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." 


  1. Yet again I am in awe of your winter beauty and your love for and ability to explore it all.
    I sincerely hope your optimism for this year's racing will be rewarded. You certainly deserve it.

    1. Thank you Helen. I appreciate the comment. :)


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