Thursday, November 04, 2010

Dangerous duo

(Day of the Dead festivities on November 2 in Missoula)

When I first met Beat, after he ran across the finish line during the Swan Crest 100 on July 31, I had no idea he was nearly shattered from 34 hours of crawling over avalanche debris, climbing up and then tumbling down steep mountainsides, leaping over deadfall and bushwhacking through weeds for 100 miles of primitive Montana trails. No, he just had this huge smile on his face, and we immediately gravitated toward each other in the way that two people sometimes do. Through the haze of sleep deprivation, I admitted that my motives for serving as a race volunteer weren't completely pure - that indeed I was interested in easing into ultrarunning (*someday*) and I wanted to check out the scene in Montana.

He had just found out about my Tour Divide ride and replied, without hesitation, "Running 100 miles is easy. You could do it next week, no problem. You should come to the Headlands 100."

It didn't matter that it was a completely ridiculous lie. The way he said it, in his matter-of-fact Swiss-German way, filled me with new confidence and excitement about the possibilities of ultraendurance sports — something I hadn't felt in a long time. I went home and started scheming for the future, fueled by continuing over-encouragement from Beat, which eventually led me to saying "what the Hell" about pacing 50 miles of the Bear 100, which led to these regular weekend adventures we've been having ever since.

To our friends, we look like we're punishing each other. I took him on terrifying low-light night rides through the woods and made him carry my bike up a steep mountain; he dragged me through Yosemite in a 35-degree torrential rainstorm; I made him strap on snowshoes for the first time and then made him march up a couple thousand feet of deep crusty powder. It seems harsh, but we know that beneath the cold fingers and blistered feet, it's the most rewarding kind of fun. We daydream about future adventures that are even more ridiculous and punishing, and with calculated craziness, start scheming to make them a reality.

Such was our tract on an innocent night in late October, chatting online about possible options for Nov. 5-7:

9:34 PM me :I'm just reading your e-mail re:Weekend after Halloween. My friend Bill is actually driving down to that race you mentioned, the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. So I could theoretically get a ride down with him.
You know, if you were interested. ;)
9:35 PM Beat: It's way too long for me, but if you want to do it, I could come down. Or, since it's a timed event, I can just really really really suck
9:36 PM me: Ha! I was thinking we could be a duo team. But, yeah, perhaps not the best idea for either of us. If I did it solo, it would really set back my Susitna training. At least, in the past I have tended to take a while to recover from these sorts of things.
Unlike you, who could do it off the couch.
And still run a 50K the next day.
9:37 PM Beat: I could do what off the couch? Susitna? Ha! That scares even me ;)
me: Well yeah, that too, but I was talking about the 25-hour race.
Beat: Well, duo huh. I am a bit worried about the technical stuff, but I guess I would learn on the go. It would be pretty crazy, but no crazier than you doing the bear :)
9:38 PM me: I'm actually fairly unskilled on desert terrain. I could probably pick my way through this race, but it would really beat me up.
9:39 PM Beat: How does the duo work?
me: You ride at separate times and tag each other. You don't even have to alternate laps. One person could ride three laps, the other one, and then the first could do three more, etc. It's up to the team.
9:40 PM Beat: Uh, I could get us both google jerseys hahahaha
poor google
(bc of me, not of you)
9:41 PM me: Ha! Matching google jerseys would look cool.
Problem with duo is that the two people really never see each other. It's really more like half of a solo event.
Beat: Yeah I see what you mean
9:42 PM Beat :Uh Daniel is going for the UTMB+TDG idea
Not sure if he's bluffing ;)
me: Yikes. You are really spreading the crazy around with astonishing success.

Last sunset ride of the year: The Hidden Treasure trail in the warm 50-degree sunshine on Wednesday, my last after-work ride before the time change takes the last of the evening daylight with it.

That was how Beat and I signed up as a duo team for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, a 25-hour mountain bike race this Saturday and Sunday in Hurricane, Utah. He's almost a complete novice on a mountain bike. I haven't actively trained for anything since early August. There's going to be 13 hours of darkness during the race. Hurricane is in the hot dry desert that neither of us are adapted too, and requires enough travel during a three-day "weekend" to make anyone's head spin. It's nuts. And yet ... I'm excited.

Wish us luck. We're going to need it.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Five years

(Photo of my backyard in Homer, Alaska, on November 2, 2005)

Wednesday, November 2, 2005. The hum of mountain bike tires on wet pavement lulled me into gray daydreams — flickers of my cold concrete office, the puzzle pieces of newspaper design, an interview with an artist — set against a backdrop of a steep hillside dotted with log cabins and Tyvek-coated shacks. My commute. Behind me, Kachemak Bay was shrouded in clouds, but still sparkling beneath a far-reaching finger of pink sunshine. I turned off West Hill and continued churning up the gravel of Diamond Ridge. It was only 4:30 p.m. and already daylight was fading. I rose above snow line and watched my front tire carve treaded tracks through a dusting of powder, which became deeper as I climbed. I had never ridden a bicycle through snow before. I was struck by the sudden silence; the snow muffled my tires and resisted my pedal strokes, until the entire world seemed to dissolve in a slow-motion dream. I exhaled. My frozen breath swirled in front of my face like silk curtains. I turned onto my side street and sliced through the powder, past the moose tracks, past the horse whose long hair was speckled in snowflakes, toward my own large single-room cabin in the woods, high on the bluff above Homer, Alaska.

I had lived there just over seven weeks, and was still completely awed by my surroundings: the sparkling bay, the snow-capped Kenai Mountains, the ash-belching volcanoes, the quirky downtown buildings and cobbled-together cabins. I pulled my bike up the porch and looked out over my backyard. The view was absolutely jaw-dropping — rolling hillsides of spruce trees and alder blanketed in snow, all framed by the white mountains. I went inside and fished through several drawers until I found my camera, a cheap 2.1-megapixel Fuji digital that I acquired when I decided to move to Alaska. After all, you really shouldn't move to Alaska without a camera. I had only taken a handful of pictures so far — mostly of the amusingly vintage furniture we purchased at local garage sales to fill the spacious single room and loft, of my cat stalking voles in the tall fireweed, and the crumbling outhouse in the front yard. But the wintry scene demanded photography, even low-tech amateur photography. I snapped one or two shots and went inside to warm my numb fingers and toes.

Later that night, I sat down to send a few e-mails to my family and friends. I muddled for words to describe everything that was happening — new job, new partnership, new life in a place that in nearly every way was worlds away from the life I knew before. “Today I rode my bike in the snow,” I typed in the subject line, and fired off my picture to the people I loved and missed.

“I really need to start a blog,” I said to my then-partner. “It’s hard to keep up with e-mails.”

“You mean Bike to Shine?” he asked, referring to the blog I kept to document our Alaska road trip and cross-country bicycle tour in 2003.

“No,” I said. “I already shut that site down. I need an Alaska blog. One where I can keep in touch with everyone and post pictures at the same time.”

I returned to the computer and set up a new account with I scrolled through the templates and picked the cool blue hues that reflected my snowy location. I chose the url “Arctic Glass” because the phrase evoked sheets of ice on the ocean and the glistening silence of frozen tundra. It was also how I once misinterpreted a line from the Modest Mouse song “Grey Ice Water.” From the lyrics of that song, I also chose the name of my blog: “You got a job … Up in Alaska … It’s easy to save what the cannery pays cause there ain’t no way to spend it.”

The next day, I typed up my introductory post and announced my new blog’s existence to all of my family and friends. “I’m going to update it in lieu of the mass e-mails I’ve been sending,” I wrote. “Expect lots more pretty pictures of Alaska, which I hope will convince you all to come visit me in Homer.” I didn’t know if anyone would read it. I didn’t know that a scattering of early comments from strangers would ease me into Alaska’s widely dispersed winter cycling community. I didn’t know I would discover a race called the Sustina 100 and decide to use my blog as a training log. I didn’t know that readers’ financial support and encouragement would boost me through the completion of my first race ever — ultra or otherwise. I didn’t know that readership would continue to grow as I documented my ongoing discoveries in Alaska. I didn’t know that support would stay when I made the difficult decision to move to Juneau. I didn’t know my interest in photography would expand from nearly nonexistent to a daily habit. I didn’t know that I would continue to turn to the blog as a cathartic and creative outlet. I couldn’t anticipate the way my relationships with friends and family would enrich and grow in the way they did, because I had never before found such an effective way to communicate what was going on with me. I had no concept of the way tracking my training in a public forum would propel me to get out even when training was the last thing I wanted to do. I couldn’t foresee the way this self-fulfilling cycle would propel me to success in undertakings such as the 350-mile Iditarod race and the 2,700-mile Tour Divide — endeavors that on November 2, 2005, would have seemed wholly ridiculous and impossible to me. I didn’t know this public forum would introduce me to an array of new people, several of whom became some of my closest friends. I didn’t know I would generate 1,276 posts over five years, an extensive record of a half decade of my life. I didn’t know the blog would see the dissolution of everything that sparked it — living in a quirky cabin in Homer, my training logs, my partnership, and even my life in Alaska — and still continue to develop and grow. I didn’t know that ~2,000 people would click into it daily, drawing a small but substantial pool of like-minded people from all around the world.

(Photo of my current "backyard" - Missoula as seen from the top of Mount Sentinel at 7:33 p.m. November 1, 2010)

I didn’t know that this blog would change my life. But I’m grateful for every facet of it. Happy fifth anniversary, Arctic Glass, and thanks to everyone who’s joined me for any part of the journey.
Monday, November 01, 2010


Recently, there haven't been nearly enough hours in the day to catch up on sleep, let alone the blog. There are entire essays I'd love to write about the swirl of activity and plans in the past few weeks, but for now a scattered photo post will have to suffice.

This weekend Beat came out to visit me in Montana. On Friday night we headed out for a "quick" mountain bike ride to try out brand-new super-high-beam headlights (possible review to come, if I have time, but not in this post.) Compared to my former usage of various combinations of low-end headlamps, these lights made night-riding seem as natural and easy as riding during the day, although they do remove some of the mystery and excitement of riding with limited visibility. It was one of those situations where we frittered away an entire evening and didn't even go out until after 10:30 at night. I said "OK, we'll ride 10 miles," which turned into the whole Kim Williams trail, which was passively extended to the Deer Creek Sneak, which the lead to necessary singletrack explorations on the Sam Braxton Trail, and before we knew it we had a two-and-a-half hour, ~25-mile ride ending at 1 a.m. This seems to be an early sign that Beat and I make a uniquely dangerous combination — alone, I usually talk myself out of my own unreasonable ideas. But when someone else comes along and adds a voice convincing enough to make these ideas appear reasonable, there's really nothing to stop the cycle of sleep deprivation, outlandish endeavors, and taking already overreaching steps just one step farther.

Anyway, that's why we overslept on Saturday and headed up to Kalispell later than hoped. My friend Dave recently moved to these northern climes, and we met up in the late morning with the express purpose of searching for snow. None of us thought we'd find much. I even left my snowboard at home, because I decided that I didn't want to ride it through bushes and rocks. We headed up to Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish, and discovered a few fresh inches right at the base.

A couple thousand feet higher, there were dozens of inches of fresh heavy powder, and stunning views to go with it. Was I disappointed that I left my snowboard at home? A little, but the truth is I don't really care. I relish the climbing more anyway, and I actually really enjoy trying to run down 30-degree slopes of bottomless powder, possibly more than I enjoy carving clunky turns on my board. Last winter I was all about learning how to ski (with only limited success.) This winter I have more ambitious athletic goals, but I do plan to work toward becoming more avy-savvy, and also to continue to boost my beginner mountaineer skills by hiking/running snowy mountains.

It was a beautiful October day at Big Mountain, with intermittent fog and glaring sun, and lots of skiers, jump-building snowboarders and not a small number of snowshoers. It really warms my heart to see so many people out enjoying the early-season snow on snowshoes. When I was younger, cultural obsessions with gear and technical skills essentially drove me away from winter sports and all of the beauty and rewards outdoor winter travel has to offer. I fall into a rare group that really just wants to be outside, without the pressure of shredding mad pow with truck-fulls of shiny expensive gear. Snowshoes open up a much wider world to people with limited skills and resources. Of course, you can argue that winter cycling is just as, if not more, gear-intensive as skiing. That may be true, but I think we all find our niche, and I'm no longer ashamed to face the all-encompassing ski culture that surrounds me and declare my love of snowshoeing, even as nearly all of my friends complain that it's boring and slow.

Beat had also never tried snowshoeing before ... or really any winter sport to much extent. (Beat: "I grew up in Switzerland and never skied." Me: "I grew up in Utah and never skied!" Aw, so much in common.) He found snowshoeing to be marginally fun when marching up steep inclines through knee-deep powder off trail, but not tolerable on the boot-packed trail. He eventually took them off and ran full-speed downhill, carrying the snowshoes like lunch trays in both hands.

Dave, on the other had, looked like he was having a fantastic time on skis. Here he is, apparently posing for a Patagonia ad circa 1992.

Here's my imaginary ad pose. Deuter backpacks: Go-to gear for the extreme snowshoer. (Oh yeah, I forgot that snowshoeing is supposed to be super lame. Oh well. The dangling fleece jacket would preclude use of this photo as a product placement anyway.)

There Dave goes again, ripping it up on skis, making the rest of us look bad.

The real reason for heading up north was Danni's annual Halloween extravaganza. At the bottom of my enormously overstuffed list of duties was finding a Halloween costume, and I hadn't completed it yet as of Friday night. While Dave and his wife, Meredith, came up with brilliant adaptations of characters from the Rollergirl movie "Whip It," I could only dig up a pair of mega-short shorts, cut up a T-shirt, pull on a couple of wrist sweatbands and call myself an "'80s jogger." I talked Beat into wearing his Google kit (Ha ha, I'm a runner and he's a cyclist, get it? No? Oh well.) Beat couldn't quite settle for that lame excuse for a couple's costume, so he donned a blaze orange cap and explained to everyone that he was a "Trail scout for Google Maps, trying to blend in with the Montana hunting community." Then, people would look inquisitively at me, waiting for my extensive story. "Um, I'm a jogger," I'd say, and then bend my elbows and knees in a jogging pose. They'd politely nod and look away, waiting for the conversation to return to Danni's "Sexy Ewok" costume.

Snow, costumes and candy. Could you really ask for a better holiday?