Monday, November 18, 2019

The goal — keep moving

“Let routine take command of feelings.”

I recently came across this quote by Antarctic skier Felicity Aston, and it seemed like another perfect mantra for someone like me, who is inherently motivated by emotions but also seeks to transcend self. If I’m going to make it to Nome, I will need a solid routine. I intend to strategize the details, but the broad picture is a minimum daily mileage. I won’t achieve those miles every day, but I will need to make up for them. This means banking distance when the going is good, but also staying in motion when it’s decidedly not. If I manage my rest well (and rest is always the most difficult thing for me to achieve during an endurance endeavor), then the only conditions that should stop me are those I consider too dangerous, such as thin ice on the rivers (waiting until daylight to look for a better way around), white-out windstorms along the featureless Bering Sea coast, or waist-deep snow similar to what Beat encountered in the Interior in 2015. My personal “danger zone” is not something I’m willing to compromise, so hopefully I’ll bank enough time for wiggle room.

New snow and a low cloud ceiling from Flagstaff Summit on Monday
The distance to Nome on the Northern Route is approximately 970 miles, give or take 30. The Iditarod Trail Invitational sets the maximum finishing limit at 31 days. This is both a hard cutoff as well as smart practice. With a March 1 start, 31 days stretches into April. By late March 2019, flowers were practically blooming in Nome. The melt rate was alarming. In the ITI, we’re not just racing a cutoff — we’re racing spring break-up. And break-up seems to come earlier every year, even as 2020 brings the latest possible start for this race.

The cutoff demands we cover 50 kilometers a day — 31.3 miles — at the bare minimum. I can scarcely contemplate this, as I drag my cart uphill at 2 mph. It’s so hard not to focus on failure math. My 2018 walk to McGrath is still too fresh in memory … all of the pain and struggle to slog out those miles, through the wind drifts and fresh snow, wheezing, straining and almost literally tearing my legs apart in the process (It’s true. It would take months to fully recover from the muscle soreness.) When I’m willing to be brutally honest with myself, I’ll admit that walking to McGrath in 2018 was physically more difficult for me than biking to Nome in 2016. I was destroyed, and I hadn’t even covered a third of the distance to Nome. What was my average distance per day that year? 35.8 miles.

A gorgeous, perfect day ... and I was on my way to workout indoors at the gym. 
Can I really endure three times what I had to endure in 2018, back to back to back? Well, no … truly no. Which is why I need to convince myself that I can and will be stronger. I do believe I’m quite a bit healthier than I was in 2018. My health stats are in a much better place — heart rate, blood pressure, thyroid levels, expiratory flow rate. My breathing has drastically improved since this date in 2017. My exercise tolerance is better as well. A glance into the Strava archives to see what I was doing on Nov. 18, 2017 revealed a “run” with Beat, where we planned to descend Bear Canyon and climb the much steeper Fern Canyon for an eight-mile loop. But I arrived at the bottom of Bear too weak and wheezy to risk Fern, so instead I turned around for a slow hike back up Bear Canyon. I can’t believe that was my fitness level at this point in ITI prep two years ago. Things are so much better now.

Of course I still need my mostly-the-same body to do the hard work. Training seems like a difficult balance of quickly building strength while shoring up mental and physical capacity for endless hauls. Grizzled veterans such as Beat and Tim Hewitt tell me that the walk to Nome is 90 percent mental beyond McGrath, that it gets easier. I’m a skeptic. They’re naturally stronger and more athletic than I am; their standard pace will get them much farther than mine. I’m working with a fairly basic engine and build. The Toyota Corolla who wanted to run the Iditarod.

Moonrise over the plains as I made my way home. I was stoked on my gym session, and happy I stuck to the routine.

And yet I still want to do it. I feel a zing of electric anticipation every time I think about how difficult and fully encompassing the experience will be … that is, before the focus on failure math kicks in. Still, to be that immersed in an adventure, for an entire month … and in an election year, no less. I can’t wait to tune out all of that.

Of course anything can happen. I recognize that no matter how well I try to prepare, the odds are still against me. My friend Cheryl has another good mantra — “you have to enjoy the process.” And I certainly do! It’s been several years since I’ve been so immersed in adventure anticipation, and I love it. My endurance endeavors may ultimately be frivolous, but they’re so meaningful to me. Everything about them — from strategizing gear to embarking on wild adventures in the name of training — inject new and satisfying purpose into my day-to-day routine. This week was another good week of training. I made a number of improvements during two strength sessions, and logged 67 miles on foot — all of them quality miles, in my opinion — either dragging the cart or tackling tough terrain.

With the exception of Monday's snowstorm, it was fairly warm all week. A plan to meet Beat in town on Wednesday gave me an excuse for a six-hour run on a circuitous route through the hills. I put in a Zone 4 effort on the climbs, knowing I'd probably end up foregoing my tempo run this week, but I felt strong. No real fatigue, only a little bonkiness toward the end because I only had three granola bars in my pack (just oversight on my part. I usually eat lunch before an afternoon run, but because I started at 10 a.m., the granola bars turned into my lunch, and then the tank was empty.)

I even had some time to kill when I hit town, so I veered up the Anemone Trail to explore an unmarked route up and over to Sunshine Canyon. The afternoon sun was in my eyes, so I missed a vital intersection and ended up dropping most of the way into Boulder Canyon instead. I've entirely avoided this canyon since a massive construction project began earlier this spring, so it was interesting to see the blasting zone and the changing shape of rock formations along the bike path. That path is now closed to pedestrians for the entire winter, blocking one of my favorite routes to town. I hoped I could use this secret trail as a bypass on foot, but was informed that it's blocked by private property at the western end. Boo.

On Saturday, Beat took some inspiration from my Anemone misadventure and promised to show me the correct trail by way of the entire Boulder Skyline. The Skyline is an iconic Boulder adventure showcasing the five dominant peaks over town. Anemone is more of a minor ridge and not usually included, but it does offer an opportunity for a sixth ascent. Beat drew up a route that only required one mile of out-and-back trail to access South Boulder Peak, so we could string together the peaks without repeat on a 24-mile, 7,300-feet-of-climbing loop. His route was even 90 percent singletrack, with only two miles of road-running along Sixth Street. The weather was again downright hot during the day, with 73 degrees for a high and a gusting breeze from which we were usually shielded. It was a grand day out. 

Since we were doing the Skyline, we of course had to document all of the peaks. Our first mountain was Green, via Green-Bear and West Ridge trails.

We donned the microspikes for a couple of miles of death ice on EM Greenman, then hit Flagstaff Summit. The actual high point of this flat-topped ridge remains elusive, but we're pretty sure it's the top of this boulder that lacks a great foothold to climb all that easily. When you're out for a leg-battering eight-hour run, a bear hug with the top is good enough.

We ran down Flagstaff Trail pretty hard — I think I got a PR, which isn't saying much, as I'm a painfully slow descender. But I was feeling a little woozy as we pressed toward Sanitas, so I crammed down half of a ham sandwich during the brief breather we managed while walking through Eben G. Fine park. Then it was another hard effort up a crowded Mount Sanitas in the heat of the day, drenched in sweat and using all of my free breaths to force down sips of water. Beat took off like a shot down Lion's Lair. I made my best effort to keep up, but I was feeling lightheaded. I caught my feet on rocks a couple of times, narrowly saving several falls. "Ah, I'm slurring. I need to pick up my feet," I thought. Just a few minutes later, while I was purposefully focusing on improving my stride, I again managed to catch a foot and this time launched into a full Superman — both feet in the air as I instinctively jettisoned my trekking poles down the precipitous slope. I smacked the ground hard but didn't skid, so I was spared from trail rash, or somersaulting down that steep and rocky hillside. It was difficult enough to climb down and retrieve the poles where they stopped at least 50 feet away ... I was grateful that I'm not a roller. So it wasn't as bad as it could have been, but my left leg and arm were throbbing. I felt like I'd run at full speed straight into a wall, which is what I did in a horizontal way.

Suddenly it felt like I had 80 miles on my legs rather than 12. I stumbled the rest of the way down the trail and slowly shook it off, semi-recovering just in time to meet Beat for a hard push up the secret Anemone ascent. It was indeed a fantastic ridge route with sweeping views of the plains and two canyons. I managed to cram down another half sandwich, and resolved to keep calories trickling in for the remainder of the run. Limited glycogen definitely affects my already precarious motor control.

The rest of the run was a good exercise in recovery after a crash ... both energy crash, and literal crash. I don't remember if there was ever a time in life when I took my hits well, but they certainly don't get easier with age. My left thigh and elbow were bruised, and a goose egg bulged from my scraped knee. But I limped along until the impact lessened and the bruises started to go numb, and then gained a satisfying second wind. We hiked and jogged the long, rolling approach to Fern Canyon. Then, with a mere four miles to go and yet two more peaks to climb, we faced the full punishment on a direct ascent that gains almost 2,000 feet in a mile. There's a kind of meditative rhythm in such a difficult march. "Hurts so good," I said to Beat. I meant it.

Beat on top of Bear Peak. A cold wind picked up as temperatures dropped into the 30s ... no longer so toasty out. We layered up as the sun set over ominous-looking clouds to the west.

And, finally, we tagged South Boulder Peak. That gash on my shin happened when I impaled myself on a branch while climbing over deadfall along the ridge between Bear and SoBo. Beat, ever the chivalrous partner, rushed back to stomp the dead trunk into the ground and break off excess branches as I hopped on one leg and moaned. That one hurt worse than the trail crash. Shin injuries ... ugh. Trail running is just so hazardous. Beat teases me about returning to the Tor des Geants someday to avenge my long-standing DNFs with Alpine mountain races ... but I fear I wouldn't even survive the training. 

Last light fading as we descended SoBo and turned toward home. It was a full, fun day despite the scrapes.

I woke up Sunday with that familiar "hard impact with ground" pain radiating from most of the left side of my body. It's good for the mental fortitude to make peace with that sensation, so I didn't hesitate on our plan to head to the higher mountains for a snow hike. I chose Heart Lake as a destination because it was "short" (nine miles round trip), "easy" (2,300 feet of climbing) and "popular" ... so perhaps we'd have packed trail.

These characteristics are all true in July, but things are decidedly different on a cool, blustery day in November. The recent weather patterns that create balmy conditions in town also draw gale-force winds from the Continental Divide, so this area was slammed with frequent gusts topping 60mph. Temperatures were just below freezing, as evidenced by the ice clogging my drinking water hose. This canyon held more snow that we were expecting after the long dry spell — probably because it had all blown down from the Divide. We passed more than a dozen skiers descending as we climbed, but all recent tracks stopped at a trail intersection only two miles from the trailhead. We located the summer trail and nice dust-on-crust conditions. But route-finding became difficult, and there were still several narrow bridges we need to find so we could cross over a thinly frozen South Boulder Creek.

Beat did well with the route-finding, but we both went deep into slog mode and sort of forgot to put on our snowshoes even as we post-holed through knee- and sometimes thigh-deep snow. The crust conditions would have made any sort of footing tricky. We could walk right on top of it at times, but when we broke through we crashed into deep rock hollows that might have trapped snowshoes.

Beat at Rogers Pass Lake.  I thought it was weird that none of those Sunday skiers made their way up here — there was no evidence of tracks anywhere. Then again, the fearsome wind was already erasing our deep postholes. They'd be invisible within a matter of hours.

I insisted on climbing the wind-scoured hillside to Heart Lake, "for photos." Beat insisted on only sticking around for a few seconds.

Still, he teased me about continuing up the steep hillside to Rogers Pass or James Peak. Along these scoured ridges, we could see streams of powder peeling off the polished and likely rock-hard snow crust. The flow rate convinced me that winds topped 100 mph up high. I imagined our tiny microspikes and dull-tipped trekking poles digging into the hard ice, our only anchor on a 40-degree slope buffeted by these blasts. "No thanks. I choose life."

One aspect of intense weather that I often appreciate is the way it distracts from nearly every other physical discomfort. I didn't notice how much my shin was hurting until we started the descent, where the wind was at our backs and I was constantly scraping against my own postholes. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. The November light was lovely, though, even if it is pretty much evening by 3 p.m.

For the hour-long drive home, we were bedazzled by the tumultuous sky. Snow-covered mountains reflected crimson hues as the setting sun painted wind-whipped clouds with mesmerizing light. It was gorgeous in all directions; we finally stopped the car to take this one photo, but it was a stunner throughout. So worth it, Beat noted, and I agreed. To think we could have spent Sunday sitting at home just because we were tired and trail-battered.

Just keep moving. It's always worth it. 


  1. There is zero question in my mind that you can slog your way to Nome. Sure, there are unforeseen things outside your control that could occur, but in terms of ability and grit you've got it.

    1. I gritted it out in 2018. I was more than ready to quit in the second day, but ITI is a hard race to quit logistically. Every time I arrived at a spot where it was possible, a moment of trail magic or subtle improvements convinced me I should keep chugging along. There were some dark times during and after, though. I think often about how to better manage myself. Oxygen deprivation sucks, as you know.

  2. I know it in no way compares to what you're training for, but two years ago I finished the Dirty Kanza 100 gravel race and thought there was no way I could ever do the full 200 miler. Well, the next year I did, and I finished again this year, slow and steady. For me, it was mostly a matter of resetting my mind to train for the longer distance, as scary as that was to me, and everyone told me after the first 100 miles it was mostly a mental game anyway. After following your blog for so many years I know that, barring unforeseen issues, if anyone does, you certainly have it in you to get to Nome. I can't wait to follow the adventure.

    1. Thanks! The Dirty Kanza 200 has been on my radar for a few years. Big congrats — that's a super tough race. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

  3. Funny you should mention the Toyota Corolla. .. with a few mods and a skilled driver at the controls you'd be ripping it up day and night in the snow :).

    Jeff C

  4. Some of the things you mention apply directly to long distance hiking as well. Mostly mental for sure. But 31 mile days for a month? Whoa. The thing I appreciated most about my pct trek was the ability to just think. For the entire 2650 miles I didn't listen to earbuds. So much thoughts. It was incredible.

    1. I've been listening to more podcasts recently, and have been seeking out interviews with long-distance thru-hikers setting FKTs — Heather Anderson, Jenn Pharr Davis, Legend, etc. Their wisdom and insight is most similar to what I need to know to prepare, although I wish interviewers asked them more about how they managed the solitude and their fears and specific body issues (all trending toward TMI, of course.)

      I'm looking forward to lots of time to think most of all, although I will be utilizing audiobooks and music as well. If I spent an entire month solely in my own head, I fear I'd never find my way out.

  5. "Just keep moving." The older you get the more important Just Keep Moving becomes. After a life-time's worth of falls and trail injuries to put down, we sometimes settle for "at least we're still moving...and it beats sitting around the house all day."
    Good motivational post.
    Box Canyon

    1. Moving is winning! The scars do accumulate, but I hope to find a way around them for as long as I'm alive.

  6. I love the quote you started with. The idea has helped me so much, both in starting some days of training and in finishing some races...just having that habit of your body going forward, even as your mind is planning out how to quit.

    I'm consistently in awe of your training, both in the volume and the difficulty. All I can do is laugh at the way the numbers compare to around here, where a hilly ride is 100 feet per mile of elevation gain.


Feedback is always appreciated!