Sunday, August 05, 2007

Slow lane

Date: Aug. 2, 3 and 4
Mileage: 21.1, 16, 43
August mileage: 103.3

Every time I take a trip away from my walled-in little seaside town, I leave thinking my weekend is going to be relaxing and centering and return with new understanding of the stressful, sprawling nature of the outside world.

At the same time, "out there" is where the adventure and exhilaration is. Exactly a year has passed since I packed up my Prism and drove away from the Kenai Peninsula. Even though I didn't even stay a full year on the Kenai, and I haven't been back in a full year, there is something about meandering along the narrow corridor of the Turnagain Arm that feels like coming home.

I was able to spend a lot of time, relatively, riding during the 16-hour period I had between arrival and the end of Geoff's race. I borrowed a bike from Pete B., a Raleigh hardtail that has the same frame as my former Snaux Bike and actually belongs to Pete's little sister - who had no idea her bike was being lent away (let alone the abuse it was about to endure.) Geoff and I set up camp at 8 p.m. Friday and I went to explore the Russian River area. The upper trail was so overgrown that I couldn't even see it beneath a sea of grass and fireweed. Most of the ride consisted of bouncing over boulders with my eyes clamped shut as blistering stalks of cow parsnip whipped my face. I rode until nearly 11 p.m. - a luxury of late daylight that is long gone in Juneau.

Geoff and I were up at the crack of 5 a.m. to gear up for his 50-mile assault of Resurrection Pass. As he tied his running shoes, he said something about lacing them so tight that he wouldn't be able to take off his shoes at the end of the race. "Oh, don't worry, I'll be able to untie them for you," I said. "I'll meet you there. " After all, I had a bike, and he was on foot. The advantage was clearly mine.

About 20 runners took off at the 6 a.m. starting line. I took down camp and ate a leisurely breakfast, then hit the trail at 7 a.m. I thought that even with a fairly meandering but determined pace, the 44-mile ride would take me five hours, tops, and no way - no way - could Geoff run that trail plus a 6-mile spur in just six hours. Predictable last words.

The morning was very Juneau-esque, with mountain-smothering clouds allowing little doubt about the wetness they were about to unleash. But the trail was as amazing as I remembered it, with rocky singletrack hugging the shorelines of lakes and working its way slowly above treeline. I began to catch up to runners about 10 miles in, always remembering to yell "You don't need to stop for me! Don't stop for me!" After all, I knew (but could scarcely comprehend) what they were trying to do. They were racing and I was a tourist. I could wait until there was space to ride around.

The rain hit hard and fast at the pass, but a tailwind propelled me along and I could not have been happier. The climb was effortless in 2.5 hours; I was feeling great and had 25 miles of downhill to look forward to. I was singing old-school Offspring lyrics at the top of my lungs for all the bears to hear, and set into the descent feeling that I could do no wrong. What could go wrong? Predictable last words.

It must have happened slowly, with little flecks of rubber flaking away as I rode along. I didn't even notice the slow breakdown in stopping power as the muddy trail ate up all of my concentration. I didn't even realize anything was wrong until I approached a tight corner of a particularly steep descent, pressed down on the brakes, and nothing happened. Nothing at all. I throttled them for all my life was worth and the wheels only continued to accelerate toward what I was certain was death by head-on collision with a tree. I shut my eyes, clenched my teeth, and pitched my body sideways.

The first thing I landed on was my camera, which was floating in the standing water inside my coat pocket (by the way, it still works. Olympus=amazing.) Raleigh and I skidded to a fairly smooth stop along in a spiny patch of raspberry bushes. After I stopped writhing from the shock of impact, I marvelled - as I usually do - about coming out of a crash relatively unscathed. I tightened the brake cables as far as they'd go, but the damage had been done. I began the ride (unknowingly) with misaligned brake pads and the muddy trail had worn them clean off - I was basically pressing metal onto slimy, wet metal.

After that, my ride was essentially a lot of downhill hike-a-bikes with occasional slow-coasting riding, using my right foot - and sometimes both feet - as a brake. About three miles from the end, the trail became more crowded with day hikers. I gave up riding completely, lest I risk killing someone besides myself. By then, the brake levers did absolutely nothing to slow the bike. It was the same as riding with both calipers undone. I spent much of those three miles walking with a woman who had already decided to drop out of the 100-mile race. She had already pounded out 88 miles and looked amazingly cool and composed. "It's only 12 more," I urged, but I had no understanding. "I'm not taking another step I don't have to," she said.

I arrived at the 38-mile checkpoint at 12:30 p.m., dripping rainwater from every pore and sporting a solid head-to-toe coat of dark mud. "What time did Geoff Roes come through here?" I asked. A man checked his board and said, "10:30." I just gaped at him as another woman, having looked me up and and down and probably remembering me from the starting line said, "Why? Did you think you were going to catch him?"

The last six miles of the ride were completely miserable - all on a gravel road that was just downhill-sloped enough to make my 7 mph scootering of the bike stressful; my shoes were being torn to shreds and my body temperature plummeted from a combination of complete saturation and a solid lack of movement. I had no choice but to get off the bike and jog, every minute knowing that not only was I not going to watch Geoff finish his race, but that he was probably already eating hot soup and enjoying dry clothing and shelter at that exact moment.

Luckily, seeing Geoff at the finish line ended my sorry excuses for self pity. He was eating hot soup, and looking really perky, and walking almost normally for someone who just shattered yet another course record, running 50 miles in about 6 hours, 10 minutes. Fifty miles. Six hours. With no bike. Just him. It made me feel like I should turn straight around and pilot that broken bike back up and over the pass, if for no other reason than to feel just a little bit of that glow, the glow that surrounds the satisfaction of having done something really hard - even if not well.

It continues to amaze me how quickly Geoff has taken charge of all of this endurance madness. I think this Resurrection Pass 50 race is the first time I've realized that he may have a shot, a real shot, at competing among the top echelon of ultra-endurance runners (even if he does do something silly like devote a lot of time to biking next year.) It's exciting to me. And scary, too.

Geoff wrote his race report here.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bad days on a bike

Date: Aug. 1
Mileage: 23.2
July mileage: 23.2
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.01"

I have a getaway weekend coming up. I’m planning on recreational mountain biking, camping, and visiting friends in the city. I could really use a getaway about now. I feel like I’ve been wallowing in the trenches for entirely too long.

The corporate bosses are in town this week, and we’ve been informed to keep those trenches pristine. As everyone knows, all that extra effort is usually a magnet for mud. When life starts to get tough at work, I feel lucky that I have my cycling experiences to help me keep things in perspective. Because the worst days at work are in no way as bad as the worst days on a bike.

Wait ... that’s not how it’s supposed to happen, is it? Aren’t the best days at work - thus, by default, all days at work - supposed to be worse than the worst days on a bike? I don't know who started that rumor, but I have to respectfully but full-heartedly disagree. I’ve had a few days on the bike that have brought me to my knees, hollowed out my soul and left the shell of my body crumpled and useless. I take comfort in the idea that my employers - even the corporate guys - would have to reach way beyond inherent evil to achieve that level of demoralization.

So what’s my worst day ever on a bike? It would be hard for me to draw that line, since it’s been a long time since I’ve had a really bad one. But the bad days have always the ones I would have least expected. In that regard, I would probably have to label Day 6 of my 2003 cross-country bicycle tour the worst ever.

Geoff and I were 300 miles into our trip and pedaling through northwestern Colorado. After six days of a crash course in getting back into shape, we were finally settling into our groove and thinking nothing of pounding out a 60-mile day along a remote and treeless stretch of U.S. Highway 20. That was also the day I realized that I am, in fact, intensely allergic to the sun. The 95-degree, searing blue-sky day did nothing to mitigate the sun rash that was spreading across my skin despite multiple layers of SPF 45. When I ran out of water mid-afternoon, the only place we found any at all was from a rusty pump at an abandoned rest stop near the top of the pass. That water was at least 16 percent gasoline.

It was at that rest stop that I adamantly advocated giving up for the day. Geoff talked me out of it by insisting that it was “only about 10 more miles” (it was 24) and “late enough that the headwind will die down soon” (it picked up intensely) and “downhill the whole way.”

That was the biggest lie of all. Beyond the pass, the road crawled over a series of steep sand hills that rippled across the landscape at a rate of about one per mile. We would climb about 300 feet in a half mile, then drop as much, and then do it all over again. I was close to tears by the second hill, completely ignorant to the fact that I had more than a dozen more to go. After that, everything was whimpers and dust. Several times I stopped at the crest of a hill, looked at the new wall of pavement in front of me, and contemplated setting up my tent for the night right there in the highway right-of-way. But the relentless sun and lack of drinkable water urged me to seek shade. I had but one option. Had I a gun, the second option would have seemed preferable.

The heat, the headwinds and the hills make it easy to quantify why I was hating my life so much at that moment. What’s harder to describe is exactly how hard I really fell. It was full-on despair, justified or not, combined with a fair amount of rage. A construction crew was working on the road up one hill. I hated them - really hated them - as though, in my irrational mind, my depression was their fault for putting that hill there.

When we arrived in Maybell that night, I was nearly broken. Luckily, I was also still prone to emotional eating, and I let a giant plate of fried chicken and refill after refill of Pepsi perk me right up. Then I got right back on the bike the next day, no worse for the wear. Still, not enough has happened in the four years since to dull the acute pain of that ride. It haunts me.

When bicycling hurts, it can hurt bad. But the beautiful side to that truth is that the pendulum swings both ways. For every shot of pain and despair there are equal parts awe and exaltation. The emotions make even the most breakneck aspects of office employment seem flatlined in comparison. It’s an extreme perspective, and one I hope to keep.

Slow to warm up

Date: July 31
Mileage: 42.5
July mileage: 874.6
Temperature upon departure: 55
Inches of rain today: 0.03"
July rainfall: 7.28"

It has been a few weeks since I have been able to attack the first miles of the morning with anything more than little whimpers. And I am not just talking about the first five or six miles. I am talking 20 miles - sometimes 25 - before I feel anything more than the dead weight of sluggish pedaling. But if I wake up early enough, and I don't have too many errands to run, and I actually have the time to surpass that magic number ... just like that, my legs break through that lead shell. They begin to spin faster, stronger and ready to hammer to my destination - which, by that point, is usually home.

I've heard of this happening to people who train the way I have been ... putting in long miles and slow-burn climbs without much focus on sprinting or strength training. Slow warm-ups may or may not be the price of endurance building, but they're an interesting experience nonetheless. I was several miles into the return ride today, pumping tar and wondering how deep I was going to have to dig just to get home, when the window finally opened up. I was amazed by all of the energy I discovered there, and took advantage of my new found weightlessness to really grind out the final 20 miles. I was flying, even into the wind, hammering, hammering, and thinking about all of the extra chores I was going to have time to accomplish before work now that I was moving at warp speed.

Then, with about three miles to go, it all came crashing down. Total bonk. That was an interesting experience, too, and an example of what a creature of routine I've become. Geoff and I have a long weekend coming up and, as such, had neglected to buy groceries for a while. So we were out of orange juice and out of milk. I ate a few handfuls of frosted mini-wheats for breakfast and called it good. I didn't give it another thought until about mile 39 of my bike ride, when I went from turbo drive to fumes in about six seconds flat. After that, I just put my head down and slogged my way home with the gas needle flatlined well below the "E." I think if I were a car, I'd be a Toyota Prius. It takes me a while to get going, but once I do, I can burn comfortably at 50 miles per gallon. So comfortably, in fact, that I'll completely forget to buy fuel. Until it's gone. And once it's gone, it's really gone.

So I finished up July as my second highest mileage month ever, behind only January 2007. Although when I consider the time I spent in the saddle, combined with the intensity of the effort it took to rack up 900 miles in January, I feel like my July mileage should probably be counted as something closer to 600. Or even 500. Seems fair. And I agree that mileage isn't the best gage of fitness or strength on a bike, but without a heart-rate monitor or altimeter or GPS unit, it's all I have. And I'm pretty happy with it.