Thursday, January 06, 2011

The art of go slow

Things are starting to come together for the Susitna 100. Beat and I bought our tickets to Anchorage, and shortly after that pressured friends Danni and Steve (who were both on the fence about even starting the race, and still may be) into buying their tickets as well. In my daydreams, we’re a motley foursome of Outsiders banded together, dragging our sleds across the frozen Susitna Valley. In more likelihood, we won’t be able or want to stick together. But either way, the Susitna 100 will be an interesting reunion since I already know a fair number of Alaskan cyclists on the roster. They’ll all have a chance to laugh at me as we cross paths at a pitiably distant point, since the new route is mostly an out-and-back.

I also am finally attempting to put my sled together. I hoped to do it sooner for training purposes, but as usual reality falls short of intentions. The sled I am using belongs to Geoff Roes, and is full of heavy reinforcements intended for use in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, where conditions are much colder and burlier than a typical Susitna race. But since I seem to have a talent for breaking gear, the burly sled should work well for me. I spent more than an hour on the phone with Geoff last night as he described the attachments and explained the different pieces. I failed to string both ropes all the way through the poles, so I didn’t get it completely put together last night, but did manage to squeeze all my Susitna gear inside the cover, and hope to be running with it by next week.

I am also beginning to feel more comfortable as a runner, if only just. I had a few good runs recently that boosted my confidence in both my footing and ability to maintain a more consistent speed over longer periods of time. But when Geoff asked me how my training was going, I instantly felt the need to apologize for my abilities, which are indeed still quite limited for a person aspiring to a 100-mile ultramarathon.

“I’m still low on the learning curve, but I’m improving,” I said. “My biggest issue is confidence. Also I sometimes feel really lousy for no real reason. I have stomach and cramping issues that I haven’t been able to pinpoint yet.”

“Do you ever go out and try to run fast, the kind of runs most people think of when they think of running — on the road?” he asked.

“Actually, no,” I said. “I started out with that yesterday, running 9- and 10-minute miles with the intention of upping the speed, but found myself veering off into the hills, and that turned to 12- and 14-minute miles on the fluffy snow climbs. I find I enjoy that kind of running so much more. It was still good intensity though. 80 to 90 percent for 90 minutes.”

“That’s good,” he said. “You really don’t need any speed for what you’re training for. All that matters is you get out there and put in time on your feet. It’s something I think most runners, even those who run ultras, don’t realize. By speed training, you might get your 9-minute miles up to 8:40. Twenty seconds is almost nothing over 100 miles. But everyone moves slowly when they feel like crap. If you can boost those slow-moving 20-minute miles up to, say, 15 minutes, that’s five minutes a mile. It’s huge, and easier to do. I used to emphasize speed work and all that, but now I just go into the mountains and spend more time running at slower speeds. It’s made the difference between being a pretty good ultrarunner, and being a great ultrarunner.”

It was an interesting insight into Geoff’s training that I never heard before. When we lived together, he spent lots of time running quarter-mile intervals around a high school track, lifting weights at the gym and suffering through all of his long runs on the road, because Juneau trails in the winter are nearly always covered in unconsolidated snow, requiring snowshoes and a walking-speed shuffle. While training for the 2008 ITI, he ran 25 laps around a flat, three-kilometer groomed cross-country ski loop while towing his sled. It was the same day I set out for an incredibly scenic 90-mile Pugsley ride, touring all the beautiful corners of Juneau. From my point of view, Geoff’s training habits required not only a fair dose of talent, but also a serious tolerance for tedious efforts. Which is why I never had any interest in running. It seemed completely unfun.

When I first met Beat, he introduced me to the strategy of (quotes mine) “moving slowly with haste” during an ultrarun. Consistent movement has always been my approach to endurance cycling — it’s achievable, adaptable, offers its own set of challenges, doesn’t demand tedious training blocks, and becomes more and more effective as events get longer. Beat helped me see how I could do the same in an endurance run. That by keeping a steady pace through all of the highs and lows and downright despair of an effort, I could achieve distances that before seemed to me to be all but impossible. And I was intrigued, because in my view running long distances is the purest form of physical activity, and allows for the greatest access to mountain and backcountry terrain (the less gear you rely on, the less restricted you are in your movement. Skis are limited to what skis can do. Bikes are limited to what bikes can do. But feet can go nearly everywhere.) And yet I had always viewed my own abilities as woefully inadequate in this regard.

Beat’s “just keep moving” (quotes mine) philosophy really made a lot of sense, and he had the experience and success to back it up. Meeting him was the turning point to switch my views from “running sucks and is hard,” to “running is a great mode of travel (but still hard.)” Which is why it was interesting to hear that Geoff holds a similar philosophy. After all, Geoff is considered an elite in the sport of ultrarunning these days. And he does have speed in his background (I believe he has a 15:10 5K PR, and 4:29-minute mile.) But these days, he chooses to leave that background behind to slog around in the mountains for hours on end — which is also what I really love to do.

And of course, it’s all relative. I probably couldn’t hold Geoff’s “slow” pace for five miles. But his is yet another example I was able to draw on when I went out for a late-evening run shortly after our conversation. I felt great for the first three miles, running “hard” but consistently to lay down some 9-minute miles. Then the wheels fell off, so to speak. I don’t know what happened yesterday — I speculate possible cumulative dehydration, or some food that didn’t agree with me, or possibly a stomach bug — but I became quite ill. I had to stop in the woods twice and decided to cut my run short. I was shuffling back toward home, wracked with painful stomach cramps, when I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was logging an 18-minute-mile pace. “I can do better than this,” I thought. I stopped shuffling and started speed hiking. The stomach cramps began to abate. My digestive system felt more settled. And I upped my pace to 14-minute miles at a much less stressful, more solid and sustainable effort. No, I wasn’t running. But I was moving slowly with purpose. And it worked.
Monday, January 03, 2011

Across the years

I was tired on New Year's Eve. There was no one reason for it, but many excuses. It had been a long week of training, running, travel, work, reduced sleep and cold, gray, otherwise completely erratic weather. By Friday morning the sun burned so bright that I had to close my eyes when I first gazed outside. Bill came stomping into my front doorway wearing his goggles and heavy boots in the late morning. "The radio said it was negative 10 when I left my house earlier today," he said, half-playfully, half-ominously.

"Ah, doesn't matter," I said with a tinge of resentment, because it doesn't really matter what gear I have or how fit I think I am - that kind of cold makes me work hard, extra hard, every time. But the world was drenched in glistening white light and enveloped by a perfect bluebird sky. To the car-bound commuters who watched us pedal through our own billowing vapor clouds probably saw our bicycle riding as excessive — excessive because it was too cold outside, and there were parties to plan, real miles to travel and hours to count. But to us, the opposite seemed excessive — excessive deprivation of fun, like going to bed before midnight on New Year's Eve.

When I was young, I loved New Year's Eve. I loved to whisper the dying seconds in my head as the crowd counted them out loud, letting beautiful and nostalgia-tinged memories slip backward like credits on a movie screen. Then, after the screams and cheers died out, I loved to take deep breaths of the crisp, cold air and believe it tasted different. I loved the sensation of everything becoming new and different within the span of two seconds, with the stars sparkling in the winter sky and the pages wiped clean, just waiting to be filled with new chapters.

Now that I am older, I realize that time is more circular than linear, and this calendar day has always only been as meaningful as the events we ascribe to it. That's why we got out for a bike ride - not for auld lang syne, but for free passage into yet another new day, memorable in its simplicity, a clear cold day with the quiet squeak of snow on Miller Creek Road and the grumbling of my heart-rate monitor that seemed to openly declare me "overtired." We rode 32 miles in four hours. I slowed so much on the frosty descent that Beat stopped often to ask what was wrong. "Nothing's wrong," I said. "I'm tired." Couldn't he hear my raspy breath or the pounding of my heart? I glanced at my HRM: 145 beats per minute, which isn't exactly extreme intensity. I put my head down and pedaled. The Rattlesnake mountains loomed in the distance, with a barrage of tiny details as sharp as icicles in the clear air.

The evening came with a three-and-a-half-hour icy car trip to Kalispell and New Year's festivities that passed in a bit of a daze. We toasted New Year's Day at 11 p.m. for Danni's friends from Chicago, then had a more subdued celebration at midnight. Somehow two more hours passed; we toasted New Year's in Juneau, and then moved upstairs at 2:30 a.m. to collapse in a stupor. I forgot to whisper the seconds as they passed or breathe the clean air of the new year. I was just too tired.

Saturday brought more cold weather, with temperatures in the single digits and decidedly more gray. We had a long slow breakfast and then Danni and her friends geared up to go resort skiing. Beat and I longed for something quieter but weren't willing to drive my Geo more than 10 miles on the icy roads, so we took his prototype sled up to nearby Patrick Canyon and set out to run a random forest service road that we had almost completely to ourselves.

Beat had a great minimalist idea for his gear sled, using a typical storage box and racing sled skis - waterproof, light, and utilizing easy-to-replace parts. Unfortunately I had forgotten how brittle plastic becomes in the bitter cold and subsequently forgot to warn him. Every single one of his zip ties eventually snapped, forcing several in-field repairs using pieces of cord he cut off one of his mittens.

During the descent, the plastic legs holding the sled runners to the box snapped clean off. Beat worked to remove all the shards from the bottom of his sled as the setting sun shot a column of light into the sky. I can't be sure but I think this was part of a "sundog," which is the term used to describe pillars or halos of bright light caused when crystals of ice in the air diffract light from the sun. It really was a beautiful moment to stand and reflect as the deep chill crept into my meager running layers.

After the sled had been converted to a plastic box dragged by two PVC pipes, I playfully dodged the swinging obstacle as we ran down the road. We rounded the corner to an open view of an incredible phosphorescent strip of deep crimson light unlike any I had ever seen. The alpenglow shimmered radioactively on the expansive crest of the Swan Mountains, far in the distance but close enough to induce involuntary yells from both Beat and me. It was one of those moments were you gasp at the beauty, take two or three woefully inadequate photographs and stare wistfully, straining to hold onto the dying light as the magic fades as quickly as it erupted. But you feel unbelievably lucky to have been there, to have slept in, eaten a long breakfast, refused to drive farther to more exciting destinations, and had your sled break a half dozen times so you could end up in that spot, at that moment, for the most perfect end to the first day of the year. It was as though we had planned it that way all along.

The rest of the run felt fantastic. I have been a woeful downhill runner but on Saturday I hit a rare stride. My micro-spikes dug into the hard-packed snow and every step felt as confident as it did light. Beat had to manage his sliding dragging box and for once I actually surged ahead of him, wrapping up six effortless miles before the light completely faded from the sky.

By Monday, my tiredness had burned through and faded, and I felt like my old perky self again. We accompanied Danni and her Chicago friends Cheryl and Chris on a snowshoe hike in Glacier National Park.

We climbed the steep Mount Brown Lookout Trail even though we knew we didn't have nearly enough daylight to reach the top of the mountain. There was ongoing debate about whether it was easier to walk with snowshoes or without, although Danni was the only one willing to give it a try.

As we made our way back toward Lake McDonald, a shimmer of yellow light in the far distance or flakes of frost on a tree branch would jog my realization - "Wow, it's 2011 already. The new year." But most of the steps were just another day in paradise, close to the things I love and moving joyfully along an endless circle of possibilities.
Saturday, January 01, 2011

Frosty face

The last day of 2010 brought clear, cold conditions. It was 6 below zero when Beat, Bill and I left my house Friday for a four-hour, 32-mile snow bike ride up Miller Creek canyon. Temps climbed into the single digits as we drove north for New Year's Eve festivities in Kalispell, and hovered near zero degrees for our sled-testing 12-mile New Years Day run up Patrick Canyon. Two beautiful days yielded some incredible scenery, including the most incredible crimson red alpenglow I've ever seen, burning up the Swan Mountains as a sundog shimmered on the opposite horizon. I'll post those photos when I have more time. But beyond the intriguing scenery and general exhilaration of exercising in the cold, there's also a humorous side-effect: Flocked facial hairs.

Early in the run, before it started to obstruct my vision.

After the run, where Beat said I had a "Lady Gaga" thing going on. The run-frosted eyelashes were still preferable to the freezing that occurred on the snow bike ride, where continued efforts to thaw my eyelashes only resulted in large blocks of ice dangling in front of my eyes. May be time to invest in some goggles.

Hope everyone is having a great new year!