Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in photos

This is my favorite blog tradition — the "Year in Photos" review. The idea with these posts is to choose one favorite photo from every month. For me, this means images that best represent momentous events or perspective-shifting experiences.

The above photo is my overall favorite, from a solo tour I attempted on the Iditarod Trail in March. My intent was to ride from Unalakleet to Nome, about 250 miles, over the course of a week. From the moment I rolled away from the Unalakleet Airport, the North Wind shut down every preconceived notion I had about this trip, and every shred of confidence I had in myself. The trails became so drifted in that I could scarcely locate them, and even if I could, I was scarcely strong enough to hoist the bike through knee-deep drifts that had the consistency of sand dunes as 30-50 mph winds continued to blast me in the face. It took me four long, extremely difficult days to cover 60 miles. When I turned around at Little Mountain Cabin, it was because Beat was returning to Anchorage with Steve after tragedy struck Steve's family. But even before I'd heard the terrible news, I was wavering on continuing any farther. I strongly doubted my ability to survive the sea ice crossing to Koyuk. I write about my fears frequently and overstate the odds of dying on occasion. That isn't the case here. Here I explored the situation from the most objective rationale possible, and I realized I wasn't strong enough, or experienced enough, to accept the risk of a 35-mile crossing with no shelter in that weather. I still feel that way. But I learned an incredible amount from this trip, and I actually feel more confident about taking on the journey to Nome because of it. I believe I'll make better decisions, knowing what I know now.

This photo, taken from a slough off the Shaktoolik River, represents the bewilderment and awe I felt in that vast, desolate place. It also represents the way I feel about 2015 — this year was about being a little bit broken, and a little bit frightened, but continuing to press forward with optimism that something better waited just beyond the horizon.

January: Fat Pursuit in Island Park, Idaho. I can't write about 2015 without zeroing in on my lung angst, which first cropped up during this 200-kilometer fat bike race in Idaho. I spent most of the last 60 miles gasping, hyperventilating, and spitting up phlegm. I blamed altitude for my breathing difficulties, but in retrospect, these symptoms mirrored others that I associated with illness and exertion later in the year. There are still a lot of questions and uncertainties surrounding my health, and I'm reasonably nervous to return to this race on Jan. 8 (next week!!). A tight cut-off for the 200-miler means I have no choice but to at least attempt to ride as hard as possible, at altitude. If I again struggle with breathing and congestion, it will be a strong indicator of how fit I am. Perhaps my lungs are no longer equipped to process the amount of oxygen I need to push myself in endurance sports. I need to be ready to face the possibility. That's what this photo means to me — a soft, blurry kind of melancholy, punctuated with hope.

February: Pacifica, California. Most of what I remember about February is that it was unseasonably hot in the Bay Area, and I put in lots of solid training for two big goals in March — my Alaska bike tour, and racing the White Mountains 100 on foot. This photo is from a big loop my friend Jan and I rode around the northern San Francisco Peninsula. We checked out some new-to-us trails in Pacifica and ended up on a harrowing illegal DH trail (after this photo was taken.) But it is a gorgeous region. This is something I will miss very much when I move to Colorado — the Pacific coast.

March: Iditarod Trail, Knik, Alaska: After the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I rode my bike out to Flathorn Lake and back to cheer on runners. I like the frosty trees in the background of the photo, contrasted by the sunny, almost spring-like conditions in the foreground, as well as the smiling faces of friends who were embarking on the thousand-mile trek. Intense weather and tragedy struck later in the race, and no runners reached Nome this year. The Iditarod is a journey of extremes, and this photo hints at this dynamic — from icy to green in moments.

April: Portola Redwoods State Park, California. Another place high on the list of "things I will miss most about California" is the Slate Creek Trail, and our occasional 16-mile visits to Beat's "friend," the 1,200-year-old redwood known as "Old Tree." This combination of bright sunlight and lush forest is truly unique to California.

May: Ventana Mountains, California. Beat, Liehann, and I embarked on bikepacking trip to ride through the Ventana Mountains, climb Cone Peak, and return. Before that, I rode my bike from home to our starting point, hitting a number of fun trails along the way. That 140-mile day convinced me I was ready for the Tour Divide the following month, because I enjoyed every pedal stroke and felt driven to continue even when I reached the campground. This was back when I still believed that mental willingness trumped physical fitness in this kind of endeavor. I can't say I believe this any longer.

June: Great Divide Basin, Wyoming. I think just about every Tour Divide participant took a photo of this old Chevy hood rusting beside an extremely remote doubletrack in the Great Divide Basin. But I love this particular "bike selfie" for what it represents to me — the incredible places, and great distances I can reach on mental willingness alone. I was not well on this evening — in fact, this was a particularly bad one, where my lungs were so congested and breathing so limited that I had to hike up every hill, and couldn't top 9 mph on the flats. But I kept going that day because I so badly wanted to keep going, and because I was in the middle of nowhere and effectively had to keep going. That night, after crashing on the oil field road and deciding to set up camp right there, I caught rare sighting of an incredible aurora flare — the Northern Lights in Southern Wyoming. It was an incredible reward — a reminder of why I'm driven to keep moving. I wouldn't trade this experience, even if I did believe my failed Tour Divide was my undoing (I don't.)

August: Wind River Mountains, Wyoming. Sadly, I don't think I took a single photo in July. I scoured my Lightroom folders and couldn't find anything. That says a lot about how I was feeling that month — I was extremely weak and feverish for the first week, and continued to struggle with breathing issues for the rest of the month. I didn't get out much. So I have no photos — a lost month. Instead I'll include two from August. This photo is from a five-day backpacking trip with friends in the Wind Rivers. Everything hikers write about this place is true — it's the most stunning mountain range I've visited in the United States. If you squint at the righthand corner of this photo, you can see our tiny camp in the big, big world.

August: Col Ferret, Switzerland. Ah, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I captured a number of beautiful images during my time in this race, but chose this more muted scene — descending the pass from Italy into Switzerland as the moon rose. The gasping and wheezing had returned, I had raging IT band tightness, and knew I was limping to the inevitable cutoff in the tiny village of La Fouly. Amid a persistent angst about failure and poor health, my overwhelming emotion was awe. I felt lucky to be there. I knew from the beginning that starting UTMB, after a being so sick during June and July, was a mistake. Failure was too likely, but that wasn't quite a compelling enough reason to pass up the opportunity to make yet another attempt to circumnavigate Mont Blanc. It was a beautiful run while it lasted. Most of my friends don't understand the appeal of this crowded, over-hyped race, and they wonder if I'll go back and try to get that Alps-ultra finish I so badly desire, once and for all — the answer is I'd love to, but it seems doubtful I'll qualify for the lottery again, at least anytime soon. Perhaps someday.

September: Augstmatthorn, Switzerland. Recovering from UTMB proved to not be so bad. I was already regaining stamina, and for unknown reasons, I haven't had any major breathing issues since (I haven't used my inhaler since October.) After the races in Chamonix, we spent two weeks with Beat's mother in Switzerland. I was able to get out for a handful of "recovery" adventures in the Swiss Alps that were pretty incredible. This narrow ridge above Interlaken is a place I fully intend to return to someday.

October: Greys Peak, Nevada. On the drive home from the Grand Canyon trip, I made a "quick" rest stop to climb an obscure peak outside Wells, Nevada. It turned out to be a tricky route-finding challenge, and I like this photo for the mystery it conveys. Where am I going? Why am I here? Such questions frequently cross my mind when clinging to ragged ledges, as they do in life.

November: Gobbler's Knob, Utah. Thanksgiving with my family meant several opportunities to climb Wasatch Mountains with my dad. This photo is from the descent from Gobbler's Knob, amid a swirl of blowing snow and a stiff chill on Black Friday.

December: Corrine's front porch, Fairbanks, Alaska. This photo reminds me of the first photo in this post — a frosty landscape with delicate light and stark shadows. But instead of depicting cold desolation, this photo is warm and exuberant. This coming year will bring ventures out of my comfort zone and rapid changes — I admit to feeling nervous about 2016, but also brimming with excitement. Happy New Year!

Photo posts from years past:
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010 part one, part two
2011
2012
2013
2014

Monday, December 28, 2015

Return to the magical land of Tolovana

Like most people do around the holidays, Beat and I have adopted a number of annual traditions. And like most traditions, ours started as a matter of chance and solidified into the enjoyable activities that tug at sentimental heartstrings and reverberate with desire to return again and again. Some people drive around and look at Christmas lights or catch a production of "The Nutcracker." We hike to Tolovana Hot Springs.

Before last March, when the Alaska coastal village of Shaktoolik took over the distinction for me, Tolovana was the worst place I'd ever been. Thanks to a collision of geographic anomalies and resulting micro-climates, Tolovana is generally colder and significantly windier than the city of Fairbanks, which is only about 40 miles south. Weather forecasts are useless. On relatively pleasant days in Fairbanks, it's not uncommon to find temperatures of -25 and winds gusting to 40 or even 50 mph on top of the ridges. I've seen this weather before, encased in every layer I had with me, eyes wide and shoulders trembling as I plodded up the steep face of Tolovana Hot Springs Dome. It brings to mind documentaries I've watched about horrific mountaineering endeavors. Only in Alaska will people hike through this kind of weather not to reach a grandiose summit, but instead climb naked into a horse trough to soak in dirty, tepid creek water. Yet another reason to love Alaska.

2015 brought what I might consider middle-of-the-road Tolovana — a temperature of -12, and winds gusting to 25 mph. Still quite harsh, and my out-of-practice hands went rigid as I fumbled with my sled and extra layers at the trailhead. I was close to tears for the first two miles downhill, but gradually recirculated enough blood to feel capable, if not cozy.

You might wonder at the appeal of all of this, and I can assure you, for me, it isn't the hot springs at the end of the 10-mile trek that always manages to drain an entire day's worth of energy reserves. The hot springs are okay — they're not amazing. There's a small cabin we rent for the night, with a wind generator that powers lights and a propane oven, so we can make hot pizza and cookies and chat away the night with friends who also find pleasure in such a harsh trek. All of these amenities are great, and certainly make this place exceedingly more accessible. But for me, the appeal still lies out there, on the wind-swept ridge of Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, with all of its terrible beauty.

An early sunset from the ridge, where my balance teetered in the gusts and windchill sucked all the blood from my fingers in seconds, but I took photographs anyway. I value the keepsakes.

We had an enjoyable evening with our friends Eric and Jay. It took some coaxing to get me out to the springs, where luxury means a wooden horse trough with two hoses — one gushing with scalding spring water, and the other with 32.1-degree creek water. It's imperative to strip down fast, but only after ensuring you got the mixture right, otherwise you're going to have boiled legs and a frozen torso. The last time I went for a soak in the wind, I sustained frost-nip where ice-crusted hair pressed against my scalp. It was quite painful and has made me reluctant to return to an activity that I associate more with suffering than relaxing. I was going to make up an excuse and stay inside the cabin while the guys went for a soak. However, after hearty servings of hot chocolate, pizza and ice cream, the winds died down and I mustered up the confidence to venture outside. The water temperature was perfect as we watched trees sway in the breeze beneath an impressive meteor shower. I caught a glimpse of the brightest meteor I've ever seen — an orange fireball with a white tail, ripping through the moonlit sky. 

So you can see, can't you, why Tolovana is a magical place? There are always surprises. The next morning, the wind was gone, and even though a respectable cold (-20) still lingered in the valleys, calm air made me feel impervious to the chill. After making a wide arc through the long night, the nearly full moon set over the mountains while we marched up the dome and ran down the other side. I raised my arms and took large, loping steps — flying, or more like moonwalking, through the surreal landscape with its glistening ghost trees and lunar plains.  

It was an easy climb back to the trailhead — not much effort at all compared to the rewards. Frost-incrusted trees slumped over the trail like a crystal tunnel, sparkling in the early afternoon light. Simply magic. 

ITI training, week eleven

Monday: Trail run, 3:37, 18.1 miles, 3,424 feet climbing. I'd planned to put in a long ride during the single full day I had in California between our Boulder and Fairbanks trips, but Monday brought an atmospheric river that dumped well over an inch of rain in just a few hours. I think back to my years in Juneau and how utterly miserable it was to ride through cold rain, and I admit I just can't make myself do it these days. Trail running in the rain is considerably more fun. On this day I set out from home to run to Black Mountain and back. I reached the bald peak during the crux of the storm, when the wind-blown rain picked up both volume and velocity to the point where I felt like I was being water-boarded while climbing into the deluge. Yes, it is still more fun than biking in the rain. I only had this paper-thin rain jacket and I became deeply chilled, swinging my arms wildly as I descended the steep and rocky Black Mountain trail with a horizontal waterfall slapping me from behind. It was all quite exciting. 

Tuesday: Weight lifting at gym. Managed to squeeze three sets in about 25 minutes by doing a bit of a speed session. In rushing through the workouts, I pulled one of my abdominal muscles, which caused discomfort on the flights to Seattle and Fairbanks and several days later. Admittedly I got wrapped up in my outdoor activities after this, and only did one weight-training session this week. 

 Wednesday: Snow bike, 2:35, 16.1 miles, 1,665 feet climbing. It was 0 degrees for our first fat bike ride in Fairbanks, which is mild for these parts but always a bit of a shock coming directly from California. Another shock is the substantial increase in surface resistance that pulls heavily on the quads and keeps coasting to a minimum. It's a place where good trail conditions and lung-searing efforts yield a 6mph average, and muscles cool down and stiffen up after just a few minutes of rest. I admit snow biking has an air of ridiculousness, but I admire the local cyclists who endure these conditions all winter long, because that is some toughness forged in steel.

Thursday: Snow bike, 4:39, 28.3 miles, 2,713 feet climbing. Christmas Eve had a little more drama, as we were out for five hours, it was 18 below in the valley, breezy on the ridge, and we did a lot of descending (first two miles were fast downhill, ugh) and climbing as we tried new layering systems and re-learned what doesn't really work for us. I had it a lot better than Beat, whose feet were cold the entire time despite multiple gear-changes and strategic running. I had a cold lower back and hands, which sounds and is minor, but still manages to set off bouts of panic (my fingers are cold but I'm wearing my mittens, what do I do? What do I do?) I also had some breathing difficulties when my face mask — which is lined in silnylon — was cinched tight. After this ride was over, I'd rate my exhaustion level somewhere near the all-day range, even though it was only 5 hours and less than 30 miles. But it was a good test run.

Friday: Sled-drag, 2:00, 6.3 miles, 189 feet climbing. It was still 18 below in the valley, but it is notably easier to regulate body temperature and feel completely comfortable while hiking. Dragging a sled strains my hamstrings and hips, and I find I can only pull so hard regardless of my energy levels, but I felt pretty good on this "run."

Saturday: Sled-drag, 3:36, 10.2 miles, 1,454 feet climbing. When we arrived at the trailhead for Tolovana Hot Springs, the temperature was 12 below and winds were gusting to 25 mph. The parking lot is high on an exposed ridge. It's often high drama to embark on the trek into the hot springs, and this trip was no exception. By the time I got my sled put together, my hands were stiff, and I had to endure a particularly mean case of the screaming barfies as circulation returned (holding my trekking poles inside of pole pogies and shoving everything under my armpits as I stumbled down the trail.) This was a good test run for my balaclava (which Beat sewed for me last year). It's made out of windproof fleece with silnylon lining the inside of the face mask. The hope is that instead of turning my balaclava into an ice helmet, all the moisture from my breath will collect on the waterproof material and funnel down to the chin, forming a nice snotcicle at the bottom, which can be broken off at intervals. After consulting with my friends in Fairbanks, it seems that everyone finds face moisture to be an unavoidable nuisance, so I am not alone. The main issue I have with this mask is a panic-inducing feeling of suffocation when I am working and breathing hard. While hiking up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, there were a couple of instances where I ripped the face mask down involuntarily, only to be blasted on my wet cheeks with the fierce windchill, with an unpleasant flash-freezing effect. Still, I think this is the right system. I'm quite happy with my windproof layers — Windstopper tights and hat, and this fantastic fleece jacket (Mountain Hardwear Airshield Polartec) that breathes so well it's dry on the inside after hours of sweating in subzero temperatures, yet blocks the wind completely. I've had this jacket for two years and love it.

Sunday: Sled-drag, 3:40, 10.2 miles, 2,623 feet climbing. Overnight, the wind completely died, and even though it was still quite cold — around 20 below in the low-lying valleys — we enjoyed a serene and drama-free hike back to the road. Compared to the windchill of Saturday, even these low-lying spots felt pleasant, and I was grateful to march along without a suffocating mask wrapped around my face. I'd eaten a lot of food and had a nice soak at the hot springs, and couldn't have felt better in the morning. My hamstrings were tight, but I realize that's something I've been complaining about for a couple of weeks now, and is probably only partially related to the sled-dragging. It only took us four hours to hike out of Tolovana, when it usually takes more than five. It's funny to feel strong and triumphant about hiking 10 miles in four hours. I felt pretty triumphant.

Total: 20:09, 44.4 miles ride, 44.8 miles run, 12,068 feet climbing. I was going to post more pictures from Tolovana, but I'll do that in a separate post. I was happy to squeeze in 20 hours this week, each one of them full of character-building goodness. Gear-testing is going well. We might actually be out of cold days for our remaining time in Fairbanks, but I suppose we can't complain about nice weather for further riding opportunities. Strava just informed me that I've biked 4,899 miles so far this year. If I rode 101 more, I could top 5,000 for 2015. I'm thinking about going for it, but it won't be a small task here in Fairbanks, where no miles come easy. We'll see!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is my perfect holiday

 Beat and I didn't think we'd be able to make our annual winter training trip in Alaska happen this year, but at the last minute he maneuvered some work obligations and purchased tickets to Fairbanks. Three hours and 43 minutes of low-angle daylight, frost-coated branches, perfect stillness amid negative-double-digit-temperatures, full moonlight on snow, and the possibility of aurora sightings make for a magical time of year in this part of the world. I don't begrudge Alaskans their need to travel to warmer, brighter climes over the holidays. For me, though, there isn't a better time of year to be a tourist in the Far North.

Our friends Corrine and Eric graciously took us in over the holidays, and even let us borrow their fat bikes for training rides. During our first day in town, Wednesday, temperatures hovered near zero degrees. We had to re-introduce our non-acclimated selves to the erratic rhythms of pedaling a bike over packed snow. Every time I return to this activity after a long absence, I'm struck by two things: It's really difficult to dress correctly for cycling, because minute-by-minute effort levels vary wildly. The other thing that strikes me is how pathetically unfit I am. I tell myself climbing steep hills back home is sort of like pedaling snow, but it's not. The slow, heavy grind of snow biking will crush my muscles and then crush my soul. I suppose I like it that way.

 On Thursday we got out for a crushing ride that was only 28.5 miles. It took us five hours to cover the distance. There were two thousand-foot climbs that went on ceaselessly, and plenty of rollers that had us sweating on the way up and shivering wildly as we tore through daggers of cold on the way down. The temperature in the valley was minus 18.

Minus double digits always make for a harsh start to the holiday, but another thing I'm struck by is that a body can adjust to these temperatures pretty quickly. Although I defiantly refused to put on an extra jacket at the top of every small hill only to remove it at the bottom, I managed to stay mostly comfortable — my feet, especially, stayed toasty warm, which is always encouraging for a subzero ride with minimal pushing. Beat had more issues, but he has relatively little experience with winter cycling. Although I'm far removed from being a regular, my own system is a result of years of trials. Winter cycling armor is a puzzle every individual has to solve for themselves.

 It sure was a nice day, though, on Christmas Eve. This photo was take just before 2 p.m., I believe.

 We burst into direct sunlight for all of two and a half minutes. Beat said "the sun is so warm!," apparently referring to the oblong orb that had barely slumped over the horizon. To me, it still felt exceedingly far away.

 Beat during the climb up O'Conner Creek. The trail just kept rising and rising as low-hanging alder branches slapped us in the face and poured snow down our necks. I think if I worked that hard to climb a hill back home, I'd arrive at least 4,000 feet higher than I started. Nope, just a thousand. I swear the Earth's gravitational pull increases with latitude.


We gathered with a few friends for Christmas Eve feasting and festivities, and later that night I wandered down the driveway to sleep under the stars at 5 below. I would have liked it colder, but at 5 below I can lay for long minutes with my head out of the bivy sack, scanning for aurora as the full moon fills the sky with silver light. That moon, to me, felt warmer than the 2 p.m. sun. The air actually was warmer. Still, I love the crisp, deep nights nearly as much as the dawn-and-dusk days, which is why I don't mind 20 hours of darkness. At least for a holiday. 

 Christmas Day, after more warm, delicious, carby homemade food, Beat and I put our sleds together and went out for a sled-drag. I requested we drive to the lowest part of the Goldstream Valley, where the temperature was still 18 below, for better gear testing opportunities. But when there's no wind and you're engaged in a steady physical effort like pulling a sled along flat terrain, it's not difficult to stay comfortable and happy. I'm still struck by how much energy I need to expend during a sled-drag (I always start this activity thinking I'll jog along with my loaded sled, and then my hamstrings just laugh at me and I huff and puff to maintain 20-minute-miles.) But it was silent, peaceful, beautiful day in the enchanted frosty forest.

Right now Beat isn't thrilled about the prospect of taking bikes to Nome. This is something we've discussed earlier, but the Christmas rides seemed to strengthen his conviction that winter cycling is not something he enjoys, at least not yet. I understand where he's coming from. Sled-dragging is hard work (harder work, minute for minute, in my opinion), but it's comparatively relaxing at the same time. Winter cycling is frequently high drama. Sometimes it's good drama, such as rocketing down a frozen river with a fierce tailwind pushing you along. But often it's bad drama, such as wallowing in knee-deep snow dunes while battling even fiercer headwinds. It's an important factor to consider, I think — whether one is mentally prepared for the bipolar moods of the wheel-laden traveler.

But for now, we only have to think about this decision as a more distant problem, even though the ITI is only two months away. For now, it's the holidays, and for now, we will simply hike to hot springs, sleep in cabins and under the stars, squeeze in more bike rides and hopefully develop more effective layering strategies, watch deep crimson light spread across the horizon two hours before sunrise, get annoyed about "hot" temperatures that we'd consider frigid anywhere else, and just enjoy this most magical time of the year. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

ITI training, week ten

Monday: Weight lifting at gym. I was surprisingly not sore after the 50-kilometer run on Sunday, and did three sets without any struggles, although I didn't add weights this week. A few people have asked me whether Beat and I saw Lance Armstrong at the race — we did. I had no idea the man leading the 35K was the world's most famous ex-pro cyclist, but I do remember the runner in the yellow shirt who smiled and said "Good job" as he passed on the return along the Skyline Trail in a torrential downpour. Lance's win at the Woodside Ramble caused a big stir in the trail running community. I'll just say that I don't have a strong opinion about it, but I think that trail running is for everyone, trail racing is about a community where people from all walks of life can strive together, and small race organizers shouldn't be strong-armed into banning participants just because they admitted to doping years ago in a different sport. It's such a small problem in the scheme of things. Moving on ...

Tuesday: Trail run, 49:22, 5.6 miles, 667 feet climbing. My hamstrings were still crazy tight and there was a hint of quad fatigue left over from Sunday, so I'm happy with the 8:50 average on Monta Vista.

Wednesday: Mountain bike, 4:45, 44.1 miles, 4,884 feet climbing. Our Subaru badly needed new tires, so I took it into the dealership, which meant a four-hour lag time in the waiting room I like to call Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. On this day I planned to hike my bike up all of the steep pitches along my route, for "bike pushing practice" (I realize it's not as effective when the bike isn't loaded.) As I approached the bottom of a locally famous segment of trail known as "Dogmeat," I thought, "I'm going to see how hard I can push this." Dogmeat is an undulating fire road that gains 1,000 feet in 1.4 miles — 500 of that in the final .4 miles. The rub is that the first mile is mostly rideable, but I thought if I ran most of that, it should put me in a good position to "PR" the whole segment. I was gasping flames by the top, but I managed to grab 4th position on the Strava tally, two and a half minutes behind the Queen of the Mountain. I admit I wondered whether I could grab the QOM by really redlining the steep section, but I know that isn't fair nor is it in the spirit of the "No Dabs Dogmeat" challenge. Still, my "All Dabs Dogmeat" experiment does add legitimacy to my theory that in marginal conditions, pushing a bike can be more energy efficient and faster than riding, and during endurance efforts, it pays to swallow pride and hike.


Thursday: Snowshoe, 2:17, 5.5 miles, 1,950 feet climbing. Beat and I flew into Denver in the morning, for the purpose of looking at homes for sale during a series of showings set up by our real-estate agent. It was a packed schedule that did not allow a lot of time for adventuring, but Beat needed to meet with the team at Google in the afternoon, and I had about three hours to kill. New snow and bitter cold temperatures (for Boulder — single digits) meant the trails hadn't seen much use, but I had snowshoes and grand hopes to cover a large loop. In the end I didn't even cover six miles and fought mightily for that distance — breaking trail, slightly underdressed, and not acclimated to the elevation. It was an exhausting three hours. I'll admit to feeling a bit of swagger after Sierra Azul, but Colorado was there to put me right in my place. A mighty slog.

Friday: Morning, Run, 1:16, 6.1 miles, 991 feet climbing. Evening, weight training. I had about 90 minutes free on this day, so I set out from our hotel on Pearl Street, passing Google Boulder and continuing toward the hills. Because this was a road run, I didn't bring my microspikes, but of course I found a trail (Mount Sanitas) and started marching up it without a care in the world. Big mistake. What felt icy but manageable on the way up became treacherous on the way down. I had to do some crab walking. I'll call it an upper-body workout. I continued that workout in the hotel gym later that night.

Saturday: Snow hike, 2:40, 7.9 miles, 2,939 feet climbing. Beat and I marched up Fern Canyon, which is a wonderfully steep trail that gains 2,700 feet in 2.5 miles. Beat went way too hard in the beginning, and both of us broke after we ran out of oxygen in this thin air. At the peak, I proposed we return on the backside of the mountain, because it was a long, gradual descent that should be "runnable." Only there wasn't broken trail — just a deep post-hole track — and we had to move carefully through knee-deep fluff surrounded by wind crust. We made it back in time but just barely, again feeling far too worked for an eight-mile hike. Oh, Colorado. You do know how to strip a person of any delusions that they are "fit." Alaska is good at that, too.

Sunday: Rest. No time for outdoor outings on this day.

Total: 11:48, 44.1 miles ride, 25.1 miles run, 11,431 feet climbing. Light week. Mainly because of time constraints, but with the race on Sunday and the oxygen deprivation in Colorado, it's probably not a bad thing. I also regret that I haven't been on a day-long bike ride in a while, but this is also a time-consuming activity that can be difficult to carve out of a week. Still, overall I am feeling good, and recovering very quickly from the harder efforts — one of the most positive gauges of effective endurance training. I certainly can't complain about our weekend in Boulder. It was very exciting all around. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A whole new town with a whole new way

On Thursday, Beat and I returned to Boulder for three and a half days — whirlwind days, just enough time to take a few more steps in the next direction. A half foot of fresh snow blanketed the plains surrounding the Denver airport and the temperature was bitter cold, 10 degrees. I dropped Beat off at the Google office in Boulder and pointed the rental car up Flagstaff Road. Winding up the cliffy hillside, I thought of all the ways Flagstaff reminds me of my hometown mountain road, Montebello. Nearly everywhere reminds me of somewhere else. This is how I am — a vast ship full of past experiences, with only a small rudder plunged in the present. I like it this way — living as though my life can only grow larger and richer as time passes.

The car crawled up the icy road as I reminisced about recent bike rides up my favorite oak-shaded street in California, then slapped myself back into the present and the precarious road conditions. I pulled into a snow-covered parking lot and strapped on my snowshoes, breathing in fiery cold wind and an air temperature that, judging by the stinging sensation in my nose, had plunged to something around zero. Low clouds were just beginning to lift, letting in a stream of golden sunlight. A beautiful day for a slog.

One trail wasn't yet broken, and I chose that one, wrapping around Flagstaff Mountain before continuing across the road and up a steep gulch toward Green Mountain. These are some of the most popular trails in Boulder, but with a foot of fresh snow and a subzero chill, almost nobody was out. I had to break a wider trail over the one post-holing track in front of me. On top of the peak, the wind was fierce. The half liter of Diet Dr. Pepper I'd poured in my Camelbak — because I forgot to stop for water — had long since frozen, and the one jacket I brought with me — because the Front Range isn't so cold — barely staved off a menacing chill. I looked across the white plain that didn't quite remind me of anywhere I've ever been, and slipped into a barrage of imaginary scenarios that nonetheless felt real, because they represented the future.


Over the past six weeks, Beat has moved toward transferring to the Google office in Boulder. While nothing in life is a hundred percent certain, we've taken a number of big steps toward this move, and this weekend we flew out to Colorado to look at potential houses. Beat has begun the transfer process, and it's looking very likely that we will move to Boulder after we return from the Iditarod Trail, probably in April.

It's an exciting prospect that's been a long time coming. We've been talking about leaving the Bay Area for a few years now, and while we'd both prefer to live somewhere in Alaska, realistically, until Beat reaches a point where he wants to retire, Alaska isn't our best option. There aren't many tech jobs up there, and my own earning potential in the journalism field doesn't begin to make up for the gap. We still consider Alaska a "someday" destination, but as a compromise, Boulder is pretty fantastic. Everything about it fits our lifestyle well, and the cost of living, while not cheap by any stretch, is still less expensive than the Bay Area.

When chatting with friends about this potential move, I've heard the expected reaction about — "Oh, Boulder, so snooty, and everyone there is an Olympic athlete or professional cyclist and it's difficult to fit in." I don't necessarily doubt this, but it's also not terribly important to me that I "fit in." I'm sure I'll find my way to my people if they're here, probably in the same ways I've made a handful of friendships almost by accident in the Bay Area, which — news flash — is also full of cliques.

Leaving the Bay Area, though — the thought does have a hint of melancholy. I will miss it. If you asked me ten years ago, I would have never, never expected to end up living anywhere in California. When Beat and I started dating in 2010, shortly after I moved to Montana, one of my prominent thoughts was that I liked this guy, a lot, but I wasn't sure that I could do life in urban California. Now I'm going on five years as a Californian. The end of December means I have lived in California longer than I lived in Alaska, which is a sobering thought. I can no longer claim Alaska as my predominant storyline — it was just a few chapters — and it keeps fading further into the stern of my life. I've come to accept that reality, and also all of the aspects of California that I love — the redwoods, the trail running community, the flowy mountain bike trails, Rancho San Antonio with its pet deer and familiar views, Montebello, riding my bike to the coast, San Francisco even though I hate the parking and other big-city inconveniences, the Marin Headlands, and the boring weather, yes even the boring weather. Because even as much as I come alive in the frost-tinged air of real winter, who wouldn't miss it being 70 degrees and sunny seemingly every day? (Disclosure: 95 degrees and parched is probably how California will be burned into my long-term memory.)

Five years is a healthy chunk of life, and I'm going to miss it. But winter and mountains is what I value most, and I'm lucky that Beat agrees. Some of the houses we looked at this weekend were alarmingly fantastic — almost surreal. Neither of us have ever been homeowners. Home ownership is another place I hadn't pictured myself, because I prefer to remain unanchored. But there are many appealing aspects to this, and I also see it as a journey, in its own way. It's a lot to swallow right now, when a part of me would love to have nothing more to think about than Iditarod planning and book projects. Still, when opportunities rise to the surface you have to jump in — life's taught me that much. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

ITI training, week nine

 Monday: mountain bike, 2:38, 25.1 miles, 2,987 feet climbing. I am considering using Beat's MootoX YBB fat bike in the Iditarod. This is the bike I rode in the 2014 White Mountains 100. Its set-up resembles my mountain bike, which I rode long distances in the Freedom Challenge and Tour Divide, so there's already a comfortable familiarity. The other bike is Snoots, the expedition fat bike. We've had some good, difficult times together. But she's a beefy bike, and I am concerned about the heavier front end given all of my struggles with pushing through deeper snow drifts. It feels like sacrilege not to use Snoots for the reason we acquired her, but as I've said before, I just want to take my best chance of making it to Nome. Even if I anticipate hundred of miles of pushing (I always do), I believe a bike is the best mode, but I'll take a sled if trail conditions or weather reports look especially discouraging (i.e. an ongoing El Nino warm snowpocalypse.) Snoots can go with me to Baffin Island, when I finally make that trip happen.

That all said ... I'm riding the Fat YBB on my training rides now. Beat outfitted the bike with skinny 29" tires and rims for the time being, so I can't call it fat biking. But trail riding is a breeze on this bike — it's unquestionably more responsive than Snoots. I think the handling might be an advantage if snow coverage is again low when the Iditarod starts, as it has been the past two years.

Tuesday: Morning, weight lifting at gym. Afternoon, trail run, 0:50, 5.6 miles, 675 feet climbing. This was a great gym session. Same weights as last week, but it felt almost too easy. This was almost disappointing, as I usually have to go into "high intensity" puffing zone to get through my reps. Did two sets this session, since I was planning to run in the afternoon. My usual "Tuesday Monta Vista" loop went okay. As expected, I am no longer becoming effortlessly faster, but I'm still fighting to hold this run under 9-minute pace. It's a hilly trail run, and the paces for each mile are pretty close to 8 minutes or 10 minutes.

Wednesday: Road bike, 2:43, 33.3 miles, 3,624 feet climbing. Rode Highway 9 to Page Mill, and I felt sluggish for most of the ride. It was quite warm — a record high, 72 degrees — and I've flipped over to the other side of winter complacency, so I had a puffy pullover in a backpack but not nearly enough water (Page Mill is often a complete freezer. I kinda like it. But it wasn't on this day.)

 Thursday: Trail run, 0:54, 5.1 miles, 341 feet climbing. I drove down to Pacific Grove for a couple of interviews. After we finished, I still had about 25 minutes of daylight left to go exploring, so I decided to embark on sunset run to find the beach. Once I reached the coast, I returned in what turned into full darkness on unfamiliar trails. Early in this run, a large German Shepherd aggressively and repeatedly shoved me by jumping against my shoulder and chest while growling and barking, as I yelled and backed up slowly. The dogs' owner, who was more than 100 yards back and not approaching quickly, did nothing besides call to his dog, who finally ran toward him when he reached us about six shoves later. Seriously. This is why I make a point to avoid off-leash areas, but I wasn't aware of the rules in this park. Between the dog attack and the darkness, it was an adrenaline-filled outing for a 54-minute run.

Friday: Weight lifting at gym. Did three sets — definitely harder than Tuesday, but I upped the weights by five pounds on six of the 12 exercises. I still struggle mightily with arm curls. It's like my biceps are their own dead weights, and they're just never going to get stronger. Biceps are an important muscle group when wrestling a fat bike out of a snow drift, so this may be a partial influencer in my desire for a lighter front end.

Saturday: Mountain bike, 4:07, 35.9 miles, 4,715 feet climbing. Beat, Liehann and I set out on a brisk, beautiful Saturday morning to ride up Grizzly Flat, along Skyline Ridge, and down the John Nichols Trail. A front moved through on Thursday and Friday that dropped temperatures into the 40s and a lot of rain on the trails, but they drained nicely for our sunny ride. I kept my pace well on the mellow side, anticipating a long run we had planned on Sunday. Still, I felt guilty about not putting in a better effort on Saturday. When I was training for the 2014 ITI, on this same weekend in December, I ran back-to-back 35-mile and 31-mile trail runs. I am basically in competition with my 2014 self, and feel I should at least be up for anything I did back then.

Beat excitedly anticipates running in the cold rain.
Sunday: Trail run, 6:17, 30.6 miles, 6,815 feet climbing. Beat and I signed up for the winter Woodside Ramble 50K — a great course through the redwood forests along Skyline Ridge. An atmospheric river was moving in on the Bay Area, and I couldn't have been more excited about the weather. They were calling for a possible chance of snow — snow! — above 3,000 feet, but it wasn't quite cold enough. Temperatures started out in the low 50s but dipped into the low 40s as the front moved through, dropping nearly an inch of rain, hail, 40 mph wind gusts, and much fun on the singletrack trails above Woodside. My hamstrings were very tight from the start — much tighter than usual. It felt like the tension level had been set to rigid, and I couldn't open my stride to save my life. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise, and the muddy trails were very slippery at times, and I become highly imbalanced (even more so than usual) when I try to place a foot anywhere but directly below the rest of my body. I took especially small steps on the descents, because otherwise my feet slid all over the place. This was disappointing, because the descents at Woodside are winding and gradual — perfect for a timid descender like me to really let go — and I usually do. Besides tight hamstrings, I felt great, and enjoyed the rainy day run: Splashing in puddles, punching at the wind, and keeping my pace just hard enough to stave off the convective chill. Beat was feeling rough today, but he won't let me get in front of him if he can help it, and finished the race a few minutes before me.

Total: 17:31, 94.3 miles ride, 41.3 miles run, 19,155 feet climbing. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

On gears around an uncaring sun

Even though it was only six months ago, I don't spend much time thinking about the Tour Divide. This is uncharacteristic for me, as memories of adventures are the background of my mental landscape — the colorful screen savers that pop into view during idle moments. Sometimes, while wheeling a cart around a grocery store, I still hear the crunch of footsteps on ice-crusted snow atop some Susitna 100 course that melted away a lifetime ago. But the Tour Divide ... that faded too soon.

When I try to think about the Tour Divide, what often pops into my mind is a flickering series of moments along the highway to Togwotee Pass, in Wyoming, one of those evenings that now sprawl like wispy clouds across an evanescing sky. I was pedaling my bike; it's funny because that's not what I remember. I remember stopping at intervals to put a foot down, slumping forward as my hands dangled over my red handlebar bag, and gasping until I caught my breath. As I looked around at pink-tinted pine trees and silhouetted road signs, these became moments of lucidity amid what is now little more than a wash of gray.

I was battling toward the top of the pass, where I knew I'd find a picnic area with an outhouse to stash my aromatic bike now that I was back in grizzly country. The decision to camp in this picnic area was one I'd made earlier in the day, and beyond that, the destination didn't hold meaning for me. I didn't care that there was already frost on the ground and my seven-year-old sleeping bag was proving less than toasty. I didn't care that I didn't really have a meal to eat beyond this bag of nuts I'd been carrying since Canada. I didn't care if rednecks came and stole my bike because I was sleeping right next to the highway, or if a bear came and gnawed on my leg. All I could feel at this end of this particularly difficult day was profound detachment. I'd been gasping all afternoon, taking longer breaks to force more oxygen into my blood while getting mauled by more mosquitoes, and I'd finally slipped into autopilot. It's endlessly interesting to me that profoundly detached autopilot, with what seems like almost no emotional investment or motivation, still generates forward motion. I'd be in Colorado before I defaulted to collapse.

The sun began to set, which only registered on an instinctive level. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." I stopped again to cough up a glob of something thick and metallic-tasting. Coughing usually opened airways and helped me feel better briefly, but on this evening I experienced surges of fear. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." It was almost refreshing, this fear, but it didn't stay. I fished through my seat bag to find my mittens, and while doing so, gazed back at the crimson light spreading across the sky. A tiny lake absorbed a perfect reflection, surrounded by glowing peaks of the Tetons. "This is perfect," a quiet voice whispered. "This is what you came for."

But the voice was just static on a television screen turned low and dim in the corner of a dark room, and I was an old woman staring blankly at the void. The depth of my detachment became startlingly apparent as I put on extra layers and looked away from the horizon. I did not care. My ability to care seemed to be slipping farther away. But what could I do? At some point after dusk, lyrics from an Modest Mouse song entered my flickering consciousness — "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset" —which, incidentally, is a song about battling indifference.

A few days later, I sought medical attention in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for shortness of breath and congestion. At the time it was measured at the clinic, my blood oxygen level was 90 percent. It's not a particularly alarming level of hypoxemia, but this was after six hours of resting while awaiting my appointment, and after my outlook had become a good deal more lucid and optimistic. In all likelihood, I'd been starving for oxygen for days. While the muscle weakness and physical distress I'd experienced was minimal given I could still ride my bike a hundred-plus miles a day (until I couldn't), it's interesting and disquieting to contemplate what this did to my mind. "Milder forms of hypoxia can impair thinking, alter levels of consciousness, cause depression and stir up anxiety." — NYT, 2006

Is it possible I experienced temporary bouts of low-level depression? I don't think this theory is entirely unfounded.

Now, facing the 1,000-mile journey to Nome and all of the physical and mental difficulties I am sure to encounter every day, I'm spending more time reflecting on what I learned from the Tour Divide. I never again want to care that little about myself or the world around me, especially in an environment as immediate and severe as Alaska. But what will I do if I again struggle with breathing? Will an inhaler be enough to restore oxygen supply? Will I know where to draw lines? I didn't always make the best decisions during the Tour Divide, where I was simply lucky to have a wider margin for error.
 I may be somewhat of a paradox in that I relish physical challenges because of the intellectual and emotional stimulation they provide, but crumble to pieces when my mental faculties are truly compromised. Another negative life experience — trying to complete the 2013 Petite Trotte à Léon in the Alps while extremely sleep-deprived — brought this to light. I was hallucinating, I was paranoid, my eyesight was failing. I lost control; I had anxiety attacks. I'll never go back to that metal space if I can avoid it.

So what makes me believe I can handle the rigors of the entire Iditarod Trail? I'll be honest — I've never felt more uncertain about anything. Even now that I've gained considerably more confidence in my physical health, I understand that physical health is only a small part of the equation. If nothing else, the 2015 Tour Divide reinforced this belief.

This isn't to say I would back out of the ITI because I'm concerned, only that mental health is something I've been pondering. The mind-body connection is both nebulous and unwavering, easy to tamper with but difficult to control. This is the most pressing challenge I'm considering, moving forward. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

ITI training, week eight

Monday: Snow bike, 4:37, 25.3 miles, 3,522 feet climbing: This was a tough ride given I was mostly goofing off with Beat's new bike in Corner Canyon. Mashing pedals uphill through several inches of snow is hard work even if I am moving at walking pace. The worst part of the ride happened after I decided to veer downhill toward the town of Alpine, and found myself on this ridiculously steep jeep road covered in ball-bearing rocks that were masked by an inch of snow, and deep tire ruts. Walking downhill just made it worse — my shoes had poor traction on those icy rocks, and I fell on my butt while wrestling a bike that wanted to launch downhill without me. I really thought I was going to crash badly. Happily, the bike's brakes, stability, and tire traction were just amazing, and I was able to creep downhill, also at walking speeds, but upright. Then it was time to push the bike uphill on another similarly steep road, back to Draper. I was worked at the end, sweaty with minimal layers even though it was 25 degrees outside.

 Tuesday: Hike, 2:21, 6.4 miles, 2,611 feet climbing: Dad and I got out in the morning to hike Grandeur Peak before my work day, which on Mountain Time begins at noon. It was 9 degrees when we started. I know this isn't Alaska-level cold, but I don't think I've ever seen an extended cold snap this early in the winter in Salt Lake City. Temperatures were in the 20s during the day and the single digits overnight the entire week I was in town, which is relatively rare for November. I'm certainly not complaining. It was a great intro to winter for me. Grandeur Peak had minimal snow and we took it at an easy pace, jogging some on the way down.

Wednesday: Snow bike, 2:06, 12.8 miles, 1,996 feet climbing. A short but strenuous loop in the hills north of West Wendover, Nevada. Mostly what I was on this ride/hike-a-bike was cold. I was wearing the clothing I put on for driving, and set out with not enough extra layers. I needed extra gloves and socks, something warmer or at least windproof on my legs, and something to cover my face, as it was 15 degrees with a stiff breeze. I always manage to have a "freeze ride" in early December, and then the lesson is re-learned and I start making better choices. Usually it happens in California while wearing a jersey and shorts when it's 40-something degrees, so at least it was properly cold for this year's lesson.

Thursday: Morning, trail run, 1:52, 10.1 miles, 1,847 feet climbing. Evening, weight lifting at gym. I stayed with Ann in Auburn, and set out in the morning for a quick run on the Western States Trail toward No Hands Bridge. This was one of those runs where every step felt effortless. I intended to go at an easy pace for three miles and then back, but when I finally looked down at my watch, nearly five miles had passed. I attributed my abundant energy to being back in balmy California (it was 51 degrees in Auburn), but I actually think my immune system is the one to thank for this one amazing run. Have you ever heard the theory about the big blitz of fighting a virus — right before symptoms hit, your immune system kicks everything into high gear, giving your whole body a burst of power? Just a myth? Probably. Traffic was horrendous for the final 150 miles home, with torrential downpours and many accidents. By the time I hit the gym after 9 p.m., I was feeling pretty bad, which I attributed to stress from the drive. As it turned out, I was coming down with a stomach flu that my niece and nephew in Utah passed on to me. I sputtered through my weight session, but did do three sets at the same weights as Sunday. (No, I didn't yet realize I was sick. Yes, I do wipe down with disinfecting wipes before and after using machines at the gym.)

Friday: Rest. Ugh. I was sick. Stomach flu is a short-lived virus, but relentless. For most of the day I was so nauseated that I couldn't stand up without feeling dizzy, so I slept through the afternoon. Still, I waited until after 7 p.m. before I finally admitted to Liehann that I was too sick to join him for a ride in the morning. At least I'd come out of my haze enough to eat my first meal of the day — bland vegetable soup and Sprite at a Vietnamese restaurant with friends (yes, I did use hand sanitizer.)

Saturday: Evening weight lifting at the gym. Okay, I still did not feel good on Saturday, but better. I made it through two sets of lifting. I tried a run on the treadmill, but only lasted eight minutes before I felt like I was going to puke. (Yes, I did double down on the disinfecting wet wipes.)

Sunday: Trail run, 1:35, 8.6 miles, 1,101 feet climbing. I slept for 10 hours and woke up feeling amazing. 110 percent. Actually, what happened is I didn't feel quite like death anymore, but by comparison it seemed so great that I figured I could tack on a bunch of miles to the 13-mile run Beat had planned and salvage my week. Ha. As soon as we'd run 0.1 miles, it was clear I did not feel amazing, and by mile four I was about to keel over. I took a short break to get the nausea under control and then jogged home. Overeagerness noted. No harm done, really. Stomach flu is not one of those illnesses that morphs into pneumonia if you're too overeager. But pukey runs are not particularly fun.

Total: 12:32, 38.1 miles ride, 25.3 miles run, 11,077 feet climbing. Beat thinks it's a good thing I got sick and ended up having a light week. He lectured me the other day about "junk miles" — the derogatory term for what I call "volume training." Seriously, I hope to propel myself across Alaska all day every day for upwards of a month, and if I can't handle 20 hours a week of moderate-intensity efforts, then I have no business attempting this. This is my opinion. I do need to build strength, but volume is what builds endurance. Some people build endurance with lower amounts of higher-intensity training, but this has never been my practice and I'm not even sure how it would work for me. When I was training for the 2014 Iditarod, I mostly logged weeks in the 15-20-hour range, and rarely had rest days. I was pretty happy with my endurance for that event, but as always I was disappointed with my insufficient strength and lack of specificity (I had pulled a sled so little in training that I had difficulties with my hips and hamstrings, and shin splints because 350 miles is just a long damn way to walk in 7 days.)

As always in this sort of endeavor, it's never about how fast you go, but how slow you don't go. If I can establish a solid forever pace and maintain it for hours and days with minimal bodily breakdown, I'll have achieved my version of ideal fitness. The body can adapt to long-duration, limited-rest efforts. You see this in practice with thru-hikers: those who start fit and don't overdo it early tend to get stronger as they go. Setbacks such as the stomach flu notwithstanding. I hope to have a better week, next week.