Saturday, February 27, 2016

Following the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Cyclists gathering at the start of the Big Fat Ride in Anchorage on Saturday afternoon. I'm sorry to say I missed the event. I have full-on deer-in-the-headlights syndrome today, and the introvert in me just couldn't handle another big social gathering after the pre-race meeting. I watched it go off from the balcony of our hotel room, where I was still fiddling with my gear.

As you can see, there's no snow in Anchorage. Temperatures were in the 40s on Saturday. I've been trying to guess what the first part of the Iditarod Trail might be like — of course until you're right on top of it, it's almost impossible to say. My guess would be swampy, icy, and slushy for the first 50-75 miles, followed by new, wet snow until mile 110, and beyond there, perhaps a lot of new snow moved around by recent wind events. There have been reports of standing water and Sunday's forecast calls for rain, so I'm mentally preparing for what I think of as "Juneau misery" for the first day, and gearing up as best as I can with extra plastic bags, an extra couple of pairs of socks, and gaiters (which I didn't plan to bring, but I want to keep my overboots dry and avoid wearing out my Wiggy's waders on the first day of the trip.) Forty below gets all the glory, but it's easy to underestimate how cold you can become when it's 40 degrees and raining, and you're pedaling through standing water and slush spray for 12-plus hours.

Which means that I showed up in Anchorage hoping I'd cull some things from my bags, but instead added more. You pack your fears. I have a lot of fears.

But for the most part I'm happy with my set-up. I feel prepared to be alone and take care of myself in most any weather, including 40 below, and have most of what I need (besides food, water, and fuel) to be out in a remote, harsh place for a month if needed. The bike is not light, and I do not know how much it weighs (this is information I'd rather not know, to be honest. It won't really make a difference in what I bring, and it will just make me feel bad about myself. Much like any scale.) I did confirm I can pick it up and carry it at least a short distance. But Erik is a hefty beast:

Judging by my performance at the Fat Pursuit last month, I expect to be very slow. I know I need to start out slow to avoid aggravating my respiratory system, so I have no doubt I'll be near the back of the bike contingent. If conditions are as soft as I expect near the Alaska Range, I'll probably be behind a few walkers as well. That's okay with me. Really. Just in case you're watching the race tracker and wondering what's wrong. Probably nothing is wrong. If my dot is still on the map, it's going well. Basically, at this point, I'll be pretty pleased with any result that doesn't include my race ending because I've fallen through thin ice and drowned.

I am excited to get started, though. No matter what, it will be an adventure, and full of the intense experiences that make up my best memories. I am taking it one mile at a time, with no expectations and a goal only to stay on the trail as long as I'm healthy, and come home uninjured.

The 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational tracker is located at this link: http://trackleaders.com/iti16

There won't be many opportunities to check in from the trail, but I'll try to post an occasional update to my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jill.homer.1 or Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlaskaJill

Wish me luck. I will need it. :)


Monday, February 22, 2016

Another week of gloom 'n doom

This has become my least favorite week of the year — the week before we embark on our annual "big trip" in Alaska, whatever that may be. It's the week that encompasses the largest percentage of tedious packing, useless fretting, obsessive weather-checking, last-minute gear changes, and hefty helpings of moodiness. It's the week of spooning peanut butter into plastic baggies and packaging high-calorie trail mixes until I'm sick of everything— even though I haven't eaten any of it. It's the week of hoisting heavy boxes to the post office, quietly almost hoping I never see them again. I lay in bed at night and think, "this is one of my last nights in a warm bed for a while; I should enjoy this," but instead stare blankly at the ceiling, looping through mental checklists that would drive me mad if they weren't broken by bolts of dread.

Then morning comes, with rich California sunlight saturating another 65-degree day, and I've lost all interest in going outside. I tell myself I'm tapering, but really what I want to do is curl up in my 50-below sleeping bag on the floor of my apartment and close my eyes until this week goes away. Nervousness ferments in my stomach like bad vinegar, and I choke up at strange times. Today, after reaching into a drawer to grab socks, I randomly fished out a fuzzy pair that my mom sent to me while I was recovering from frostbite seven years ago. The emotion well burst open and I started to tear up over ... what? Warm socks? I want my mommy? There really was no reason, but I settled on pre-emptive yearning over the comforts we all must leave behind whenever we step out into the big, cold world.

On Saturday I loaded up my bike for what I figured would be the last shakedown ride. We hit the trails at Fremont Older, which this time of year are a strange combination of sticky, horse-stomped mud, gravel, and concrete-hard clay. As the bike bounced along, its strap-mounted front rack — which Beat planned to reinforce with epoxy but hadn't yet — slowly slipped downward. This was all happening beneath an enormous red bundle, and I didn't realize anything was amiss until I was descending the Seven Springs trail at high speed, where the rack nudged that millimeter too far and slammed into the front tire. The wheel stopped dead and the bike spun into a full cartwheel, pile-driving my body into the trail. It was one of those instances where I felt the G-force and saw the wall of dirt rapidly approaching my face, and had that split second to think that one thought that is always, "This will hurt a lot." At the very last millisecond I must have tucked, because I landed on my right shoulder, felt the bike drive into my right leg, and ended up on my back with the bike more or less on top of me. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and I laid there for a few seconds gasping until I could see something besides streaks of white on black.

My shoulder hurt fiercely, and my first thought was that I'd probably broken my collarbone or a similarly important bone. My second thought was that I needed to get off the trail fast, because I'd just gone around a blind corner, and another cyclist was sure to come and run me over soon. I managed to sit up and pull my bike off the trail, and after a few more minutes of shameless groaning, decided I could stand. Twilight was rapidly approaching and I didn't have lights, so I bungeed the bivy bundle to the rear rack and repositioned the empty front rack as best as I could, although I was terrified it was going to come down on the wheel again. I chose a quick exit from the park that was farther from home but only required a mile of dirt riding. Every bump sent sharp pain through my shoulder, and I couldn't steer well. I summoned all my strength to squeeze the brakes down a steep fire road, and once I'd reached the relative safety of pavement, I let the waterworks flow. If I'm going to tear up over socks this week, I'm certainly going to indulge in a good cry over my worst bike crash in years. But as I limped home, I realized that it wasn't so bad. I was, incredibly, uninjured. Sure, there were some painful scrapes and bruises, and I was sure to be sore tomorrow, but that was probably the worst of it.

The rack has now been thrice-reinforced, the bike has been polished and packed into a box, and I've been limping along, feeling like I've been in a car accident, but healing. On Sunday my shoulder actually felt quite a bit better; most pain migrated outward into my torso and neck. The helmet isn't cracked and I don't think I hit my head all that hard, but I did sustain some whiplash. My right leg is a patchwork of bruises and there's some road rash on my leg and arm. I'm far from thrilled about feeling this creaky one week out from a major endurance effort for which I already doubt my strength and fitness, but I feel lucky. I've had plenty of bumps and scrapes on my bike over the years, and an embarrassingly large number of running/hiking crashes — two that resulted in ligament tears. But I haven't experienced impact at speed like that in nearly five years. The last time it happened, my elbow ripped wide open, and it took months to recover from that injury. No, I got off very easy here. Perhaps it's fate, that after all this wheezing and crying and crashing, I'm still healthy enough to start the Iditarod this coming Sunday.

At least, so far. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Iditarod history

Today marks one decade since I started the Susitna 100 — my first-ever race — on February 18, 2006. As I gear up to return to Alaska next week, I thought it would be fun to mark this tenth anniversary with a timeline of my endeavors on the Iditarod Trail. 

 2006: They say there's nothing like your first — which is why I look so shellshocked at the finish line of the Susitna 100 after 25 hours of wrestling with this mountain bike through soft trails, driving rain, and slush. My thoughts at the time were definitely along the lines of "what the hell just happened?" But, like most who deign to dabble in endurance sports, I was irrevocably hooked by the sheer intensity of the experience, and already knew I'd be back to race again. I wrote about this in my most recent book, "Becoming Frozen."

2007: I returned the the Su100 a second time with slightly better equipment — an old Raleigh hardtail with 26" Snowcat rims that I called "Snaux Bike." After only three miles, I tipped over and twisted my right knee. By the finish, every pedal stroke caused sharp pain. Shortly after I stopped, the joint locked up, and stayed that way for the better part of the next four months. I was eventually diagnosed with severe softening of the cartilage, a degenerative condition caused by overuse. My Ironman-triathlete doctor told me I'd have to deal with osteoarthritis for the rest of my life, and all but said my endurance racing days were probably over. I was 27 years old.

 2008: Ever since I moved to Alaska I'd been mesmerized by stories from the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and longed for my own experiences on the trail to McGrath. After the knee debacle of 2007, I knew I had to get out there before my knees gave up on me altogether. I was still young enough to overlook the true long-term implications of osteoarthritis, but I'd actually been convinced I had bad knees since my early 20s, and figured there wasn't much left to lose. Healing and training had for the most part gone well, and I was a bundle of raw anticipation when this photo was snapped on Seven Mile Lake, shortly after the start. The next six days were jarring and surreal, one of the truly transformative experiences of my life. I wrote a book about this race a few months after I finished, "Ghost Trails."

 2009: I went back to the Iditarod Trail Invitational to revisit the experience and perhaps correct the myriad of mistakes I made during my first run. I had more confidence and hubris this time around, and was almost in disbelief when I put my right foot through a hole in the ice on Flathorn Lake and plunged my whole leg in cold water. Temperatures were already below zero and I knew this was a serious setback just 25 miles into the race, but made a poor decision to continue to the next checkpoint before addressing it. The temperature would plunge to at least 30 below (and by many reports lower) as I pedaled up the Yentna River. By the time I reached Yentna Station, my foot was frozen, forcing me to withdraw from the race on the first day. In the years since this happened, my supposedly incurable knee pain has gone away completely, but I've come to believe that frostbite is forever. I kept all my toes, but still have nerve damage that causes poor circulation and pain.

2010: This is the only year of the past ten that I didn't revisit at least some portion of the Iditarod Trail. In December and January I'd fallen into a big funk — I think it's fair to call it depression. I finished writing my book about the 2009 Tour Divide — "Be Brave, Be Strong" — and through the reliving of that experience, decided endurance racing was to blame for the dissolution of my previous relationship as well as most of my unhappiness. These adventures were such encompassing and intense experiences that they resulted in a kind of disinterest and absenteeism in my everyday life. I had quietly, genuinely resolved to quit endurance racing for good, when I received an e-mail from an acquaintance, Ed Plumb, who was organizing a new race called the White Mountains 100. I thought, why not? I signed up, then didn't really train, didn't feel all that much dedication, and showed up in Fairbanks for what turned out to be another perspective-altering experience. After that I left Juneau, regathered my life in Anchorage, found a great job in Montana, and met Beat. The rest is history.

 2011: During the first year of our relationship, Beat and I had a pattern of daring each other away from our respective comfort zones into bigger and better adventures. The 2011 Susitna 100 was this for both of us — Beat's first winter race, and my first ultramarathon (not counting three 50Ks I ran as training for this 100-mile sled-dragging endeavor.) It ended up becoming, by far, the most epic of my four Susitna 100s — temperatures never rose above zero, and 30 mph winds drove the nighttime windchill down to -50 (and believe me, I'm one who strongly believes that "windchill counts.") Beat and I had the first big test of our relationship during this race. Shortly after the first sunset, my hands froze to the point that I couldn't use them at all, and needed Beat to help me zip up my jacket. This jarring experience prompted me to not stop moving until we reached Luce's Lodge, as Beat fell behind with his own issues. He was understandably upset with me about leaving him behind after we agreed to travel together, but I hadn't realized how far back he was (I thought when I looked back I could see his headlamp, but on the open river this can be quite far.) Later, around mile 70, after realizing that completing 100 miles on foot in one go is indeed *very* difficult, I had a huge meltdown about being in too much pain to finish. Beat took my bawling in stride, hung back and waited for me as I plodded along at 1.5 mph, and was very patient and sweet even after I abandoned him the night before. You could say the trials of the Susitna 100 cemented our bond. I moved to California a few weeks later.

 2012: True to my pattern, I wanted to return the the Susitna 100 on foot to correct the mistakes of the previous year. Beat was already irrevocably hooked on winter racing and preparing for his first Iditarod Trail Invitational. For a variety of reasons, I didn't think I'd return the ITI again, but the Su100 and White Mountains 100 had become great "nicotine patch" races to feed my addiction without diving in too deep. My fourth Susitna was a lot more relaxing and fun than the previous year, except for a poor decision I made in my footwear that resulted in badly swollen, macerated feet. I still met my goal of finishing under 36 hours.

 2013: This year was largely about supporting Beat in his first journey to Nome. Not actual support — which isn't allowed — but being there on the sidelines, sending him supply boxes, taking his sat phone calls and reporting his progress online. Really, it was an excuse for me to spend a month in Alaska doing fun things like a Denali Highway bike tour, the Chena River to Ridge marathon in Fairbanks, and the Homer Epic 100K. As Beat neared the finish, I flew to Nome for my first visit to western Alaska, with enough time to go for a few day rides on the Iditarod Trail. I'd always thought of western Alaska as this stark, featureless place — and admit it looks that way in this photo — but I was in awe of the rawness and beauty of the Bering Sea Coast. I was also humbled by its fierce weather. During the first ride, over Cape Nome and back, the temperature was -20. The following day — the day Beat finished — it was at least as cold with a strong north wind. I was shaken to the core by these rides. And sure enough, after all of my years of Alaska winter racing addiction, this is the first time I truly became interested in going all the way to Nome.

 2014: One again I signed up for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, this time traveling the first 350 miles with Beat on foot. It was strange to return to a rapidly-changing region that now sees frequent mid-winter rains, long snowless stretches, and heat waves that boost the temperature to 50 above, in Interior Alaska in early March. Don't get me wrong, we also experienced temperatures down to 20 below, but the heat presents unique challenges — especially when it comes to my biggest fear (open water), and the strength one needs to tug a 45-pound sled over dirt, roots, and tussocks for 50+ miles. Still, this was my most enjoyable experience on the Iditarod Trail. What really made this trip special is sharing it with others — Beat, our friend Steve, and Tim and Loreen Hewitt. Later in the year, Tim and I finished up a collaborative project about all of his amazing Iditarod adventures — "8,000 Miles Across Alaska." So there you have it — all of my books are effectively centered on the Iditarod Trail. I really should branch out.

2015: With the Nome dream firmly implanted, I decided to embark on a solo test run of sorts along the Bering Sea coast, starting in Unalakleet. From the outset I encountered the amazing north wind, which I expected, but the short version of the story is that it took me four full days to travel 60 miles to Little Mountain Cabin, and I was demolished by the time I reached it. Fighting shin-deep drifts into a 40-50 mph headwind all day drained every last molecule of energy from my body. I now feel like I have a better understanding of what it's like to walk to the South Pole, and why most Antarctic skiers only cover 8 to 15 miles a day. But because the work was so strenuous and taxing, and the windchill allowed for no stops whatsoever, I strongly doubted — and still do — my ability to survive a 40-mile sea ice crossing in that weather.  The thing about weather is that if one is patient, one can wait it out. I'd already decided to return to Anchorage and reconnect with Beat following a tragic event, but when I woke up the following day it was -5 and the wind was absent. It was a bright, beautiful, warm day — perhaps perfect for a run across the Norton Sound. Instead I turned around and pedaled the 60 miles back to Unalakleet in about 14 hours — which isn't record-breaking, but it was a lot more enjoyable than the four-day outbound trip.

I'd managed to re-boost my energy with some random items I'd purchased at the Shaktoolik village store after two dozen Iditarod mushers cleaned it out during the storm that had everyone hunkering down. As it was, I'd left Unalakleet with four days of food to travel, by bike, 100 miles to Koyuk. It wasn't nearly enough. I thought I'd erred strongly on the side of too much. But I had no real perspective of just how hard one mile can be, or how long it can take, even after ten years of this.

I learned a lot on my coast trip, and the main gist of that lesson is Alaska is very big, and I am very small and very, very weak — which is really the same lesson I've been re-learning since 2006. The difference is, before I always felt some empowerment by my ability to mentally muscle my way through problems and overcome obstacles, but my recent breathing difficulties have added a new, much deeper layer of uncertainty. Still, I feel better equipped to head out there and make better decisions, even if they're not the preferred decisions. Any day on the Iditarod Trail is a gift, because many of the days I've had out there are among the best of my life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

ITI training, week 18

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: Trail run, 0:53, 5.6 miles, 681 feet climbing. Monta Vista loop at cruising pace. This minor but persistent strain in my left shin — which started sometime before we went to Colorado three weeks ago — finally went away for good. And back pain hasn't returned since I stopped riding the road bike. So right now, all of the niggles are gone. Yay!

Wednesday: Afternoon; fat bike, 2:07, 18 miles, 2,821 feet climbing. Evening, weight lifting at gym. I took the Eriksen out for a cruise around Fremont Older trails. I am enamored with this bike, which of course is the one Beat purchased to take to Nome himself before he decided biking isn't all that fun and switched back to the foot division. I wonder if Beat will mind if I call the bike "Erik." Erik is amazingly comfortable and responsive, and doesn't feel awkward when loaded. I think we'll get along really well.

Thursday: Fat bike, 4:34, 41.5 miles, 5,530 feet climbing. I have been trying to finish up some projects before we head to Alaska, but I've become *incredibly* preoccupied with Iditarod thoughts. Even so, I had one more immediate deadline to hit on Thursday, and wasn't able to get out until 2:30. I felt strong on the two big climbs — Black Mountain and Windy Hill, which is a lung-burner even on the best days. I made it to Russian Ridge right at sunset, and it was sublime.

Friday: Weight lifting at the gym, then trail run, 0:55, 5.6 miles, 688 feet climbing. For both of my weight-lifting sessions this week, I made it through three sets of 12 exercises, 12 reps. While I was working the barbells on Friday, I became convinced I could see distinct muscle definition in my arms, but when I encouraged Beat to "check out my guns," he just laughed. Ah well. It's interesting how much 45 minutes of lifting weights leaves me fatigued for an hour run, given I'm still focusing on upper-body only. I made it through the Monta Vista loop at a respectable pace, but I felt as though I was battling through the last hour of a long run.

Saturday: Fat bike, 7:37, 76.6 miles, 8,706 feet climbing. Liehann and I made it out for one last lap around the "Big Basin Big Loop." A Strava activity search indicates I've ridden this exact variation of the route at least six times, and the moving time on this ride was an nearly an hour less than my next fastest (8:29.) It's funny because I didn't feel like we were riding faster than usual. Liehann was instructed by his coach to keep his pace in a certain power zone and make minimal stops, and I just matched this pace (usually I lag well behind Liehann when we ride together.) I felt great on this ride; it was all around relaxing and enjoyable, and I had no noticeable soreness or even fatigue afterward.

Sunday: Fat bike, 4:31, 39.5 miles, 5,517 feet climbing. I wrapped up my final "peak week" with another climby ride — Black Mountain to Grizzly Flat to the John Nichols Trail, then Highway 9 and Redwood Gulch. It's always most telling to see how I feel the day after a long ride, and I still had plenty of spark on this day.

Total: 20:39, 175.6 miles ride, 11.2 miles run, 23,942 feet climbing. If I was training for a shorter warm-weather bikepacking race like the Stagecoach 400, I would have high confidence in my fitness right now. But there are so many unknowns and added challenges to the Iditarod that I remain cautious and uncertain about my prospects at any distance on that route. I visited my allergy doctor today (Wednesday, Feb. 17), to check on my progress one month after I started using a daily maintenance inhaler. My lung function has not improved — something she was hoping to see — but she said it's encouraging that I've been feeling better during my workouts. I'll be sticking with that medication through the next month in Alaska, and hoping that it helps offset the inflammation I'm still dealing with. I'm in taper mode now and also fighting a cold, right on cue, that's causing some productive coughing (which I'm hoping is the reason for my "failed" lung test.) I even speculated that the congestion might be a result of allergies — pollen counts are currently rising — but the doctor checked my sinuses and said it's definitely a cold (I guess they can tell by the color of the mucous.) I hope I can cough all this gunk out before it really starts to matter, and that it doesn't escalate into Beat's pneumonia. He's feeling much better this week, so that's good news. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The load

On Monday, I loaded up the Eriksen with most of the gear I plan to use in the Iditarod Trail Invitational and took it out for a two-hour spin on the steep and bumpy trails of Fremont Older. Most of this system is based on decisions I made before my five-day bike tour on Alaska's west coast last March, and stuck with after the hard lessons of that trip. It's a set-up that favors frequent camping and windy/wet conditions, and makes concessions for my own absent-mindedness and tendency to pack my gear haphazardly.

The main stipulation for my bike set-up was that it be extremely non-fussy. Everything should be quickly accessible and easy to pack away. If it's blowing 40 mph, I want to grab my parka in five seconds without risking the loss of other items to the wind. If it's 35 below, I want to just throw my whole bivy bundle back on the rack without futzing with stuff sacks and straps. If I'm thirsty, I don't want to remove my entire food supply to get to my stove. Although I'm a big fan of Relevate bikepacking bags, for a winter trip, for me, racks and panniers make more sense. There's more room for everything to spread out, so I don't have to fuss with compressing every little thing. And there's plenty of extra space for food, as well as gear if it's too warm to wear anything but a base layer.

There's a time and place for ultra-light, but for someone with my experience level, I think this is a reasonable set-up. I'll just admit that I am emphatically not racing the 2016 ITI. I'll be thrilled if my lungs hold up past Finger Lake, and over the moon if I arrive in McGrath feeling strong. I'm taking what I need to feel secure and able to rest at intervals, comfortably, when needed (unless it's blowing 40+ mph. Then I can't stop for anything.) I'm grateful to have the support of the race organization and volunteers to help me in my adventure, but I'm really heading out there to "bike my own bike" — within race perimeters and rules, of course.

Here's the breakdown:

Front bundle: PhD Designs Hispar -46C down sleeping bag, Outdoor Research Helium bivy, Thermarest Ridge Rest pad. Everything is rolled together so when I want to take a nap, I can just pop open the compression straps and crawl inside. When packing up, it can be quickly rolled up and bungeed to the rack if I truly need to get going in under two minutes. Later, after my body warms up, I can re-compress the bundle as needed. The quick pack-up and minimal fuss is the main reason I wanted to go with a front rack rather than strapping the bundle to the handlebars. I also dislike having so much bulk attached to the handlebars, pressed against the shifters and brake levers. Beat designed this rack and milled the platform himself. It attaches to the fork with straps, and has proved itself to be solid.

Frame bag: Can hold one to four days of food. It has a separate compartment to keep readily accessible tools, such as a knife, multi-tool, fire-starters, and bike pump. I'll also use the frame bag to store my foot and saddle sore repair kit, first aid, toiletries, a few spare parts, tubes, batteries, spare headlamp, and electronics (basically an AA battery charger for my satellite phone, and iPods.)

Rear stuff sack: PhD Designs Hispar down jacket, down pants, and down booties. All of the fluffy stuff in one place! If I need to take a trailside break to make water or repair the bike, I can pull all of this stuff on and pack it up again quickly. I am likely going to replace this green sack with a heavier duty 13-liter dry bag, because these bags tend to develop holes and I fully expect it to rain at least once during the trip. The sack doesn't need to be all that big, but again, I don't want to fuss with a tight-fitting compression sack.

Right pannier: MSR Whisperlite Stove, 11 oz fuel and fuel pump, quart-sized pot, collapsible cup, spoon, satellite phone. Easily accessible on top: Goggles, windproof balaclava (designed by Beat), fleece buff, vapor-barrier mittens, spare windproof mittens. If needed, I can stuff my Skinfit hybrid jacket on top. This is the lightweight mid-layer I plan to wear most of the time, unless it is very warm.

Left pannier: Wiggy's waders; baggie with spare fleece socks, Drymax liner socks, and underwear; Mountain Headwear Ghost Whisperer jacket (a lightweight rain shell), Skinfit shell pants, Skinfit primaloft shorts, wind-proof knee warmers (designed by Beat), Skinfit Caldo Skudo jacket (primaloft), Mountain Hardwear Airshield jacket (very bulky. Also my favorite piece for just about all conditions. But the primaloft jacket on top of this will likely be needed in cold temperatures, and during low-energy times. I hope to only use the down coat when I am not moving.)

Not pictured: Pogies, 20-ounce fuel bottle (to be filled in the event I go on to Nome), Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race hydration pack with three-liter bladder (front pockets will hold meds and camera.) Base layer: Skinfit top, Gore Windstopper tights, Drymax socks/vapor barrier socks/Toestees fleece socks, Vasque Arrowhead boots, primaloft outer-boots (designed by Beat), Mountain Hardwear windstopper hat, and Skinfit primaloft mittens (if temps are above zero and my core is warm, I usually go bare-handed in pogies.)

I'm probably missing some things, but this is the gist of it. Here we are beneath the eucalyptus trees on an 80-degree afternoon in California:

The whole set-up handled very well on hairpin turns and steep climbs and descents. I pushed the bike up a few 20+ percent grades to simulate pushing in soft snow. The panniers have a low profile and I never bumped them with my legs, and the front bundle doesn't seem to affect handling at all. Beat's smartly-engineered front rack easily passed the horse-trampled trail test. We were bouncing all over the place and nothing came loose.

After my Alaska coast tour last year, I wrote about the liability of physical weakness and the need to shed weight from my bike. The truth is, I haven't discarded that much. I've given it a lot of thought, and there's really just not much I can shave from my gear and still feel safe heading into possible conditions that I have experienced: temperatures around minus 40, hard rain and 35 degrees, and 40 to 50 mph winds in temperatures near zero (people who say windchill doesn't count are so full of crap.) All of these conditions have different margins of comfort that I have found, and am not willing to breech given there are so many more unknowns (fatigue, distance, breathing troubles, etc.) So I remain satisfied with my gear decisions, and cautiously pessimistic about my strength, but I feel like I'm heading out there with correct expectations this time. Every mile I cover will be a gift. I'm very excited. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

I'm following the sun that's setting in the west

In my dream the world looks like the inside of television screen static, black and gray raging with the white noise turned up to 11. It's a night blizzard and for some reason I don't have a headlamp, but when I look down I can't see my legs because they're buried in a snow drift, and when I look up I can hear this ragged Darth Vader breathing. I pull down my face mask to gasp and have this sense that my lungs are filling with snow. There's nothing I can do.

The phone alarm chimed and I blinked in confusion for several seconds, the way you do when you've been jilted awake from one of those far-away sleeps. I had another nightmare about Alaska, my second in a week, so I suppose the pre-race panics are here. This one was even scarier than the first, which was an only slightly enhanced memory blip from my Iditarod race in 2014, looking down into the black infinity beneath thin ice on the Kuskokwim River.

As I rolled out of bed, I breathed the deep relief that comes after waking up from a dream about suffocation. Thick morning fog whited out the scenery beyond my bedroom window, but I knew that would burn off soon enough. It was supposed to reach the high 70s by mid-afternoon, when I'd likely been pedaling through the dappled sunlight beneath a redwood grove wearing my favorite Hoka T-shirt and bike shorts. Alaska panics could be pushed to the back of my mind for now; I'd already sent out my McGrath food boxes and compiled most of my gear. All I had to do today was this pretty easy thing — pedal my bicycle for eight hours over the hills and trails of sunny California.

I'm trying to decide whether to send out supply boxes to the villages along the Iditarod Trail this week. Doing so would be a way of hedging my bets that if I'm feeling healthy, and conditions seem favorable, I'll still have a glimmer of an opportunity to travel to Nome. Not sending boxes means I can't travel any farther than McGrath, no matter what. Deep down I know the second option is probably the call I need to make. But I've been feeling so good lately. Like I can do anything I set my mind to ...

C.S. Lewis is credited with the quote, "If one could run without getting tired, I don't think one would often want to do anything else." Sure, it's a musing in a fantasy novel, but it's one that, some days —some of the best days — almost feels achievable. Days like Saturday, when tires almost hover over the dirt, and the steepest hills seem to disintegrate beneath them, like clouds. Sure, I'm still sweating, my breathing is still labored, nothing is weightless, and perpetual motion does not exist. But some days, the miles come easy. The moving tunnel of peace surrounds me, and when 80 miles are up, I want to do another. When this happens, I always think, why not?

After the Tour Divide, I promised myself 'never again.' Fighting for oxygen drove me deep into weakness and depression, until I was mostly a shell, moving forward on the fumes of expectations and ghosted passion. This is not why I do what I do. I don't need achievement; it's meaningless if the experiences are gray and melancholy, something I'd rather push out of my memory than hold on. But I went back to UTMB, and then the Fat Pursuit, and actually most endurance efforts over the past year have brought the same struggles. I don't entirely know why. I do know that's not what I want. So why do I want to go back? Recently, I reached out to several people who I deeply respect for advice. Several touted the virtue of stubbornness. "But I am stubborn," I thought. "That's really the problem."

Liehann and I have ridden our "Big Basin Big Loop" a number of times over the years as a long training ride, and I felt nostalgic about the fact that this one was probably going to be our last. I tried to stay present and take it all in — the mossy banks of Gazos Creek, the salty headwind along the pumpkin fields of Pescadero, the roller-coaster Haul Road, the cool air beneath redwood groves that seem to trap a permanent twilight. If this has to be my last ride here, I picked a good day for it. This is the one I want to burn to memory.

The second to last climb is a little dull, so I slip into daydreams about packing for a tour across Alaska. All of my Nome gear will require the two panniers. The only things I'd leave behind if I wasn't going to Nome is a few extra layers and maybe the stove, so I should just take all of it. Maybe I should get a heavy-duty dry sack for my parka on the rear rack, because there probably will be at least one hard rain. Food, meds, and repair kit in the frame bag; stove, fuel, pot, waders, extra headgear, goggles and mittens in one pannier — the one opposite my bike-pushing side; excess upper and lower layers in the other. How many pairs of underwear should I take? I really hate not changing my underwear, but man, I won't be able to do laundry for 30 days. Am I really thinking about Nome? What is wrong with me? 

Liehann and I veered onto the Stevens Canyon trail an hour earlier than we expected — we'd really ripped this one up today. For a split second I mulled time-trialing up the Bella Vista Trail the way Liehann always does, but the last thing I needed was to instigate a race with someone who's faster than me, not to mention tempting fate with high-intensity efforts and hard breathing. I've felt a bit of a cough coming on, and it makes me nervous. Beat has been sick for the past two weeks and is currently on antibiotics, and he's worried about slipping back into pneumonia so close to our Alaska trip. Happily he's been feeling a little better, but also nervous about spending a fair chunk of these past few months down with his own respiratory illnesses, not training. As long as he's healthy during the Iditarod, I don't think missed training will make all that much of a difference for him. He's strong whenever he needs to be. I wish I had that kind of faith in myself.

On this day, at least, I felt as strong as a bull, and supremely happy, even though we missed our traditional Black Mountain sunset because were too fast and too early. So happy that I sang out loud while screaming down Montebello — a song that doesn't have a name, by Metric:

We got the sunshine 
We got the shade 
We got temptation 
We got it made 
We got rewarded 
We got refused 
We got distorted 
We got confused 

I want it all 
I want it all 
I want it all 
I want it all


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ITI training, week 17

Monday: Road bike, 2:46, 33.8 miles, 3,620 feet climbing. I was back at sea level and beginning to come around from my cold, so I decided to aim for 20 to 25 hours of saddle time as a "peak" week of endurance training, three weeks before the start of the ITI. On Monday I rode Highway 9 to Page Mill, a quick but tough route that helped me clear out what I hoped was the last of the sinus gunk.

Tuesday: Weight lifting at the gym, followed by a trail run, 55:12, 5.4 miles, 887 feet climbing. I did three sets, 12 exercises, 12 reps, managing better with the extra weights I added last week. The trail run was uneventful. I descended into Wildcat Canyon but did not see the mountain lion that has been spotted a couple of times in the past few weeks.

Wednesday: Fat bike, 3:17, 28.2 miles, 4,545 feet climbing. I pedaled up Black Mountain and did two loops of Bella Vista and Indian Creek, one of the steepest segments of dirt nearby. The 1x11 gearing on the Eriksen is perfect for a snow bike, by which I mean it's low. The 900-foot ascent of Indian Creek was a fairly comfortable spin at 3.3 mph. That's a good gauge for churning through soft snow, where ideally I could stay in the saddle and maintain 3 mph, while expending less energy than I would pushing the bike at 2 mph. Snow biking is all about power output. Cyclists with a good amount of wattage move much better in soft conditions — comparable to a speed boat skimming over choppy water. I am more like a bogged-down row boat. What I lack in power, I try to make up in mental fortitude. And when I lack in fortitude, I only hope I can find the fumes to keep moving forward. Energy efficiency helps.

Thursday: Road bike, 4:23, 50.5 miles, 6,219 feet climbing. This was a most wonderful ride from home to the entrance of Big Basin Redwoods State Park and back. Some maintenance neglect on the Specialized Roubaix led to seat post slippage. The result was a sharp pain in my lower back that occasionally radiated out through the top/side of my left leg. It seemed nerve related, and was tear-inducing at times. I could relieve it by raising my saddle, almost eliminating the pain afterward. The second time I did this, after the seat post slipped down again, I raised it so high my feet could barely reach the pedals — toe pedaling. But it did help a lot. This pain only seems to happen on my road bike, and I may just avoid riding it for the rest of the month. I really need to practice with the Eriksen anyway.

Friday: Trail run, 1:12, 6.7 miles, 1,536 feet climbing, then weight lifting at the gym. Daylight limitations meant I had to run first. I dislike lifting when I'm fatigued, but it's probably a better gauge of my endurance. I made it through two sets and decided to go home and rest up for the big weekend I had planned.

 Saturday: Fat bike, 7:08, 58.5 miles, 8,773 feet climbing. Eriksen and I set out to climb all the hard hills we could reach in seven hours — Fremont Older, Bohlmon Road, Sierra Azul, Black Road. I hit a nice stride in Sierra Azul — not breaking any speed records of course, but feeling comfortable while spinning and finishing the ascent feeling strong. Black Road was tougher as I started to believe I was near the top three miles too early. When the hill kept going, it broke my focus and made me feel grumpy. I had to stop and eat one of those Clif Pizza Margherita energy food packets. These are just terrible — a thick paste that tastes like lukewarm Ragu mixed with peanut butter. No. Just no. But I gave it a try. I'm trying to finish up the random energy food items in our cupboard, which is a little silly because we have a truckload of food for our ITI boxes moving in as I write. After I choked down the brown paste, I embarked on the grin-inducing descent of the John Nichols Trail, where a mountain biker asked if I was riding an e-bike.

Sunday: Road bike, 9:06, 106.2 miles, 10,259 feet climbing. I got back on the Roubaix for a grand Sunday tour, hoping that a clean and re-greased seat post would resolve the slipping issue. The sharp pain in my lower back still returned, but I could alleviate it by stopping to stretch every hour or so. This is why I'm not riding the road bike any more this month. (I will miss you, Sworxy.) It was a beautiful day, although almost too warm, and windy. I'd accumulated fatigue over the week, and this ride definitely felt like more of a grind than the others, but didn't necessarily get harder as the hours piled up. I always maintain this delusion that I can float like a little feather on my road bike, but it actually does not pedal itself up the hills. Jerk.

Total: 28:49, 277.2 miles ride, 12.1 miles run, 35,839 feet climbing. I'm pleased with the numbers this week. I managed nearly 30 hours on the move even though it was a fairly busy week of non-bike-related tasks. The 35,000 feet of climbing is my highest yet in this training block — even more than I got that week I rode the 100 miles of Montebello. When it comes to pedaling or running up hills, I'm pretty strong — although I remember I'm near sea level and it's warm and this is still nothing like Alaska. I had no breathing problems all week. After doing a lot of gasping last week while I had a cold in Colorado, this was a relief, although I'm still concerned that any compromises in my respiratory system can drag me down quickly. I'd still place my fitness confidence on the lower end, but at least my legs are working well. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

Heat maps

February rolled around and it occurred to me that I only had two more weeks — just two weeks! — to finish up gear and food prep and cram in a big training block before the taper/constant low-level panic period commences ahead of the ITI. My main goal after Feb. 15 is to avoid even a whisper of respiratory illness, so I'm hoping a sharp taper, less time exposed to air pollution and rising pollen counts, and maybe all the Vitamin C will be enough to keep me healthy. Time will tell. I'm convinced if I head into Anchorage with even an allergy sniffle, I'm hosed.

That opened the first two weeks of February to spend some quality time with bikes, fortifying my endurance and testing my breathing capacity at hard efforts — at least, as hard as efforts can be in the friendly conditions of this climate in which I currently live. I really hoped to get out and find some cold temperatures during this time, but a trip wasn't feasible within driving range (even Yosemite and Donner Pass had forecasts for temperatures in the 50s and 60s this past weekend.) Also, shortly after I recovered from my Colorado cold, Beat caught a full-blown flu. He had a fever of 102 and was sick for most of the week, so traveling anywhere was out.

As I mulled a schedule, I realized that this two weeks is just about it for my adventures in the Bay Area. Sure, I'll get out for short rides until the end of the month, and I'll likely be back to visit a few times after we move to Colorado in April. But I'll be in Alaska for all of March and wrapped up with the move and work catch-up in April, so for long outings in California — this might be it. It's always bittersweet to generate all this excitement for something new, only to be reminded of everything you need to leave behind.

On Saturday I chose a route that was all about climbing as many steep hills as I could on the Eriksen, but for Sunday's ride, I just wanted to cover ground. A century is good for that, and Sunday seemed like an ideal day for a road outing — sunny, 65 to 70 degrees, and a Super Bowl vortex pulling a lot of the weekend traffic toward Santa Clara. It was one of those idyllic Sunday mornings that I remember imagining for my future when I was a child — dozens of people cycling and walking along the neighborhood streets, green grass and blooming flowers, a bright blue sky and sunshine cutting through frosty air. The scene left me beaming as I pedaled along roads I normally avoid because they're part of the crowded suburbs, and continued as I made my escape into the redwood-forested mountains and down to the sparkling coast. I've lived within pedaling distance of the Pacific for five years, and I don't visit nearly often enough. When I gaze out over that yawning blue horizon, my jaw still drops, every time. It's just so big.

I turned away from the coast on Bonny Doon Road, with the sun beating down in the late afternoon. I was nearly out of drinking water and licking salt off my lips as I crawled up the steep pavement. I thought my reward for this climb would be a chance to ride through a landscape I'd never before visited, but as I neared the crest of the road, I recognized these sandstone cliffs. I'd been here before. I took a short rest beneath a cedar grove and scoured my memory for when that might have been. Another road century? Maybe in the spring of 2014, when I was training for the Freedom Challenge? More happy memories flooded my thoughts, along with a tinge of sadness for the farewells. Would I ever return here, to the sand hills above Santa Cruz?

I'd told Beat the ride would take about eight hours, but I tend to overestimate my abilities, well, most of the time. With 10,000 feet of climbing and occasionally fierce coastal cross-winds — and fatigue from a 7-hour Saturday ride to follow up a big week — the route beat me down and I fought the climb up Zeyante Creek as the sun went down. Just as I reached Skyline Road, I encountered a long line of stopped cars. A sedan had careened off the narrow road and slid 100 feet down an embankment, and crews were blocking both sides of the road to pull it out. A cop gave me the okay to slip past, and after that, the road was utterly empty. For the next twelve miles I encountered only two cars, heard only the fierce wind howling through the redwoods, and saw only an ocean of city lights sparkling in the Santa Clara Valley below, where the Super Bowl was happening. It was a rare hour of utter solitude, eerie and invigorating. There's nowhere I would rather be, even after Beat called me to inform me I was missing a wonderful dinner with friends (I was nearly two hours late.)

There's so much in the Bay Area that I'm going to miss.

On Sunday night, I went on Strava to see all the places I've visited in the region, and which ones I managed to miss in five years of residency. Strava has these great heat maps that mark every ride I've ever uploaded. The heavily frequented routes are burned in red, the less frequented ones in shades of blue. Although I've been on Strava since 2010, I didn't use it regularly until 2013, so my heat maps miss a few spots, but it's fun representative of ground covered:


This is what my "running" heat map looks like in Southcentral Alaska:


The Alps:


And Boulder:


It's fun to look at adventures as squiggles on a map and consider all the places to fill them in. So many possibilities. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

ITI training, week 16

 Monday: Afternoon: Road bike, 1:35, 17.4 miles, 2,298 feet climbing. Late evening: Weight lifting at the gym. Easy pace up Montebello Road. Would have liked to get in a longer ride, but I picked up a last-minute freelance assignment, and you don't turn down those! It was pretty late by the time I shuffled over to the gym — 3 sets, 12 exercises, 10-12 reps (I'm increasing weights and I don't always make it to 12 reps, especially on the third set.) I enjoy how I feel after a good gym session — buzzed and relaxed at the same time.

Tuesday: Rest. Flew out to Boulder in the morning, worked during day.

Wednesday: Hike, 1:31, 4.3 miles, 2,325 feet climbing. Beat and I hiked up Green Mountain during his lunch hour. It was a warm day (58 degrees), and much of the trail was coated in wet, hard ice. Trail conditions improved as we climbed, but even our microspikes skidded out from time to time. My sinuses were stuffed up, which I thought might be a reaction to the altitude, but as it turned out I had caught a cold.

Thursday: Run(ish), 1:53, 7.8 miles, 1,740 feet climbing. I jogged from the hotel to the top of Mount Sanitas and back. While running, the sun felt downright hot even though it was supposedly 28 degrees when I walked outside at 8 a.m. (It would hit 62 later in the day.) I suppose that's altitude for you. This was probably the worst day for my cold, but I felt disproportionally terrible. Selfie to confirm being roughed up after a mere hour. I got a bloody nose shortly after taking this photo, and became dizzy and had to sit down for a minute after that. Not sure what gives — Mount Sanitas is under 7,000 feet. But it's apparent I suck quite badly at altitude right now. I only hope I can turn this around when I move to Boulder in a couple of months.

Friday: Trail run(ish), 1:20, 5.5 miles, 1,370 feet climbing. I only had 90 minutes to spare on this day, so I returned to Mount Sanitas, then descended the Lion's Lair trail and horrible muddy icy mess down Sunshine Canyon. I felt quite a bit better than I did on Thursday.

Saturday: Hike, 1:57, 5.3 miles, 2,036 feet climbing. Beat and I bushwhacked up to South Boulder Peak, and then I followed the trail over Bear Peak to Bison Road (Beat found another shwhack route after Bear Peak.) We were now sleeping at 7,100 feet, and my sinuses were still clogged. So more wind-sucking.

Sunday: Hike, 1:56, 6.3 miles, 1,145 feet climbing. We did a slow walk around the perimeter of our property, and then 4 miles of slow running at Walker Ranch. By this point I'd again become mildly distressed about my fitness, and the razor-thin margin for conditions where I can actually feel good and perform well. Clearly altitude knocks me down. I haven't yet managed another cold-weather breathing test since mid-January. My window to do this rapidly closing. It was warm in Colorado, and now a high pressure ridge is settling over California. I suppose I can assume that if cold temperatures are one of my asthma triggers, I will figure this out quickly in Alaska.

Total: 10:15, 17.4 miles ride, 29.2 miles run, 10,914 feet climbing. My struggle seems to be an issue of oxygen uptake, and rapidly decreasing performance in the presence of any obstructions — such as sinus congestion — or altitude. I've been reading a few more studies that deal in overtraining and adrenal fatigue. I do continue to consider potential residual effects from the Tour Divide and improper recovery. Still, decreases in VO2 max are not usually recorded in overtrained athletes, and reports of shortness of breath tend to fall under all activities — even walking around the house — which is not my condition. There's also the consideration that I'm not experiencing a single other symptom of overtraining. When I'm breathing well, I feel healthy and energetic. My resting heart rate, appetite, and sleep are normal. Still, of course I can't rule anything out. I've been using an Arnuity inhaler for two weeks now, and if my symptoms are a result of asthma, this should start working soon. Anyway, I'm just doing some thinking out loud over a rather pathetic week of training. Just four weeks until the ITI and I'm kind of a mess, but at least I'm approaching acceptance. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

A backyard for adventures

On Friday, Beat closed on a house in a quiet mountain neighborhood located in the hills above Boulder, on the western side of the Flatirons. Home-ownership is something Beat has wanted for a few years now, but it wasn't practical or desirable in the Bay Area, where $2 million affords a 180-square-foot shack on purportedly desirable land. Beat's wish for privacy, space, and a much better man cave than our bike-crowded two-bedroom apartment was part of the impetus for leaving the Silicon Valley. We spent many relaxing evenings daydreaming while scrolling through real estate listings in Alaska and Switzerland, but practicality pushed us toward Boulder, Colorado, where Beat could continue to work for Google.

After only a weekend of house hunting before Christmas, we stumbled upon this place that was unbelievably perfect for us. Located at 7,100 feet elevation, it's 25 minutes by car to the center of town, 12 cycling miles, and 7 or 8 running miles. It was built and previously owned by an interesting British couple who styled it with a number of unique features, such as hand-carved railings and 300-year-old fortress doors from India. Although they're quite fit for people in their 80s, the couple was starting to feel the strain of mountain living, and decided to move closer to their children and families in Houston. But they didn't want to sell their place to just anyone, and Beat happened to come along with the right attitude at the right time. We've since heard the stories about a number of potential buyers with whom it didn't quite work out over the past year, but for us this happened at whirlwind pace.

Beat's work transfer isn't until April, so we have a couple of months before the big move. But we had a short time to check out the grounds over the weekend. I'm still in shock over the series of events. Back in November I was skeptical that we'd leave the Silicon Valley within the next few years, and by January, Beat had purchased an expansive mountain property in Colorado. It's a lot to take on compared to apartment living in California. I picture myself taking up landscape painting and vegetable gardening as new hobbies ... and housework, of course. It feels overwhelming at times, but it's exciting for me as well. I entered my 30s living out of my car in Alaska, so I can appreciate both semi-nomadic living and the opportunity to settle down and explore.

Beat is especially excited about the potential for human-powered commutes to work. The bike commute involves a winding mountain road that's very popular with road cyclists. On foot, Beat could utilize number of trails through the mountains, hitting a few peaks along the way if he's feeling ambitious (the most direct route is less than five miles to the edge of town, descending 2,500 feet on a singletrack trail after a short climb on a gravel road.) I'd also plan to head into town this way on occasion — writing at coffee shops for a bit of stimulation and human interaction. But the Costco runs are going to require the Subaru. (Beat says I should buy a bike trailer to haul groceries up the mountain. I suppose if I want to get strong, that's one way ...)

On Saturday we set out to find the most direct route to South Boulder Peak, an 8,500-foot summit that looks like it's practically in the back yard. There was some burr-coated bushwhacking and slogs up 45-degree slopes to reach the ridge, where rotten snow conditions caused us both to roll ankles and wrench knees in hidden rock hollows. 

I'll admit off-trail 'shwhacking is not my favorite activity, but using that method, it's only 1.75 miles from home to the summit of South Boulder Peak. I don't see myself doing this a lot.



Sunday morning views. 

The garage.

Looking west. On a clearer day I think it's possible to see some of the larger peaks along the Continental Divide.

Watching the weather come in. The forecast for the mountains called for 12-24 inches of snow, starting Sunday night. We were scheduled to fly out of Denver at 8 p.m., so we just missed the storm and potential to be stuck up here for several more days. Darn.

The property sits on 35 acres of land, so in the morning we set out with a GPS to walk the perimeter. It's a long, thin strip of land, but I had no concept of just how much space 35 acres encompassed, because it just kept going and going. Along the way we found a few small bouldering spots. Another potential new hobby?

The wood pile. Beat has already purchased a used chainsaw and a splitting maul. He's excited about becoming a mountain man this spring.

More not-bad views.

Our busy street, with Green Mountain in the background.

Beat's property is bordered on two sides by city park property.

More bouldering opportunities.

A small creek cuts through the land. Although we did some zig-zagging, we walked 2.2 miles to circle the property. It's a surprisingly large space, and rugged. Lots of steep slopes, gullies, and rocky outcroppings, but there is some useable space. The previous homeowner even passed on a permit to build a small office building, but Beat is more interested in erecting solar panels.

After our perimeter walk we went for a short run on the Walker Ranch loop — which is bike-legal and seems like a potentially great trail for mountain biking in the summer. I imagine going for long gravel grinders on mountain roads, combining them with hikes in the Indian Peaks wilderness, heading east and exploring the prairie ... so many possibilities. First I'll have to hope for some changes in my asthma and acclimation, because my fitness up here is relatively terrible. Really. I'm winded almost all of the time and had a pathetic week of training while I was in Colorado. Still, it's a beautiful place to walk along slowly, wheezing and smiling.