Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One week of spring, and already I miss winter

Date: Feb. 10
Mileage: 34
Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Weather: 37 degrees, mostly cloudy, SE wind 5-10 mph
Details: Tempo ride, intensity 70-90 percent; circuit around Mendenhall Valley area because that was where the sun was shining.
Note: Legs felt tired from the get-go, in a good way. More biking this week than in a long time.

Dear Mr. Marmot,

I bet you were pretty excited when the Alaska Legislature gave you your own day. Now, every Feb. 2, schoolchildren across the state are going to wish each other a "Happy Marmot Day." Frankly, I was excited about this, too. Passing the Marmot Day bill was about the only tangible thing the Alaska Legislature did in 2009. But I am not here to discuss politics. I am here to discuss winter.

As you may know, Feb. 2 was traditionally considered Groundhog Day, and still is Groundhog Day in the other 49 states (you know, “Outside,” that place we Alaskans generally avoid unless it is February and we have booked tickets to Hawaii.)

But what you may not know is that Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania groundhog famed for his winter weather forecasts, who has lumbered out of his den on Feb. 2 for who knows how many decades, did in fact still lumber out of his den on Feb. 2, and did in fact see his shadow, and did in fact forecast six more weeks of winter.

Now that forecasted winter is playing out across many of the 48 states (i.e. “Outside” without Hawaii, where it is never winter.) Just Wednesday, the second big blizzard in less than a week buried the most populous stretch of the East Coast under nearly a foot of snow. Conditions in Washington, D.C., were so bad that even plows were advised to get off the roads. They are calling it “Snowmageddon.”

And I am jealous.

You see, Mr. Marmot, since Feb. 2, we here in Southeast Alaska have seen nothing but spring: dry roads, wispy clouds, nearly-blue skies and temperatures in the 40s. Sure, I am enjoying riding my road bicycle during the winter. Yes, it is pleasant to wear a single base layer when playing outdoors in February. I think I am even starting to get a tan on that crescent of skin where my nose and cheeks poke out of my balaclava.

But I miss the snow.

This is Alaska, Mr. Marmot. We like to think we’re special. We like to think we’re tough. We like to think winter in this state was custom-designed to challenge our tenacity and steel our pioneering strength. But this winter has been different. This winter, we strong Alaskans braced to walk on nails and you handed us a cake walk.

Here in Juneau, our February snowfall to date is .2 inches. That’s not 2 inches, Mr. Marmot, that’s point-two. In other words, a fraction not even worth bothering with. Our seasonal snowfall has only been 50 inches, which means we’re currently below Baltimore, Philadelphia ... we’re now below Washington, D.C., for crying out loud. D.C.! The only place where lawmakers are more inept than they are in Alaska.

But I digress. They gave you the day — the special, winter-weather predicting day. Now I think you should do something about it. So here is what I propose. I will come to your den up on Mount Meek. Don’t pretend I didn’t see your furry face up there a couple weeks ago, poking out of the rocks at a time when you were supposed to be deep in hibernation. So, yes, I will come to your den with a big spotlight. Then, when you poke your head up again for another breath of fresh, warm air, I will blast you with so much light, you will have no choice but to see your shadow. And that will be that. Snow will fall. Winter will return. And all will be right in this crazy, new, Marmot Day world.

Punxsutawney Phil gets it.

When are you going to get on board?
Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Goodbye to good shoes

Date: Feb. 9
Mileage: 21
Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Weather: 35 degrees, overcast, SE wind 10 mph
Details: Recovery ride; intensity 60-80 percent
Note: Lots of lightly sore muscles in the legs today

Last Thursday, I walked to a Dumpster in Banff and threw away my favorite pair of shoes.

I didn't want to. It's just that Canada has this irritating no-carry-on rule for flights into the United States, and I didn't have room in my checked bag to take them home. Plus, friends in Juneau had been urging me to throw them away for a while. But I wouldn't. Sure, the shoes were more than four years old. And yeah, they had more than 1,000 hiking miles on them, even more cycling miles, an untold number of soakings and freezings and days left out in the sun. Yes, they were cheap to begin with. Yes, they were two sizes too big. And yes, they were falling apart. But I loved those shoes. I trusted them. I didn't want them to grow old and die.

I am not much of a gear snob. In fact, I am the antithesis of a gear snob. I am a gear-a-phobe. My gear acquisition usually follows these lines: I develop a new hobby. New hobbies require new gear. Begrudgingly, I go out and find some entry-level piece of gear to meet my needs. Since I have disliked shopping since the days my mother dragged me into fabric stores for hours on end, I don't generally spend much time researching the different options. I buy the first thing I find. Then I use it. Then I use it a lot. Then, slowly, I come to appreciate it, and trust it, and even love it. And even as I become better at my hobby, more knowledgeable of the options out there, and more dialed in my needs, I refuse to give up the entry-level gear because I have become emotionally attached to it. The gear and I have been through a lot together. We have had many adventures. We grew into the hobby together. I can't imagine the hobby without this specific piece of gear.

Take my road bike for example. Yes, that is a road bike. It's actually a "light touring" bike, which I've owned since early 2004. It's an entry-level bike - worth about $600 when it was new. I have put lots and lots and lots of miles on this bike. It has been on a few long tours. The fenders were a Juneau addition, as were the fork bottle mounts. That is its original seat (yes, I realize it's tilted back in the photo.) Most of the other parts aren't original. I even had the wheels rebuilt at one point (new hubs and spokes, same rims.) Every year, I tell myself I am going to get rid of this bike and buy a "real" road bike. And every year, I find excuses not to. Last fall, I pulled it out of the apartment building basement where I expected it to be buried forever, and took it to my friend Dan for yet another overhaul. He replaced most of the drivetrain and coated all of the many rusty spots in battleship-gray primer. Thanks to an unseasonable warm spell that has left the pavement ridiculously dry, I've been riding my road bike all week. It feels so fast and light and comfortable. I can't imagine what ever made me want to give it away.

And then there's the shoes. They're a pair of North Face winter hiking boots, men's size 9, which I bought in 2005 specifically to use as winter cycling shoes. That's why they're two sizes too big - to accommodate several extra pairs of warm socks. They're also insulated with Thinsulate and were for the most part waterproof during their heyday, which was a long time ago. This is a picture of me wearing those boots before the 2006 Susitna 100. This picture makes me laugh out loud on so many levels. I don't even know where to begin - there's the fact I'm starting a 100-mile snow-trail race with a full-suspension, 26" Gary Fisher Sugar with 2.1" studded tires. There's the overloaded seatpost rack that scraped the rear tire on every single snowmobile mogul. There's the handlebar bag attached to the rear shock, stuffed with Power Bars that froze solid (and yes, the chemical handwarmers I brought to help thaw them inside the bag did nothing.) There's the stuff sack strapped to the handlebars, filled with who-knows-what. There's the fact I'm wearing rain pants and an old Burton snowboarding coat into a winter backcountry race in Alaska. And then there's the shoes. After my badly chosen food left me starving and my badly chosen clothing left me drenched and my badly chosen bike left me walking through slush the entire last ~30 miles of the race, the shoes worked. Out of all of that gear, they were the one thing I stuck with. I since bought a burlier pair of winter boots for cycling, but these became my go-to winter hiking boots for snowshoeing, frozen-root-scaling, sloppy-slush-slogging and crampon trekking alike.

And now they're gone.

My hiking companions will be so proud of me. But I feel lost. What will I hike in now?
Monday, February 08, 2010

Why I'm not so good at training

Date: Feb. 8
Mileage: 36
Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Weather: 39 degrees, partly cloudy, ESE wind 5-10 mph
Details: Interval training; intensity 60-95 percent
Note: Still lots of ice on the road beyond the shrine.

My future TransRockies partner, Keith, recently started a rigorous training program under the direction of an actual, flesh-and-blood coach. When he asked me if I'd ever consider working with a coach, I said, "No, because eventually the coach would tell me I needed to stay inside on a sunny day, and that would be the end of that."

Not that I'm against coaching in any way. I recognize that if athletes want real results, they need to treat fitness like a science, and that involves doing things they'd rather not do, at times they'd rather not do them. It's just that I have this thing called a "job," which already tells me where I need to be and exactly when to be there, five days a week. I'm not about to take up a second "job" that revolves around bicycle racing and threatens to ruin one of the things in life I truly love - riding bicycles. The day something stops being fun or rewarding is the day I quit, cold turkey. (This ideal has also led me to quit several of my past jobs.)

That said, I am trying to establish a little more of a structured fitness routine under my own rather broad and unscientific terms. Today I planned to do something involving intervals. I had scheduled a trip to the gym, where the handy settings on the elliptical machine help me specifically monitor the time, power output and even heart-rate estimates of each interval. But when I woke up, the sun was trying ever so slyly to peek out of the clouds. Winds were light. Temps were in the high 30s, promising to hit the 40s. Basically, it was April outside. The kind of day where I would definitely tell my imaginary coach to step aside so I could go have some fun.

But I still wanted to do my intervals. I'm not a watch-watcher, so when I'm outside, my interval training is about as unscientific as it comes. Basically, I pick a single song, generally in the two- to three-minute range, with which to ride my intervals. This song is usually from the pop punk days of my youth, which means it's short enough to sprint to, snappy enough to keep the pace, and obnoxious enough that after the third or fourth playing, I am going to purposely enter the pain cave just to block it out. I set my mP3 player so I can sprint to that song, recover to another random song, and then repeat the sprint song. Today I listened to "Cool Kids" by Screeching Weasel.

At first, the interval training went really well. I was sweating and gasping and my heart was pounding into my throat. Then, a pretty song like "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" by Sufjan Stevens would come on and I'd exhale long and slow, shoot a couple of snot rockets, and pedal into the happy daze of post-interval endorphins. Then, like a foghorn out of a thick mist, Screeching Weasel would launch into their namesake rant and "na na na nana nana na nana" - suddenly I was rocketing into clear blue air.

I was supposed to do this for 30 minutes (after a 10-minute warm up) and turn around for a cool-down. But the farther I pedaled north, the more the sky opened up, and the more alive I felt. I felt as awesome as the Cool Kids in the song that wouldn't leave me alone, but rather than become annoyed with the noise, I relished in it, craved it, and pumped harder every time the track started anew. My veins gushed molten lava; my lungs breathed fire and the sun cast a stark shadow directly in front of me. Time seemed to stand still, but what actually happened is nearly an hour passed, and I found myself all the way out at the construction zone near Eagle Beach, feeling fairly exhausted.

Plus, I was 18 miles from home, it was 11:55 a.m., and I really needed to be home by 1 p.m.

Did I mention that I haven't done any speed work all winter long?

The result was I really bonked while I was still a fair distance from home, but I couldn't let off the pace. So I struggled and my head spun and there was no more Screeching Weasel to help me along (I was definitely too annoyed with that song to put up with it at that point.) Sometimes the fog would sink in and I'd find myself limping up the road at about 10 mph, so I'd shake my head around like a driver trying not to fall asleep at the wheel before amping it up again.

Definitely more than a bit too much, too soon. But I have to admit, it was fun while it lasted.

I wonder what my coach would say?

Good thing I don't have one.