Friday, February 10, 2012

The wonder of candy

I've lived away from cold weather just long enough that I'd forgotten just how disconcerting it can be when I'm outside in the extreme cold, wearing all the clothing I have with me, and develop a chill. During a New Year's Day hike with Anne and Beat in the Shell Hills of Alaska, this kind of chill set in so quickly that I had no time to react. One minute I was working hard and generating heat as I broke trail through the bottomless powder with my snowshoes, and the next I was shivering. I had fallen behind Beat and Anne at that point, I couldn't find the power to keep up with them. I was pushing what felt like a maximum effort, drifting farther back from my friends, and involuntarily shivering as a stiff crosswind blasted 10-below-zero air against my body.

The wind-chill was likely near 30 below, but I had experienced colder just days before, for a much longer period of time, wearing the same clothing. Still, my core temperature was too low, and dropping.  Panic began to creep around the periphery as I mined my memories for a solution to this obvious onset of hypothermia. The flash of inspiration was sudden and simple — oh yeah, I'm bonking.

I pulled a Peanut Butter Twix bar out of my coat pocket, ripped open the wrapper with my teeth because my fingers were becoming too numb to work properly, and stuffed the whole frozen stick in my mouth. Within minutes, the sucrose entered my bloodstream and stoked the flickering coals of my internal furnace, which flared into a flame of burning glucose, which quickly spread through my cells with pleasant feelings of energy, and, more importantly, warmth. After that, I was fine for the remainder of the hike. I hadn't changed anything about my clothing or pace; the only thing I needed was a Twix Bar.

Like throwing dry kindling on a dying fire, sugar is one of the quickest and therefore most effective sources of energy. Proteins and fats — both nutritional fat and body fat — are more like hardwood logs — slow burning but long-lasting. Great if your fire is going strong, but much more useless if you've already fallen into a hypothermic bonk. From a nutritional standpoint, this analogy is much too simplistic, but you get the idea. A steady stream of sugar ensures a steady stream of energy, and in my experience burns so quickly that I never experience the dreaded "sugar crash" unless I stop eating all together. Most sports nutrition companies are essentially selling scientifically formulated versions of simple carbohydrates. For my purposes, I like good, old-fashioned candy.

I'm not claiming this is a sound, high-performance sports nutrition strategy. But here's my problem. Most of the time, I am an intelligent 32-year-old woman. I've read the studies, tried different products, and strive to follow what I've concluded is a healthy lifestyle. But when I immerse myself into these intense ultra-challenges, my mind devolves into something more suited to a 4-year-old girl. Suddenly I'm driven not by rationality and experience, but instinct and emotion. My thoughts swirl and flutter in senseless directions. I'm easily confused; I overreact, throw embarrassing temper tantrums that if I'm lucky no one else sees, then reluctantly continue moving forward because the adult in my immediate past has told me this is what I need to do, and children usually do what they're told.

Usually. But not always. This adult, in previous challenges, has also tried to make sound nutritional decisions. But the 4-year-old I become will have none of this healthy-eating nonsense. The internal conversation often goes something like this:

32-year-old adult who planned the menu and packed the food: "Here, eat this 100-percent organic, gluten-free, electrolyte-enhanced flaxseed oil and coconut energy glob."

4-year-old: "Ew, no."

Adult: "But you need this energy glob, it will keep you moving. It will keep you strong."

4-year-old: "Gross. No way."

Adult: "But you're going to bonk, you're going to wish you ate it. Mmm, yum yum energy glob."

4-year-old: "NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo!"

Adult: "Fine. Go ahead and starve, then."

Since I am both the adult and the defiant 4-year-old, I have learned the hard way that nobody wins this battle. The 4-year-old will hold out to the point of energy crisis, and fall into holes that are very difficult to extract myself from. I now know to just give in to my more primitive cravings.

Adult: "Here, eat a big handful of peanut butter cups."

4-year-old: "Yay! I love peanut butter cups! I love this! I wish every day could be hundred-mile-slog peanut-butter-cup day!"

And I have learned, in these situations, everybody wins. The 4-year-old version of me stays relatively content, warm, and fueled, and thus has a better chance of finishing the race, which makes adult me happy.

Today I wandered around Trader Joe's to choose items for my "rocket fuel" mix. This is "rocket fuel" in the Voyager 1 sense. It won't make me fast, but my rocket fuel will enable me to motor slowly into deep space (or at least backcountry Alaska) on a single generator. I plan to carry six 500-calorie bags for refuel at each checkpoint, along with 1,000 calories of salty snacks and 1,000 calories of straight-shot-sugar gummies. Right now I'm thinking about mixing mini-peanut butter cups and chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels (for crunchy peanut buttery deliciousness), chocolate-covered espresso beans (for slow-drip constant caffeine), and roasted pecans (to trick myself into some protein and slow-burning fats.) The salty snacks will likely be Combos or some kind of cheesy crackers. For gummies, right now I'm really into Sour Gummy Life Savers. The Susitna 100 also requires 3,000 calories of emergency food that we're not allowed to consume until after we leave the last checkpoint, the final 15 miles. For this I'm planning on carrying the old standby of king-sized Snicker Bars, in case the rocket fuel becomes unappealing. This totals 8,000 calories, 5,000 of which I intend to consume over 36 to 48 hours. And of course everything will be supplemented by checkpoint meals, of which I'll probably have access to three or four, and which tend to be carby and salty. I'm also carrying electrolyte tablets.

It's a junk food feast that's far from nutritionally sound. But when it comes to nutrition, there's food that keeps you healthy, and there's food that keeps you alive. I have learned that sometimes, these aren't necessarily the same foods — and the latter is more important.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

This and that

I try to avoid bullet-point blog updates, but right now life is tugging from several directions. I have been making progress on writing projects, just as my 2011 tax forms have started to trickle in from the publishing world at large. The numbers are more encouraging than discouraging, and I'm trying to leverage that into motivation to increase my production, send out more queries, and try not to derail my progress with thoughts such as, "I could really benefit from spending the whole day reading articles about eBook formatting" or, "I wrote this bullet point blog post today, and that was almost like being productive." No ... no it wasn't.

• Publishing. Both of my books have been enjoying decent sales for the past few weeks. It has been interesting following the trends in online book sales. It seems bike bloggers now regularly land spots in the list of Amazon's top twenty best sellers in cycling.  There are still many bike books I have yet to read (my Kindle is choked with unread books right now), but one I have been browsing with much amusement is Elden "Fatty" Nelson's "Comedian Mastermind." It helped that I received a paperback copy (does anyone else suffer from Kindle guilt? It's like looking at a stack of overdue library books every day.) Elden even personalized the book with the inscription, "For Jill, who routinely does what I never would even consider. Ride on!" I wasn't sure if this was a compliment or a veiled insult, but the "Ride On" sweetened the sting enough to continue reading.

I have been a regular reader of Fat Cyclist's blog since 2005. He lives about ten miles from the town where I grew up, and I rode with him several times during the spring of 2009, while I was staying in Utah and training for Tour Divide. So I feel like I know the guy; of course, many of the thousands of Fat Cyclist readers probably feel the same way I do. Fatty comes across as personable and friendly, the kind of guy you would like to ride with on a Saturday afternoon. He's also a prolific writer who can be poignant and funny at the same time. "Comedian Mastermind" covers the best of his blog from 2005-2007, printed with introductions and footnotes so you feel, as the back-cover-blurb describes, like Fatty is "standing behind you, reading over your shoulder, and telling you what he was thinking while he wrote and why he wrote it, all while eating a sizable sandwich." It actually does read like a personalized collection — as though Elden compiled this book specifically for me, the girl who regularly does things he never would, so I can laugh along with his self-inflicted misery, two-wheeled triumphs, and keen observations about cycling's often absurd culture.

Of course I'm going to like the book, as a long-time fan. I also tried to look at it as an objective reader, someone who's never heard of Fat Cyclist's blog. Although there's a peppering of inside jokes, thanks to Fatty's informal writing style, you don't have to be a regular reader to get it. For the non-fan, it's a compilation of humorous cycling essays and epic ride stories. For the Fat Cyclist fan, it's a nicely organized digest that's enjoyable to revisit. And if you're like me and enjoy uploading light and short reads on your Kindle for easy consumption at airports and other places of wait, this is a great book for that. Recommended read. (On sale here.)

• Readers. Thanks to the recent post-holiday increase in book sales, I have been hearing from more readers recently. I received an e-mail from a man who is headed to UTMB this August, who told me that he was enjoying the book to the extent that "as a non-bike-rider, the (Tour Divide) is now on my very long term bucket list." Other readers have told me the book inspired them to ride more or plan a bikepacking trip. Next week I will likely join some kind of live chat to answer questions for the Women's Adventure Magazine book club, which is currently discussing "Be Brave, Be Strong." I wanted to say thank you to those who reached out to me (although I suspect many of them are not readers of my blog.) It's definitely motivated me to keep writing.

• Training. I think my taper is going well. I am actually tapering, which means I have noticeably reduced the amount of time I spend exercising each day. This has also proved to be problematic, because if I'm "only" going to run for an hour, I want to make it count. Not because I believe "making it count" will help me next week, but because running hard feels so good and if I only do it for an hour, it won't even hurt. Issues arise because I never did any speed work in training, so running hard inevitably leads to much soreness the following day. This is hardly confidence-inspiring for my hundred-mile snow slog in just over a week. But I try not to think too hard about what six-mile aches implicate for something seventeen times as long.

UTMB. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc sent out a news release full of interesting statistics. It appears 10,000 people put in for the lottery for the 2012 race. The 2,000 entrants represent 75 nationalities. It didn't specifically say what percentage of participants are from the United States, but it seems only 8 percent of entrants are women. This surprised me; I expected to see something closer to 20 or even 30 percent. This low number makes me want to finish this race even more, and I do plan to work for it this summer. I envision lots of long, steep hikes in the mountains. Yes, it's a tough life, but someone has to do it. We are the eight percent.

• Awesome women. I wanted to congratulate Eszter Horanyi for scorching the course in 2012 Arrowhead 135, setting a new women's bike record at 18 hours and 18 minutes. I've only met Eszter briefly, at last November's 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, but I do read her blog and regard her as a kindred spirit of sorts — possibly what I would be like, if I was fast.

• The Susitna 100. I can't wait for February 18, which has now officially reached the ten-day weather forecast. Right now, the weather looks good, but I am feeling optimistic regardless of what the weather does. Even if it's 35 degrees and raining, I will put on my Juneau Super Suit and snowshoes and slog this thing out. I am genuinely excited about it. My friend Danni and I have been discussing food and strategy. I will probably make a Su100 gear post in the next week.

• Bulleted blog posts. I'll try to avoid them in the future, I promise.

Monday, February 06, 2012

In between adventures

I am, at my core, a lazy person. I often tell people that the reason I aim for big expedition-style races is to establish an iron-clad excuse to pursue hours of adventure training. But sometimes I realize that the opposite is also true — I "train" so I can justify big adventures. Remove the adventure factor — either adventure as training, or training for adventure — and I start to display disconcerting impassivity for the hobbies I claim as passions.

I'm beginning to realize that adventure might just be my only motivation for exercise. Physical fitness? Small improvements in my mediocre athletic abilities? Better overall health? Looking good in a pair of jeans? Boring. Okay, I'm only joking about the boring part, and lying if I try to pretend that I don't care about these things at all. The truth is, adventure only motivates me on that superficial psychological level; biologically, I'm so addicted to endorphins that I'd happily run up and down the same flight of stairs at an airport before I gave up more than a couple days of exercise. But the promise of adventure is what drives me up and down those stairs. Without it, the more boring aspects of exercise likely would have crushed my spirit long ago, and I would have succumbed to my lazy side.

I have been looking for reasons why I've been in a bit of a funk this weekend. I think part of it sparked when Beat and I talked about a trip to Yosemite that couldn't happen for various reasons. I was fine with it because I'm already set for another trip to Alaska in two weeks, and I have all of these exciting adventures planned — endurance sled dragging, visiting friends and climbing mountains, watching Beat start the ITI, snow biking. Why feel disappointed about a little trip to Yosemite? I've been spoiled by jet-setting adventures for months now, and yet, and yet ...

Beat wanted to go mountain biking on Saturday. I wasn't sure why, and didn't admit it to him because I had no good reasons, but I didn't really feel like riding. Angelo the miracle worker massage therapist had realigned my wonky knee on Friday. Where the joint felt weak and rubbery on Thursday, it felt stronger and better tuned after the massage. The thought of being "fixed" filled me with optimism, and I had a great ride later that afternoon on my singlespeed — cranking hard up 2,700 feet to Black Mountain and feeling great on what should be a knee-crushing bike. But when the weekend came around, laziness crept back in. With just two weeks until the Susitna 100, there's not a lot I can do now to physically improve my chances in that race. So fitness training is in a period of limbo. At the same time, it was a beautiful clear day, and so warm that Beat's friend Liehann asked if we had any sunscreen. What was wrong with me that I couldn't get more excited about four-plus hours of care-free mountain biking? Beat suggested that I ride the Fatback. "That's right!" I said. "It's about time I start training for the White Mountains 100." Motivation found.

Our home trails are pleasant and enjoyable, but admittedly not the adventure they used to be. I did experience small shots of adventure when the rear Endomorph tire nearly washed out on the loose rocks of a few hairpin turns. But those particular rushes of adrenaline don't count as the good kind of adventure given it's so close Su100, and also not really enough scary fun to justify pedaling that beast of a bike on a ride with close to 4,000 feet of climbing. Still, I did enjoy myself once I got my lazy butt out the door, even if the ride did involve four hours of chasing two boys who were constantly locked in an unspoken race with each other.

Even though the mountain bike ride was awesome, Sunday only renewed my battle of motivation with an afternoon trail run. Beautiful sunny day, narrow trails, wending through the woods and emerging on a rolling ridge. Boring. Okay, I really am just joking about that. I am a lucky person; I just need to remind my lazy side of this fact from time to time.

I could learn a thing or two from my cat, who spends all of her time in a small apartment. And still, she can get herself worked up in the most enviable frenzies from a rustling of leaves on the porch, a noise in the hall, or nothing at all. Sometimes I think it would be nice not to have to travel to farther corners of the world, seeking increasingly more challenging endeavors, just to renew that rush of excitement. But if I could somehow feel that way just hanging around my house, I would miss out on so much life.