Saturday, February 27, 2010


I fell off the training wagon after my mountain bender last week. I've just been focusing on priorities elsewhere, but I have found time for a couple of short rides and a couple of trips to the gym. I also got out Friday for my first mountain bike ride in what feels like ages. I splashed through the muddy trail system of the Mendenhall Valley beneath a thick mat of fog, craving snow. February was basically one long thaw, and Juneau's sea-level trails are nearly back to their mossy, spongy summer condition. I miss snow biking. So I went home, put on my ice-cleat boots, and pushed Pugsley up the treacherously icy Lake Creek Trail, knowing I was likely to find little more than a slushy, long-faded snowmobile trail at the top. As I expected, I was able to ride for short stints in the shade, but mostly I spent the afternoon going for a long walk with my bike - which is actually great training, though not terribly fun. I did find the sun. I always enjoy the sun.

I am really excited about this year's Iditarod Trail Invitational, which kicks off Sunday at 2 p.m. I participated in this event in 2008 and 2009. I finished in 2008 and later that year wrote a book about it. I dropped out last year with frostbite on my right foot. Before I even started the 2009 race, I had already decided I wouldn't participate in 2010. I had plans to ride the Great Divide in summer 2009, and I knew I would spend a long summer entrenched in the planning and training for that undertaking. Preparing just to survive the 350 miles to McGrath can be even more arduous and all-consuming than the Divide (in my opinion), so I figured I'd need the winter off to take a physical and mental vacation from cycling. I did use my lax winter to try some new things - winter mountain trekking and to a lesser extent, skiing - but mostly I spent this winter wishing I was training for the ITI. It's such an intoxicating experience in ways I couldn't begin to explain. I've started having dreams about lining up with the group on Knik Lake. When I wake up and it's not true, I feel disappointed. So am I going back in 2011? This race fills up in like an hour these days, but you better believe I'm going to try.

I excited just to spectate this year's race. It's going to be an exciting one. There are a lot of strong cyclists to watch for — Pete Basinger, Jeff Oatley, Jay and Tracey Petervary, Rocky Reifenstuhl, Louise Kobin and rookie Chris Plesko. There are runners I'm cheering for too - Anne Ver Hoef, who developed painful frostbite on her face in 2008 and who I bonded with at the Hurt 100 in 2009, and Tim Hewitt, who has completed the walk to Nome and almost unthinkable four times, and who as far as I'm concerned is the patron saint of the Iditarod. He is the first person who was willing to look me in the eyes at Yentna Station last year and say, with a touching amount of empathy and understanding, "You know you can't go back out there."

There's also rookie Lorie Hutchinson, who wrote me an e-mail some months back and said "Your book is the reason I entered this year." She's a runner who is riding the Iditarod on a bike. This statement alone made writing and publishing that book worth it.

And there's so many other great people - Phil Hofstetter, the Nome resident who's quietly fast, and Sean Grady, the former New Jersey mountain biker who never said quit last year (even when the rough trail conditions kept him out there for 10 days.) There's Brij Potnis, the self-proclaimed (but undeniably speedy) "tourist" who toughed out minus-72-windchill at Puntilla Lake in 2007. They're all great. The community is half the reason to experience the Iditarod. I'm cheering for everyone. I'm hoping to see the strongest finish yet.

Trail conditions will likely make it interesting — there's everything from fresh snow at the race start to "sidewalk" hard trail on the Yentna River to bumpy horrible trail along the Skwentna River to no snow, open water and frozen tussocks in the Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Curn. I still think there's a good chance for a record this year, which right now belongs to Pete Basinger - 3 days, 5 hours in 2007.

I'm also tracking a similar and yet very different endeavor by Mike Curiak. Mike's human-powered experience on the Iditarod is nearly unmatched. He's come to Alaska nearly every February since 1997, including his first trip to Nome way back in 2000. His statement about that trip perfectly echoes my feelings about riding to McGrath in 2008: "That trip, and the lessons it taught about my own adaptability and capabilities, remains one of the brighter defining moments of this lifetime." Mike still holds the bicycle record to Nome, which has stood since 2001.

These days, Mike no longer races the Iditarod. He "tours" it — under self-imposed conditions that we "racers" can hardly even fathom. He travels under a strict self-support credo, which means for 1,100 miles of some of the harshest, most exposed conditions on Earth, he is completely self contained. He has no resupplies. He enters no buildings. He is completely, truly, in a way few modern experiences can even touch, on his own.

When he starts, he is carrying 24 days worth of food and fuel, and his bicycle weighs 145 pounds. If something goes wrong — and things always go wrong — he has to deal with it himself, with no outside help, out in the elements. Interestingly, the first time I ever met Mike Curiak was when things started to go wrong for him in 2008. His tent poles broke and his stove wasn't working. He made the hard decision to stop at a house in McGrath. I had just finished my own crazy, humbling - and not even comparable - experience when I first encountered Mike standing in the front room wearing only long johns. Because all male cyclists look the same to me, whether they are wearing spandex or Arctic gear, I had no idea who he was, at first. I mumbled a generic, "So are you headed back out there?" "The future is uncertain" he replied. Later, I realized who he was. I still kick myself over not chatting with him more within the context of that truly unique circumstance.

His goal is to ride all the way to Nome without breaking his self-support code. It really is quite unimaginable. But every year, I follow his SPOT tracker (his only form of communication; he carries no satellite phone), and I try to imagine what it would really be like. Which is why I was truly flattered when he contacted me this year and asked if I wanted to help Scott Morris provide color commentary for his blog. I'm really looking forward to it.

I'll probably also do plenty of sportscasting on my own blog for the ITI. You can track the results of the race here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Modern Romance, part three

My ongoing conversation with Thunder Mountain ...
Modern Romance, part one
Modern Romance, part two

Wake up to a new day, the fifth straight of sun. I roll out of bed in the same slumping way I have for days, bracing for painful impact on my tender body. Despite four hard and physical days, my legs spring back with surprising elasticity. My back straightens and my shoulders relax. I rub my eyes; the tear salt burns in dozens of tiny cuts in my hands. The stinging sensation jolts me fully awake, with eyes open to the bright new day, and I realize that not only do I feel healthy again — I feel strong. I wasn't expecting to feel this way on the fifth straight day of sun. Bodies, like lives, can be amazingly adaptable. And, like lives, only through struggle can they really grow.

I take my newly formed muscle fibers and return to Thunder Mountain. I've been wanting to go back here, and I knew the fifth day of clear weather may well be the last. A climb on Thunder Mountain is a true climb, up something only faintly resembling a route thinly notched into the steep mountainside. Hands must be applied before most steps, with fingers grasping roots and stumps to leverage a bottom-heavy body better adapted to turning pedals than swinging from trees. I press my hands into cold earth, wincing as tiny slivers of ice pierce my cuts. But through my fingers I feel a comforting softness — pillows of moss, tender leaves and spongy, decaying wood. I hoist my body up another step; the soft earth holds me like a bridge over a precipice.

Winter hasn't been kind to Thunder Mountain, and the mountain is littered in landslides and deadfalls. I hoist myself over the toppled trunks and wade through a morass of branches and needles. All of this decay — none of it was here four months ago. Avalanche debris is nowhere to be seen; this is simply a matter of the mountain slowly falling apart. It's a subtle reminder that one day Thunder Mountain won't be a mountain. It will be a desert, or a prairie, or the bottom of the sea. This is universal truth — entropy. Nothing stays the same. I feel this way about my life. I feel this way about my body. My molecules, my atoms, water and carbon, someday it will dissolve and it won't be me anymore. It will be a rock, or a fish, or a branch of a blueberry bush on Thunder Mountain.

But for now, I am me, and the blueberry bushes are prematurely reaching for new life. It is Feb. 22 and fresh green growth is everywhere. Days on end of sun preceded by weeks on end of temperatures that hardly drop below freezing will do that. But this time, it's at least two months early. I fear for the blueberry bushes, that winter's deep freeze will return and kill them all. Or maybe it won't. Maybe, in this ever-changing world, spring sometimes comes to Juneau, Alaska, in February.

I claw up another thousand feet of slush until I reach the sun-scoured summit of Thunder Mountain. Large patches of tundra have emerged from the snow and the mountain has already put on its springtime face, which, more than any other time of year, looks like old age and decay. I am not tired and sore anymore, but neither am I elated to be here, smug and prideful at having "bagged" another mountain. I am, simply, where I am supposed to be, where I need to be, at 11:45 a.m. Feb. 22. I am forever trying to explain why I do what I do, to myself as much as anyone, to try to gain a grasp on the reasons for this unconventional lifestyle, this frivolous hobby, this roadblock to the "real" life that my culture tells me I should be living. But I can't explain it. It's just something I feel, feel as strongly as the urge to wake up in the morning or eat dinner in the evening. So you see what I do — I go to the mountains.

I settle down on a rock, lingering for the few moments I have before my conventional work schedule dictates that I start back down. I don't mind this side of life — in fact, I, like anyone, thrive on the perception of structure and purpose. But I do feel that it's all perception. Our work is only as good as we believe it is. I am good at what I do, but I am easily forced into a corner. Dozens of decisions made from a distance, by people who aren't watching, slowly erode away at creativity and purpose, until we become drones, something like machines, and if we taste a little freedom, release ourselves from necessity, we are always going to ask ourselves, "why?"

So you see what I do — I go to the mountains. I am not trying to lift myself above it all, or escape the fog-drenched world below. I know I will always go back. But more than structure and purpose, I am in love with life, and everything life has to offer, even the pain and fatigue, the sunburns and the cuts, the anxiety and the fear. I love life with a voraciousness and hunger that can never be contained, even as I grow older, even as the spark that is me fades from my body, even as my molecules decay and disperse, even as the mountains erode and disappear, even as the sun engulfs the Earth, and the universe becomes something else entirely, this love will continue.

I won't apologize for loving life. I will struggle and I will contribute and I will do the best I can, but I won't apologize. I will hunt life. I will embrace it, and I will cling to it in all of its ever-changing elusiveness, even if it slips away from me forever, even if I know it will slip away from me forever. I love life all the more because it changes. And I will recognize when I need to change, too.

I know the mountains will be here. Long after I am gone, they will be here. But they won't always be here.
Sunday, February 21, 2010

On happiness

Date: Feb. 21
Mileage: ~5
Total climbing: ~2,200 feet
Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Weather: Sunny, 42 degrees, light winds
Details: Hike to Ben Stewart, 40-90 percent

I didn't sleep well last night because my heart rate wouldn't slow down, something that happens to me when I am "overtraining," which to me means working my body at a consistently higher rate than it is comfortable with for an extended period of time. The kind of thing I do during an ultraendurance race. The kind of thing I'm actually seeking to do right now, with my "mountain bender." But after not sleeping well, I woke up late with a sun hangover, prickly quad muscles and legs that felt like they were stapled to the mattress. My hands are torn to shreds from my Sheep Creek bushwhacking adventure and I'm finally starting to get blisters on my toes. So I decided, "time to take a rest day." I knew, physically, that rest would do me more good than exercise at this point.

I did some cleaning and organizing at home, and at noon decided to go to the office a couple hours early and work on some administrative stuff that I've been putting off. As I drove south, the mountain peaks that envelope Juneau like a fortress became visible through the diminishing fog. As though emerging from a fog myself, my inertia slowly became supplanted by desire. "I have two hours," I thought. "What can I do with two hours?" I drove past my office building and kept going.

I had in my car a pair of running shoes and clothing I wear to the gym. Not exactly up to the standards of the winter trekking gear I traditionally use, but perfectly adequate for what I had in mind - climbing to Ben Stewart, a 3,366-foot-high peak on Douglas Island. I have actually never been all the way to this peak before, because it's a muskeg-slicked slog in the summer and in the winter it is usually the realm of skiers - located in the immediate backcountry of Eaglecrest Ski Area. But it's a good, fast peak to hike for two reasons - you can "cheat" by starting at the base of the ski area at 1,150 feet rather than the typical Juneau starting point of sea level. And snowshoeing snowboarders generally lay a good boot-pack trail that is sufficient for running.

But as I tried to kick-start my reluctant legs and adjust my sunburned eyes to the bright white snow, that nagging guilt, "why are you doing this?" trickled into my mind. So I thought about it. I coughed and clawed up the slush and ice and thought about it. I didn't think very hard, because mountain benders combined with my weekend work duties generally turn my mind to mush. But the only answer I could come up with, as I stood on the peak with the sun-drenched pinnacles of Southeast Alaska surrounding me, was, "It makes me happy."

But that started me thinking about the substance of happiness. To me, the question "what is happiness?" is the same as asking "what is food?" It is something that fills you up, energizes and replenishes your body and mind. It is something you need and something you seek after. It is not the same for everyone - some people crave lobster; others like peanut butter sandwiches. Happiness is organic in the same way food is, consumable and finite. One source will never be enough to satiate a person forever. We are destined to pursue it our entire lives, and eventually find fulfillment in the pursuit as much as the reward. The question "are you happy?" is the same as the question "are you hungry?" Happiness is hunger, the force and motivation of life. If I'm satisfied today, I'll still have to go searching the next day, and the next and the next, until I breathe my dying breath. And to stop searching is to starve, slowly but surely. This I believe.

Then again, I have been spending a lot of time in the sun this week. :-)