Friday, July 08, 2011

Great moments

Last week, my friend Bill wrote a great blog post in which he listed his "top five greatest moments." It makes an intriguing thought exercise, because by pinpointing specific moments we consider our "greatest," we simultaneously throw a sharp spotlight on the aspects of life that make us the happiest. It sounds trite but I think listing them can have a profound impact. Take the moments you felt the happiest, analyze what you learned about yourself and life, and set your sights in those directions. So I gave it some thought this week and came up with five great moments from the past decade. To make the list, they actually had to qualify as true moments — although framed by a larger experience, these were all just a few quick but vibrant seconds that reverberated with a lifetime's worth of color and energy. I don't necessarily consider them the "five greatest" or "top five" because I don't think these types of moments are quantifiable — not only are they always changing, but they're constantly re-imagined through the lens of what has happened since. But "great moments" are worth acknowledging.

Reaching the summit of Mount Whitney with my dad, August 2001: The summers of my early adulthood were marked by long hikes with my dad. He got me started on Mount Timpanogos in the Wasatch Mountains when I was 16 years old and each summer included a progressively more epic outing. In the summer of 2001, we scored a permit for a day trip on Mount Whitney. It was an intimidating prospect — 22 miles, 6,000 feet of climbing to an elevation of 14,500 feet. It was by far the most difficult single-day effort I had ever planned. I was also approaching a big intersection in my life. I had just returned from my first big adventure — a cross-country road trip followed by a two-week rafting trip down the Green River. The travels left me with a lot of conflicting feelings about adulthood, freedom and relationships. And just two days before our hike, I had interviewed for a career job as a newspaper editor in Tooele that I was poised to get. So I had a lot on my mind as my dad, his friend Tom and I marched up the barren slopes of California's highest mountain. In the process I started to open up to my dad, and he helped me feel secure when my head spun and heart raced in the thin air. Practically crawling onto the broad peak and looking out over the sweeping ridges of the Sierras was a particularly meaningful moment for me. I'll never forget the smile on my dad's face.

What I learned about myself: I feel most at home in the mountains, I relish big efforts, and I value shared accomplishments.

Cresting Bayview Hill over Homer, Alaska, September 2005: In late August 2005 I made the spontaneous and rather terrifying decision to leave my home and job in Idaho and follow my then-boyfriend Geoff to Alaska. We decided to move to Homer nearly sight-unseen because I managed to land a job at a weekly newspaper in the quirky fishing village, population 3,000. We drove directly from Idaho to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula over three long days. I felt deeply fatigued and uncertain when we rounded the sand bluffs at Bayview Hill, where I caught my first glimpse of the Homer Spit and Kachemak Bay. I remember the calm water was glowing gold in the late afternoon sunlight; yellow birch leaves lit up the hillsides and the impressively rugged Kenai Mountains wrapped around the bay. My jaw just dropped in an "I get to live here?" kind of disbelief, and I felt a wash of strong conviction that I had landed exactly where I needed to be. Although I don't regret leaving Homer and following the path that I did, my heart still flutters when I think about that place.

What I learned about myself: I thrive in the excitement of new beginnings and I love dramatic outdoor landscapes — and Alaska.

Climbing toward Rainy Pass, February 2008: Entering the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile snow bike race to McGrath, was simultaneously the worst and best idea I ever had. I was so far in over my head that even now it's difficult for me to understand how I got through it with the knowledge and personal experience I had at the time. Everything about that adventure was so much more remote, intense and absolutely frightening than I ever anticipated, and I did the whole thing almost completely alone. I struggled and struggled and achieved small triumphs followed by crashing blows, but I just kept chipping away at it even though I was plagued with a fair certainty that I was probably going to die. (Yes, I'm more confident of my abilities in extreme conditions now. But I certainly wasn't at the time.) Despite all of this, I'm not sure any of these moments I've listed quite reach the level of pure ecstasy I felt as I plodded into the Alaska Range early on a sunny, frigid morning in February. I was so, so happy to be alive, just simply alive. But I also recognized that I was alive in one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful places I had ever seen — stark white mountains, deep blue sky, sprinkles of dwarf spruce trees and absolutely nothing else.

What I learned about myself: I really am stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined I could be, and I deeply love the wilderness — and Alaska.

Rolling into Antelope Wells at the finish of the Tour Divide, July 2009: The 2,740-mile mountain bike race was full of intense, ecstatic and triumphant experiences that all seemed to condense and collide when I coasted past the last mile marker and approached the waving arms of my mom and dad at the border. Finishing that race was a beautiful personal accomplishment, one I can never really repeat because I can never return under the same circumstances. But I can always cherish the way I set out to do this thing that genuinely seemed impossible to me, and finish with flair — arm raised in the air and a smile on my face.

What I learned about myself: I value solo accomplishments and also adventures infused with difficulty, daunting challenges and suffering, because they make the experience that much more vibrant and meaningful to me.

Standing in the moonlight with Beat during the Bear 100, September 2010: The circumstances surrounding Beat's and my "first date" at the 2010 Bear 100 are almost too convoluted to list, but we had ended up together in the most unlikely spot and we both knew it. I set out to travel 50 miles with him even though my 2010 running miles up to that point probably didn't yet total 50. Beat was fresh off a five-day, 200-mile, sleepless epic in the Italian Alps and practically flew directly from Italy to Utah to run yet another 100-mile race a week later. We barely knew each other but agreed to the meeting because to both of us, it almost seemed like our only chance. I joined Beat right at sunset and we worked through our "first-date" introductions, discussions of physics, favorite places and meaningful adventures as we ran through the night. After a couple dozen miles, we stopped for a break in the midst of a large alpine meadow. We turned off our headlamps and let the bright moonlight illuminate the mountains surrounding us. Beat said he brought something for me, reached in his pack and fished out a golf-ball-sized gray rock infused with flecks of gold and pearl. He told me he thought of me when he collected the rock early in the Italian race and carried it the entire 200-mile distance — and 70 miles of the Bear 100. I was deeply touched by the gesture, and immediately understood what that meant for both of us.

What I learned about myself: I cherish these shared moments of clarity. And Beat is a great person to share them with.

That was fun — and provided some good personal insights that I can carry into the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 next week. What are some of your great moments?

Torturing the parents

My mom and dad came to visit me for a few days, so I did what any good daughter would do for her 50-something parents in the technology capital of America — I dragged them around on grueling athletic adventures. I took this picture during our six-mile hike in Fremont
Older Preserve in 90-degree weather.

The next day, I set them up on mountain bikes for the 16-mile-round-trip ride to Google. I rode my fixed-gear commuter to keep the pace casual. Noncyclists both, they humored me all the way up to "Vista Point," a knoll that looks out over the Kingdom of Google. On the way down the smooth gravel path, I mindlessly relaxed my legs into "coast mode" and experienced the usual blunt fixed-gear force that disconcertingly feels like my tibias ramming directly through my knee joints. Suddenly the chain jumped off the chainring, so I applied the front brake and coasted to a stop. As I started to thread the chain back on, I discovered the chainring had folded inward. There were no rocks or any sort of chainring-bending obstructions in sight. My knees felt fine but the Surly chainring was completely tacoed. It appears that the sheer resisting force of my astonishingly strong legs managed to bend a stainless steel chainring. That, or I was dealing with a loose chainring bolt or otherwise defective ring. But I'm going to go ahead and give the credit to my legs.

Either way, my fixie quickly became useless and I was the one who had to call in a rescue ride, much to the amusement of my parents. I tried to make up for it this evening by taking my dad on the 2,500-foot climb up the Monte Bello Road at sunset. Did I mention my dad's not a cyclist? He's a strong hiker and runner, but rarely rides a bike. You'd never really be able to tell if you didn't know him well. He holds his own.

Here we all are at the top of the climb. Yay Dad! They're leaving here on Friday to spend the weekend in San Francisco. I wonder why they just don't stay?
Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Play in snow

I punched out my last pre-taper training runs before the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, the details of which are mostly lost to me now. I remember the battery acid burn of the stinging nettle and the way a thick film of sweat wrapped around my skin like a dirt-streaked wetsuit. Thirteen miles on Saturday left my body as weak and tired as any 50K I've ever run. It hit 98 degrees during our Mission Peak run on Sunday. I let the heat wrap around me like a death blanket and accepted its debilitating embrace. Wow, am I slow and useless in hot weather. It's as though somewhere around 88 degrees, a switch flips and I become lazy, weak and amazingly out of shape. Training in the heat, I can almost feel the fitness draining from my body as I fantasize about treadmills and air conditioning. I really can only laugh at myself because it's just a new level of pathetic, but that doesn't change how bad I feel in the midst of it all.

Sometime between Beat being on call through Sunday, and my parents arriving for a visit on Tuesday, we found a small window of escape. We loaded up the Subaru and headed for the hills of Truckee, California, where friends of ours were staying in a cabin on the shoreline of Donner Lake. We drove through Sacramento, where the temperature had hit 107 degrees, and continued into the foothills of the Sierras, a region that enjoys a decidedly more truncated version of summer.

Independence Day brought one more training "run" on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We planned a route of 20-22 miles with our friends Harry and Martina. However, there wasn't anywhere to go nearby that wasn't mostly buried in snow above 8,000 feet. No matter. We acquired some trekking poles, ran the trail where we could, and charged the snowfields like overexcited Golden Retrievers when the running stopped. (OK, maybe I was the only overexcited Golden Retriever in the group.)

The views over Lake Tahoe were really not bad.

Of course, the going through long slushy snowfields was entirely too slow to travel 22 miles and still make it back in time for hamburgers, corn on the cob, blueberry pie and fireworks. We settled for a turnaround point about eight miles in. I basically coerced the group into bagging this 9,200-foot "peak" that was really just the highest bump on a very long ridge. Truthfully, I wanted to get a good look at the ridge because we had long since stopped following the proper trail, and I thought a clear view of the sweeping, snow-capped mountains would convince the others that we should spend the rest of the day ridge-running, no dinner and fireworks needed. As far as I was concerned, the training stopped as soon as we hit snow, and everything from that point forward was pure, effortless fun. The more rational members of the group managed to get a leash around my Golden-Retriever-in-snow mentality and drag me back down the mountain.

We still got 15 miles in just under five hours. It was a pretty solid effort for that distance. The July 4th gathering turned out to be a lot of fun. We spent a good part of the evening chatting with Harry's 89-year-old step-father about secular humanism and quantum physics. That guy was as strong and sharp as most anyone half his age — and it was very interesting to meet someone whose grandfather fought in the Civil War.

Today Beat and I went out for more expedition hiking in the form of finding the proper route around Mount Judah. We had only marginal success in locating our route. Make that no success, but we did summit Mount Judah three times during our search, and completed a lot of fully strenuous direct ascents on rugged slopes.

It was fun to escape from summer for half a weekend, although we did keep the best parts of summer — the bright yellows and purples of wildflowers, warm evenings, grilled dinner eaten outdoors, rich smells of sweet grass, charcoal smoke and sulphur powder, and a delightfully brisk submersion in a mountain lake. The thermometer hit 109 in Sacramento on the way home. Time to go stock up on portable snow, in the form of ice cubes for my Camelback bladder.