|Mountain biking at Tilden Park outside Berkeley earlier this month. I really need to get back on a bike.|
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 Niño 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."