Tuesday, January 29, 2019

More than I bargained for

Forgive me, winter, for I have sinned. Long weeks of playing in your shadow lulled me into complacency. I was impetuous and I was arrogant. I didn't show you respect. For this I was punished. 

 It started with a Wednesday morning "run" to Bear Peak. I'd just been out on these trails two days earlier, and expected similar conditions. But while I was holed up inside all day on Tuesday, you blasted these little mountains with several inches of snow. Wednesday brought gale-force winds. Gusts shook my car violently as I suited up at the Cragmoor trailhead: a thin pair of tights, the tiniest pair of gloves, my summer Hokas, hat, long-sleeved shirt, a thin shell, and — luckily — short hiking gaiters and microspikes. I followed a single set of footprints through the Styrofoam snow, skittering over hidden patches of ice.

 I crested the saddle, ending my relative protection from the wind. The blasts were Arctic in proportion and feel; wind whisked the breath from my lungs if I faced it directly. The footprints I'd been following disappeared beneath thigh-high drifts. The trail was invisible as well, but it's simple enough here to just follow the ridge. I punched my own bottomless postholes up the steep incline. It was thirsty work and my drinking water hose had long since frozen. Still, reaching the peak was exhilarating. There was one other person up there, a man who hiked from Shadow Canyon. He was wearing hard boots and carrying an ice ax, and gave me a "silly trail runner" side-eye as I expressed my plan to carry on to Green Mountain.

 I shouldn't have been surprised, but still was, when Monday's friendly route down the west ridge had been erased. Now it was a mire of snow drifts as deep as my waist in spots. "Where did all this snow come from?" I marveled. It probably blew in from miles away, based on the gusts still pummeling my face. About a quarter of a mile and 20 minutes into my descent, I knew I was in some trouble. My feet ached with cold, but the pain was diminishing, which is always a bad sign — numbness means frostbite. I'd been complacent and thought I could get down the ridge quickly and start running, but that was obviously not going to happen. Now my options were to turn around for the slow hike back to my car, or continue knowing the trail intersected the road to my house in another mile. So I continued, slogging through the thigh-deep drifts and tracing the general route from memory, with single-minded focus on my wooden feet.

Within another half mile I was back in the forest. Sheltered from the flash-freezing wind, my core temperature rose quickly, which brought pain, and then life, back to my feet. At the road intersection I decided not to go home — where I still would have needed to figure out how to get back to the car — and instead continued toward Green. The trail remained unbroken, and I made comical efforts to "run" through the Styrofoam drifts.  In Boulder's weird way it felt hot for a while, and I was stripping layers less than an hour after my intense brush with cold distress. The slog never let up for a second, though, with deep drifts replaced by slush and mud as I traversed around the base of the mountains. Thirteen miles took me five and a half hours. My legs were cooked, but thankfully my feet weren't frozen.

 So, Thursday. I was sufficiently humbled, or so I thought, and was not going to venture outside. Snow fell all morning long, leaving six to eight more inches on the ground. I worked on a project, did some housework, felt blissfully grateful that I had nowhere to be. Then the sun came out. Suddenly it was one of those sharp bluebird afternoons with frosty air and new snow. How could I not take my bike out for a little ride on a day like this? "It will just be an hour," I reasoned.

 All I did was suit up and jump on my bike. I didn't carry extra layers or food; I didn't even bring any water. The temperature was 18 degrees and the omnipresent west wind kicked up with surprising fury. Clumps of snow rocketed from tree branches, with an glittery effect that was mesmerizing.

 I arrived at the eastward turn toward home, and instead followed the siren call of the wind, pedaling west. What can I say? I'm a weird human who feels most alive along the hard edges of existence. Blowing snow pummeled my face and I felt this as an infusion of power. Exhilarating energy prompted me to continue ever farther from my neighborhood, toward the deserted reservoir road, where no one would find my unconscious body for hours if I were to crash. But I felt invincible. I descended all the way to the bottom of the canyon and saw that the road toward the dam was freshly plowed. I'd never explored this route before, and again couldn't resist.

Now I was an hour and a half into my "short" ride, and finally acknowledging that I had a fair amount of climbing left in the ride home, the hard wind was beginning to needle through my only layers, and I was thirsty. But I just wanted to see where this road led. It kept climbing and climbing, and I questioned my sanity, but my resolve was locked in. Finally, just minutes from the top, I approached a massive snow plow. He was the only human I'd seen since I turned away from the road home.

The driver stopped his vehicle. "Great, I'm probably not supposed to be here," I thought. As I pulled up beside the plow, feeling penitent and ready to receive my verbal warning, the driver stuck his head out the passenger-side window and yelled, "I just want to let you know that you're my hero."

Ha! "Oh, uh, thanks," I muttered. "I mean, thanks for plowing the road. You make this too easy."

Weird and awkward thing to say, but what can I say? I'm a middle-age woman shirking weekday afternoon duties to pedal a bike through a frigid windstorm on a road to nowhere. I'm the definition of weird and awkward. But thank you, Mr. Snow Plow Guy. You made my afternoon, and it was already a great afternoon.

 So, Saturday. Beat had been wanting to get out for one more overnight shakedown with his Nome sled. At first I wasn't going to join — sled-dragging has been rough on my hamstrings, and I have my own races coming up that won't benefit from a pulled leg muscle. But, unsurprisingly, I became greedy for adventure. Our friend Daniel recommended Homestake Reservoir Road. He mentioned something about a piston-bully groomer, and good campsites along the way. I looked up the location and noted low avalanche danger. We debated enduring the misery of I-70 traffic and discussed local options, but there were high winds again this weekend. Towns near Homestake were supposed to have mild — but at least not horrifically windy — weather. Leadville's forecast called for a high of 28 and a low of 15.

 So we headed all the way out there. Traffic was awful, and the roads were so nasty that we ran out of windshield washer fluid. I threw a little temper tantrum and threatened to turn this car around and go home. By the time we hit the trail it was 2:30 p.m., much later than we hoped. It was a beautiful day, though — 24 degrees with a breeze just stiff enough to necessitate layers, dramatic views of red cliffs and snowy peaks, and whole lot of high-altitude sunshine.

Homestake Reservoir Road showed no evidence of grooming, at least not since several feet of snow had fallen. There was a single, soft skin track that had seen limited use — we chatted with the skiers who set the track on their way out. Dusk had settled in by the time we reached the end of their trail, about six miles into our hike. A sign said it was three more miles to the reservoir, but it would turn out to be closer to four. We knew these would be slow miles of trail breaking, and also that we could camp anywhere we wanted. But the reservoir was our goal. We were locked in.

 The road pitched upward on a series of steep switchbacks, which where buried in two to three feet of windblown snow. We were punching to our knees even while wearing snowshoes. The snow had that strange consistency of Styrofoam, but felt as heavy as cement and broke away in large clumps. Every step strained the limits of my hopelessly tight hamstrings. My heart and lungs were nearly maxed out as well on "The Endless Stairmaster," as Beat calls such trail-breaking.

I didn't even realize how slowly we were going, but our pace had dropped to a truly glacial mile per hour. The night deepened. Beat sputtered to a stop and I took my turn up front. Hot blood surged through my limbs and every drop of energy and focus went into the effort. I lost track of time. Hours passed into nothingness. Onerous inches slowly became miles. A touch of cold found its way into my butt and shoulders. My feet started to hurt with cold whenever I wasn't the one breaking trail. I debated putting on another layer, but I was already drenched in sweat.

 We reached an intersection just below the dam and decided it would be a great spot to camp out of the wind, but still elected to climb to the reservoir because, well, I suppose we'd locked in. It was another three quarters of a mile of intensely steep climbing. Beat was struggling more than I realized. His feet had become numb, and he hadn't taken in calories in a while. I looked at my watch, which was about to tick over to seven hours. Seven hours? For eleven miles? Where did all of that time go? We trudged up to the frozen shoreline, noted the mountain scenery that we could scarcely make out with no moon in the sky, and rushed back to our designated camp spot. Beat looked at his thermometer.

"It's minus 1," he announced.

Wait, what? When did it get so cold?"

 We stomped out a clearing and set up Beat's lightweight winter tent, which both of us should know by now is not the way to go. I thought it would be nice to snuggle in together, but there's a reason bivy sacks are the much more popular option for winter racing. When you're sweaty and bonked and the temperature is below zero, you benefit most from immediately hopping into your sleeping bag. We wasted all this time setting up the tent, and by then Beat had lost use of his hands and I'd started to shiver. We jumped into our bags, but those, too, were just as cold as the subzero outside. And when your body is depleted and damp, sleeping bags do not warm up quickly.

 The minutes passed like hours and I was painfully alert, shivering until my feet went numb and then massaging my toes with stiff fingers. There was nowhere warm to escape to, and while I knew things would be okay, those long minutes felt desperate. Meanwhile, Beat was deeply bonked and complaining of nausea. I had a bottle of Diet Pepsi in my sled bag — I didn't want to leave it to freeze in the car — so I ventured outside to find it. The soda did that crazy thing where it was mostly liquid, and then as soon as I cracked the lid (outside, thankfully) it instantly turned to slush and exploded everywhere. There was a small amount of carbonated liquid left, which Beat drank to help settle his stomach. Minutes later he rushed out of the tent to vomit — I didn't realize this until he told me about it the next day. But I could tell that he, too, felt similar desperation. I thought this was interesting, with all of his Alaska experience — but winter can catch anyone off guard, anywhere. We had made mistakes. We worked too hard and let ourselves become too sweaty, we didn't deal with our nagging issues — such as bonking and cold feet — when they first cropped up, and we hadn't expected subzero temperatures and thus didn't approach the night with the proper preparations. We'd been complacent, and we'd have to pay the fine.

 I must have dozed off, because seeming minutes after the Diet Pepsi episode it was midnight, and I finally felt warm. Our tent door was still wide open, so Beat got up to close it. We discussed making dinner and decided it was worth it, so we crawled outside in our down coat and pants to sit in the snow and fiddle with our stoves. It was now minus 10, and we finally weren't desperately cold anymore. Still, a hot drink and a few calories would make everything even better. My first sip of hot chocolate was an amazing elixir of life — I could genuinely feel warmth surging into my toes.

During our midnight dinner I drank so much hot water that of course I needed to get up three more times in the night to pee, and hardly slept otherwise. Instead I laid in my sleeping bag with my drinking water pressed against my back, marveling at the miracle of warmth. When I stepped outside, minus 10 air surrounded me and I'd look up at the sky, with its stars upon stars, and the snow-capped mountains now illuminated by a wedge of moon, and marvel at everything.

 It was a long but magical night. We arose at dawn to find we'd climbed far above the valley below. The views and morning light were gorgeous, and we were in a rare place to feel like the only people in all of Colorado. Then it was time to hike out, and we learned that the walking had not become much easier despite the downhill grade and cold temps to set up our track. My legs were half dead and my "bad" hamstring — a grumpy little muscle in my right leg — was throbbing in a way that was disconcerting.

"If I can't race in Steamboat next week because of this, I'm going to be mad at myself," I thought.

Then again, the beauty, the intensity of the experience, the hard but invaluable lessons — it was worth it.

So thank you, winter, for the trials that come my way. Lead and guide me away from comfort and complacency, toward understanding and joy. Amen. 
Thursday, January 24, 2019

Forever a beginner

Some folks, as they near 40, occasionally pause to marvel at the years that slipped past in an instant. "I still feel 20," they stutter. I had a similarly unsettling realization when I signed up for the Golden Gate 50K. "Has it really been eight years?"

I still think of myself as a novice runner, yet my first 50K (on a similar course as my upcoming race in two weeks, yay nostalgia) was in December 2010. I don't even like to admit the number of foot races that I've thrown down since then. I started riding a fat bike in 2007, and my "snow biking" predates that by two years. Fourteen years is more than enough time to age into the masters' division of any sport, especially after I put that thousand-mile ride across Alaska on my resume ... yet I can't give up the notion of being a new kid, still learning the ropes. Maybe being a perpetual beginner is just another way we cling to youth. Or, perhaps, I am just so abjectly terrible at my sports that this delusion is the only way my ego can bear the indignity of continuing participation.

Here in Colorado, fat biking is distinctly different from most of my previous experiences. Alaska has an extensive culture of motorized winter trail use and more consistent cold, resulting in comparatively wide and compact surfaces on which to ride a bike. In Colorado, you mainly have user trails — foot- or ski-packed, on mountainous terrain that is constantly slammed by blizzards, long thaws and wind. Thus, trails are in a continuous — and I mean continuous — state of flux. I recently started following a Facebook group of enthusiastic cyclists who call themselves the "Front Range Fatties." Often members of this group post about going out to stomp two miles of trail with their snowshoes, just so they can go back and ride their own trail with tires aired down to 0.5 psi. Then, when said trail is blown in the next day, they go out and do it again. I glean much amusement from the Front Range Fatties, who must love bikes so much — I mean, I am a devoted member in the Church of Slog, and these folks undoubtedly outrank me.

When it comes to riding fat bikes in the Front Range, I believe I can unironically call myself a beginner. I've been slow to get on the bandwagon and still skeptical that this is a good sport for me here, but I've been lucky to meet a few friends who help coax me out of my comfort zone. Last Wednesday, Dennis (undeserving victim of government shutdown nonsense) was being called back to work without pay, and wanted to spend one more morning in his happy place, Peaceful Valley. I unintentionally forgot to bring my helmet, which induced anxiety — I crash *a lot* on snowy singletrack, and there are trees everywhere. But I tried to shake it off since I want Dennis to think that I'm cool and not the perpetually awkward and unskilled cyclist that I really am.

We started grinding up a lovely ribbon of singletrack that was smooth and flowing for about three miles, until recent foot traffic faded to nothing. Then the trail narrowed further into what was likely just ski trench — sometimes up to three feet deep with limited traction and no room to bail. You can not push a bike in a trail this narrow, so I pedaled as though stopping was not an option. My heart rate spiked into the 170s, nearly maxed out, and the rear tire slipped and spun even though I'd aired down to 2 psi. My tires were so flat that the bike bounced and steered itself on remotely packed surfaces. But it wasn't low enough for these conditions. The trail wound through the forest, climbing steeply beside a creek bed. I felt as though I was sprinting in place, with both legs brushing against a wall of snow that was waiting to swallow me.

Eventually the redlined effort got the better of me, my focus flickered, and I veered off trail. It was a rather spectacular fall, given that I was probably only going about 2 mph when I toppled over. Luckily I didn't hit a tree, but I was 80 percent buried in the snow, and somehow managed to rip the backside out of another pair of expensive wind-resistant tights (luckily Beat was able to repair both, and I had my trusty primaloft shorts on hand to hide my shame.) After that I couldn't get going on the steep incline and had to resort to pushing my bike from behind.

Snow was spitting sideways when we crested a high point near the wilderness boundary, five miles and two exhausting hours into the ride. The trail beyond here was windblown and mostly invisible, so we pushed through knee-deep fluff for a mile and a half. This admittedly the part of the ride I enjoyed the most, or at least where I felt the least taxed. I appreciated a stress-free half hour to trudge along and chat with Dennis.

Then it was time for the most stressful part of all — the squirrelly, fishtailing, helmet-free descent. I exercised an abundance of caution. Too much, really, but I did minimize crashes. The final part of the trail was heavily rutted by a bike with far too much tire pressure, and traversed a steep side slope where tipping over could be highly consequential. I mostly boot-skied to stay in the rut. My blood was boiling with cortisol and adrenaline when we arrived back at the parking lot, 13 miles and four hours later.

"Holy hell that was a tough 13 miles," I exclaimed to Dennis. He was grinning. I admittedly felt a warm sense of satisfaction myself, because holy hell, that was a challenge.

 On Thursday Beat wanted to swap our vehicle so he could run home from work. Normally I ride into town for this task, but my strong desire to not sputter out in my 100-mile races this spring means I really do need to worry about my conditioning. So I planned a 17-mile foot route that was highly runnable, with only one relaxing if strenuous hiking diversion to ascend the steep side of Green Mountain. Trail conditions made for a less straightforward running effort — there was a lot of slush and mud, and a long descent on Chapman trail was a slippery, postholing affair.

The final seven miles were relatively flat on the bumpy ice and pavement of the Boulder bike path. Just seven miles, but by the end, I was ready to intentionally roll my ankle just to make it stop. Since I love monotony and slog, I'm not exactly sure why I hate running pavement so much, but I really do. It's not even that I was pushing hard or in pain; I was just mentally done. Back when I was newer trail runner and full of smugness, I used to joke that one of my goals was to make it through life without running a road marathon. Now, I'm beginning to think that a road marathon might just be my ultimate challenge. Even if I allow myself to run at these relatively painless 10- or 11-minute miles, my resolve is likely to implode in spectacular fashion before the end. I should probably run one, for that reason alone.

 On Saturday, Betsy and I headed to Staunton State Park with our fat bikes. I tend to discount the open spaces west of Denver as being overcrowded and not really worth the drive, but Staunton was wonderful in every way. This park is refreshingly bike-friendly and uncrowded, at least on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in January. Also, volunteers groom trails specifically for fat biking. Despite receiving several inches of snow on Friday followed by another 40-degree heat wave, the lower trails were in superb condition. It was rather relaxing to just spin on my bike, rather than battle with it. We enjoyed lovely afternoon light with stunning views of the red cliffs that surround the park.

 We rode into the evening as temperatures plummeted and the day-before-super-blood-wolf-moon rose over the forest. Again, conditions softened considerably as foot traffic lessened, and we played with airing down our tires to almost nothing. Amazingly this allowed me to pedal up a seriously steep trail where my boots punched deep holes when finally forced to walk (My legs did eventually fail in this hard pedaling effort, and we decided to turn around rather than posthole and destroy the trail.) We were both reluctant to air down further. Running my tubeless tires at 1 or 2 psi eventually causes all of the air to leak out, forcing me to stop and pump every so often. I'm sure this issue is solvable, but rather than deal with air-burping at the race in Steamboat Springs next week, I'll probably just return to tubes. I fully expect that all fat biking in Colorado is a 1 or 2 psi affair, eventually. Bouncy, flouncy, fun fun fun.

Beat and I got out for our weekly long run on Monday. We define our long runs as anything that takes 7-8 hours of hard effort, whether that just happens to be a 50K or a 12-mile snowshoe slog or, in this case, a 20-mile mountain run.

It was a strange day for both weather and trail conditions — starting out so hot and sunny that I was wearing the same type of outfit I'd wear in August. I'd almost believe it was summer, except for the parts where we were skittering over hard ice in the shade of Eldorado Canyon.

 We climbed a mix of packed snow and slush to South Boulder Peak, where the day's forecasted storm moved in with ferocity. I had to throw on every single layer in my pack, and still shivered while squinting into the frigid wind.

For a while it was 35 degrees and spitting snow, and then it was warm and sunny again. The surface conditions were difficult for me, with a strange mixture of mud, slush, ice, and only the occasional relief of packed snow. I love a good packed snow trail — once the rocks and roots are covered, this is about as easy as trail running ever becomes around Boulder. But it's short lived, because bulletproof ice and slush-coated slippery rocks are the inevitable follow-up. Seven hours of persistent technical challenges and the required focus is so mentally taxing for me. Between this, the pavement run, and the fat bike rides, this was one of my more solid "mental training" weeks in some time. I even include our holiday trips through the White Mountains in this assessment. While those trips required more physical effort, sled-dragging in Alaska is well within my mental comfort zone compared to this stuff.

I confess that I am giddy about returning to California for the 50K on Feb. 9. Now that I've been trail running in Colorado for three years, I wonder whether the steep and muddy trails of the Marin Headlands will still seem as difficult as I remember, or whether I'll be amused by what I used to find challenging. What I'll most likely discover is that I'm still the same timid and awkward runner that I've always been.

Some things never change. 
Sunday, January 20, 2019

Already January

After hiking out of the White Mountains in the dark morning hours of Dec. 31, we enjoyed New Years Eve dinner with friends, dozed off before midnight, awoke at 3 a.m. to catch our flight out of Fairbanks, and officially welcomed the new year when we finally stumbled outside into 3-degree weather at Denver International. Finally it was 2019, and my resolution of "no more racing in 2018" was officially met. Already, perhaps unsurprisingly, my race ambitions are starting to go overboard. 

My 2019 plans thus far:

Feb. 2: "The Bear," a 50-mile fat bike race in Steamboat Springs, Colo. 

Feb. 9: Golden Gate 50K in Rodeo Beach, Calif. — my first 50K since Crystal Springs in January 2016. I raced three dozen 50Ks while living in California between 2011 and 2016, and I am legit nervous that this one is going to fall so far short of expectations that I'll quit running forever. 

March 24: White Mountains 100 (foot division) in Fairbanks, Alaska. If trail conditions are good, I want to log a faster finish than the 29:xx of 2015. If they're bad, I just want to stay ahead of the 40-hour cutoff and maybe beat some bikers.

May 17: Bryce 100 near Bryce Canyon, Utah. Bryce has been a monkey on my back ever since I had a terrible race there in 2013. This terrible race just happens to be the last "dirt" (non-winter) hundred-miler that I managed to finish. I DNF'd Bryce in 2017 because I was too ambitious when I still wasn't ready to race ultras again following my thyroid diagnosis. I will be devastated if I can't finish it again, yet I still have no idea how well I can manage my breathing in a harder effort of this length. 

So I am officially training! Yay?

I stayed reasonably active through 2018, but focused training is still a difficult habit to get back into. I find myself thinking, "I should probably run more than 15 miles a week. But it's 50 degrees today and the roads are almost dry. I just want to spin my mountain bike up to Nederland and maybe try a few laps around Mud Lake. Eh, I signed up for that fat bike race so I do need to put in some pedaling miles."

Yay bikes. This ride happened on Jan. 10, and I suppose I'll start my 2019 training journal here. Following our sled-dragging trips in Alaska, my legs were really sore and sluggish, so the first week of the year was mainly a "recovery week." By Jan. 8, I managed to find a bit of speed on my usual five-mile Tuesday run, and did a treadmill breathing test that showed encouraging equilibrium. I'm still using the treadmill test to track my breathing patterns, and plan to continue this every other week until we leave for Alaska.

 It was good that I got in that long ride on Thursday. Typical of Boulder in January, that 50-degree sunshiny day preceded a major winter storm that dumped nearly a foot of snow on our house. On Friday I went out for a two-hour "run" that involved 24-minute miles and trudging through knee-deep drifts.

 On Saturday morning I had plans to ride with friends, but the notion of driving the Subaru through miles of unknown snow conditions was daunting, and I ended up canceling. Instead I decided to take the fat bike on the route I would have driven — 20 miles round trip along Gross Dam Road. If conditions were reasonable, I expected this ride to take two and a half hours, three at the most — which was the maximum effort I wanted to expend, since Beat and I had a difficult hike planned for Sunday.

 A little background to what will reveal itself to be poor preparation: In the past few years, I've become what one might call a "good eater" during endurance efforts. I believe this started when I became hyperthyroid and consumed a lot more calories than I even realized, but I'd go out for six-hour rides, bring stacks of bars and eat them all. Now I am not hyperthyroid but still want to eat All The Food. So I put myself on a bit of a diet. My regular meals are still about the same, but I avoid snacks unless I'm out for a day-long effort. It works well for me to achieve balanced energy throughout the day without feeling hungry. For this ride, since I was starting at 11 a.m. and would be out over lunchtime, I brought two Nature Valley bars.

 It was a lovely afternoon, with a dynamic mix of blue sky and cloud, and a thick blanket of snow sparkling in the intermittent sunshine. An hour into my ride, I stopped at an overlook to enjoy the view and one of my granola bars.

 Temperatures had warmed into the mid-30s as a breeze kicked up. Riding conditions were challenging with slippery powder dusting the slush and ice, and soft mud where the road had been scraped clear. Still, I was so enjoying myself that I wasn't quite ready to turn around at the highway junction. I continued up through Coal Creek to Camp Eden, and enjoyed my other granola bar at 9,000 feet while I soaked in the satisfaction of a good, tough ride.

Now I had only 12 mostly downhill miles home. Coasting into the afternoon shade, I developed a bit of a chill and started shivering. Fifteen minutes and five miles into the descent, I rolled up to the Crescent railroad crossing, where a freight train had stopped on the tracks and was blocking the road. One car was waiting there, and I stopped behind it and shivered for five minutes before the car started backing up, forcing me to dive out of the way. I startled the young driver when I shot past his window — apparently he hadn't seen me before. Not too surprising.

"How long have you been waiting here?" I asked.

"About 35 minutes now," he said.

We chatted for a few minutes as two more cars pulled up. He observed that I at least didn't have a car and could climb over the train, so I decided to try. I hoisted my bike onto my shoulder and grabbed onto a platform that was higher than my head. The only accessible foothold was at chest level, and I couldn't muster the strength to pull myself and my bike onto the platform. I wasn't willing to take a chance on the time it would take to lift my bike and pull myself up in separate motions, so I backed off.

The tracks run along a fairly steep side slope here, narrowing into a gully to the west. Still, the western gully seemed more doable, so I started pushing my bike through the knee-deep snow. After a couple hundred meters, the gully considerably narrowed to the point where I was less than a meter from the rails. I could see engines and the end of the stopped train, but I had a bad feeling about sidling so close to the track, so I again backed off. Not three minutes later, I heard a loud whistle and rushed as far as I could up the near-vertical slope as an oncoming train buzzed past on the second line of rails. Sufficiently humbled, I decided there would be no more efforts to go around the train.

Thinking the stopped train may have just been waiting for that second train to go by, I waited at the crossing for 15 more minutes. My base layer was damp under a thin shell. Cooling down after the sweaty effort of wading through the gully cause me to shiver profusely. It was now 2:30 and I only had another two and a half hours of daylight to work with. I wasn't well prepared for a long wait or night riding, so I had to make a quick decision.

 There were no quick ways around the train. Blocking passage on one side was Eldorado Canyon; on the other, Gross Reservoir. My choices with a bicycle were to descend all the way into Golden, following a heavy-traffic route into Boulder before climbing home, or to detour around the reservoir along the foothills of Highway 72. I chose the way most likely to get me home before dark. The foothills would add 17 extra miles — for a total of 24 remaining — and 3,000 feet more climbing, plus what was almost sure to be two miles of hike-a-bike along an unmaintained segment of county road. Oof. Better get pedaling.

 At first I was a little bit panicked, as the train incidents had set off an adrenaline rush, and now I felt anxious about riding without a headlight in the dark. Then I became frustrated, as the climb back to the highway and then onto Wondervu went on forever. Then I was grumpy, as any energy remaining from the two granola bars I ate for lunch faded. Then I was back to feeling a little bit panicked while battling a punchy climb before Pinecliff that I completely forgot about. An anticipated long climb took me to Magnolia, where I was certain my legs would give out on me. This is about the point where my glycogen stores finally fizzled, and everything began to seem dire to an exaggerated extreme — the icy gravel, the sun sinking into horizon, the teeth-chattering temperatures that were just below freezing.

As hypoglycemia deepened, however, a pleasant feeling of floating began to take over. My brain shut down most of the useless emotions and together we focused on forward motion. In a seeming instant I was wallowing in shin-deep snow on the steep grade of 68J, trying to push my bike through an erratic truck track. Whoever tried to drive up here spun out and swerved many times before backtracking, leaving a horrible mess that was worse than if the road hadn't been tracked at all. This is where I started to speak out loud to no one.

"Try driving in a straight line, why don't you?" I muttered.

Then, "What was that? Was that a cow?"

I wondered if I was being stalked by real bovines or just bovine-shaped shadows. In this part of the neighborhood I knew I was much more likely to see moose, elk or even a winter black bear than a cow.

Then, out loud, "Am I hallucinating already?"

Two miles of 68J was 90 percent unrideable. That section dragged in a way I never thought possible — ages and ages of shivering and taking big heavy steps and whipping my head back and forth while anticipating attacks from phantom cows. I still did a lot of muttering to myself, mostly swearing, as the sky shifted from golden to pink to violet.

Once released onto a plowed road, the ride home only took 20 more minutes. I had no daylight to spare, but incredibly it wasn't completely dark when I finally rolled into the driveway — 42 miles, 6,200 feet of climbing, and 6.5 hours into my short "recovery" ride.

 A good "bonk ride" is always mentally taxing but not too difficult of a physical recovery — at least, it's not as bad as dragging my sled 100 miles through the White Mountains or even setting the treadmill at 10mph during a breathing test. By morning my glycogen was restored, my legs were fine and I was excited for our planned snowshoe up Niwot Ridge. Good old Niwot Ridge. Beat planned to drag his Nome sled and I loaded up a new pack — an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35 — with most of the gear I'd likely take with me in the White Mountains 100 — similar warm layers, extra socks, electronics, two liters of water, 2,000 calories in snacks (not the 5,000 I'd probably take in the race and otherwise a lot more than I'd need for a six-hour hike, but the bonk ride had left me with hoarding syndrome.)

Beat loaded his sled with 60 pounds of mostly books. Our route climbs 3,000 feet in 5.5 miles on minimally tracked or untracked snow, so this weight created a big drag. Beat was sweating bullets and I barely had to make any effort in comparison. I started to feel guilty about this and broke my own trail beside him while he labored in the skin track. After 3.5 miles the skin track petered out (we chatted with the skiers as they descended, mostly about sleds and backpacks) and then it was my turn to break trail. Beat didn't seem to appreciate my line and mostly made his own.

 The weather on this day was unbelievable. We often visit Niwot because it's a good route for sled dragging with low avalanche danger, but it's also an incredible wind funnel that can draw 60mph gusts down from the Continental Divide on days when there's only a light breeze in Boulder. It's not that we love the wind, but pushing into it is always good training in a region with mild weather compared to Alaska. When we neared treeline and there wasn't even a whisper of wind, I was in disbelief.

 Beat dropped hints that he wanted to stop at the weather station. I wanted to take advantage of the perfect weather and continue farther up the ridge, so I talked him into dumping his books. We joked about the "Niwot Book Club" and reactions from the scientists should they come across this stack — mostly physics textbooks, mountaineering tomes and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Beat picked them up on the way down.)

 From there we had to deal with the usual deep drifts and wind-scoured rocks — now a lot of work for me, too. But I was thrilled. Beat even pointed out the big silly grin on my face.

 I mean, how often can you enjoy a pleasant beach day at 12,000 feet in January? Especially with our classic training nemesis, the notorious Niwot Ridge. The temperature was actually not all that warm — the official Niwot weather station was reporting afternoon temperatures in the single digits! But in that harsh high-altitude sunlight with no wind, it really did feel like summer. I stripped off whatever I could, pulling all of the zippers down on my shell but stopping just short of removing it, and still felt like I was baking.

 It was a best-ever day on Niwot Ridge. Also, I really like the new backpack. White Mountains training achievement unlocked!

By Monday I was admittedly starting to feel tired, but Betsy had a free morning and wanted to ride fat bikes near Rollinsville. It was another beautiful day, and I caved into the temptation to join her.

We're both in training for The Bear 50-miler on Groundhog Day. At this point it's difficult to predict what that race will entail. The course itself has more than 5,000 feet of climbing and a few sections of 20-percent-plus grades, topping out over 10,000 feet. It's held just outside Steamboat Springs, an area that has been repeatedly slammed with snow for the past few weeks. What I envision, to be honest, is deep piles of fluff that have been only shallowly groomed, barely rideable at 2 psi and 3 mph. I could be pleasantly surprised, but yeah ... in all honesty I'm already writing off the race as "good White Mountains training" and one I won't be too sad if I can't finish. I have to go in with low expectations, as I've put such high and unreasonable expectations on my upcoming foot races.

Of course I can't shed my pessimism on Betsy, who is fairly new to snow riding and really excited and nervous for The Bear. Although she doesn't seem to realize it yet, she's a stronger rider than me and has the potential to do well. So even though I was a little burnt out from the weekend and she didn't seem to have much motivation on Monday, I coaxed her to continue up Rollins Pass Road after our planned ride up Gamble Gulch fizzled out in untracked snow.

Rollins Pass Road had surprisingly excellent conditions for several miles. And just as things started to get punchy, we ran out of time. But it was great to wrap up what turned out to be a 20-hour training week with a lot of useful variety. I'm more cautiously optimistic about my fitness and potential than I was at this time last year. Hopefully it will continue to go well, and I won't make another late-March resolution of "no more racing."