Saturday, June 06, 2009

Enjoying the last days

My sister came out today and helped me box up my bike. As we hoisted it into the truck, she said, "Are you going to be able to carry this across the airport?" "I better," I said. "After that, I have to carry it across the country."

We started down the road as dark clouds billowed over the Oquirrh Mountains and a swirl of dust obscured the valley below. "Are you nervous?" she asked. "Kind of," I said. "I mean, it's not like this is it. I'm just flying to Denver. But it feels like this is my last chance to bail out. Once I get on a plane, it's going to be a lot tougher to back out."

The past few days in Salt Lake City have passed by in a blur. I've spent a total of an hour riding my bike since I returned from Heber on Tuesday. There just hasn't been time. I've had too much to do ... get a few last-minute things fixed on my bike, sort and re-sort my gear, track down charger tips for all of my miscellaneous electronic devices, print out map notes, and wander around REI looking for that secret item that will fix all of my problems. In what little time I wasn't muddling through preparations, I squeezed in the things I wanted to do before I left Salt Lake ... lunch in the Avenues, a hike on Mount Olympus, shooting engagement pictures for my baby sister, my first post-breakup date at a humorously bad baseball game, touring the Oquirrh Mountain Temple with old friends, a big sushi dinner and a late-night heart-to-heart with my sisters. To my sisters, especially, I want to say thanks. It was eye-opening to realize that even though we lead very different lives, we're all fighting similar battles and yes, we're all going to be OK.

So I'm spending Sunday with my aunt and uncle in Denver, and on Monday I head out with Chris and Marni Plesko en route to Banff. I'm going to spend a few days in town and then my plan - hope - goal - is to roll south on Friday with the Tour Dividers.

I have several reasons for opting out of the Great Divide Race. First of all, the GDR starts June 19. Despite the extra 200 or so miles of Canada, starting June 12 still gives me a better time window to actually finish the thing. Second, the Tour Divide has about 40 people on its start list.
Even though I’m likely to end up riding most if not all of the race on my own, having other people in the periphery - just knowing there are other nuts out there working through the same challenges - can be beneficial. Meeting these nuts is also a big part of why I like to participate in organized events such as the Divide races, as opposed to embarking on my own fast tour. The Great Divide Race has no published start list. I would guess a majority of people who plan to show up for that race are dedicated racer types, going for the record. The clock would start, they’d shoot off the front, and that’s it. All alone. For most of a month.

And finally - and this is the rule I did the most soul-searching about - is that silly cell phone rule. Tour Divide allows the use of cell phones. GDR does not. No cell phones in a race setting actually makes the most sense. It is easy and probably very tempting to use them to arrange outside support - either calling ahead to make hotel reservations, order a pizza, or tell your friends to show up at this intersection at this time with a spare tire and cold drinks. So GDR banned use of phones. Tour Divide organizers argue that racers are responsible for their own ethics. It’s a solo “time trial” anyway. If you want to cheat, nothing is going to stop you. I’ve always been fine with the non-use of cell phones. In fact, I didn’t even own one until early February. But now I feel like my situation has shifted. Going almost-completely-out-of-touch solo doesn't appeal to me the way it used to. This summer has been tougher than normal. I’ve had random periods of time where I slip into that dark, lonely place that’s so hard to climb out of. In these situations, I’ve usually been around my family and friends, who have helped me cheer up and put things into perspective. I recognize that a cell phone is only going to work about 5 percent of the time on the GDMBR. I realize that I’m always going to slip into that dark, lonely place when I’m the furthest from cell phone range. But, to be perfectly honest, just having the knowledge that at some point I’ll have the ability to call my mommy or my sisters and let them talk me off the ledge is very … comforting. Call it an emotional crutch. That’s exactly what it is.

The GDR is a solo-driven challenge. It’s a racer’s event. I respect everything about it. I’ve just, over the course of deciding what I really want out of this ride, realized that GDR goes deeper into the racing aspect of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route than I’m ready for. It's a freakin month for crying out loud. I really need to approach this as a bike tour - one in which I actually will have occasional fun and not suffer the whole time - if I’m to even have a shot at succeeding. My goal is still to complete the course in less than 25 days. I recognize that there’s still an ideological divide between the two races, and by choosing one, I’m essentially choosing sides (which I hate to do. I have deep respect for the pioneers on both sides of the border.) But I have to do what’s right for me. In the end, I’m the one who has to ride it.

So that’s where I stand right now. The pilot just turned on the fasten-seatbelt sign, which means I’ll soon be landing in the city where I was born, which means it’s time to stop typing. But I’ll try to keep up with the posting en route to Banff to talk about a couple other things - LIVESTRONG fundraising and the ride in Seattle; final gear choices; the awesome community of endurance cyclists, etc. Thanks again to everyone who has supported me, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Darlin don't you go and cut your hair

I told the 19-year-old stylist at Supercuts to lop off at least a foot. She talked me down to 9 inches. "You'll still be able to pull it back," she said. "I just want something light for summer," I said. What I meant to say is, "I just want something that's not going to snarl into one massive dreadlock that I'll never be able to untangle after it's coated in several days' worth of sweat, dirt and sunscreen."

It's a small thing, but it matters - a physical act, something tangible to remind me that I'm on track to do that which I came down here to do, which is ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I've been somewhat pulled back from that goal for most of my trip south. That's probably been obvious ... the lack of direction in my "training," the radio silence about a looming big ride at the end of all of this frivolous vacationing. I've continued to prepare for the possibility, but in the back of my mind I've been searching for ways to back out of the whole thing without inciting the rage of my coworkers, who have suffered through my long furlough and at this point expect tangible results.

I've just had a hard time getting my head in the game. It would be easy to blame my recent breakup for my plunging stock in bike passion, but to be perfectly honest there were hints before April 20. The Iditarod, disaster that it was, never had time to approach that mental "race space" wherein I experience the pure joy of unhindered moment-to-moment living. The only race I participated before that was the 24 Hours of Light - as the only solo woman and, after about eight hours, with a nearly uncontested second-place standing and no prayer reaching first place. Continuing to ride through the night was fun but ultimately a practice in insanity - doing the same hard thing over and over and hoping for different results. My Kokopelli trip was scenic and fun, but still somewhat disappointing because I couldn't have completed it without the considerable support I ended up receiving from Geoff. In fact, the only endurance biking I've done since the 2008 Iditarod that had any sense of accomplishment wasn't a race at all. It wasn't even a difficult goal. It was a vacation ... bike touring the Golden Circle in late September. And the reason it was so rewarding? Because it was hard, and I suffered, and I continued to push through it, and it only got better as I went. And I did it completely on my own.

Therein lies my doubt ... and also the reason why I still need to head out there and give it a shot. I know to even attempt something as hard as this, a person has to have their head completely locked in the task, and, like I said, I'm just not sure it's there. But there's also the fact that I'm drifting right now more than I have in a long time, and a chance to immerse myself in a single-minded task, a chance to do something completely on my own, may be exactly what I need.

Then there's the simple fact that all I'm really doing is going out and riding my bike - something that, through it all, I still really enjoy. The GDMBR in 25 days or less may be impossible but it's certainly worth a shot. And if I don't finish, who cares? I've come close enough to not even starting that any mileage on that route is probably going to feel like an accomplishment.

I bought a plane ticket to Denver that leaves on Saturday. From there, I'm heading with friends up to Banff. I'm starting to get more excited and nervous about the endeavour - both good things. I'm not ready. But who really is? It's just a bike tour, I keep telling myself. Just another bike tour. I've done it before - two months' worth, back when I was in much worse shape and barely knew how to ride a bike. So what if the daily grind on the GDMBR is at least three times as hard? I'm just going to follow the Mountain Turtle, Kent Peterson style, peanut M&Ms and all, and see where it takes me.
Monday, June 01, 2009

Wish you were here

Dear Pugsley,

How are things going up there in Juneau? It's been a while, hasn't it? Last time I saw you, leaning against boxes in that dark storage unit, you looked a little forlorn. I thought I'd take the time to drop you a line and say hello. I hope it cheers you up.

As you know, I've been down in the States, trying to wrap my head and legs around this whole summer biking thing. It's hard! Much harder than I anticipated. When you swerve out of control down a patch of scree, there's nothing soft on the ground to cushion the blow. And everything around here is bumpy. We're talking boulder fields that could break teeth (and spokes and derailleurs.) But for the most part, it's been going well. Just this past weekend, I took an overnight trip to the Uintas. You would have liked it there, Pugsley.

I left Heber in the early afternoon on Sunday, climbed to Kamas and aimed at getting over the pass on Highway 150. I was hoping to connect with some gravel and work my way down to the Weber River. The pavement just climbed and climbed and climbed, right into a down-canyon headwind. Now, I know how much you adore climbing (Ha! Remember the last time we climbed Eaglecrest? I think you tried to roll backward.) But I could have used you near the top. The pavement was getting precarious.

I hit the end of bikeable road at about 10,700 feet. Temps had been pretty cold and the once-groomed snowpack was just crusty enough to allow fairly easy travel on foot. Kim's tires, on the other hand, just wanted to dig in. I kept thinking, "If only I had Pugsley, I could probably summit this pass and drop down the other side." It probably would have turned into a slushy postholing nightmare. It was, after all, the last day of May. But as I looked into an expanse of white, I missed snowbiking. And I missed you.

Anyway, Kim and I had to turn around and form a new plan. My map showed six forest roads and trails heading north off 150, and I decided to try them out and see what I could find.

"Break up" is happening in full force up in the mountains right now, which means nearly unlimited sources of water ... and mud. I could have really used you on some of those forest roads. Sticky, gloppy muck occasionally grabbed my wheel, but I could usually find a way to steer around it.

And, of course, once we were high enough, all roads ended in snow. It was pretty much a given ... at about 9,000 feet, patches of snow started to interrupt the gravel. By 9,500 feet, the roads were impassable. As I moved down the highway, I had to climb further to reach the dead end. But it was always there, in some muddy unscenic spot, just waiting to mock me and the 2,000 feet of effort I had just wasted.

It wasn't all a waste, though. While looking for a lake that I never found (probably took a wrong turn or several in there somewhere), I stumbled across a great campsite next to a swollen creek. You would have been so proud of me, Pugsley - I managed to start and sustain my own raging campfire (Remember that time I spent an hour trying to light some frozen twigs next to Herbert Glacier? Ha!) This time, I didn't even need fire to survive, and I built one anyway! It felt so luxurious. In keeping with my theme of simple gas station foods as a source of bike trip calories, I ate Corn Nuts, peanut M&Ms and CarboRocket for dinner by the fire. It was delicious. Now, I don't need your nutrition lectures, Pugsley. People cook up fancy freeze-dried dinners on their stoves and still get the same calories, carbs, fat and protein, but they need to carry and prepare all that crap. Keep it simple. You taught me that.

Temps were cold that night. I saw 37 on the thermometer before I went to bed. It likely dropped to freezing before sunrise. I know to you that sounds warm, but I'm traveling much lighter down here. I have a sleeping bag that's only rated to 32 (positive!) and didn't know how well it would perform on the margins. I'm pleased to report that it worked beautifully. I slept eight and a half solid hours and likely snored the whole time. I probably would have slept even longer, but this young buck wandered into my camp and wouldn't leave. He approached within a few feet of my bag while I was snoozing. I went into full-on "bear" mode, jolted upright in a near-panic and looked right at him. He hardly even flinched. It was almost as though he was just curious about me. Now, don't be jealous, Pugsley. When I say young buck, I mean he was actually a deer. You know you're still my one and only.

Morning brought more forest road exploration. Man, these Uinta roads are rough. I could have really used you, Pugsley. When you and I go mountain biking, we can just monster-truck over everything and not even break our line. With the skinny tires, I have to display a lot more finesse. A lot more than I have. Front suspension and all. I did a lot of walking on the uphills. A lot more than I needed to. But then, you know all about hike-a-biking, Pugsley. I think even you'd admit that it's a nice break from the constant turning of pedals.

Still, I'm getting more comfortable every day. Don't fret, Pugsley. I will eventually return to the land of rain and snow. But I remain in awe of Utah's sweeping beauty, in all of these places that until now where vague images from a distant past. I love the desert, but I still think Utah saves its best for the high country. Maybe it's because the alpine is so similar - sometimes achingly so - to Alaska.

With the exception of being dead-ended on every route I tried, the overnight ride went beautifully and I got everything I needed out of it. I was rained on several times, enough to soak my outer layer and show me that I can keep myself warm and my sleeping gear dry in wet and cool conditions. I slept out in near-freezing temperatures. I pedaled my way to near 11,000 feet and didn't pass out, although I have to admit I was wheezing. I ended with about 140 miles of pedaling, 12,000 feet of climbing, 30 pretty pictures, 12 hours of luxury camping with my bivy and a bold young buck, all in the span of just over 27 hours. The day went by amazingly fast. I just rode my bike and everything else fell into place.

It was a tough ride but not overly so. I went out for 10 more miles with my friends in the evening. I could get used to this lifestyle, and maybe I'll have to. Either way, I'll have to return to real life someday. I hope until then you don't collect too much dust. Winter will be here before you know it.

Miss you.

Love, Jill