Monday, December 06, 2010

Today on my run

Sunday morning arrived beneath a smear of fog. It was a typical morning-after-a-hard-workout type of morning. I hadn't slept all that well from the recovery process of the six-hour run/power-hike the day before. The sky was gray, the temperature in the low teens, and I just wanted to do December stuff like curl up with my cat, shop online for Christmas presents and make peppermint hot chocolate (this last statement is just a jab at Beat, who thinks that the mint chocolate flavor is an American abomination.) Really, I was somewhat excited to get out for another run, but Beat suggested we do a route with a much higher ratio of running to postholing than Saturday, and I knew our only real option with the time we had available was a similar route. So I agreed to return to Mount Sentinel, rather reluctantly, because it was the weekend and it was time for adventure and what the heck were we doing with this training thing?

We decided to mix it up by taking a new trail, the Hellgate Trail. We ran 4.5 miles from my house on the bike path, then started up the mountain. We were immediately surrounded by tall, snow-crusted pines that nearly blocked out the groan of I-90 traffic, directly below us. It's a starkly different view of Mount Sentinel than you get from the wind-blasted west face, and a reminder that sometimes you can see the same places in completely new ways. I tend to think in terms of travel, not trails, which is why I have a lower tolerance for mountain-bike trail systems ("but we're just doing loops around the same five square miles. We're not actually going anywhere.") So the Hellgate Trail, which was indeed a new landscape, was a nice surprise.

It was also longer trail than we expected. We climbed 1,600 feet in 2.5 miles on fairly soft snow. It was slow-going and tough. The weight of Saturday's effort started to weigh on my legs. I was also startlingly low on energy. I did my whole six-hour Saturday run in the cold on a 390-calorie bag of gummy snacks and a smallish dinner afterward. You can get away with that for one day, but by day two the glycogen stores are low and they're tough to recover if you're already going at 60-80 percent max effort. I tried to hide it from Beat, especially since he already knows much about my long history of bonking, but I was struggling a little.

When I was a winter cyclist observing runners, they always seemed impervious to the cold. But I am learning that runners too are in a constant battle with the frigid air. Legs sting where the wind cuts through tights even as sweat pours from your forehead. Fingers go numb and then return constantly. You put on mittens and then realize you can no longer feed yourself. Your Camelback hose clogs with ice and you have to bite at the chunks to access water. Your butt goes numb and never comes back, because women's butts just weren't designed to keep themselves warm.

We climbed the peak and then dropped down the backside of Sentinel on a soft but better-packed trail, for another ~5 miles. As we descended, I felt worse and worse. Finally, I noticed I was actually staggering in and out of the rutted trail. I dug a Ginger Snap Lara Bar out of my pack and gulped it down in two bites. Just like that, I perked up. As we started up the South Summit, I suddenly felt good again. I power hiked up the steep snow with renewed purpose, making a mental note that Lara Bars work for running.

We traversed over and back up Sentinel. I was actually a little surprised when I saw red light on the Rattlesnake mountains and realized the sun was setting. We had been out for nearly four hours already and still had at least another 8 miles to run. I charged up the peak in an effort to race the disappearing sun for a photograph, and was rewarded with the most spectacular sunset. "I wasn't excited about this run but it's turning out fantastic," I exclaimed. Beat pulled out the secret stash, the Haribo Fruity Pasta gummies, and we chowed down half of a bag. These candies are oh-so-delicious, but highly acidic. They were the exact same snack that turned on me angrily during the 24 Hours of Frog Hollow, and halfway down the Hellgate Trail, I experienced similar distress.

Oh, running with a sour stomach. All runners do it, which is one of the big reasons I never wanted to be a runner. (That and blisters. Oh, and because it's really hard.) I was practically groaning by the time we returned to town, and we still had four miles before home. As I staggered down the icy path, I cycled through all of the things I had learned. "This is fantastic training," I told myself. Meanwhile, the bonk monster crept back in and left me feeling woozy and silly, which is almost like being drunk and therefore slightly euphoric, in a painful way. "This is nothing like yesterday," I told Beat. "I. Feel. Spent."

In the end the run took us just over five hours, with 4,000 feet of climbing and something in the range of 20-22 miles. (A lot like Saturday's run, actually, because it was pretty close to the same run.) In my typical fashion, I ate dinner and perked right back up, and felt raring to go again. I took a semi-forced recovery day with a bike commute and easy spin after work today, which in its own way was a small disaster and still involved a ~2-mile jog. (During my hour-long ride/run, I had singlespeed chain issues and took one hard fall the bike path after my studded tires skidded out on the rutted ice. The jog happened after my fingers went too numb to replace the chain on the cogs after it popped off a third time, despite my efforts to tension it.) I know I am ramping up the foot mileage fast but I still feel good, and snow is very forgiving (and extremely SLOW.) I am being mindful of muscle and joint stress and creeping injury, but learned a lot this weekend - mostly that I still have much to learn.
Saturday, December 04, 2010

Good day run shine

Upon arriving in Missoula this weekend, Beat reminded me ever-so-gently that I had signed up for a 50K trail run in Rodeo Beach, California, on Dec. 18, which is (gulp) two weeks away. The point of the 50K is to see whether I have a snowball's chance of surviving the Susitna 100 on foot. But before I survive the Susitna 100, I kinda have to get through this 50K. Better get out for a training run.

Beat caught a nasty stomach flu the last time he traveled to the frigid north, and was sick for the entire past week. Saturday was his first attempt to exercise in many days, so we decided to keep it "close" to home. We planned a couple loops in the vicinity of Mount Sentinel. My goal was to stay out for at least 5 hours, but assumed Beat would cut out pretty early in the run.

The temperature was in the mid-20s, but was accompanied by the first direct sunlight Missoula has seen in what feels like many weeks (at least from my perspective. I had to travel 700 miles south and later 400 miles north to find the sun in November.) So today's weather felt like a simulation of California (at least from my perspective. Even a single layer of black polypro was too much for mid-day.) We climbed the south and north summits of Mount Sentinel.

The Rodeo Beach 50K also has something like 6,000 feet of climbing, so I advocated for more climbing even though there weren't any good climbing routes nearby. The problem with trail running in the winter, at least in the Missoula vicinity, is that you can go for a run or you can play in the mountains, but you can't do both. There just aren't enough packed trails around here, at least ones that haven't already been commandeered by skiers, so you're forced to break trail - which is much more strenuous than running, but doesn't exactly build the same muscles.

Still, it was a beautiful day to slog up University Mountain in knee- to thigh-deep powder ... beautiful enough that I didn't once ask myself how this particular slog was going to help me survive 31 miles of pounding on concrete-like trails in the Marin Headlands. I just sipped my icy water and soaked it all in.

The top of University Mountain was washed in ice. I feel a special affinity for trees perched on mountain tops - the "ghost trees" - for their ability to thrive in the worst conditions.

We powder-kicked back down the mountain and descended the Gut of Sentinel at sunset.

Beat cut off near the Hidden Treasure trail intersection, having survived four hours of run/slogging despite his ongoing battle with stomach flu.

He dropped back to town and I headed out for a solo run back up the Mount Sentinel Ridge. I turned on my iPod and climbed to reflective music by Sufjan Stevens as the winter light faded behind me.

The temperature plummeted rapidly and beads of ice formed along strands of sweat-soaked hair. I was completely content, feeling better and better as the hours fell behind me, wishing there was a way to just keep climbing, to some far-away mountain I'd never imagined I could reach at all, let alone on foot. In a direct line, the mileage I had run that day would have taken me far; the effort without the added strain of snow even farther. And the best thing about Saturday's run was its trajectory. I convinced myself that with the passing miles I could only become stronger, not weaker. I felt the surge of strength in places that had never before felt strong during a run - my feet and my knees. My legs carried me up the South Summit and back across the ridge as ice built on my head and a grin seemingly froze to my face.

I ran down the North Summit ridge into a blaze of city lights, striving to let go of my inhibitions and let my legs surrender to steep gravity. I couldn't quite give in completely, but tonight I came as close as I ever have to flying on my feet.

I jogged toward home just in time to catch the tail end of a holiday parade on Higgins Avenue. I stood on the sidewalk, taking photos and large gulps of frigid air until I could no longer feel my toes, then turned toward home. I finished my run just after 6:30, for a total time of six hours. My GPS cut out early and I'm not sure of the mileage, but probably in the vicinity of 20 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing. A good day to be out in world.
Thursday, December 02, 2010

Back to the learning curve

The loose snow churned under my tires as I ground up a nondescript logging road that’s steep in the summer, and practically vertical when smothered in winter powder. Temperatures dropped to eyelash-freezing levels as Bill pedaled behind me. We didn’t say much. I was breathing hard and concentrating harder, and both activities seemed to strain my sore muscles that weren’t exactly making the most of this “rest day.” All I wanted was a relaxing Tuesday night ride, but that was before we pushed our bikes through shin-deep powder on the Kim Williams Trail, pedaled over snow and ice-crusted railroad tracks and then climbed the packed snow on Deer Creek Road, all on a 37-pound Pugsley with a mere 8 psi of air in the wide tires. Finally at our intended destination — the logging road — we discovered the snow was deeper than we anticipated. Bill was struggling to hold my line with his skinny tires. I stopped to catch a breath amid a swirl of frosted air. “Everything is so much harder in the winter, everything,” I said.

The tables turned when we flipped around and worked our way back to the paved Pattee Canyon Road. Bill’s studded tires gripped the thick layer of ice but Pugsley skidded with a terrifying lack of restraint as my numb fingers pumped the brakes and numb butt cheeks clenched into a frozen knot. Halfway down the canyon, we saw Norm out for a hike and agreed to meet for a slice of pizza. We met up at the Bridge, where I shivered until my toes and ears went numb as well, then rode stiffly home. Bill has this habit of GPS’ing rides to gauge his effort, although his Garmin doesn’t measure the impact of snow and ice, which in my opinion makes a much bigger difference than distance and elevation. In three hours we rode 21.4 miles and climbed 2,136 feet in temperatures around 23 degrees. When I was training for the 2006 Sustina 100, a three- or four-hour ride was about the most I ever got myself into, except for a select few "long" weekend efforts. “Since when did three hours of sustained hard effort become a rest day for me?” I wondered.

I think about the 2006 Susitna 100 often these days, probably because I’ve recently been struck through the heart with similar fear, excitement and newness. Racing, for me, is a simple metaphor for life — it’s about living through a seeming lifetime’s worth of pain, joy, frustration, despair, exhilaration, beauty and happiness in the span of a day, or sometimes a week, or sometimes three weeks. Training is practice for life, and it’s a beautiful way to live. There is much to “train” for, because so much in my life is beautiful and rich right now — from these cold white winter days in the snow-drenched mountains of Montana, to spending time with Beat and rediscovering that passion really is amplified when it’s shared. Beat, like me, likes to drink life by the gallon and won’t apologize when others tell him that’s an excessive amount. We don’t waste much time worrying about the broad future that we can’t control anyway, but we do like to scheme and dream about future adventures — and in 2011, for both us, there’s a lot of untread ground.

Wednesday wasn’t a rest day. I penciled in a three-hour run, which seemed a reasonable increase given my base fitness and minimal time I have left to “practice” running before February. I invited Bill, who hasn’t even started his 2011 race training yet and thus can still tag along for strange, slow adventures. We jogged through town and clawed our way up the face of Mount Sentinel, where the snow really became deep. We ran down the other side through the thick powder, sometimes staggering as though we were mired in a bottomless pit of sand. If I shifted my stride to a walk I was able to hold about the same speed as I could running, but the point of the excursion was to run, so I lifted my legs out of the snow with all of the effort my jagged muscles would allow. “If the conditions are like this in the Su, I won’t finish,” I said. “At the same time, I’d be perfectly happy to average 3 mph in the Su.”

Still, Wednesday’s run amounted to 10 miles, not 100. According to Bill’s Garmin, we moved 10.22 miles and climbed 2,262 feet in three hours. Again, Garmin knew nothing of the deep, loose snow, which after the stacked efforts of this week made it my hardest run yet, even compared to the longer runs in Banff. I walked stiffly into my warm house and remembered exactly what it used to feel like, coming home after my 2006 training rides: fatigued, terrified, partially frozen ... and strangely — almost blissfully — content. Whereas Tuesday contained familiar hardships, on Wednesday I was back to new territory. I realize, come what may, this is exactly where I want to be. It’s all a beautiful, grand experiment, just like life.