Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tough days

Date: Jan. 3 and 5
Mileage: 31.5 and 30.1
January mileage: 108.9
Temperature upon departure: 22 and 18

Geoff and I were talking today about how Juneau's weather for the past six weeks has added that extra layer of tough to our already daunting winter training habits. Almost every day has been colder than average, or snowier than average, or some combination of both. Geoff is already making regular declarations of "I hate winter." I would never make this statement, ever, but even I am beginning to feel tinges of fatigue as I step out into a new day of whiteout conditions and contemplate another ride churning 8 mph through sandy powder as snowflakes fly up my nose.

Juneau has received about 18" of snow in the past three days, which isn't a huge amount for 72 hours. But it's fallen consistently, in the form of tiny, pointy flakes, for most of that time. It's made the riding mostly horrible, because the trails are all knee deep in powder and the roads are even more treacherous. Constant snow means snow-removal crews only plow the driving lanes, and everything they scrape away ends up in the shoulder as many inches of loose, uneven, partially packed powder. I can ride through it, slowly, if I deflate my tires to 5-7 psi, but I never quite know when I'm going to hit a loose spot or a patch of ice and fishtail my way right under a truck. I've become more and more anxious about riding in traffic in the snow, until even the idea of using my bike to commute to a trail where I can hike is daunting. Geoff has skinny tires on his commuter bike and just rides in the driving lane, but I can't do that. I just can't. At least in the shoulder, I'm somewhat in control of my situation. In the driving lane, I'm at the mercy of traffic, which also happens to be navigating treacherous snowy conditions. Scary.

Right now I'm in the midst of amping up my training ahead of an upcoming vacation. I was hoping to log about 40 hours in the 10-day span between Saturday and next Monday. After that, I'm going to spend a week in Hawaii, where I snagged a sweet companion fare ticket to tag along with Geoff as he races the HURT 100 in Honolulu. My plan is to hike to volcanoes, jog on the beach and rent a road bike, a real road bike - I may even bring my own clipless pedals and shoes - and ride it all over whatever island we're camped on (hopefully we'll make it to another island besides Oahu.) I could ride that thing hundreds of miles and it would be a rest week. I'm looking forward to it.

But first, I have to earn it. Here's how it's going so far:

Saturday, resistance training on the bike, 27 miles, 3.5 hours. I rode out to the Valley and back on roads, with about 1.5 miles of pushing on unplowed bike paths. The weather was pleasantly mild compared to recent subzero conditions, with temperatures in the low 20s and intermittently heavy snowfall followed by long breaks in precipitation (so nice to take the gold-tinted goggles off once in a while.)

Sunday, heavy resistance training on foot, about 8 miles, 4 hours. I woke up to heavier snowfall and didn't feel like riding my bike anywhere, so I embarked on the one hike I can do from my front door. The lower Mount Jumbo trails are hard to stretch out to four hours, but I made it work by leaving the barely recognizable snowmobile tracks several times to blaze a few spur trails through thigh-deep powder. That has to be the most strenuous full-body workout I've ever tried. Just getting one foot in front of the other in snow that deep takes a lot of back and shoulder work. I was just below the Jumbo Bowl when I saw the first snowmobiles of the day. They blazed over the tracks I had broken and then told me I should turn back because there was a lot of avalanche danger that day. I wanted to ask them what they were doing on the trail if it was so dangerous, but instead I said, "Yeah, I know. I'm not going further than the hut." It would take the avalanche of the century to reach that spot, but I did venture a little beyond it, just to get a glimpse of the stark north face of Mount Jumbo.

Monday, a rather pathetic attempt at speed work, finally submitted to resistance training, 30 miles, 3:15 hours. I thought the plows wouldn't come through if there was only an inch or two of fresh powder, but I was wrong. They still further mucked up the road shoulders, so I still had to work hard for not much payout. I kept a more strenuous pace than typical workouts, but I don't think I'm allowed to call 10 mph "speed." I saw a couple of ice climbers, a rare sight in Juneau, where typical freeze/thaw cycles never allow strong enough ice buildup over the waterfalls. But this has been a cold month. I'm pretty sure the temperature hasn't gone above freezing since Dec. 10. We're expecting more snow tomorrow, followed by another kick into the subzero range. Tough days, tough days. But, I have to admit ...

Tough days can be beautiful.
Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reality check

Date: Jan. 1 and 2
Mileage: 35.3 and 16.0
January mileage: 51.3
Temperature upon departure: -2 and 6

For much of December, daytime temperatures were in the single digits or teens. I developed a complacency in my bicycle preparation routine, piling on the same layers day after day. The clothing that I wear for 10-15 degrees and dry is very similar to what I wear when it's 35-40 degrees and raining, so in many ways, I haven't mixed up my routine for months.

Then, on New Years Day, the temperature dropped another 15 degrees. I didn't really notice at first. On went the polypro base layer, the single fleece pullover, the softshell coat and pants, the single balaclava, mittens and two-sock VB system. I pedaled off into the bright bluebird day, thinking I could squeeze in five hours of solid riding, and plenty of snowbiking, before it was time to attend a birthday party at 4 p.m. The snow was squeaky and hardpacked; the roads were nearly clear of traffic. Conditions were ideal, save for a pretty strong east wind ... but you can't have everything. I was loving life.

Then, about 12 miles from home, I first noticed a familiar burning numbness in my backside. The unpleasant sensation starts in my butt cheeks and eventually works its way down my thighs until it's wrapped itself around my entire upper leg. I've never found a cure for cold butt syndrome. My legs are the hardest-working parts on my body. When those go cold, they're the most difficult to bring back - even by sprinting and climbing. I was an hour into a five-hour ride. The development was discouraging. "Well," I thought. "Maybe it won't get any worse."

I veered off onto the foot trails - rideable, but cut deep, narrow and seriously technical. My pace slowed considerably. My balaclava froze and clumped up against my chin. I couldn't pull it over my nose. I stopped to thaw my eyelashes. My mittens were chunky and hard - they're insulated with goose down, and I had worn and sweated in those same mittens every day for about a week straight. The insulation had likely been wet when I left the house, and now it was frozen. I was an hour and a half into a planned five-hour ride. Those developments were very discouraging.

I stopped at another point on the trail to take a picture. The camera wouldn't work. I used a trick I figured out in the race last year - I pulled the battery out and stuck it in my mouth for a few seconds. It's probably not a great technique if you are trying to avoid zinc poisoning, but it works wonders for coaxing a frozen camera to snap a few shots. Stopping, however, was a terrible idea. By the time I got back on the bike, I was shivering.

I decided to find my way out of the foot trail maze and ride on the road for a while, where I could amp up the speed and hopefully generate some heat. The shivering became more pronounced, so I jumped off the bike and ran. I ran for several minutes and tried to ride again, but I swerved and fumbled and eventually steered right into a tree. One thing dropping core temperatures cause is loss of dexterity. I jumped off the bike and ran some more. I was beginning to feel a little frightened. In my complacency that caused me to underdress, I was also doing something else I almost never do - traveling without any extra layers or chemical heat packs.

I made it to the Glacier Visitor Center and tried to go into the heated bathroom. It was locked. %$#! New Years Day. While I stood there, I pulled out my thermometer, which was still nestled in a coat pocket. 11 below zero. That was the temperature inside my coat. -11F. And of course, temperatures can be worse. But underprepared for the cold is underprepared for the cold. I tried again to pull my balaclava over my face, but it was a block of ice. My mittens were in close to the same condition. I briefly scanned the smooth trail on the lake, the sparkling blue glacier, the frozen waterfall and handful of people braving the cold to experience the beautiful day. I was going to enjoy none if it. I was going to have to go home.

It was still 15 miles with more headwind and shadows, as the midday sun sank behind the mountains. I was uncomfortable and of course angry with myself, but mostly just uncomfortable. I was beginning to feel that deep, sleepy tired that comes with cold. About halfway home, I pulled off the highway and made my way to the wetlands, looking for a spot in the sun. I stopped to cram down some slushy water and two peanut butter cups. I've learned that a little water and some high-calorie, mostly-sugary food does wonders for helping the body warm itself. With the sun and the sugar, I began to feel a little better even as I stood still. In the distance, I could see Wal-mart. There were cars in the parking lot and it appeared to be one of the few places open. I thought about going inside to buy some heat packs, but then decided, "No. Can't do that out on the trail." I had to see how well I could help myself warm up should I ever require that kind of knowledge, heaven forbid. I got back on the bike, greedily eyed the heated big box store as I pedaled by, and gave the effort everything I had.

I did begin to feel better. I can't say I was ever comfortable, but I managed to halt the drop in core temperature, and the sleepy tired began to wear off. I had my hands clenched in fists inside my mittens, so there wasn't much braking or shifting going on. I thawed out my mask enough to at least get it up over my half-frozen nose. I almost had to laugh at my situation - cold butt, frozen face, rigid fingers and burning legs ... about the only warm parts of my body were my feet, usually the first to go. But my feet were the only place where I was actually prepared for the cold.

I arrived home about three and a half hours after I left, crusted in ice and walking like a mummy. "You cut your ride short, huh?" Geoff asked me as I walked in the door. "Yeah," I said, "but that was about the most valuable learning experience I could have asked for."

I'm never leaving the house again with anything less than a moon suit. And I had really hoped to pack lighter for the Iditarod race this year. Dang it.

The New Years Day ride did admittedly instill quite a bit of fear. It was hard to coax myself out the door today, with temperatures still hovering just above zero, and falling snow to add to the winter fun. I overdressed, put on a real face mask and goggles, grabbed a bunch of extra layers to pack with me, and even put the pogies on my bike. (I know - it's idiotic not to use pogies in subzero temperatures. But I've come to regard pogies in the same way I regard my waterproof overboots: Wonderful when they're needed, but pretty annoying any other time.) I pushed my bike up the Dan Moller Trail and rode down. It was great fun, and I never got cold. Lessons learned the hard way are lessons learned well.
Thursday, January 01, 2009

Last day of the year

Date: Dec. 31
Mileage: 21.0
December mileage: 811.1
Temperature upon departure: 8

12:03 a.m., Dec. 31. The squeak of my snowshoes on cold, packed snow grates against an almost impenetrable silence. Both seem out of place. 24 hours from now, 12:03 a.m. will ring and scream into the cold night, but now, all is silent and still. I feather a plummeting thermometer in my mitten and plunge it into my pocket. I walk across my street, climb a snowbank and take slow, squeaky steps to the Mount Jumbo trail. I shift the weight of my backpack - alarmingly light, it feels - glance back at the golden glow of town lights and step into the darkness.

The squeak becomes a crunch, muffled and lonely. To each side of the trail, ghost trees lurk and snow monsters prowl. In my peripheral vision I catch a single-eyed gaze, wild and hungry. A monster's mouth seems to open and its big ears rustle in the breeze as it curls its branches toward me. I put my head down and walk faster.

I reach the open muskeg and stamp down a spot where the cold wind whisks spindrift around stunted spruce. I need to experience this wind, like I need to experience the art of sleeping outside, so here I make my home for the night. So close and yet so far away from my warm bed. The thermometer reads zero. No accounting for the wind, the chill, which always needles through protective layers in a way "real" temperatures never could. I unroll my bivy and crawl inside. Pockets of cold air settle amid the fluff and I scold myself for not bringing a pillow, because I'm not about to take anything I'm wearing off to use as a substitute. Body heat begins to fill empty space. It takes a while to fall asleep.

I wake up several times in the night, thrashing around to extract myself quickly from multiple layers of nylon and down. I scold myself again for going to bed so well hydrated. A body immersed in cold doesn't want to waste calories keeping unnecessary liquid warm, so I have to step out into the cold. At 3 a.m., it's calm and the thermometer reads 5 below. The sky is an explosion of stars. At 5 a.m., the wind has picked up with blowing snow and a dangerous-seeming chill when the thermometer has jumped to 10 above. At dawn, it's back to zero. I crawl out of my sack feeling strangely refreshed, but my peace has been hard-won through hard experience, because I've ventured deeper into the danger and I know now that 5 below isn't too cold for a good night's sleep.

Back at my apartment at 9 a.m. with hot coffee and cold cereal. The radio's on and I don't want to listen, because I feel like I should still be out. I lace up my boots and, still wearing what I wore the night before, head back out into the wind and ice for a bike ride. But there's a feeling of well-being and warmth in the sun. The wind blows in variable, powerful gusts as I ride along the frozen shoreline of the Channel. One catches me from directly behind, carrying a small tsunami of spindrift over the frozen sand. My huge coat catches the gust like a sail and rockets me forward with surprising acceleration. I ride the snow tsunami in a surreal pocket of silence, because the wind and I are moving the same speed. I feel like I'm surfing, powder boarding, coasting on a cloud, or all of the above. It's absolutely thrilling.

Geoff and I have lunch and decide to spend the afternoon Nordic skiing. I rescue my skis from dust, fairly certain I haven't used them in nearly two years. I've avoided the activity because there's so much other fun stuff to do in snow - snow biking, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snow camping ... pretty much snow-anything that doesn't involve strapping needlessly slippery sticks to my feet and shuffling around in pre-set circles.

Well, that's what I always thought of skiing. But today at sunset on the Mendenhall Lake, the themometer's back to 5 below and the snow is crisp and cold. It binds to the fish-scale bottoms of my budget Nordic skis and allows me to mindlessly, effortlessly glide into the gold-tinted expanse. The track's set nearly four miles around, a relaxed hour, and we extend it by veering off into the maze of the moraine trail system. I scout the hardpack for future snow biking excursions. Geoff's eyelashes grow white and long. We glide in silence amid the snow ghosts and tree monsters, which seem jovial and friendly at this hour. Soon it will be midnight again and another day will fade into the darkness, an amazing day, an amazing year.

Happy New Year.