Wednesday, February 20, 2019

I'm pedaling backwards

Of all the things to break me — five miles on a treadmill. 

Things were going well until Friday. I took it easy for a few days after the Golden Gate 50K, felt strong during a five-hour run on Wednesday, and put down some good power during a ride on Thursday. On Friday I conducted my twice-monthly treadmill test. My purpose for this series of intervals is to steadily boost my heart rate to near-maximum while measuring blood oxygen saturation, to see whether the readings correlate with my perceived symptoms (i.e. dizziness) and track how this changes over time. I've been on an upward arc since I started this test in November, and Friday was my best session yet — the lowest SpO2 reading I saw was 89 percent, and I felt perhaps only mildly lightheaded while sprinting. I even managed to hold out for all three minutes at 10 mph. My legs reached their lactic threshold before I surpassed my "hit the stop button before I pass out" lung limit. 

 On Saturday I joined Dennis, Dan and Betsy for an impressive adventure ride into the Apex Valley. I call this ride impressive because, even though I live in the large and sporty population center of Colorado's Front Range, I didn't imagine I'd meet others who volunteer for and even enjoy such silliness. The afternoon was gray, the wind was howling and the chill was deeply cold. We mashed pedals up steep grades until loose and wind-drifted snow became too deep, and then pushed our bikes close to treeline. Up there the ground blizzard intensified to a whiteout, and we agreed that it was rather silly to keep climbing without hope of rideable trail or views.

 I hate wearing my goggles, but it was good to try them out. I also made sure my beater fat bike — good ol' Fatty Fatback — was in working order for the trip to Alaska. See, next week I'm heading to Nome to spend most of a month on a "writers retreat" of sorts. I don't have big adventure plans; rather, I want to step out of my routine and spend real alone time in an inspiring place, to see whether this can spur some lost creativity. While in Nome I also hope to keep training for the White Mountains 100 and do a few exploration rides. When it comes to the weather in Nome, well, a day like this would probably be considered a nice day. Testing the gear — and my own resolve — is useful.


So this ride was a good test, but physically I felt rough. My legs were just empty. There was no power there, and when I tried to boost my speed, my breathing quickly became ragged. To my friends I speculated the cause was too little rest after the treadmill test — after all, there were enough high-intensity sprints in there to count as speed work. But I have to admit that there were hints of ragged breathing when I was climbing Green Mountain on Wednesday, and also while charging into "The Wall" on Flagstaff Road on Thursday, even before my "speed work." I could blame overtraining, but I'm not convinced. It's difficult to explain why I feel strongly that "bad breathing" has nothing to do with fatigue. It's easier to just shrug and say, "yeah, I'm sure rest days will help." 

 Anyway, Beat wanted one more gear test with his modified snowshoes before his upcoming Iditarod Trail trek, so we headed to Niwot Ridge on Sunday. He's done training, so no need to drag a sled. Without the anchor, Beat set a blistering pace that I could not hold. At least the snow underfoot was the best kind of powder snow — packable but not too heavy, good for holding our weight without sticking like glue.

 We expected strong wind and potential blizzard — Sunday's forecast was even worse than Saturday's. But incredibly, Niwot seemed to reside beneath a pocket of calm surrounded by dark clouds and storms.

 We hiked to the research station at 11,600 feet, which has an auxiliary box that serves as a welcome wind shelter to enjoy lunch with a view. My tuna sandwich was already mostly frozen. Based on the frost forming on my clothing, temperatures here were easily close to zero degrees. The breeze may have been relatively mild, but it was still chilly enough to be highly motivating. We didn't linger long.

I still stalled as long as I could, claiming a few minutes to wander up the ridge and enjoy dynamic afternoon light on this windswept landscape.

 Beat letting me know he's ready to head down.

As we descended the eastern slope, we watched ominous clouds boil upward from the prairie. Walking downhill into the storm was strange, but sure enough, within a couple of miles we were surrounded by fog and spitting snow. While I didn't feel strong, I didn't feel too bad. It was grateful for this dynamic and beautiful Niwot outing, probably my last before it's officially summer.

Niwot was fun, but my workouts only continued downhill from there. Monday brought a terrible run that I don't need to rehash. The best part about it was the 5-degree air, so there was a least a little cold to distract from the ice-stumbling and hard breathing. Tuesday was a rest day. Today I headed up to Mount Sanitas for a "quick" outing on the Swoop. Usually this loop takes me 1:15. Today, 1:30. Whenever my breathing feels stifled, it almost becomes a fight between my legs and my lungs. My legs say, "We're bored. We want to go faster." My lungs say, "Back off. We're working as hard was we can." Sometimes I even stop to take a few big gulps of air, to see if this helps. It usually doesn't.

From what I've observed in my breathing tests, whenever I feel this way — a little lightheaded, inclined toward rapid and shallow breathing, and sometimes outright dizzy — my blood oxygen  tends to drop. I've seen as low as 81 percent before reaching my "mash the stop button on the treadmill before I pass out" limit. When I'm having a slump, these lightheaded sensations start to happen at a relatively low heart rate — today I barely boosted myself into the 150s, which explains the bored legs. What I haven't figured out is why this happens, why it doesn't always happen, and why I'm still having good weeks and bad. My good weeks have definitely expanded, but apparently there are still bad weeks sprinkled in the mix.

So, I arrived at the top of Mount Sanitas feeling all kinds of frustration and sadness. "I'm never going to break out of this cycle. There's no reason to even bother training." These thoughts spiraled into an overreaction that I elect to blame on hormones, because these slump periods bring about all kinds of weird emotions that remind me of being a moody teenager. I remembered it was my half birthday — when I was in elementary school, summer birthday kids always celebrated their "half birthday" in class, so Feb. 20 used to be a real thing for me. "In six months I'll be 40. I can see why middle age is such a downer. I'm old but I still potentially have a whole lot of time left to feel like crap."

About three miles into the Swoop, I wondered if this run would ever end. My bored legs were restless and defiant, like children in the backseat of a car on a long road trip. "As soon as this is over, I'm really going to quit running forever. I will drop out of the White Mountains 100. Watch me."

Also my brain: "What are you so sad about? You're going to Alaska. You love Alaska. Pull yourself together, girl."

I realize this is all massive overreaction. It was not that bad. But my breathing issues are just so frustrating for me. I feel like I'm trying new things. I was happy with my recent experimentation with CBD capsules (which I just happened to run out of two weeks ago. Hmm.) My training volume is not that high or hard — 10 to 15 hours a week, mostly at medium to low intensity. If my body can't handle that amount of volume, I have no hope of returning to endurance races like the Iditarod or Tour Divide. Forgive me if I want to keep trying.

Anyway, I'm on track for more rest days in Anchorage. Hopefully I'll feel better by the time I arrive in Nome. If not, perhaps I'll at least get more writing done — after all, if training doesn't matter, then I'm really going to struggle to find the motivation in weather that requires goggles. Hopefully whatever I write won't read like the melodramatic missives of a moody teenager. 
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Golden Gate 50K


It was Dec. 18, 2010, when I pulled up to this same lagoon to collect a bib for my first ultramarathon, the Rodeo Beach 50K. I remember it well. A light drizzle fell from low clouds and temperatures were in the high 40s. I lived in Montana at the time, and was still fresh enough from Juneau that this felt like summer weather to me. "It's only 31 miles," I reminded myself. "You pushed a bike farther than that over Rainy Pass." I'd also recently hoofed nearly 50 miles while "pacing" Beat in the Bear 100. This didn't feel like new territory — more like an extension of a well-trodden trail.

What I remember best about my first ultramarathon is the lack of fear. I was so self-assured at the time. In many ways, 2010 was my best year. It was the year I took it upon myself to escape Juneau and an oppressive job, and soon thereafter left Alaska for brighter prospects. I lived alone for the first time in my life, and took care of all of my own affairs. I was in an exciting new relationship. I took up running. True to my overzealous nature, I didn't work my way up from couch to 5K or even a half marathon. No, the first foot race I signed up for was a 100-mile sled-dragging scrimmage in Alaska, the Susitna 100. Rodeo Beach was just a training run. It would be a breeze.

 I miss those days. I'm not sure how many ultramarathons I've completed since then — more than 50. The number sort of embarrasses me, because for the amount of trail running I've done, I'm still pretty bad at it. If fact, I was better at trail running in the early days. I wasn't quite so timid on the descents. I was willing to really bust up a hill to avoid interrupting my stride. I wasn't yet terrified of becoming out of breath and sparking an attack that would unravel my entire day. I miss being a beginner. There's a lot to be said about what one can accomplish when one doesn't know what one can't do.

The next time I ran this course — a beautiful and steep series of singletrack and fire roads over the southern hills of the Marin Headlands — was Feb. 8, 2015. The name was now the Golden Gate 50K, after the famous bridge that often graces the periphery. Similar to this year, I was training to run the White Mountains 100, even though I wouldn't drop off the wait list until days before the race. I was also cycling a bunch in preparation for a bike tour of Alaska's western coast two weeks before the WM100. I was still certain I could do all of that and anything else I wanted to do, if I put my mind to it. The 2015 race was also rainy and cool. Though I had a rough start, I was able to wrap it up well. I'd been a trail runner for more than four years. My legs were seasoned and prime. The sky was the limit.

I can't believe four more years have passed since then. It really is true, what they say about the passing of time as you get older. It's also true that I spent the first four years of my running life steadily climbing a hopeful hill, and most of my athletic endeavors since mid-2015 have felt like a steep downhill slide with a few good bumps along the way. Have I hit bottom yet? I keep returning to these hopeful hills, just to see.


Beat and I drove north toward San Francisco in the bleakness of 6 a.m. Heavy rain pelted the windshield, and I felt an almost amusing flood of dread. My dread was amusing because I had no justification to feel so scared. This truly was known territory now, and I'd already removed the expectation that I had any chance of completing the course in the time I managed in 2015. Alas, that ghost hovered over me all the same. "Prove you're better. Prove that experience can outpace innocence."

 Incredibly, the heavy rain tapered off just as we arrived at Rodeo Beach, and within 20 minutes a large patch of sky cleared and the morning sun came out. The light was gorgeous and I was awestruck, walking along the lagoon as herons graced the shoreline and flowers almost glowed with vibrant reds and yellows. Beat and I lined up for the 30K/50K start with a large crowd — the race director announced 100-plus folks were in the 30K, and 70 for the ultra.

Beat took off with the pack and I had no expectation that I'd see him again, but there may have been some hope. Still, my legs felt oppressively heavy from the start. Also, it was a such a gorgeous morning and I have missed the Pacific so much that I couldn't help but amble along the edge of the trail and take bunches of photos as the pack disappeared up the hill.

For such a popular trail run, the Golden Gate 50K is a mean course, with a monster-tooth elevation profile featuring enough 500- and 800-foot climbs to add up to 7,000 feet of gain. Even though it wasn't currently raining, the ascent was as muddy and slick as I'd ever seen it. Unlike most of the five years that I lived in the region, the Bay Area is having a "real winter," which means lots of rain.


Indeed, my part of the pack wasn't even to the top of the first climb before dark clouds congregated over the hills and unleashed a light but steady drizzle.

This would be the theme for the day's weather: A rollercoaster of sun, rain, sun, rain, sun. As the day dragged on, the sunny periods became more truncated and the storms exponentially more violent. But the first three hours of the morning made up for all of the later drenching with their unexpected gorgeousness.

Oh, Big Blue. I do miss you.  

Listening to waves crash against the rocks as the trail dipped in and out of steep drainages was sublime. I was in bliss and not paying attention to my watch — perfect freedom now, at the expense of angst later. Worth it? Probably. My heavy Colorado hiker legs propelled me forward, and all was beautiful and good.

Climbing out of Pirates Cove. At this intersection, still soaked in bliss, I came perilously close to saying "whatever" to the race and dropping down to the cove so I could walk along the beach, sit on rocks, breathe the salty air. Really. It's this weird dynamic that I fight within myself — on one side, a desire to linger and absorb each moment. On the other, the zeal to keep moving. The latter is not even about racing for me — racing is more of a convenient vehicle to facilitate this strong internal drive. The drive to move usually wins.

I strode into the checkpoint and saw that the first 10 miles had taken me two and a half hours and that was ... not great. Dark clouds again gathered, bringing strong gusts of wind and enough cold, pelting rain that I cinched up every opening in my rain jacket. The ghost of 2015 Jill was somewhere in the miles ahead, probably shaking her head at me.


The course climbed another ridge and veered onto the SCA trail, with its stunning views of the ocean on one side and the city on the other. The wind up here was terrible, with violent crosswinds that frequently threw me off balance. I was moving timidly and carefully until I hit the SCA trail, where I lapsed into happy memories of mountain biking the Headlands with my friend Leah. This launched another burst of blissful giddiness, prompting my heavy legs to run faster. A quickened pace and unfocused nostalgia is a bad combo for me, and it didn't take long to catch a toe at high speed.

Whenever I take a fall, I spend those terrified fractions of a second before I hit the ground visualizing what body part I need to brace. This time, everything happened much too fast, and it was my face heading into the rocks. The ground seemed inches away, so I clamped my eyes shut, to at least protect those. Suddenly, as though by magic, my left knee slid under my torso, slamming a foot onto the ground and springing my entire body back into the air. Then my right foot came down, then the left, then right, in a frantic series of recovery steps. Then I was running normally again.

"Holy f*$% I can't believe I caught that!" I swore loudly. I stopped to gather my bearings, and noticed another runner not far behind. I wanted to ask whether he'd witnessed my spectacular save, but felt sheepish about yelling to myself, and just waved as he went by.

The course followed a trail all the way down to the main road. I did not remember this segment, and indeed it turned out to be mis-marked, lengthening the course to something closer to 34 miles. Along another descent, the sky really unleashed its fury with gale-force winds and thick hail, large enough to briefly accumulate in the mud. The weather reminded me of a summer storm at 13,000 feet in Colorado — the kind that come on with such swiftness and force that you have no time to react. I pulled up my buff to protect my face and continued down the trail as cyclists raced up the hill with hunched postures and shellshocked facial expressions.

"Some fun," one cyclist groaned as he pedaled past.

"Great fun," I replied, but I was being sincere. If I can't have a fast race, at least I get an interesting one.

 The three miles into the 30K finish also followed trails I did not remember. They jutted up and down the hillside through a steep bog. The mud was ankle-deep and so slick I saw a couple of half-marathon runners intentionally sliding down on their backsides. I dug in my trekking poles and heels and took careful steps. The 30K was supposed to be 19 miles long, but my watch said 21. I knew repeating the large loop meant another 15 miles. (They ended up rerouting the course for the second lap so it would be closer to 13.) But at this point I was expecting to run 36 miles and it had taken me 4:45 to wrap up the 21-mile 30K. So I knew it was going to a slow 50K time no matter what. The ghost of 2015 Jill was long gone. This made me feel sad, much to my chagrin.


I was exasperated because I had no reason to be sad. I was running through a beautiful place, and really was having a lot of fun. An endurance buzz had set in. The scenery became more stunning, the storms more fearsome, the daydreaming more visceral, and the little jokes more funny. In a bout of inspiration to draw power from ghost Jill, I'd made a playlist for this race that was mostly songs from 2015. One was "Really Inactive" by Weird Al, and I had great fun loping along as I sang out loud and badly.

My muscle's gone, I'm atrophied 
Always lose my fight with gravity 
I rest my bones, and just chillax, whoa

I did try to use this energy to go faster, but the trails were really slick, the rain was pelting down, and my legs remained leaden no matter how much willpower I pumped into them. Some days, you just don't have it. Still, I consider it a win that I wrapped up this steep slippery race without a single splat. That one unlikely save was the grandest of victories.

I finally reached the finish after seven hours and 50 minutes. I admit that time felt like a smack in the face, but I had given the Golden Gate 50K the best that I could. There was no chillaxing for me. Beat finished in just under seven hours and had been hanging out in the rain for some time, so he ushered me to the car before I could even change out of my mud-soaked shoes. It was anticlimactic, that race finish — but the trip itself was a great diversion. I visited with a number of old friends, I made that ill-advised but welcome ride to Black Mountain, I enjoyed California sushi and Sunday brunch at a French bistro, and I got to spend the best part of eight stormy hours in verdant hills by the sea. And I didn't fall on my face! As for the runner in me, there are still plenty of hopeful hills ahead. 
Monday, February 11, 2019

Switchback

Last week, Beat headed out to the Bay Area for a business trip. I planned to tag along for the weekend, for a whirlwind visit of old friends and a little 50K trail run in the Marin Headlands. But for a few days after Beat left I was anchored at home, where I enjoyed a blizzard, icy wind, a subzero cold snap, more icy wind and sunshine, all in the span of two days. 

 I suppose saying I was anchored at home is misleading, because I did venture out. Wednesday brought a blizzard and some reasonable cold — near zero in the morning, only climbing as high as 7 degrees when I headed out for an afternoon ride. The riding was tricky, with erratic tire ruts through several inches of snow over ice. Wind drifts were already more than a foot high. I descended to the reservoir, where I skimmed along the shoreline, following what really looked like a rectangular sled track skimming over faint footprints. It was the exact kind of track an Iditarod walker would make. The track veered onto the lake ice, heading toward the deep end before disappearing into the mist. I couldn't tell where the track led, but I was intensely curious. Who was this strange sled-dragger walking into a blizzard onto sketchy reservoir ice? I was much too frightened of sketchy ice — knowing recent temperatures had topped 55 degrees — to investigate. But the whole atmosphere — the blowing snow, frigid wind chill, flat visibility, and having seen no other vehicles on the road — was unsettlingly eery. Chills rippled through my limbs when I imagined the ghost sled-dragger who haunted the shoreline of Gross Reservoir.

 I caught a chill while descending from the reservoir, so I threw on my puffy jacket. As I climbed, the wind intensified and I became colder and colder. Damn it; I'd already put on my extra layers. This was a good puffy jacket. Why was I so cold? I started to think back to the many adventures of Thermoball and remembered that I acquired this jacket way back in 2013. Six years is a fairly long lifespan for a well-loved primaloft puffy. The insulation is likely not as effective as it once was. Gusts of wind drove what was certainly a subzero windchill right into my core. The pedaling was too tricky and slow to generate enough heat, so near the top of the climb I spent a few minutes off the bike and running. That actually worked, but I had another descent coming. I knew my only choice was to suffer, but then I'd be at home. Man, I was so happy to roll up to my house. I know I've had a number of posts about not being well-prepared for weather conditions, but I really thought I had it this time. Maybe it was just my hormone levels on this day, or lowish glycogen, or a failing insulation layer. Winter comfort is forever a puzzle to solve.

 Thursday morning dawned clear and a startling 11 degrees below zero. This is the day of the week that I need to transport our trash down to the county road by 7 a.m. I hadn't expected the cold to sink in so rapidly, and trundled outside in my pajama bottoms and regular running shoes with no hat or gloves — luckily I at least put on a down coat.

 It was a beautiful morning to be out and about, with frost crystals adding sparkle to mundane objects, pink and gold lighting up the sky, and new snow billowing from tree branches. As I rounded a corner, a large elk herd had spread out all over the road.

 Seeing me, they moved away and bunched closer together, and I didn't find my camera before they were well beyond close range for my point-and-shoot. But I had fun walking the perimeter of the road, watching them ... that is, until the -11F air sliced through my cotton jammies and exposed ears and fingers.


 Bear and South Boulder peaks in the background.

 I still lingered much too long, enjoying the views as I wiggled my toes while walking and stuffed my hands under my armpits. As soon as my ears went numb, I knew I couldn't stay much longer. Instead I dropped off the trash and returned to my still sort of frigid house. Subzero air outside drove the inside temperature down to 51 degrees. We supplement electric heat with a wood stove, which I was both too lazy and too reluctant to fire up, knowing I was leaving in the afternoon. Instead I bundled up for real and sat at the dining room table. No doubt I looked silly drinking my coffee while wearing expedition gear indoors, but it was a great vantage point to watch the elk, which I could still see in the field below.

 An couple of hours later it had warmed up to 5 degrees, accompanied by strong winds. I finally got out for my pre-race shakedown run. I surprised myself by feeling really reluctant to go outside — remembering how cold I'd been the previous day, and my ears still hurt because I'd willfully flirted with frostnip in the morning. I was standing at the door with all of my gear on, playing all of the quitting excuses in my mind. None of them were convincing enough, so again I trundled into the frigid (so frigid) wind.

As soon as I started running, the cold didn't bother me at all, but my legs felt terrible. Just heavy, stiff and somehow incapable of the running motion. Inches of fresh snow did not help, nor did the bumpy ice hidden beneath the powder. I wore studded shoes, but I still slipped every fourth step or so. Whether or not a planted foot would find traction remained a mystery, and I submitted to walking most of four miles. I won't say this run is solely responsible for destroying my confidence, but it did me no favors.

"I am such a terrible runner. I can't even stay on my feet in a few inches of snow. I need to admit I'm a hiker and give this up. Damn it, running, why can't I quit you?"

 I flew out of Denver on Thursday afternoon, and woke up Friday morning in Sunnyvale, California, where it was — cold and rainy and windy. Earlier that week, the Santa Cruz Mountains had seen their first snowfall in nearly a decade. Another big storm was approaching. Temperatures were in the 40s at sea level and the day promised to be wet and gray. As I played the excuse reel, my mind reminded me in strong terms that "rest is best." But my heart wanted to visit a good old friend, Black Mountain. I borrowed my friend Liehann's Moots YBB, which is just like my beloved Moots YBB, except for being recently converted to a drop-bar gravel bike. Still, for a bike that is not my bike, we get along really well.


Moots and I headed west from Sunnyvale toward a truly missed old friend, Montebello Road. My Strava has on record 157 ascents of Montebello, and I admittedly looked up my PR, wondering how I'd fare in the post-fitness-crash era of 2019. So of course, a day before this 50K race over which I'd psyched myself to the point of dread, I found myself effectively racing up Montebello Road. I wasn't pushing the red line — I'd resolved to keep my heart rate in the 150s or lower — but I was going much harder than I should have been. At the top, my watch said 50 minutes, and I felt devastated. "Fifty minutes? I think I did better than that when I did 10 of these in a row." And once again, I was looking back on the ghost of 2015 Jill, filled with regret.

It's quite silly, but heading into this trip, I scrutinized my stats and race report from the Golden Gate 50K in February 2015, and made a plan of sorts. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be every bit as good as 2015 Jill, when I had no reason to believe this was a reasonable goal. I also had no reason to be so sad about a slowish Montebello. This bike loaded with stuff probably weighs twice what my road bike weighs. Anyway, as it turned out the climb time ranked 80 out of 157, so I can't complain about middle of the road. Rather, my sadness was a side effect of low confidence rearing its ugly head. I recognized this as I continued up to Black Mountain, where I sat on a rock in the cold, cold wind to take in the gray-shrouded views. My entire body was racked with shivering, but I did feel more at peace.


 I bundled up for the descent. The added gear included vapor barrier socks under fleece socks, a furry fleece buff, wind shell, mittens, and a warmer hat. I was effectively as bundled up as I'd been at 7 degrees with a harsh wind on Wednesday, minus the nonworking puffy jacket. But I'd let my core temperature drop too much while sitting on Black Mountain, and became deeply chilled as I descended a series of muddy trails to Page Mill Road.

"Aw, Page Mill, it's just like old times," I said out loud — meaning I'm not sure I've ever descended Page Mill in the winter and not frozen every part of my body. This canyon is a refrigerator on a good day. I managed to continue steering the bike with completely numb arms and made it back to Sunnyvale just five minutes before the gray sky unleashed a deluge that lasted well into the evening.

I didn't want to admit to myself how tired I felt after this ride — the hard climb, the cold temperatures, the three-hour-and-fifteen-minute duration that would certainly extract its fair share from the energy bank. I had made poor choices this week, but now was not the time to dwell on them. Now was the time to gather what scraps of confidence I could find in the wreckage, because the Golden Gate 50K was going to be hard. 
Monday, February 04, 2019

Groundhog Bear

While I was taking my recent break from racing, I ruminated on what my future in endurance sports might look like. After three-plus years of medical treatments, I had come to believe that I'd just always have to deal with "the breathing thing." Unless I learned to manage my breathing with more consistency, every goal I made would be steeped in uncertainty. Only one thing was certain — I am no longer interested in stubbornly gutting things out for the sake of gutting them out. I do not want to spend another minute of my life at that ragged, gasping edge. Fumbling forward through desperately hard breathing and dizziness isn't "Type 2 Fun." I don't just not enjoy this experience  — I fear and despise it with every fiber of my being. My passion for racing is driven by a desire to "live intensely" and my breathing difficulties cause the opposite — a sensation of slowly dying. 

With that in mind, as recently as October I still believed I might just quit racing forever. But I am a creature of habit. And for an avowed pessimist, I have a streak of abiding optimism as well. I still enjoyed good weeks, effortless rides and runs when miles flowed out of my legs like music. I still wanted to visit the hard edge — not the edge where I feel like I'm dying, but the one where I feel most alive. But where do I go with this desire? I can't just pick up the shattered pieces of my passion and continue to climb the ladder where I left off — the upper rung being the 1,000-mile ride to Nome in 2016. 

During one of my good patches last August, I started riding with a new friend in the region who's a relative novice in endurance racing. She started dabbling in competitive fat biking about a year ago, and wants to keep climbing that ladder. She has big dreams, and I envy the newness of her journey — the wide-eyed experimentation, the willingness to learn and change, the difficulties and discoveries. I've done what I can to pass some of my experience on to her. In turn, she's helped me realized where I need to go — back to the beginning. 

Betsy wanted to sign up for The Bear, advertised as a 50-mile fat bike race (it was closer to 45 miles) in the mountains north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The course, wrapping around big peaks and ridges on groomed snowmobile trails, had more than 5,000 feet of climbing. My feelings about The Bear wavered from "but I'm terrible at mid-distance bike races" to "that's still going to be a tough effort" to "wait, this is Colorado fat biking. It's probably going to be a 16-hour slog." None of these convictions created much desire, but Betsy was so excited for her longest race yet, and some of that excitement transferred over to me. The Bear did sound like a fun event. Shortly after I returned from the Christmas trip to Fairbanks — which gifted me with considerably more confidence in my fitness — I signed up. 

 We made a fun weekend out of it, heading out Friday morning under blazing sunny skies. We stayed at the start — a rustic and Alaska-like place called Hahn's Peak Roadhouse — and shared a small cabin with Betsy's teammate, Mark (Betsy is part of a bike shop team.) It was great fun to meet many of the folks racing the next day. This sport draws in an eclectic and eccentric group of cyclists. Still, at least compared to the Alaska contingent in winter endurance racing, these folks seemed to skew toward the athletic and serious end of the spectrum. For a small race, there were a number of sponsored riders, semi-pros, and according to Betsy, fast ladies (There were nine women in a field of 33, which is solid percentage.) I suppose we are in Colorado, after all.

We arrived early enough on Friday to pre-ride the course. Afternoon temperatures were in the high-30s. I almost let all of the air out of my tires in anticipation of mashed potato slop, but held off when Mark mentioned he planned to start at 6 psi. See, I am still a novice when it comes to fat biking in Colorado, and there's much I can learn from these folks. We set out for the first five miles of the course, which in itself had more than 1,000 feet of climbing. Mark just shot up the hill.

"Whoa, is Mark fast?" I asked Betsy.

"He's an animal," she replied nonchalantly. (Mark would go on to win the race in 4:18, beating the second guy by 10 minutes.)

Trail conditions were surprisingly solid despite the warm temperatures and blazing high-altitude sunshine. The trail was a bit churned up by snowmobile traffic, but rideable, even on the steeper inclines. I was shocked. It was such a beautiful day that I wanted to just keep riding. We were halfway up the first big climb when Betsy expressed trepidation about burning out her legs right before the race. It was such a gorgeous day with beautiful buttery climbing that I was like a husky on a harness, eager to run and run. Left to my own devices, I probably would have kept riding until dark, and that wouldn't have been great for my legs either. Save it for the mid-distance "fast" race, Jill. I have much to learn.

 The race started at 8 a.m. Feb. 2. Groundhog Day. The date was significant for me. Like many children of the 80s, this pseudo holiday conjures up memories of Bill Murray, repetitive experiences and finally breaking free after an eternity of mistakes. I was racing again. Sure, I had my share of rough experiences and failures, but this time would be different. This time, I would just ride and breathe. Ride and breathe. That's all I had to do. So simple. Why hadn't I thought of this before?

I am still a creature of habit, and came fully prepared if the riding and breathing strategy didn't work out. Watching the weather before the race, with pre-race snow dumps followed by warm temperatures and another big storm forecast to hit that night, I showed up for the race prepared for a 16-hour slog. I had a day's worth of food, emergency repair and survival kits, and enough extra warm layers to wait out a possible breathing attack. My initial gear list would have doubtlessly made all of those fast guys shudder. Luckily the pre-ride convinced me to remove half of the stuff from my bike bags. I probably should have removed all of it, but the pessimist in me will never allow such hubris. So I was a bit loaded down, but my legs felt springy as we launched uphill through the mountain village and onto freshly-groomed corduroy.

 For the first five miles, I rode in a tight pack of four to five ladies with no dudes in sight. Betsy and I traded positions on the rollers as the morning quickly warmed from a brisk 2 or 3 degrees to the teens and then 20s. The groomed track was coated in a thin layer of spindrift that caused slipping on the steeper climbs, but beyond that conditions were just about as good as they can be.

The first climb steepened and I developed my race strategy — at least the one that was a bit more specific than ride and breathe. My watch was set so I could monitor my speed and heart rate. If my pace dropped below 2.5mph, I'd step off the bike and push, because that was more efficient. If my heart rate climbed above 155, I'd back off further, as that "Zone 4" territory is where my oxygen saturation seems to drop off right now (this number has been much lower in the past, but my recent tests have shown ongoing improvement and boosted my confidence to push little harder.) Rough breathing in Zone 4 is probably pretty normal. Still, once I lose control of my breathing, everything after that has always been a downward spiral. So a conservative approach toward maintaining control was my overarching goal.


 Here I am pushing my bike up the second big climb, an intense 20-percent grade where the groomer decided to climb straight up a drainage rather than follow any kind of nicely graded track. (Also, the helmet. Almost no winter cyclist in Alaska wears a helmet while nearly everyone in Colorado does. I actually wavered on this because even in warmer temperatures, wearing a helmet makes my ears feel cold. But once you get started down these hills, speeds easily approach 30 mph, and hidden ruts can make for spectacular yard-sale crashes. Helmets are a really good idea.) Anyway, this climb was a mandatory big effort with my heart rate sustained in the high 150s for almost 45 minutes at 10,000 feet and I did not feel dizzy. Do you know how huge this is for me? I don't think many folks understand.

The view from the top of the climb, which continued to follow the rolling spine of a ridge for five miles. Hikers like to call these hills "Pointless Ups and Downs" because they're endlessly steep and gain no real altitude. But since we were already at the top, I loved this section. I'd coast downhill at high speed and then stand on the pedals and mash a big gear until my legs faltered to nothing, then I'd jump off the bike and push. While approaching one of the climbs, a couple of race marshals stopped their snowmobiles and began filming. I was in far too high of a gear but continued to mash the pedals, just to save face, until I felt like I might faint and faltered off the bike. "Oh, so close," the guy filming groaned. "Thanks dude," I grumbled under my breath. Race photographers are so good at capturing the most humiliating moments.


The descent off the ridge was fast and fun and more than a little bit scary. And just like that, I'd looped the top half of the course's figure 8 and was back at the aid station with just 10 miles to go. I felt great, like this race was just getting started, and was disappointed that it was almost over. Ah, mid-distance racing. I shot past the aid station because I was still carrying way too much food and water. All I could have accomplished there was standing around and getting cold. Derek — a veteran of multiple tough Fat Pursuit races who would definitely win the award for the most entertaining Bear racer — was standing under the canopy working on his third shot of whiskey. He chided me for not stopping.

After the turn from the aid station, trail conditions rapidly deteriorated — the result of temperatures in the 30s and heavy snowmobile traffic now that it was after noon on a Saturday. A woman, Beth, pedaled past me shortly after I stopped to air down my tires. Should I try racing now? I wondered. I was feeling really good, and with less than 10 miles to go I didn't have a lot to lose by pushing my pace. Beth cut a track through the mashed potatoes and I did my best to hold her line. She was strong. My legs and lungs were just barely able to hold on. During a long descent, she disappeared from view.

I nearly caught back up along a half-mile segment of pavement. Then we hit the final, steep, extremely churned up climb. I did that thing where I cling to an "I'm good at dragging sleds" mentality and try to push my bike as fast as the folks around me are riding. I managed to pass two men, but couldn't keep up with Beth. She was burying me. My resolve was slipping. One thing I lack, sometimes much to my dismay, is true competitive drive. Beth was still in sight as we neared the final descent, which was squirrelly and scary with a huge drop into a ravine to the right. I was all over the trail while skidding with locked brakes at 7 miles per hour. Beth was gone.

"Let the better rider win," I said out loud. (I knew we weren't battling for first woman. But any mid-packer will tell you that they race who they race, and that can be just as fun.) Yes, racing is fun. It's not worth breaking an arm.

Beth finished a full five minutes before me, which really shows me how far behind I am in my snow handling skills. But I did skim into fourth place after six hours and 21 minutes. I finished around a large contingent of dudes, including Graham, the Kiwi former professional rugby player who is training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 and raced fully loaded. We stood around at the gas pump telling our war stories and sharing tips about racing in Alaska.

Mark, who'd finished two hours earlier and was already showered and rested, came out to join the party. Betsy finished about 90 minutes later, tired but satisfied. The best finish of the race, however, was Erika, who rolled into the roadhouse after dark, after the awards ceremony was completed and more than 10 hours had passed. Her drivetrain imploded and all she could do was push or coast. But since she was also training for the ITI 350, she knew she needed a mental victory and resolved to walk it in rather than quit. Invaluable training in fortitude.

All in all, The Bear was a fantastic, fun, well-organized event. If the timing works out I'll definitely be back, but I'll be even happier if they reinstate a 100-mile event.