold letters on top. By my mid-20s, these playground events no longer had any meaning, but it's funny how the emotions stay fresh long after the context has faded. I was a little bit mortified when I found out he was going to hike with us.

 At the time I hadn't yet ventured into endurance sports, and had real and strong doubts about my ability to crank out a 24-mile hike with 6,000 feet of climbing that was all at the end, in 100-degree temperatures. Dad had been training hard all summer. My life was in a bit of disarray, and I was at the highest weight I've ever been. Even without admitting to my dad just how inadequate my preparations had been, he reminded me about the terrible ramifications — the "mule of shame" — if I couldn't haul myself out of the canyon. It's funny how far determination can take a person. With the dark shadows of my nonathletic childhood trailing me, there was no way I was going to let myself fail this time. When I set foot on the South Rim at the end of a tough but incredible day, I couldn't help but wonder — what other "really hard" things were within my reach?

 Completing a difficult challenge is always rewarding, but what really made that first trip special was spending that time with my dad. We're both verbally reserved, and I think we both struggle with interpersonal communication. The stunning expanse of the Grand Canyon can only open hearts and minds. As I sloughed off childhood hurt, I opened up to my dad about some of my current struggles. I told him I was interviewing for a job and considering relocating to Idaho Falls, by myself, which is something I hadn't even yet admitted to my boyfriend at the time. Looking up from the depths of the canyon, I could visualize the chasms I'd created in my life. I resolved to pursue more openness, less stagnation.

Life didn't really become less volatile as I decided to stay with the boyfriend and move to Alaska the following year. I moved 3,000 miles away and started a new job just one month before the trip, but I wasn't about to pass up another Grand Canyon hike with my dad. It continued that way for years, even as my life lurched and shifted directions with the wind. Fall Grand Canyon was one anchor of familiarity that helped keep me from going completely adrift. All the years I was in Alaska, I never went home for Christmas, but I was back in Utah every year for Fall Grand Canyon. It's my favorite tradition.

Now it's been a few years since I've been back, at least to the depths of the canyon. In 2013, a government shutdown prevented us from entering the national park. In 2014, I'd torn a ligament in my knee and couldn't hike, so instead did the drive-around with my mom, who joins every year to support the crossing. This year, my dad proposed a rim-to-rim-to-rim, hiking north to south one day and then back, south to north, the next. I suppose one might argue that a true R2R2R must be done in a day, so this is more like a back-to-back R2R. I'd still never completed the out-and-back, and was excited to see the canyon from both directions in the same weekend.

 Dad always invites his hiking buddies, and this year we were joined by his friend Raj. Another friend, Tom, was forced by injury to decline at the last minute. When Tom found out that the weather forecast called for temperatures in the 100s that weekend, he said to my dad in a prophetic tone: "May you rise like a golden biscuit from the oven floor to the canyon rim." We got a lot of laughs out of that statement. Dad immortalized Tom's words on the message board at the Manzanita rest area on the North Kaibab Trail.

 Another tradition of Fall Grand Canyon is the side-trip to Ribbon Falls for a snack and a light shower. The canyon had already cranked on the oven, so it's a welcome respite.

 Looking through Ribbon Falls toward the canyon. I have no doubt I've posted a set of very similar photographs on my blog before. I don't care; this is my blog.

We crossed the Colorado River on the "Silver Bridge," which leads to the Bright Angel Trail. There's another pedestrian bridge across the river just a quarter mile away. The "Black Bridge" leads to the South Kaibab Trail, which is shorter but has no water sources along its length, making for a tough climb when temperatures are in the 90s. Besides these two bridges, the only span across the Grand Canyon is the Navajo Bridge on U.S. Route 89A at Lee's Ferry. (The Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam bridges are technically outside the canyon.) This is why my mother has to drive for four hours just to link up a 24-mile hike. (Thanks, Mom!) One of my favorite rim-to-rim accounts, from another family who has this annual tradition, is by a woman who accidentally took a different bridge than her companions in 2012. I was telling my dad about this hilarious blog post, so here's the link: Rim-to-Rim, A Tragecomedy.

 The classic trail sign at Indian Gardens, warning people not to descend any further lest they become thirsty and dizzy and die. Although temperatures didn't quite reach the forecasted 100s, I thought it was plenty hot on this day, and this is about the point where I ran out of ice. (I always haul a ton of ice on hot-weather outings, if I can. Worth it.)

 Evening light and dusty haze on the South Rim. Hiking into the canyon is a worthwhile experience, but you really can't beat the views from just a few meters off the main road.

 We were up bright and early the following morning to hike the South Kaibab Trail back into the canyon. Dad had some foot pain — I offered up Beat's magic lube as a remedy — and otherwise wasn't worse for the wear on the second day.

 Raj decided he wanted to try running rim to rim, so it was just me and Dad on Saturday. At the trailhead, we were approached by a group of volunteers from the University of New Mexico who were conducting a study of rim-to-rim hikers and runners. They were gathering data such as before and after body weight, blood oxygen levels, water intake, and calorie consumption, in an effort to gain more insight into hyponatremia and other maladies that make hikers and runners ill. We agreed, but ten minutes of questioning threw off our purposeful schedule, and we ended up behind both a full bus of people and a mule train. Doh.

 The South Kaibab switchbacks. Similar to the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails, this trail is an engineering marvel and a thing of beauty, turning rather rugged and exposed terrain into an easy walk. It gets a little crowded sometimes, but I don't think anyone can complain about such a unique opportunity.

 We took a leisurely break at Phantom Ranch for a morning "lemmy" (a glass of iced lemonade. These were one dollar on my first rim-to-rim hike, and now cost three dollars.) I purchased two more refills of just ice to top off my three-liter bladder. We took another break for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, collecting our trash in a plastic bag for the study. (I ate two fruit snacks, one granola bar, one pita bread with Nutella, 10 ounces of lemonade, three ounces of saltine crackers, three ounces of tuna, and a handful of nuts for our S-N hike. Plus about 3 liters of water, total.) I thought about the ways this journey has changed for me since 2004. It's no longer this arduous, intimidating thing — actually, it's become rather relaxing, strolling through this gorgeous canyon on such a well-built, nicely graded trail. Sure, there's a 6,000-foot climb, but only one. It's so ingrained into my muscle memory that my legs no longer become tired or sore. I'm not trying to brag by calling the rim-to-rim hike easy, just making a personal observation about the ways perspectives change with experience. And still this is every bit as enjoyable, every bit as incredible, and still something I'd love to do again and again.

 It's also interesting to observe how strong my dad has become. He's always been strong, but he seems to only get stronger. I almost forget that he's 62 years old — out on the trail we're so evenly matched that my youth and even my ultra-running experience don't give me much of an advantage. We kept a steady, fast pace on the 4,000-foot, five-mile climb from Manzanita rest area to the rim, enough so that we passed a few trail runners who we watched fly past us earlier. Dad jokes about his senior citizen status, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine us doing this together 15 years from now, when I'm the age Dad was when we first started our Fall Grand Canyon tradition, and Dad is nearing 80.

It's a beautiful dream. I hope it comes true.