Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Float on

Well, I'm back to my Monday night routine, running on the hamster wheel at the gym, thereby inadvertently devoting an hour to wandering thoughts about ways to make life more interesting.

Today, for no reason, a mundane conversation I had with a coworker about a year ago suddenly popped into my head. It's been buried in the back of my mind, and I have no idea why it's even stored in my long-term memory - except as a glaring statement on how much I've changed since I moved to Alaska.

My coworker was training for the upcoming cycling season, and was trying to plan a fitness routine he could stick with. He hated the hamster wheel/spinning bike/whole indoor workout setup more than anyone I know. So he asked me what I knew about studs that you could attach to bike tires. He thought they might help him navigate icy Idaho highways during longer rides.

I remember shooting back a reply that was something along the lines of "That's crazy. Why in the world would you want to ride outside in the winter when you have a well-lit, climate-controlled gym at your disposal?" (I was a big hamster wheel advocate at the time.)

He told me he was training for a double century, and needed to keep a pretty strict routine that required him to step up his mileage soon. And he just couldn't put in the time indoors.

"But that's crazy," I replied. "Why would anyone want to ride a double century?"

Not only did I not have any advice to offer, but the whole idea turned my stomach. I promptly forgot the unpleasantness - until today, only one year later. I'm still plugging away on the hamster wheel, but this time with big dreams of double triple-digits running through my head.

There are a lot of things I want to do this summer, but I think the first event I might like to plan for is the Fireweed 200, a 200-mile highway ride from Sheep Mountain to Valdez. The race is slated for July 8. That's a little too close to 24 hours of Kincaid (June 24) to feasibly train for both (there's another similar event I specifically told another coworker she was "crazy" for doing - in her case, the 24 hours of Moab race.) So I do have to make some decisions, and map out a plan. The Fireweed 200 has a nondrafting division that appeals to the rabid soloist in me, so my early pull is for the road race. (However, some have suggested that I consider riding the entire Fireweed 400. While I do have a plug-along attitude that has gotten me through some tough spots, I'm not exactly an ultra athlete - and the Fireweed 400 is not only Four Hundred Nonstop Miles, but also 28,000 feet of climbing! UltraRob has done it. But UltraRob is UltraRob. He's one of those RAAM people that even the current me would call crazy.)

But I am excited about the prospect of training for and riding in these "ultra" races - if nothing else, to spite my 2005 self for being so self-depreciating and cynical. I do not need Cat 5 status or quads of steel to ride 200 miles or spend 24 hours on a mountain bike. I have love! I have Power Bars! I'm good to go.
Monday, February 27, 2006

It's a struggle

Date: Feb. 26
Mileage: 13.2
February mileage: 414.9
Temperature upon departure: 22

One thing that makes winter cycling so exciting and yet so frustrating at the same time is its total lack of predictability. Sure, you can gage weather conditions, new snow, temperature, etc. But you're never going to know what a trail will be - or become - until you're right on top of it. You could go out for a 13-mile ride that you'd successfully pounded out in less than an hour in the recent past, and watch it take you more than two.

Geoff and I went out for what was going to be our easy, pre-ski ride and spent over two hours navigating conditions that dangled on the precipice between rideable and not. Even the roads, which yesterday received about four inches of snow (not enough to plow on a weekend), were zig-zagging, fish-tailing affairs. On the trails we met soft, deep and sometimes all-together untrammeled snow (had I had my snowboard with me, I probably would have giggled with joy.) I enjoyed the challenge of trying to pedal through stuff that very recently I would have deemed unrideable, but there are only so many times you can bury your front tire in a drift and slam your crotch into the handlebar stem before you start asking yourself - why? (I'm sure if I were a member of the opposite gender, that question would have been asked much sooner.)

There was some poetic justice to today's ride, as we swerved down the final steep hill to the reservoir. Geoff, who is by leaps and bounds more athletic than I am, said "You know, I have a lot more appreciation for what you did last weekend." And I know, deep down, that winter cycling isn't the classic struggle of man against man or even man against self. No, it's the much more modern, much more sinister battle of man against machine, in a place where the very tool you chose to save you can become your worst enemy.

That said, the Iditarod Invitational racers are clearing checkpoints pretty quickly. As of early this afternoon, four bikers had already passed the 130-mile point. That's 24 hours for the leaders. Now they're really moving into the Alaska Range, above treeline and onto the sweeping tundra so remote the race organizers call it "The Black Hole." As of 3 p.m., Rocky Reifenstuhl was one of two in front. His brother, Steve, is marching the 350-mile distance on foot. He did the race last year, and here's what he said about the experience:

"The edge with which I am dancing is where the mind can make the body perform beyond what is believed to be possible. It is spiritual, it is dreamlike, it penetrates to my core and when I come back from it, I know I was there, and it beckons for months afterward ... At the finish line in McGrath, the physical and the emotional unite in a crescendo of emotion, pain, elation. The "other" becomes a memory. This unique reality has been reached by the passage of miles, time, physical exertion, psychological strain and sleep deprivation. It is so close to me, yet a world away."
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Practice makes patience

It snowed most of the morning. Geoff and I went for a two-and-a-half hour cross-country skiing excursion. The sheer time on the skis helped me build confidence and some speed. It also left my hip flexors so sore that even walking now is more of a shuffle. I'm also feeling it in my much-neglected arm muscles and my Susitna "camelbak injury," a knot in my left shoulder that seems to just be getting worse. There is something to be said about cross training, and my lack thereof.

The 2006 Winter Olympic Games are almost over, and the pictures in the newspaper make me nostalgic for the balmy February nights of 2002, tearing through the crowded streets of Salt Lake City with a massive Canadian flag, just to stir things up a bit.

I came of age in the shadow of Olympic anticipation - learned to drive on streets under massive construction, lost my favorite wrong-side-of-the-tracks concert venue to a beautifying "Gateway" project, watched my alma mater squeeze out students to make way for an athletes-only Olympic village. Everything seemed to be closed down or off limits or reserved for the Olympic elite. By the time 2002 finally came around, I was about as close to anti-Olympics as they come. I thought the entire thing was an elaborate publicity sham. I thought that Salt Lake City was delusional to think it could host such an sweeping international event with any success. And I was pretty sure I was just going to hole up in some place far away and wait for them to be over.

But then they came. And I was living four blocks from downtown Salt Lake City, watching the sterile city streets transform into something colorful, loud and wholly alive. There were people everywhere - dressed in elaborate costumes, gyrating to ghettoblasters, guzzling from suddenly-legal open containers and lining up by the thousands for the free medals ceremony rock concerts. Athletes showed up at all the hot clubs. Latvians and Croatians and Slovakians were dancing in the streets. People waved flags from their balconies. How could you not get caught up in that?

One particularly memorable night, we set out with a video camera and all of the sense of a horde of 6-year-olds set loose in Disneyland. The rest of the night generated a series of caught-on-tape outtakes that at the time came so naturally, and now seem so surreal: an interview with Barney the Dinosaur, absurd arguments with anti-Mormon activists, "short-track street skating" in downhill ski boots; crashing a street rave; and taking on Canadian identities to join a group of real Canuks in full-gusto cheering.

It's kind of funny that those street parties became my Olympic experience. The only actual event I saw was the Men's Super G. Tickets were so expensive - and by the time I realized that I was in fact completely in love with the Olympics, they were over. Sometimes I wonder if I'll have to explain to my grandchildren someday about the time I was sitting right on top of the Olympics and missed them, but I don't think so. I think I saw the Olympics for what they really are - one big, surreal party. And everyone's invited.