Sunday, January 21, 2018

Between the snows

Just five more weeks until Beat and I cross (a hopefully frozen) Knik Lake and venture into Alaska wilderness again. Similar to past years, I vacillate between a sled-dog-like "yip yip yip so excited" to "why am I so hopelessly fixated on this endeavor?" to "there's no way I'm actually healthy enough for any of this" to "so, so scared." Besides excitement and dread, another thing these late-January and February weeks have in common is single-minded focus on race preparations. So I fall behind in daily tasks. I log onto my blog less frequently. There's a lot on my mind, but not much to talk about besides the week's training adventures. 

December and January have been dismal in regard to precipitation ... it's been bad enough that during the high winds last weekend, Rocky Mountain Fire District issued a no-open-burn advisory for the area — meaning a concerning level of fire danger, in January. On Monday, we finally received a dusting of snow. It was actually close to two inches, enough to support a sled-drag down to South Boulder Creek.

That night, an alert went out that there was a structure fire in our neighborhood. We hiked out to a spot just beyond our driveway and watched flames climb dozens of feet into the night sky. The blaze started when — according to a vague report from the Sheriff's Office — a wood stove caught fire and spread to the ceiling. The woman and her five dogs were able to escape safely, but the home was a total loss. The fire department reported that surrounding trees had caught fire as well, but thanks to snow cover and a calm night of single-digit temperatures, forest damage was minimal. It was eerie to watch this blaze, burning just a half mile due west of us, and wonder what might have been if this happened one day earlier, and the ground was still bare, and 40mph west winds were ripping through winter-dry grass.

All was calm on Tuesday morning. I did my usual hour-long run on the unplowed road and still became bummed out when I was quite a bit slower than I'd managed during my December "peak" of effortless fitness. The uneasiness deepened when I faltered during my weight-lifting routine on Wednesday. But then again, I've been slacking on my trips to the gym. And doing more sled-and cart-dragging. So I'm tired. And that's why I'm losing strength. This isn't the start of a slump; don't jinx it.

Wednesday dawned sunny and warm and I had a great run — 17 miles on fleet feet with my sleeves rolled up and gentle breathing as I made my way along the rocky trails into town. The miles went quickly enough that I had extra time to jaunt up Mount Sanitas before meeting Beat. See, you're fine. Calm down.

On Friday, temperatures were forecast to hit 70 degrees. Of course Monday's snow had long since melted, and dirt roads were dry again. "This might be my last chance for a nice-weather ride," I thought — which, of course, is an excuse I've been using since September. It was a gorgeous afternoon, but I chose a familiar route and fell into preoccupied autopilot mode. Because of this, I wasn't present in the way I prefer. I'm annoyed about the Internet hot takes and current events that I spent most of the ride ruminating on, so I won't expand on it further. But I did get 56 miles with 6,400 feet of climbing. Sometimes superficial satisfaction with numbers has to suffice.

After a four-hour run on Thursday and six-hour ride on Friday, my legs felt nicely worked for the weekend. Beat and I decided to return to Niwot Ridge — a reliable spot for a variety of sled-dragging conditions, offering a decent chance of wild weather for gear testing purposes, and low avalanche risk. The weather forecast is not all that useful for predicting what conditions will be like up on Niwot Ridge, but the research station does record detailed weather data that helps us quantify past trips. When we were here on January 13, winds were gusting as high as 65 mph, the average wind speed was a steady 50-55mph, and the temperature ranged from 11 and 14 degrees. This puts the windchill around -17F. Brrr! (For the record, I'm one who would much rather endure an ambient temperature of -17 than a windchill of -17.) So this week, I packed my sled with all of the books I used to weigh it down to 35 pounds last Saturday, as well as all the gear I'd actually need for such fierce weather.

On January 20, the temperature was between 31 and 34 degrees, and the wind speed was a basically calm 21-32mph. Okay, that wind was actually quite brisk — but relative to Niwot, it was nothing. I didn't even need a face mask or gloves.

The wind was also blowing from the south — a rarity near the Continental Divide, where west winds rule. In the short time we climbed above treeline on Niwot Ridge, storm clouds billowed over the mountains and the sky shifted from bright blue to dark gray.

We dragged for a mile across the rocky tundra — this photo was taken close to 12,000 feet elevation, which had even less snow coverage than our road at home after the 70-degree day. Of course up here, most of the snow just blows away. But snowless tundra is an eerie scene in January. It also makes for a *really* tough workout, when oxygen supply is already thin and the added resistance feels close to insurmountable.

"This better be another no-snow year in Alaska, because I'm $&@! ready," I growled to myself as motivation against an anchor full of dead-weight books. (I'm not ready, and please let there be snow, lots of snow, and let all of the rivers be frozen solid, please, oh please.)

 The incoming storm lived up to its promise and more — as of Sunday evening, the closest NWS station measured 14 inches of snow! Beat and I decided to snowshoe down to South Boulder Creek and not bring the sleds, because we wanted to walk on the rocks, and also because a foot-plus of new snow is workout enough.

I'm not banking on this snow sticking around too long. I may even have another chance at a 60-degree dirt ride before we head north next month. But this was an exceptional week for a wide variety of motion amid 18 hours of outdoor activity ... if lucky I'll be able to log similar time or more for the next two weeks before the taper begins. And when the taper begins, the real fretting starts. 


  1. Your trepidation is entirely understandable, but you got this.

  2. I'm getting excited for you guys! You can do it, Jill!!

  3. Glad to hear you're feeling good.

    But you didn't tell us which books you carried. That's very important to us who are interested in different training methods! ;-)

  4. This post is music to my ears!! You are going to be SO ready for this!

    I best get on the trail mix prep. I’m not able to purchase one of the ingredients local so I’m on a mission to find it.

    Take care. You have GOT this.

  5. Happy for you both (that you got your snow) but sad for me...I flew into CO Springs today (Monday) for 3 weeks of work. I've been watching the weather forecasts lately, and it's been in the 60's mostly (PERFECT!) And yes, snow the day BEFORE I arrive..and highs in the 40's. Boo! Unlike you and Beat, I'd LOVE to do my mt biking while I'm here under sunny skies and temps in the mid 60's...I can do that all year long! Just bad timing on my part I guess...but I didn't get to choose when the trip would happen. Rats.

    1. Sure, you can wish for 60s in January because you don't necessarily have to be here during the summer when Colorado is on fire. Of course, these cooler temperatures aren't necessarily bringing more precip. Boo.

      Enjoy your time in the Springs. :)

    2. One thing I've learned from living in the CA Central Coast (just north of SOCal) since 2002 is that record rains bring tremendous growth, then in the summer that turns into tremendous FUEL for fires. You just can't win...we desperately need the rain but the fires are a horrible after-effect. Last winter we had record rains...then just recently we had the largest fire in CA history (the Thomas fire) and due to that, the first big rain gave us record mudslides killing people who didn't heed the warnings and leave. If only that rain had come 3 weeks earlier it would have doused the fire and stopped the slides before they happened. But you don't get to choose when the rains come.

    3. This is all true. Wildfire patterns are a little different in the Mountain West, where beetle-kill pines serve as the main source of fuel, and a slow trickle of snowmelt can temper the dry conditions. With snowpack at less than 20 percent in many places, wildfire season could start early and become more more impactful during the monsoon (lightning season) if things don't change. But I do know how the wet spring gave way to fuel for central coast and Bay Area fires.


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