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. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cures for the springtime mehs

You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little quieter on my blog these days. I'm just going through my annual period of readjustment that I've come to think of as "the springtime mehs." This begins when temperatures climb into the 80s, and I remember that summer is coming and summer is long. I regard summer with the same disquietude that many people feel toward winter. I adore winter — from deep cold Alaskan winter to (ideally) rainy and mild California winter. I manage summer, with its hot hot heat, searing sunlight, insects and wide array of allergens. I'll admit the outdoor stoke just doesn't come as easily when faced with these discomforts. I'll also admit that most of my outdoor stoke is driven by the prospect of adventure — any adventure. Even backyard adventures can be full of novelty and discovery. But as I enter the fifth year in my tenure as a Californian, adventure admittedly takes more creative spark than it once did. Some weeks, inspiration is running low, it's hot outside, and I find myself contemplating Lifetime Fitness memberships and other ways to avoid the outside. 

 At least my friend Leah was available for a Wednesday night ride in the Marin Headlands. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge with the late afternoon sun sparkling over the ocean, I thought, "It's been far too long." The evening was perfect — not hot or cold — and we chased quick runners up the hills and descended through dust clouds saturated in sunlight.

 We also encountered many animals, including this crotchety turkey who was not about to let anyone through his territory on the Marincello Trail. He was like a gnarled old troll, but instead of shouting "none shall pass," he'd puff up all his feathers and chase people while gobbling and hissing. We watched these two runners sparring with him when we were still a half mile down the trail, and they still hadn't made it past when we approached. The woman was especially afraid, but I was too. That turkey was mean!

 Leah and I both scooped a handful of little pebbles and she fearlessly led the way. He seemed deterred by her defense but came charging toward me. I yelped and lifted both legs off the pedals because I thought he was going to peck my shins. I tossed the whole handful of little rocks at him, which sent him darting into the grass. Just as I skirted by, he re-emerged to chase the poor runners some more as Leah and I pedaled furiously up the hill. I still don't know whether the runners made it through. They may still be locked in a turkey standoff on the Marincello Trail.

As we crossed over the ridge and dropped into Rodeo Valley, we passed a coyote making a ruckus near the trail. She was yipping and howling loudly in a way that seemed directed at us, and wasn't backing down. Just when I wondered whether there was a full moon making all the animals act weird, a bobcat leapt across our path. We raced the fading sunlight back across the bridge, filled with renewed stoke.

When we returned to my car, I couldn't get my electronic key to work and Leah noticed the rear window had been smashed in. Ugh, horrible feeling. When we met at the bridge parking lot 2.5 hours earlier, Leah arrived straight from work and had a large commuter bag. I stuffed her bag beneath the rear seat, covering what still showed with a greasy old sheet that I keep in my car to cover bikes. I had my own bag, full of extra clothing and my Kindle, that I left in plain sight on the passenger's seat. These thieves managed to grab Leah's bag from under the seat, while leaving my bag and everything in the front of the car alone. Unfortunately Leah's bag was filled with valuables, including her wallet, her work laptop, keys, and expensive pieces of clothing. Ugh. Big headache and losses for her, and a $150 repair for me. We heard the lectures about leaving stuff in cars at trailheads, but this is a big parking lot, usually packed with tourists, and Leah had nowhere else to put her bag. I really thought I had hidden it well, and the only reason I can think for a thief to go directly for that bag and nothing else in the car is because they'd watched us hide it. Well, nothing can be done about it now. Just when you get all worked up about grumpy turkeys on the trails, you are reminded where the real dangerous animals reside.

The weekend came, and I had the mehs something fierce. Beat wanted to put in some long rides for his Freedom Challenge training. But he was on call, so he had to carry his laptop and couldn't leave cell phone range — which can be surprisingly spotty here in the Silicon Valley. He wanted to ride the same route we rode last Sunday, and I was unreasonably cranky about joining him and Liehann, given the reality that it's a beautiful and challenging route. Also, it was the warmest day of the year so far, with temperatures in the mid to high 80s. I froze a bladder of water and went anyway, grumbling about "same old" early in the ride, but picking up enthusiasm in the later miles. You know — bikes just doing their job.

For Sunday I couldn't think of anything remotely exciting for our purposes of staying close to home and in cell phone range. Beat was feeling under the weather after Saturday's ride — whether from the heat, relative lack of cycling, or prolonged recovery from his arduous Alaska journey, he wasn't sure (I think the latter.) The second long ride was almost nixed until I came up with a great plan — we'd ride repeats up and down Montebello Road, as many or as few as each of us felt like riding.

Montebello Road is our go-to hill climb. From our house, the ride is 17.5 miles round trip, and Montebello Road itself climbs 2,000 feet in 5 miles. It's ideal for a quick weekday workout, so I ride this route anywhere from 1 to 3 times a week when I'm at home, and have for four years. I've logged well over 200 trips up Montebello Road. What better way to battle the "same old" mehs by riding the same old route a whole bunch of times in a row?

Yeah, Beat and Liehann didn't really get the logic either. But I was quite excited for these Montebello repeats. Five times would log 10,000 feet of climbing in 50 miles, and that was the goal. We parked the car with a cooler full of cold drinks and a couple of sandwiches at Stevens Creek Reservoir, and took off at our own paces for our chosen number of climbs. I enjoyed myself immensely, spinning up a road I could almost ride with my eyes closed (not really; there are really treacherous drop-offs lined in poison oak) and daydreaming about Alaska. Since I got back from our recent travels last month, I've noticed that all of my Alaska daydreams still revert back to my 2014 walk to McGrath with Beat. It was just such a special trip, and not so emotionally wrenching as my more recent tour on Alaska's western coast. I think I'm just really excited about the prospect of getting back on the Iditarod Trail next year. It makes for great daydream fodder when summer is coming, because summer is long.

Each lap I returned to the car for cold drinks and a snack break. It was just so simple and relaxing. Sometimes repetitive laps through familiar places are just the right cure for the adventure blues. Plus, it's a fun activity for geeking out on Strava data:

Total distance was 56 miles with 10,300 feet of climbing. Over five trips up the mountain, I kept a consistent pace and heart rate throughout. My slowest lap up and down Montebello was my first, at 1:08 (I stopped a few times during this lap.) The second was 1:04, the third was 1:02, and the fourth and fifth were both 1:04.

Now I'm curious how many of these laps I can complete before my pace falls off a cliff. I have an ultimate dream of 100 miles of Montebello — 10 laps and 20,000 feet of climbing. Liehann and Beat are not so convinced that this would be any fun at all (it would be a 12- to 13-hour ride, requiring an early start and an entire day.) But they weren't so sold on today's plan initially. Both told me at the start that they were going to bail after two laps, and I caught them both smiling all the way to the end. (Beat rode his loaded mountain bike and did four laps. But he looked strong after feeling so down on Saturday.)

This week I'm planning to re-introduce long runs into my life. Beat and I signed up for the Ohlone 50K next month, and it's been quite a while since I completed a long run (the White Mountains 100 notwithstanding.) When one is awkward and clumsy, running is always an adventure, and I'm looking forward to this, too.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Always wondering what's next

 Let's see, where was I? Oh yes, back in California. Beyond the usual flurry of tasks that every long trip away from home demands, both Beat and I had a rough re-entry to our routines. We were wrecked after the White Mountains 100, and then embarked on the worst recovery day possible. First, we drove for seven hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage, taking turns at the wheel while I worked on deadline on my laptop (yes, I am one of those people who becomes car sick when I don't watch the road. It was a delicate balance of tolerating nausea just to the point of vomiting, then looking up for a while.) In Anchorage, I finished up my work while our wonderful friends made us dinner. Then we packed up our three bulging duffles and enormous bike box, returned the rental truck, dragged the very large load across the airport, and boarded a red-eye flight with a long layover. By 7 a.m. in Seattle, I was as emotionally volatile as an overtired toddler, and nearly had a meltdown because my arms were hurting from having to carry my own stuff across the terminal. Also because sleep — so lacking. And walking — so hard.

Just 24 hours after we left Fairbanks, I curled up in my own bed and let the contentment wash over me like a warm shower. I was so happy to be home. And then, I wasn't as happy. It's always difficult to leave Alaska.

 Springtime in California is beautiful, though. It's the best time of year here, even after such a dry winter. The hills are still green, there's an abundance of wildflowers, and temperatures are as nice as they come. After the initial post-100-mile rigor mortis wore off, my main physical issue has been tightness and cramping in my hamstrings. This persisted to an extent that I didn't get out much last week beyond some slow and short road rides. April 4 marked three years since I took my Moots mountain bike for his first spin, so I celebrated the Mootsiversary by joining Beat and Liehann on a ride up Black Mountain. My left hamstring cramped so badly that I had to lean into the pain, pedaling as though my left leg were a foot shorter than my right. I took a couple more recovery days after that.


 Beat unpacked Snoots and swapped the overbuilt (actually, built to carry huge loads) titanium fork for a carbon Fatback fork. Now the bike with rear rack, stocked frame bag, and platform pedals weighs 32 pounds — not bad. We're already scheming plans for Alaska next year, which may include (gulp) traveling together by bike from Knik to Nome. After having my ass — along with every last ounce of self-confidence — handed to me by the winds in Shaktoolik, I was terribly reluctant to launch Iditarod plans for next year. But I've been scheming and working toward this trip for two years already, and dreaming about it for much longer (ten years, actually.) I know I'd regret it if I let one confidence-shaking journey derail these ambitions.

So, that's the hope for now: Bike to Nome in 2016, with or without Beat (he may still want to walk, which I fully support.) I'm not even convinced cycling is the best way to go for me on the Iditarod Trail. Dealing with a bike does dredge up an enormous amount of angst, caused by anticipating bad trail conditions, facing weather that is truly unworkable, and the constant threat of mechanicals. When traveling on foot — which has fewer variables— it's easier to just accept tough situations and keep pressing forward. But I also can't fathom the physical difficulties of dragging a sled for a thousand miles. Presuming I'm given a chance to try (because I want to make the trip to Nome with the support of the ITI, so need to wait and see whether my entry is accepted), I still have 10 months to think about it.


Other than Alaska dreams, what's next? Beat is gearing up to travel to South Africa in June, where he and Liehann will ride the Freedom Challenge (the same 2,500-kilometer mountain bike event that Liehann and I rode last year.) I didn't have a strong desire to go back and ride this particular event again, so I won't be joining them. I presumed I'd come up with some great bike tour for myself, but here I am, mid-April, and still haven't made any plans. I did toy with the possibility of another run at the Tour Divide, but my fitness isn't where I'd like it to be in that regard. And although it would be great training for Nome, I'm not sure I'm excited enough about such a difficult endeavor at this time. I only want to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route again if I'm going to go all out — to the limits of my physical abilities — and explore all the edges of my inner galaxy while viewing beautiful scenery outside. I don't have a strong desire to fast-tour this particular route, which may be all I'm up for right now. So, June plans also are in flux. I may ultimately just decide to nail down my Ann Trason book project, visit friends and family, and train for UTMB in a more focused way with lots of hiking and trail running. Or ... bike tour. Or both!

I'll never complain about too many good options. I met with Ann this week to discuss recent talks with a publisher, and went for a beautiful trail run at Tilden Park in Berkeley. Even with tight hamstrings and being worked over by the White Mountains 100, my post-Alaska trail runs have all gone quite well. I'm stoked on my current running fitness, especially after the WM100 proved I have a decent base to spend the summer building.

I know, so many selfies. This was the only photo from this day that survived a serious case of sweaty lens smudges.
Still, bikepacking dreams don't give up easily. A friend's memorial service next week will take precedence over the Tour de Las Padres, a 300-mile bikepacking race near Santa Barbara that I'd been tentatively planning to ride as a sort of summer shakedown. In terms of heat acclimation and recovery from Alaska adventures, this coming weekend feels too soon anyway, so it wasn't too disappointing to let this go. Still, it seemed worth getting in a good effort this weekend to see where I'm at. On Saturday I joined my friend Jan for a 105-mile mountainous loop between Pleasanton and Mount Hamilton.

After a month of riding a heavily loaded Snoots on soft snow, sometimes pedaling (actually sitting in the saddle and pedaling) slower than two miles an hour, riding my road bike feels effortless. I love how it zips up hills and actually coasts sometimes. I was beginning to think this bike pedaled itself, but when put to the test by 100+ miles of the Diablo Range with frequent 12-percent grades and 8,500 feet of climbing, this theory failed. This was a tough century, as Jan will agree. He often lamented how slow we were moving for our efforts. ("But our average speed is in the double digits," I'd marvel.) We fought gusty winds and mean climbs toward the 4,200-foot peak, followed by a stiff headwind all the way back to Pleasanton along the steep rollers of Calaveras Road. I was tired but still couldn't believe how fast and relaxing it all felt. That's the benefit I still carry from my 120-mile, five-day ride in Alaska: Try something ridiculously hard, and for a short time — while the memories are fresh — everything else will seem easy.

 Despite the tired century legs, I joined Liehann and Beat on Sunday for their Freedom Challenge training ride. Beat loaded up his Lenz with bags and gear, and they conducted bike-carry training at Fremont Older.

After swooping around Fremont Older's small but high-quality singletrack selection, we guided Beat on his first ride up Bohlman On-Orbit. Bohlman is a local road climb that I often use on a comparative difficulty scale to gauge snow-biking efforts (as in, "man, that trail was soft. It was like climbing Bolhman On-Orbit for six hours.) I'm not sure whether this climb gave Beat and appreciation for how *really hard* pedaling < 2 mph on snow can be, but I think it gave him an appreciation for climbing Bohlman On-Orbit. It's steep and relentless, gaining 2,500 feet with no breaks. We sweated buckets to the top of the ridge, descended the El Sereno fire road into Los Gatos, then tied up the loop with another climb up the steep trails of Fremont Older. Altogether the ride was 37 miles with 5,200 feet of climbing. I felt some muscle fatigue in my legs, but otherwise had no issues from the long ride the previous day. I rode as well as I would have on fresh legs. It's a good indicator of endurance ... but where to take it? I just don't know. 

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Still the best race ever, part two

I enjoy tracing the White Mountains 100 course on a map. The lollipop loop is flung like a lasso over a small region of topographic ripples between the wide drainages of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, which in turn divide expansive valleys between the Alaska and Brooks mountain ranges, which feather across a much larger landmass — all of it nearly uninterrupted by the roads, cities, and railroads that crowd most maps. The course itself is a tiny circle in this geographic expanse, nothing at all, and it's a hundred miles. It's a visual reminder of just how big Alaska really is — that one can walk 50 miles away from the nearest road, and still only be at the edge of a vast wilderness.
 
It may just be the edge of the wilderness, but the boreal forest felt wholly wild and remote as we began the climb to Cache Mountain Divide. Not many people travel here — even 40 miles is considered a good day's distance on a snowmachine, and fewer folks venture beyond the two cabins this trail connects. Trail conditions soon became notably worse. Before the cabin, I was punching through the crust every four or five steps; out here, most steps sank to my ankles at least, which is a long way to go when you effectively run on your toes. Determined not to give up the 4 mph average I'd so fiercely maintained, I pushed harder. This was a laughably losing battle. Trying to increase speed seemed to increase my weight/force ratio just enough that I only sank deeper. We again danced around the holes in the trail, searching for pockets of crust that would hold our weight. The edge of the trail seemed best but risky — too far over, and deep snow swallowed our legs to the knees.

It was tedious work, but not unexpected — although we both became quiet for a while. I used silence to prevent myself from lapsing into defeated slog mode, and Beat likely kept quiet because he was in a fair amount of pain. Beat had all those hard miles on his legs, which were probably screaming not-so-subtly, "not this again." Eventually I decided I should break the tension by mocking some of the deep bicycle trenches left in the trail.

"I think they're all from the same biker," I said, analyzing the tire tracks with their well-rounded edge. "How could they not know it was time to let air out? If you're going to ride like that, why not just bring a road bike?" Still, whoever left these painful-looking tire tracks was still in front of us, so I was hardly in a position to criticize.

The steeper the trail became, the icier the surface, which was considerably better for walking. I could still float up the steepest grades, but the easier grades were a true slog, punched to Swiss cheese by all the bikers who also were reduced to walking. This is the main aspect of winter ultras that I always try to emphasize to newcomers — make note of the distances and elevation profiles, but then throw them out the window. Those statistics matter comparatively little next to trail conditions, which can't be predicted, and which can change by the hour (the faster bikers in the race likely made it over the pass before the slushy conditions set in, and also before other racers and volunteers on snowmachines churned up the "mashed potato" snow, leaving much softer conditions for those who came later.) Still, distance does matter. Regardless of what the trail is like, the mileage has to be covered.

The setting sun cast rich pink and gold hues on the surrounding peaks, framing this valley in a light I hadn't yet seen in four years of racing this course. "This time last year, I'd already rolled into the Wickersham Dome, devoured a brat and chili, spent an hour in the warming tent chatting with other bikers, and had driven halfway back to Fairbanks," I mused to Beat. I remembered rolling into the driveway before the sky was even fully dark, and walking rather breezily into the house for some leftover pizza and a full night of sleep. Then I smiled, because that was not where I wanted to be. This was where I wanted to be. This is what I came for.

An iridescent half moon cast the mountains in bright silver and violet as we climbed above tree line. I've seen the Cache Mountain Divide in full sunlight and in cloud, but darkness gave it new depth — a stark contrast rendered by moonlight and shadows. As the sun retreated, warmth followed, and temperatures rapidly dropped at least 20 degrees. At the Divide, Beat and I embraced and shared a "summit kiss." We joked about taking it farther — an ongoing inside joke dating back to 2011 when a friend offered us ten dollars to make out during the Susitna 100. Then we laughed and laughed, because the windchill was already fierce, and because damn, were we sore.

I found it all so exhilarating that I took off like a runner down the pass, only to punch through the crust up to my shins, again and again, until I finally wrenched my right knee badly. Electric pain shot through my leg and I continued walking briskly, which is what I do when I'm panicked that I've hurt myself in a remote area, which is something I've been known too do. But the pain eventually diminished, and the joint was still bending okay. "No more running on the punchy snow. Don't let me run on the punchy snow," I said to Beat. But then ultra-amnesia took over, and exhilaration returned, and I returned to running. After turning my knee again and yelping in pain, I heard Beat yelling, "Don't run! You said you weren't going to run!"


We passed Cynthia, a runner from Nome who was having stomach issues and said she was considering scratching at a medical tent a few miles down from the pass. We encouraged her as much as we could, then continued descending toward the Ice Lakes — a narrow valley that collects runoff, causing a 1.5-mile-long section of overflow that can be anything from packed snow to glare ice to knee-deep water. This year, there was more snow on the Ice Lakes than I'd ever seen, and I thought we'd be granted an easy, anxiety-free crossing. When we reached the sections of glare ice, however, we encountered a paper-thin surface layer that had the terrifying tendency to shatter as we walked across it. Occasionally a fracture would compound across a ten-foot diameter of ice, which caused me to yelp, every time. Luckily the water underneath the ice layer was only a half inch deep or less, but occasionally I stepped in slushy puddles up to my ankles. There was one more advantage of brand-new shows: the waterproof outers were actually still waterproof. 

In their need to urgently return from the Iditarod Trail, both Beat and Steve left their sleds in Koyukuk. For the White Mountains 100, Beat borrowed a sled from Dave Johnston, the current record holder of the 350-mile race to McGrath, who used this sled on another four-day blitz of the course this year. "Irma" the sled didn't have a runner, which didn't always agree with Beat's single-pole system. On steep descents or ice, the sled was all over the place, swinging ahead of Beat or dragging him sideways. Occasionally I heard Beat scolding Irma for misbehaving. We joked that she just wasn't used to moving so slowly. 

After Cache Mountain Divide, the trail descends through a narrow gorge formed by Fossil Creek, running beside sheer limestone cliffs. It's a stunning canyon, and the moonlight made it all the more surreal — like film noir, a cinematic rendering of something mysterious and slightly sinister. The Ice Lakes had been a cold sink, the breeze left us chilled, and the temperature continued to plummet. At my comfortable pace I could easily stay warm, but slowing down or stopping quickly left my fingers and toes tingling. I had a few more extra layers in my backpack — my puffy coat, mitten shells, and a balaclava. But since those were all I had, the prospect of putting them on made me nervous. Fully layered meant I had no buffer, and would be at the mercy of just how cold it could get here — which, based on recent experiences, was minus a lot. 

I told Beat as much — that it was too cold for me to slow down. I think this annoyed him, because he could still see my puffy jacket tied to the outside of my pack. He again needed to make water and a meal, and I assured him we could take another long break at the cabin. But he said his fun meter had run quite low, and he'd be happier if he could take the rest of the course at a slower pace. He wanted to let me go ahead. More motivated by the creeping cold than anything else, I agreed. 

We reached the Windy Gap cabin, mile 62, at 1:30 a.m. I was surprised to see at least five bicycles parked outside the cabin, among a few sleds. The small interior was crowded with racers, and stiflingly hot — which is usually how the indoors feel when one's body is in the process of adjusting to subzero temperatures. The meatball soup served here has historically been my favorite food of the whole race, but my electrolytes were off and this year it tasted strange to me, a bit like pencil shavings. The crowds made me feel antsy. I also felt guilty about Beat and all the chores he needed to complete when I was having difficulty concentrating on the smallest tasks. 

When I have "ultra brain," which is a common thing to have a hundred kilometers into a hard run, I don't cope well around crowds. Aid stations can be a bewildering experience, and I try to form strategies to get myself in and out without interacting too much with other people. It's not that I don't appreciate volunteers (I do, very much), but their helpful gestures can quickly become confusing and overwhelming, and I start spiraling into an inertia trap. At Windy Gap, after eating the stomach-unsettling soup and collecting more water, I continued chatting with the bikers. I also tried to catch up with John, a volunteer who is a friend of mine, and absent-mindedly ate six or seven birthday cake-flavored Oreos. I swiftly regretted this. Sweat was pouring down my back, and I thought before I did too much more damage to myself, I should get out of there.

Outside, blades of green and white Aurora shot across the sky above the canyon, like a geyser of light erupting out of the limestone cliffs. In photographs and films, the Northern Lights are pretty, but in real life they're mesmerizing. For several minutes I stood next to the cabin, watching liquid light flow over the cliffs. Carole Holley had just arrived, and we stood in silence together until I starting shivering; I still wasn't dressed warmly enough to stand still. Beat was out on the porch melting water, and I gave him a kiss goodbye. I think he was slightly relived to see me go.

For the next few hours I hiked with purpose, forcing my throbbing legs into a jog when I became cold, and craning my neck to gaze through the corridor of spruce trees and moonlit cliffs to the sky overhead. Finally I put on my puffy coat, which improved my comfort level dramatically — funny, that — and relaxed. After Windy Gap cabin, the trail became better packed, but was consistently punched out with moose tracks — holes that are six to eight inches in diameter and often a foot deep. One misplaced step can easily break an ankle or leg. Just like rocks on a trail, they require constant vigilance to avoid, but I made the unwise decision to jog backward to give my quads a break and get a better look at the Technicolor sky to the north. Inevitably, I dropped my heel in a moose track and ended up on my back, putting an end to this silly practice. I continued jogging and dancing around moose tracks in an effort to reach Caribou Bluff — an open area with a wooden trail sign that I could use as a tripod to capture an image of the amazing light show for my memory files. Despite my best efforts, Caribou Bluff is still more than ten miles from Windy Gap. By the time I reached the valley, the Northern Lights were gone, and it was nearing dawn. 


As daylight emerged, I climbed out of the Fossil Creek drainage and dropped into Beaver Creek, hopscotching with four of the struggling bikers. When I passed two on a shorter climb, one proposed I push his bike up the hill while he carried my trekking poles, reasoning that both were made out of carbon so the effort was a wash. I laughed. 

"If you give me your bike, you know I'm going to keep riding it all the way to the finish," I replied. "Walking this whole thing isn't as easy as you think it is." I know, because I used to think exactly that about unladen runners with their little packs or sleds — they have it so easy. The grass is always greener. 

I was generally feeling good, but mornings are always tough for me during these day-plus efforts. I'm naturally a night person and usually thrive during the dark hours, but I'm the opposite of most runners in that sunrise brings a psychological crash, not a boost. Red light appears on the horizon and my body says, "Oh wait, we did miss a night of sleep. Damn, I'm tired." Even as I could see the slope trending downward toward Beaver Creek, the trail felt steeply uphill. Batting frost from my eyelashes and sneaking fruit snacks through my iced-over face mask seemed to take all the energy I had left to give. 

I reached Borealis cabin, mile 81, in full sunlight just before 8 a.m. It still felt frosty outside, and I was beginning to wonder if my internal thermometer was off kilter. Inside, the first thing the volunteers asked me was whether I was staying warm enough. "It's minus five here right now," one volunteer said. "Probably minus ten or more down on the creeks overnight."

"Huh," I said, shaking my head at the fifty-plus-degree temperature swing from the previous day. "I'm fine, just surprised it got that cold."

My energy levels were already perking up, and I decided to aim for the most efficient stop possible. I asked for a bowl of ramen and ate it as I reorganized my pack, filled up my water bladder, dried my hat and face mask, re-lubed my feet, and put on fresh liner and fleece socks that I'd been saving in case I stepped in overflow. With the heat of day coming and the threat of frostbite diminished, I felt justified in changing my socks, and couldn't contain little moans of ecstasy as I pulled them on my feet. Few sensations match the satisfaction of soft, dry socks on sore and pickled feet.

Leaving Borealis, I dropped onto Beaver Creek and continued about a quarter mile before I thought, "My face feels cold. Why is my face so cold?" When I realized I left my fuzzy blue neckwarmer at the cabin, I decided to go back for it — Beat sewed this for me earlier in the year, and it's become a favorite piece of gear. After leaving again at 8:30 a.m., I started doing math based on several past winter trips to this cabin. "Usually it takes six and a half hours to hike out of Borealis. That's on fresh legs, but with a sled and overnight gear. Six and a half hours would be 3 p.m. — 31 hours. I wonder if I ran the downhills, whether I could slice that time down to five and a half hours? A 30-hour finish would be rad."

Although my hundred-mile experience is still limited, I consider these winter hundred-milers at least as physically taxing if not more so than a mountain hundred-miler like the Bear 100. The variable snow surfaces and cold adds to the physical strain, and higher level of self-support and considerable remoteness doesn't allow runners to stumble along zombie-like — mental alertness is mandatory. From a race strategy standpoint, I'd managed the White Mountains 100 about as well as I possibly could up to that mile. A strong finish to a sub-30-hour PR would be a sweet reward.

Just as soon as I thought this, everything started to hurt. My hamstrings burned, my quads were weak, and the bottoms of my feet felt like someone was slapping them with a board full of nails. My shoulders, forearms and hands were still wrecked from Shaktoolik; I felt shooting pains from shouldering my pack, and found it difficult to maintain a grip on my trekking poles, dropping them frequently.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the air temperature made another dramatic swing toward something unbearably warm. Many runners who have exceeded 24 hours in an effort will likely understand the concept of "second-day heat." The afterburners are running on high, muscles are excreting an enormous amount of heat, and core temperature becomes more difficult to regulate. Even before the temperature climbed above freezing, I was stripping off layers and quickly as I'd applied them during the frigid night. Down to my base layer and still overheating, I started to daydream about taking off my shirt and pants, and running in only a bra and underwear. "I'd probably run faster, like a sled dog," I mused. "I wonder if anyone would care?"

Photo by Corrine Leistikow
I stopped at the trail shelter, mile 90, desperate for salty snacks and Gatorade. I told the volunteers about my goal of breaking 30 hours, and they just nodded politely, no doubt wondering what my deal was when they'd watched the fast bikers go through a day earlier. A half mile later I ran into Tony Covarrubias, who was out for a "short" 20-mile training run while waiting for his wife to finish the race. He jogged with me for a couple of miles, and I apologized whenever I slowed to a walk. "I always fall apart at the end of these 100-milers," I said. "I do want to break 30 hours, and I can technically run. But I still don't have this ultrarunner thing down. I don't like when my legs hurt and I don't like when my feet hurt. I don't believe Beat when he tells me it will go numb."

Tony, who has finished 500-mile events, agreed. "It never goes numb."

Tony left me behind on the climb up the Wickersham Wall, a steep 800-foot gain that comes rather brutally and abruptly at mile 93. This year, the climb was a relief for me because it meant I didn't have to force my legs into running strides. Halfway up the Wall, I met my friend Corrine, who had ridden out the trail on her snow bike to cheer.

Photo by Corrine Leistikow
This photo illustrates well the final six miles of the White Mountains 100. I wasn't posing at all; I was deep in the pain cave, walking with this stance when I wasn't forcing a lumbering, tender-footed jog. Corrine again caught up to me at the top of the Wickersham Wall and proclaimed, "six more miles!" I looked at my GPS and groaned. "It's 12:27, just 90 minutes, it can't be done." Four miles an hour doesn't sound so difficult, but that was my average pace at the beginning of the race. The six miles to the finish along the rolling ridgeline included many steep climbs, and making up for walking uphill was going to require *at least* a 5 mph downhill pace, which hurt so much. Math was killing me.

"It can't be done," I whined to Corrine, only to watch her ride a half mile ahead, wait for me to pass, and continue cheering me on — "Five more miles! I think you got it!"

I passed another spectating friend on a bike, Jay Cable, who commented that he was surprised to see me running hard down the hill. "I think Dmitry is about 20 minutes ahead," he said.

"I'm not trying to catch Dmitry, I'm trying to break 30 hours," I gasped, and then silently kicked myself, because why do I keep telling people about this 30-hour thing?"

I was two miles from the finish at 1:32 p.m., with still over a mile to climb on the final hill. Corrine was still stopping every half mile to cheer me on, and I no longer had the energy to respond with defeated phrases, instead just breathing out a long "Ugggh." She waited one last time at the one-mile-to-go sign, where I stopped briefly for one last GPS check. 1:44 p.m. "I guess I gotta go for it."

Photo by Corrine Leistikow
So I picked up my hurty feet and numb legs and ran fast, as fast as I could, until I could feel the wind in my face, finally whisking the fire away from my overheated skin. It felt like flying — extremely painful flying. I felt as though I'd never run faster, although GPS stats betray the reality of a 10:18-minute-mile. It was enough. I arrived at the parking lot at 1:54 p.m. Official finish of the 2015 White Mountains 100: 29 hours and 54 minutes.

The first thing I did was soak my bare feet in the snow, until they went numb, and then I crawled onto a cot inside the race trailer. I hoped to catch some shut-eye before Beat arrived, but my legs continued to feel like someone was slapping them with board full of nails. "This is the worst pain ever," I winced. "I'm not going to be able to sleep for a week." Then I lapsed into unconsciousness anyway.

Beat arrived sooner than I expected, an hour and a half later, having achieved his own, unofficial, self-supported finish on the course in 31 and a half hours. Poor Beat was in a lot of pain, and said he regretted this from mile five onward. When asked why he didn't turn around, Beat first blamed me, my bad ideas, and my unrelenting forward motion. Then he shrugged. "Pride."

After what Beat accomplished on the Iditarod Trail, battling deep snow, unbroken trail, and temperatures down to 46 below for ten days to reach the Yukon River, the White Mountains 100 was comparatively a short and pleasant stroll. He didn't have anything to prove by completing the course again — there wasn't even a jacket in it for him. But he did it anyway, which speaks to his dedication (and stubbornness.)

I'm stoked about how my race went, and of course already thinking about all the ways it could have gone even better if I'd properly trained and didn't wear myself down on my coast bike tour (which was considerably more strenuous than running the White Mountains 100.) But really, any trip into the White Mountains is a wonderful privilege. I remain in awe of the experiences I've had here. Every return is like visiting an old friend — someone I only see sporadically, but when we're together everything looks and feels as though no time has passed, and we've never been apart. I may live 3,000 miles away, but I can hardly imagine my life without the White Mountains, the stunning skies of these northern latitudes, and the wonderful people in Fairbanks who really make all the difference.

I'll be back again, undoubtedly. 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Still the best race ever, part one

I call the White Mountains 100 my favorite race, but the emotional attachment runs deeper than that. My introduction to this race came in early 2010, when I was going through an extensive personal crisis involving my career, relationships, location, and lifestyle. I was 30 years old, and everything that I thought I was had been flipped on its head. I spent most of the winter months holed away in the single room I was renting in Juneau, cuddling with my cat, eating peanut butter out of a jar, and writing "Be Brave, Be Strong." I wasn't riding my bike all that much, except to commute to work. The one activity I truly enjoyed at the time was hiking in the mountains. I was pretty sure I was going to give up endurance racing altogether. 

Then I received a call from Ed Plumb, a Fairbanks skier who I met at Yentna Station the previous year, while I was coping with frostbite and scratching from 2009 Iditarod Trial Invitational. He told me about this new race he was developing in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks — a 100-mile loop with a ski, bike and foot division. Everyone who signed up so far was from either Fairbanks or Anchorage, and he thought he should diversify with someone from elsewhere in the state. I was reluctant, but how could I say no to Ed? I mailed my race entry about a month before the event, and made feeble efforts to train through my funk. During this single month of White Mountains anticipation, I also found the courage to sever ties to some emotional anchors, leave my job, and make arrangements to move to Anchorage with few plans but renewed determination to make my own way. When I arrived at the Wickersham Dome to strong winds and a temperature of 13 below in March 2010, it marked the threshold to a major life transition. 

2010 was a daunting year for this new race — extreme cold (down to 25 below), high winds, lots of glare ice and wet overflow. I finished as the third female and eighth biker in 22 hours and 38 minutes, completely enamoured with the journey. Since then, I've made what many might consider ridiculous efforts to return every year, even as my life continued through unplanned transitions and tangents. In 2011, while I was living in Montana and dating Beat long-distance, I coaxed him to join the craziness — and look where that went. In 2012 I flew up to Fairbanks from California for a long weekend. In 2013 I did not make it through the lottery, and missed out on what many call the toughest year for this race (although I'd still wager 2010 against that.) In 2014 I arrived three weeks after finishing the 350-mile race to McGrath on foot, fairly undertrained for a snow bike century, and floated almost effortlessly through a magical, perfect race. This was by far my fastest finish — 11 hours and 34 minutes — although it was the only year I wasn't third female biker (I was fourth.) 

I joked that I'd never be able to top the magic of 2014, and that I should probably just retire from the White Mountains 100. In actuality, what I really wanted to do was try the race on foot. As a 100-mile ultramarathon, this is not an easy one. There are no drop bags, and checkpoints only every 20 miles or so, with a limited amount of food, so one has to be mostly self-supported. Temperatures can range from 25 below to 50 above, and in late March both are plausible. There's 8,000 feet of climbing, which may sound low for a 100-miler, but running on snow — even packed snow — creates resistance that makes most grades feel like steep climbing. Punchy conditions can slow you to a crawl, and feet don't float as well as fat bike tires or skis. Obstacles and technical challenges include off-camber glare ice, thin ice, wet and slushy overflow, ankle-breaking moose holes, and knee-twisting punchy snow, to name a few. The women's record belonged to the reigning queen of Alaska ultras, Laura McDonough, at 24 hours and 50 minutes, also set in the near-perfect conditions of 2014. Beat's fastest time on the course was 33 hours and 45 minutes. My 100-mile PR (2012 Bear 100) was 33 hours and 28 minutes. I made a goal of 36 hours. 

Beat and Shawn McTaggart, both two-time finishers to Nome on foot. Shawn was going to ski
the WM100 this year but changed her mind at the last minute.
The White Mountains 100 course is an aesthetic loop through a remote mountain range in Interior Alaska, but the top appeal of this race is the community — race directors who also race, volunteers who chop wood and melt snow, and fiercely dedicated participants. Although it isn't simple to quit (requiring a $200 extraction fee and a frigid snowmachine ride), it's telling that this very difficult race has less than a 10 percent DNF rate every year. And the field is universally such a great group of people. Five years ago I knew almost no one in Fairbanks, and now I almost feel like a local (and have had other Fairbanksians tell me this as well, an ultimate compliment.) If Beat and I could move here without financial repercussions, we probably would tomorrow.

My friend Jenn from Whitehorse, with her husband Ben. Jenn was racing her first winter 100-miler.
Sunday morning may have been the warmest start yet for the White Mountains 100, with temperatures just below freezing and almost no wind. This did not bode well for daytime slushiness, but wasn't altogether unwelcome. Since I had no bike to set up and really nothing to do but take off my puffy coat and put on my backpack, I wandered around the parking lot greeting friends and others.

Photo by Lucy Bettis
I still managed one pre-race equipment failure, as I'd put on my vintage gaiters backward. In this photo, Beat is helping me fix them. Beat was well-prepared for the unsupported effort with more than 10,000 calories of food, an MSR Reactor stove, fuel to melt snow and make meals, an expedition puffy coat and sleeping pad, extra clothing and emergency gear, among the more conventional items that I also was carrying. Our plan was to travel together; Beat's walking pace has always been considerably faster than mine, and he's stronger than me in any situation. Even with the extra weight and 600+ tough miles on his legs, we both figured he'd have no problems holding my pace.


This is the part of the race report where runners always sandbag, but I really did not expect the White Mountains 100 to go particularly well for me. Even though I hadn't even traveled half the distance I expected to during the five days I spent on my coast bike tour (just 120 miles), I felt nearly as wrung out by this trip as I did after walking 350 miles to McGrath last year. I had night sweats and sleep disruptions, tingly muscles, cramping, and general exhaustion. On top of that, the kennel cough I caught in Shaktoolik stubbornly held on, and I was still hacking and congested the following Sunday. My training had fallen off a cliff amid all the Alaska adventures; total running mileage since I left California in late February was less than 50 miles, probably closer to 40. Plus, I had the untested shoes and backpack. Still, I went out harder than I intended in the first few miles of the race, partly due to embarrassment about being at the very back of the field.

The early miles were great. The sun was out, it was warm, and I was amazed how effortlessly I could climb the rippling foothills of the White Mountains. After the race, several people asked me if I missed my bike during this year's race. The honest truth: most of the time, I didn't at all. Although trail conditions were for the most part superb and there was potential there to best my PR from last year, all of my recent associations with my fat bike involve extremely arduous pedaling and pushing. Without the anchor, I felt like a little feather, floating up hills and drifting down. When we reached Moose Creek, about mile 16, I looked at my GPS and marveled that it had only taken us three and a half hours to get there. Two weeks earlier, I needed more than four hours to cover this stretch of trail, with a bike. Granted, it was 20 below and there was a foot of new snow. Still — this running stuff is so easy compared to snow biking! (Not really.)
 
Trail conditions were superb, but not perfect. Here, you can see the punchy tracks of the runners in front of us. These trails were probably sidewalk smooth for skiers and bikers, but runners and their little feet are at the highest disadvantage when it comes to float. It's yet another reason why it's pretty silly to run a winter snow race; traveling on foot doesn't make a whole lot of sense in most cases. And yet — the appeal persists. There's something pure and freeing about traveling on your own two feet, and I find rhythm and flow that I don't experience in any other way. As the warm afternoon sun softened the snow, we danced around the tracks, searching for the best surface in a patchwork of crust and slush.

Beat was hurting. His 200 miles of trailbreaking on the Iditarod Trail weighed heavily on his body, and the sled didn't help matters. I thought I was keeping a fairly easy, breezy pace, but he began to complain that I was driving him too hard, calling me a taskmaster, or something like that. He wondered why I never wanted to take breaks, reminding me that on the Iditarod Trail, it pays to stop once in a while. At first I didn't take his complaints too seriously. Beat's known to joke about such things. I argued that he had a different mindset than me, since I was in "race" mode and he was in "tour" mode. He was running out of water, so I encouraged him to take sips from my Camelback vest and hold on until checkpoint 2, where I'd take a longer break and he could melt some snow.

Checkpoint 2, the Cache Mountain cabin, came at mile 39. It was about 5 p.m., and we were just over nine hours into the race, a statistic I was pretty stoked about, because I didn't feel much more tired than past years when I rode a bike here. The friendly volunteers wore Elvis glasses. All three remote cabin checkpoints provide one meal along with a few bags of chips and cookies, as well as hot and cold water. The other two checkpoints offer a small bowl of soup, but Cache Mountain offers a relatively huge meal — a baked potato with cheese, bacon bits, and sour cream. I made the mistake of eating it in 2010 and got quite nauseated climbing the Cache Mountain Divide; I've avoided the potato every year since. This year, however, with my own supply of trail food already rapidly diminishing (snow running always makes me so ravenous; I don't even know why), I greedily devoured the potato along with some Fruity Pebble crispy treats.

I also took the time to dry and re-lube my feet — an opportunity one should never pass up when temperatures are too cold to work on feet outside. My heel blister patch was holding up well, and skin maceration was relatively low — overall, the new shoes were working out great so far. We spent 47 minutes at the cabin — where does the time go? — but in the grand scheme the long break gave both of us a needed boost. I felt great as we started up the pass, as though the race had just started — which, at only forty miles in, it just had.