Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Following the 2019 Iditarod Trail Invitational

Well, it's that time of year again — Beat's now-annual sabbatical on the Iditarod Trail. I'm not out on the trail this year, for a number of reasons, but at the top of that list is the harsh unravelling I experienced last year during my walk to McGrath. It's true I've been a long-time enthusiast of gutting my way through physical anguish to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but apparently I have limits, and those limits are drawn at about 85 percent blood oxygen saturation, I've decided. Whether or not I've improved on my ability to draw oxygen from the air and transfer it to my body remains to be seen, so this year I an trying to focus on relative "baby steps" back to my path to spiritual enlightenment. 

I came close to not even joining Beat in Alaska this year. Although always fun, bumming my way around the state amid the difficulties of winter brings its own stresses. As much as I hate to admit it, sticking to a routine seems to improve my overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, I'm definitely back in a slump right now. But the lure of the North is too much to resist. I came up with this strange idea to "live" in Nome for a month. More on that soon. For now, I wanted to post my photos from the start. I put these up on Facebook a few days ago, making this blog post somewhat redundant. But this is my digital log of record. 

 Beat and I arrived in Anchorage on Thursday afternoon, probably the earliest we've ever shown up here before the race. It felt like ample time to browse the aisles at the enormous new REI and see the folks we like to see while we're here. So much pre-race down time would be torture for me if I was racing, but this year I enjoyed soaking in the relief of knowing I would not be gasping my way up the Yentna River in a few days' time. I also had a chance to meet up with much of the Colorado contingent in this year's race. Dennis, Brian, Erika and I rode bikes along the Coastal Trail on the most perfect winter day Alaska has to offer — 18 degrees, sunny, no wind. Sublime.

On Saturday night Beat and I headed out to Wasilla for a quieter night closer to the race start. I secretly love the Mat-Su Valley and think Palmer would be a great place for us to retire. (Where we'll retire in Alaska is something Beat and I often talk about.) Wasilla is a little less great, and receives a justifiable bad rap for its most famous resident, but it's still surrounded by the stunning skyline of the Talkeetna and Chugach mountains, it's close to great adventure trails, and it has a nice, reasonably priced Best Western on the shoreline of Lake Lucille. While Beat napped in the room, I headed out for a slog-jog on the soft snowmachine tracks criss-crossing the frozen lake. My breathing was rough for sea level, flat terrain and no wind, but the scenery kept me moving happily.

 Despite a forecast of overcast skies, the weather remained beautiful as we made our way out to the start at Knik Lake. Beat and Tim set up shop right next to the race sign, probably not noticing that they were photo-bombing everyone's pre-race selfie. But it did seem an appropriate spot for the two most experienced veterans in the 2019 race. Tim is going for his 11th completion in Nome, and tenth on foot (I believe this is the number. He recently joked that he needed his ten-thousand-mile buckle — which doesn't actually exist, but is a nice idea — and "the bike doesn't count" — he finished with a bike in 2017, his last completion.) Beat is aiming for his fifth finish in Nome. He's been at this starting line every since 2012. His finishes go: 2012, hardest-ever trail to McGrath; 2013, Southern Route to Nome; 2014, Northern Route to Nome; 2015, hardest-ever trail from McGrath to Ruby, stopped in Koyukuk following a friend's family emergency; 2016, Northern Route to Nome; 2017, stopped at Puntilla Lake due to illness; 2018, Southern Route to Nome. This year they're back on the Southern Route.

 This year the Knik Bar, parking lot, and even the lake ice was crowded with spectators and participants in a snowmachine drag race. The racers had to divert around the rally action, and I didn't pick the best spot to wait for the walkers.

 I sprinted to catch a starting photo of Beat. He's such a giddy sled dog at the start of these events. He is completely in his element out here, which it the main driver that brings him back again and again. The Iditarod Trail is home. Those who get it, get it.

 I drove to Point MacKenzie Road to get a head-start and rode out Burma Road toward the official Iditarod Trail. I figured I would want more of a beater bike to ride around Nome, so I resuscitated Fatty Fatback, now almost a decade old. Fatty doesn't have quite the charm of my (now-sold) Pugsley and still has a number of old-bike problems, mostly because he's been maintained by me. He had to be heavily disassembled to fit under the 50-pound weight limit, dragged around airports, and reassembled three times. The words "I hate bikes" were uttered by me more than twice this week. But once I was out pedaling on the trail, I was back in love. Fatty and I rode out to the Nome sign, which is 18 miles into the official trail. I wrote this about the sign after my Susitna 100 race in 2007:

"At mile 16, I passed the famous — and usually missing —Nome sign. From that spot, Nome is only 1,049 miles away. I thought about the scope of the Iditarod trail, and the distant dream of actually riding a bicycle all the way to the end of the continent — to a frozen village locked against a frozen sea — and the sparse, starkly gorgeous landscape that would carry you there. A simple thing like a Nome sign makes those sweeping images that much more real, even if they never are anything more than a dream."

Those words are still true. I was filled with Nome dreams as I pedaled a short distance beyond the sign, churning through soft snow that had become even less consolidated at the trail split. The snow out here is deep this year. Trails were perfectly rideable, but every stroke was a small feat of strength. My quads were burning. When I think about the trail to Nome, I often think about my ultimate ambition of walking the entire distance. Still, the bike feels more like home, even if it's true that "I hate bikes" whenever I am not actively riding them (and when they break down, and when I need to deal with maintenance, etc., etc.) It's a tough decision, still — whether to go back at all, and whether to ride or walk.  I have to get these lungs in shape first. Legs also need a lot of work, apparently.

At my mile 13, I looked at my watch and did some quick math to determine where the runners might be. If I didn't turn around soon, I probably wouldn't see anyone before dark. Since my purpose for this ride was to take photos of Beat and the other sled-draggers, I had to turn around. Bummer. The sun had already set by the time I encountered the leading runner, Rob Henderson of Minnesota. Luckily, Alaska has long twilights, so I was able to pass everyone in daylight.

To my surprise, Beat was the third runner I encountered, only about a quarter mile behind Rob. He was leading a duo of Germans and speaking to them in German when he passed. I told him to keep walking, but he leaned in to kiss me, which caused the Germans to say, "Ahhhh."

"You're going out fast. Feeling good, I suppose?" I said to Beat.

"Pretty good," he replied. Beat came down with a cold the day before the race, and symptoms escalated quickly enough that he was asking when I left for Nome, just in case he needed to drop out and return to Anchorage that day. Beat is nearly always like this before a big race — strategizing his early exit points because he is convinced he will need to scratch due to injury or malady — and he usually does just fine. I was not worried.

Bye Beat! Unless he does drop out or I make some elaborate arrangements in the next couple of weeks, I will likely not see him again before he finishes.

The master, Tim Hewitt. He was a mile or so behind Beat, and knowing him, I imagine not too happy about that. Tim is dealing with a chronic knee issue. It's bad but at this point he can't really do any more damage; for now he deals with the pain, which must be considerable, knowing Tim. Every year he says he's finally retired, and he keeps coming back. The Anchorage Daily News published a great feature article about sled dog race champ Lance Mackey that delves into this mindset — "There's only one thing harder than racing. Not racing." Hoping the best for Tim. I can't help it. I worry about him.

Jeff Rock. I don't know him, but I liked the way his red jacket popped out of the wintry landscape.

Also one of my favorite photos — trail ninjas!

This is Pierre, who I initially met years ago at my favorite race in the Bay Area, the Ohlone 50K. I'm not exactly sure how he landed in Alaska endurance racing (there's certainly nowhere great to train for experience near San Francisco, believe me.) But he must be the happiest guy out there. I saw him on the trail last year, after he finished the then-130-mile short race at Winter Lake Lodge. I arrived at the checkpoint about a half hour later, and thought it was about the worst rest stop imaginable — a large and drafty canvas tent out on the lake ice, amid howling 40 mph gusts and windchill near -20F, heated only with a tiny propane heater and a wood stove that wasn't even lit. Pierre seemed to know nothing about stoves but was happily working on starting a fire with a cold cigarette lighter and some big chunks of kindling when I arrived. I didn't want to deal with anything in that moment; my breathing had gotten to me and I was horribly grumpy. I just wanted to grab my drop bag and go, but Pierre wanted to chat and chat. He was giddy about his experience and full of stories. Some of that joy finally trickled over to me, despite my foul mood.

"They're not going to be able to fly out today. It will be a cold night here," I warned him, by way of my own case of misery loves company.

"It's okay. We will persevere," he said with a gleeful tone and French-accented enunciation that prompted a hint of a smile from me. I've never seen someone so excited about finishing a big race only to spend a night on the floor of a cold drafty tent. Pierre is good energy. I'm glad he's back for the 150-mile distance this year.

More good energy from the 2018 trail, Klaus — an Austrian who finished in Nome I believe three times. He has this calm and steady presence that was grounding for me when I saw him at Puntilla Lake, Rohn, and again at Bear Creek cabin. He wasn't able to finish the race to Nome last year because he ran out of time, something I fear will always be a most likely scenario for me. More than the fast guys with their strong legs and high-wattage power, I look to Zen masters like Klaus for inspiration. Go Klaus!

Lars is another I've spent time with on the trail — on bikes in 2016, and on foot in the early parts of the race in 2018. Over the past year, he taught himself to cross country ski — going as far as to buy roller skis and ski around Anchorage all summer long — just so he could complete the 350 distance in the third discipline. He was struggling when I saw him on the first day, and said to me, "this is really, really hard." I said "Good luck," and he replied, "I'm going to need it."

Friends in Colorado often ask me why more people don't ski this trail. From my limited waxless Nordic ski experiences, I have my own theories — it's hard to glide while dragging a sled (just like it's hard to actually run while dragging a sled), but carrying a 40- or 50-pound pack isn't ideal either. The trail is often in rough shape with moguls, glare ice and snowless stretches. It's usually too narrow to skate. The snow is cold and windblown and creates a lot of resistance (I know this from dragging a sled.) Generally, the finicky technical requirements of the "misery sticks" (a term coined by other skiers, not me) create more issues than advantages. Lars is still out there at the back of the pack. I'm looking forward to hearing about his experience. In the future, when friends ask me about skiing the Iditarod Trail, I'll probably direct them to Lars.

Just behind Lars was a too-cute-for words duo, Melody and Dylan, presumably a married couple both registered in the 150-mile distance. Their pulks were a single plastic sled that they sawed in half.

Melody and Dylan ended up taking a wrong turn at the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna Rivers, a spot affectionately know as "Scary Tree," and followed the Susitna all of the way up to Willow, where they decided to scratch.

And finally, Thomas, the Tennessean with whom I also shared a brief time on the trail last year. He's a stereotypically polite Southerner who replied "Yes, ma'am," and "no, ma'am" to my questions. He seemed frazzled and when I said, "I'll see you in Nome!" he looked at me quizzically, so I don't think he remembered me at all. He ended up turning around and hiking back to Knik that night, also scratching from the race. I do not know the reason.

On Monday I had a ticket to fly out to Nome, and I was filled with regret about that. I'm not hugely enamored with Anchorage, but the weather here had been perfect, and the weather in Nome was unbelievably bad and would apparently remain that way for the foreseeable future. Bad weather in Nome is not unexpected — indeed, it's what I signed up for — but the juxtaposition was harsh. Also reality was setting in — being more or less alone for a month, with limited resources, and after crunching my budget, realizing that thanks to my upcoming tax bill, I'm just barely able to afford the high cost of groceries this month. I won't even be able to go out to eat or to the movies to pass the time. Yes, regret. I should have planned a close-to-home, shorter Colorado adventure and worked to grab a few more freelance contracts, but the decision has been made.

Nome will be good for me, though. It's good to step out of my comfort zone. Hopefully my inability to do much else will allow me to actually spend more time writing, which was my goal. Anyway, before I disassembled my bike yet again and headed out to the airport, I was able to squeeze in one more ride in the sunshine out the Coastal Trail and along some yummy Kincaid Park singletrack. I enjoyed views of Mount Susinta, Iliamna and Denali. Coming to Alaska always feels like coming home. 
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.