Monday, June 11, 2012

Awake among the laurels

I've hardly slept in three days. There were captured naps ... five minutes here, ninety minutes there. But eastern time has not been kind to me ... my natural bedtime occurs just before sunrise. Combined with a tight flight schedule, a predawn race start, nighttime heat, and a serious case of the jimmy legs, the relief of unconsciousness has eluded me. Now on the third night I've finally surpassed fatigue and entered that waking dream state, where everything takes place behind a white veil and a few clicks off real time. It's a beautiful place, steeped in nostalgia.

We entered Pennsylvania by way of Pittsburgh. It was well after midnight in this region. This is the first time I've been east of the Mississippi in nearly ten years, and I forgot that it's kind of different out here. The freeways aren't so overbuilt. You have to dig deep into some winding country roads to get anywhere, even near cities. Farmhouses built in the 1860s are places where people live, not historic landmarks. And the hills. Oh, the hills. As we drove through the empty streets, I imagined myself back on a loaded touring bicycle, circa 2003. "I rode so many hills just like these," I told Beat. "We crossed the state line just a little north of Pittsburgh and then veered north into the Alleghenies. The Rocky Mountains were a piece of cake compared to this region. The overall elevation gains are smaller so they don't bother with switchbacks. It felt like 15 percent grades were the norm."

I didn't recognize the race directors right away, even though I've looked them both in the eyes during one of the darker moments in my life. People really do look markedly different when they're rested, clean, wearing fewer layers, and projecting an air of excitement instead of pity. Tim Hewitt looked outright strange in a cotton T-shirt and khaki shorts, and Rick Freeman was way more exuberant  than I remembered. The last time I saw them was at Yentna Station, Alaska, during the 2009 Iditarod, when I dropped out of the race with frostbite. Man, was that a depressing morning. Tim's voice of wisdom is still burned in my consciousness, and thanks to the trials of the 2012 Iditarod, he bonded with Beat as well. It felt like a little life victory to meet again under much more pleasant circumstances, surrounded by the brilliant greens of Pennsylvania hill country in the summertime, and Tim joking lightheartedly about the insanity he's experienced during his six walks to Nome. In the background, there was the nervous matter of that little 70-mile race Tim and Rick invited us to run. The Laurel Highlands Ultra. Oh, that.

This may enter my memory as my favorite running experience yet — the last eight miles of that brutal trail. There were rocks, so many rocks. I shuffled over them, stubbed my toes on them, rolled my ankles around them, tripped over them, vomited on them. The race had its expected ups and downs, and by mile 62 I was hunkered down at the last aid station, savoring a bowl of potato soup and contemplating the long descent in front of me. I wasted as much time as I could sipping ginger ale, changing the batteries in my headlight, and even arranging my pack before I returned to the now-total darkness of the forest canopy. The thing I wanted most in the world was sleep, and the only thing that was going to get me there were my aching feet. The only thing in my way seemed nearly insurmountable at the time — eight miles of rolling, rocky descending, which I suck at even when I'm fresh and strong. But when I have 100 kilometers behind me and the better part of 48 hours without sleep, at least I become a little more fearless. I pulled out the trekking poles I brought as climbing aids and thought — "Screw it. I'm going to run."

It took a few hundred yards of shuffling to work past the aches in my feet and knees, but soon I started charging down the trail, planting my poles for balance and sometimes outright vaulting over boulders. The movements somehow fell into place; I was dancing across the rocks, inexplicably without planting my face into the trail, and the motion felt amazing. I imagined myself as a mountain goat, using my four legs to float down impossible terrain. Exuberance translated to energy, the poles made me invincible, and I felt no fear. I started passing people — a half dozen people at that late and spread-out stage of the race. One guy followed me for a couple of miles, and later told me he dug as deep as he could to keep up, and still faded. Of course I never set out to "beat" a handful of fellow mid-packers. But I have to say, rather than simply bettering something you're already good at, it's even more satisfying to marginally excel and something you're really bad at. So explains my main motivation for sticking with this running thing as long as I have.

I finished in 19:01, in a race where I seriously doubted my ability to stay in front of a 22-hour cutoff. And the course was even more difficult than I expected — 70 miles of nearly a hundred percent technical singletrack, with about 14,000 feet of climbing, on typical Northeast U.S. grades. The race was mostly filled with experienced locals and race veterans, and even then the finishing rate was fairly low — out of 130 starters, 85 finished. I had a few set-backs as you almost have to in a race that long, but overall I'm happy with how it went down. The scenery was stunning. I really enjoyed spending time with Tim, Rick, Loreen and other Eastern runners. I'll likely end up blabbing further in a full race report, but for now, in my sleepless haze, this is what I remember. Good stuff. 
Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Women of the Tour Divide

Group shot in Idyllwild before this year's Stagecoach 400. The were several past and future Tour Divide women in this race: Me, Eszter Horanyi, Tracey Petervary, Mary Collier, and Katherine Wallace. Photo by Craig Lassen. 
I've been what you might call a Divide racing superfan ever since I stumbled across online chatter about the Great Divide Race in late 2005. For me, the 2,500-mile GDR was a dream race: A cross-country bicycle tour, pedaling across the stunning landscapes of the Rocky Mountains, pushing personal boundaries, and living at the sharp edge of the human condition. I devoured every update from the 2006 event: That year, only six or seven people started in Roosville, Montana. Fixie Dave had his bike stolen, most quit in Montana, John Nobile had to drop out with injuries in Colorado, and Matt Lee was out front by himself for more than 1,000 miles before he became the sole finisher. It was a decidedly anticlimactic year in Divide racing — and I was hooked.

Later that summer, I laid out a loose three-year plan that ended in me lining up for the GDR in 2009. My then-boyfriend, Geoff Roes, shook his head at this grand delusion, but he got sucked into the dream himself. He ended up starting the 2008 Great Divide Race, and pedaled with the frontrunners until he dropped out in Colorado with extreme fatigue. John Nobile went on to win and set the record on the border-to-border route, which still stands. I was there when Geoff returned to Alaska completely shattered, and watched as it took him weeks to even get excited about running again, let alone biking. By then I already understood that Geoff was a much, much stronger athlete than me, and the Divide was too intense for him. That should have been enough to scare me away — and yet, the dream persisted.

I pursued that dream with single-minded focus even though it began to disrupt my career in journalism, and continued even as my relationship with Geoff broke apart and I woke up every morning of my training weeks with a strong desire to give up and go home. But I stuck with it, and the 2009 Tour Divide was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. From the fun touring in Montana with John Nobile, to setting out on my own in the desolation of Wyoming, to the intense emotional shifts of Colorado, to the soul-crushing mud and storms of New Mexico, I still feel like I experienced a second lifetime in those few short weeks. I wrote a book about it, and even still I continue to discover new insights and inner strength that I derived from that experience.

Every year, friends ask me if I'm going to return to the Tour Divide. The answer is: I want to, and I think about it often, but I want my head to be in the right place before I make a commitment of that magnitude. I'm not really interested in riding the Great Divide at a relaxed touring pace. Although I love bike touring, I'd rather use that amount of time to explore somewhere new, or try something new, like backcountry trekking in the Brooks Range. However, I remained intrigued about returning to the Divide to live on the sharp edge of the human condition — by moving as fast as I can. In 2009, I finished in 24 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes. Even under similar (muddy) conditions and with similar fitness, I already see how better decisions could slice full days off of my time here and there. Everyone knows your first time down the Divide is a trial run, and after that you have a strong advantage with everything you've learned. Most racers also realize that the Divide is largely a contest of luck. But the Divide is one venue that plays to nearly all of my meager athletic strengths, and there's a fair chance I'll go back someday if the stars align. I get the sense that after this year, any record attempt is going to be a true test — if not impossible — for someone like me.

Right now, the 2012 roster features eleven women — eleven! It's going to be a exciting year to follow the race, which begins in Banff on Friday morning. I compiled a little bit of background for the awesome women of the 2012 Tour Divide:

Eszter Horanyi, 30, from Crested Butte, Colorado: I think Eszter is the woman to beat in this year's Tour Divide — and not just among women; all the boys will have to watch over their shoulders as well. She's a strong cyclist with an enviable combination of talent, experience, mental strength, and stamina. In 2009 she won the 24-Hour Solo Nationals and in 2011 she set the women's record in the 500-mile Colorado Trail Race. Her training rides for this year's Tour Divide included strong wins in the Arrowhead 135 and Stagecoach 400. Unless something goes wrong for Eszter, a sub-21-day finish is likely, and those who know her better would probably place that time around 18 or 19 days. My prediction: She's going to scorch it.

Tracey Petervary, 39, from Victor, Idaho: Another strong contender for the win. When it comes to adventure bikepacking, Tracey's resume is tough to beat. She's the only Tour Divide veteran among the women competing solo this year; she completed the 2009 race in 18 days and change as the stoker on a tandem with her husband, current men's record holder Jay Petervary. She's ridden a fat bike 1,000 miles on the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome, Alaska — twice! — and holds the women's record on both the Northern and Southern routes. Tracey said this year's Stagecoach 400 was her first truly solo multiday race, and that she learned a lot. She's a fierce competitor and I expect she'll be gunning for the front of the pack as long as she can.

Katherine Wallace, 40, from Phoenix, Arizona: I was fortunate to spend a little bit of time with Katherine after this year's Stagecoach 400. Katherine is a good-natured Kiwi with strong legs and humorously large water bottle cages on the fork of her Salsa Fargo (I'm fairly certain I saw 1.5-liter bottles stuffed in there.) I got the impression that she was going to take a conservative approach in this year's race with the goal of finishing, but she definitely has the motor to finish fast.

Tracy Burge, 51, from Clarksville Ohio: Tracy appeared in an article in the Dayton Daily News about being the "oldest" woman to race the Tour Divide, which she is riding in part to celebrate her 50th birthday. But Tracy actually won't be the oldest woman on the course this year; Jo Ann Burtard is 56. Tracy got her start in endurance sports in 1994, racing a marathon with her sisters. In 2008, she rode across Japan and Thailand, and from Greece to Spain during a round-the-world trek.

Sara Dallman, 43, from Wilmington, Ohio: I couldn't find much about Sara online. She seems to be a friend and training partner of Tracy's and is a bit of a runner herself. It's possible Tracy and Sara plan to ride together, although in an interview Tracy talked about riding alone.

Sarah Caylor, 42, from Caledon, Ontario: Sarah, a chef from Canada, is an endurance mountain bike racer who plans to put a couple of gears on her singlespeed for the Tour Divide (1x9). In her blog, Sarah mentioned she plans to ride about 140 miles a day, putting her on a 21-day pace. Sarah is a registered holistic nutritionist with a blog full of healthy energy food recipes. This makes me wonder if she has a specific plan for fueling on the Tour Divide. The GDMBR is the epitome of a food desert, illustrated well in the movie "Ride the Divide" when Adrian, a raw vegan, scours a gas station for food and leaves with a single jar of olives, reasoning that "they're pickled, which isn't the same as cooked." If your body isn't accustomed to processing nutrient-stripped junk and turning it into good energy, it can be difficult to function on the limited foods available on the Divide.

Michelle Dulieu, 41, from Rochester, New York: Michelle is an endurance road cyclist and randonneur who has finished the Cascade 1200. In 2007, Michelle set a women's record at Quadzilla, a 400-mile circumnavigation of New York's Finger Lakes. She's obviously strong at long distances, but it's unclear how much mountain biking experience she has. Although the Tour Divide is not a technical course, there are definitely some stretches where a little experience with rocks and mud can be an advantage. Still, randonneuring is just about the perfect background for an event like the Tour Divide.

Melissa Liebling, 33, from Tucson, Arizona: Melissa won the solo singlespeed division at this year's 24 Hours of Old Pueblo in Tucson, riding 241 miles in 24 hours and 28 minutes. Melissa is obviously a talented endurance rider, but it's not clear if she has any multiday experience.

Elena Massarenti, 37, from Valsesia, Italy: Elena is an adventure athlete who with a companion once paddled a canoe 1,600 kilometers along the Yukon River and trekked 1,000 kilometers across Patagonia. It appears Elena is planning to ride the Tour Divide with Marco Costa, a Tour Divide veteran who finished the 2011 event in 19 days.

Jo Ann Burtard, 56, from Santa Fe, New Mexico: Jo Ann has competed in the New Mexico Criterium Championships as well as a few mountain running races near Santa Fe. There are several road racing results online, but I couldn't find much else about Jo Ann.

Caroline Soong, 30, from Prescott, Arizona: Caroline won last year's Tour Divide, and this year will be racing it on a tandem with her boyfriend, Kurt Refsnider, the other winner of the 2011 race. Tracey and Jay Petervary currently hold the tandem record, and I'm among those who assumed it would stand forever — because honestly, who would want to challenge that? But Caroline and Kurt have a definite shot at the record if they can conquer the divorce-cycle stereotype.

There are 95 people total listed as starters for the 2012 Tour Divide. You can follow this year's race beginning Friday at trackleaders. com.

Monday, June 04, 2012

My first marathon

When we left the house at 5:20 a.m., it was already 73 degrees. We drove east toward the Devil Mountain, where the rising sun ignited a thin layer of fog with intense golden light. The sky was burning up right in front of me, and its red light was starting to creep down the hillsides. Beat flipped through a music playlist, searching for his favorite pre-race stoke anthem — "Walk" by the Foo Fighters. I made him stop on a Naked and Famous song that expressed my own feelings of trepidation — "Here it comes ... the unavoidable sun ... Where's my head? ... and what the hell have I done?"
For being the training race of a training race, the Diablo Marathon had unleashed an unexpected flood of anxiety. It was actually going to be my first race ever at the 26.2-mile distance. But in my mind, Diablo was a marathon only in name. The course had 8,000 feet of climbing, was comprised mainly of rugged and technical singletrack, summitted Mount Diablo twice, and promised six or more hours on harsh slopes exposed to relentless heat and sunlight. One day before the race, the temperature hit 96 degrees in Clayton, where the race started. Everything about the Diablo Marathon made the 26.2 part seem laughable and the rest like a purposeless beatdown. But I couldn't really ask for better training grounds.

Beat, crazy man that he is, opted for the 60K distance. His race started at 7 a.m. and mine started at 8:30, so I had an hour and a half to kill after the ultramarathoners left. I went to my car to slather my entire body in chamois butter, followed by multiple layers of SPF 50. I started reading my Kindle to kill time and accidentally dozed off, waking up about 15 minutes later when the car temperature had risen to at least 160 degrees. Have you ever taken a nap in a hot car with all the windows closed? I stumbled out of the vehicle in a flu-like haze, soaked in sweat, nausea, and what felt like a high fever. Fresh 85-degree air and several bottles full of water helped cool my core temperature just enough that I changed my mind about hiding in the shade until I had safely avoided starting this ill-advised race.

Mount Diablo is a prominent landmass in the Bay area, rising from near sea level to a summit elevation of 3,864 feet, with several sub-peaks along its broad ridges. I tend to laugh at the "Fake Mountain" jokes that non-locals make about this peak, but when you really get close to it, Mount Diablo is a rugged place comprised of loose, rocky slopes and abundant poison oak and rattlesnakes.  The steep trail to the summit often required a hands-on-knees march, and loose dirt made it all too easy to slip and fall, even while climbing.

The morning was already hot by the time the race started, but a stiff wind whisked along the slope. The wind carried air that was sometimes almost cool, and other times felt like a furnace blast — but the quick drying of sweat was a welcome relief. After I recovered from my nap-induced fever, I actually felt okay. In order to cope with the heat, I turned to an old trick I once used for long hikes — freezing my Camelbak bladder solid. I used a water bottle refilled with electrolyte drink as my main source of hydration, and whenever I felt particularly hot or dizzy, I took a sip of plain water from my ice-cold Camelbak. That strategy works wonders.

On our first trip to the peak, the race organizers required that we locate a secret message in order to prove we actually went all the way to the top. In retrospect, the location was obvious, but I arrived at the summit convinced the sign was going to be hidden somewhere. I wandered around the parking lot for several minutes until a road biker asked me what I was doing. "I'm looking for the top," I said. "Oh," he said. "You need to go up those stairs and the top is around the corner." As I said, in retrospect it was obvious — but the necessity of going around the visitor's center threw me off guard. That's just the kind of weird mountain that Diablo is. You can climb tough, rugged trails for two hours only to arrive at a parking lot, where you must use stairs to reach the proper summit. I was annoyed by how long it took me to find it, but I do think random scavenger hunts would add an interesting element to trail racing.

The wind wreaked havoc on the course markings, blowing ribbons off trees and turning arrow signs in opposite directions. I reached a few confusing intersections that I simply couldn't figure out, so I just stood there waiting for the next runner to catch me so we could combine our heat-addled problem-solving skills. At one point there were six of us standing at a three-way intersection with ribbons going off in every direction. According to Beat this turn was obvious, but between the six of us — several of whom had printed out course maps — we just couldn't figure it out. One guy seemed certain of the general direction of the aid station and we agreed to follow his lead — figuring that if all six of us went off course, at least we were in this together. It turned out to be the right direction, but the resulting paranoia led to me spending way too much time scanning the trees for pink ribbons, and not enough time watching the trail. This, in turn, led to two big falls — one that was almost a full header, causing me to eat a fair helping of dirt and toss my water bottle twenty feet off the trail beside a healthy batch of poison oak. Luckily I emerged from these falls mostly unscathed except for a few scratches and a goose-egg bruise on my right knee. Later, during the steep descent from the north peak, I fell on my butt three separate times while baby-stepping down the loose, gravelly trail. But I consider it a personal victory that I only fell five times — such was the technical difficulty of the Diablo Marathon.

The crux of the race turned out to be an unmarked intersection about four miles from the finish. The dirt road we had been descending forked in two directions after a gate that indicated private property, and before the gate were two trails — one with a trail sign and went up the mountain, and another unmarked path that looked like a fading deer trail. I wandered around for about five minutes, traveling a short distance down each spur and finding no sign of ribbons anywhere. I went back to the gate a fumed for a bit, wondering if I should just take the main road and hope it lead to civilization if not the race finish, when a 60K racer named Kermit caught up to me. Kermit was a Diablo veteran, having completed several distances on the same general course. He also had a map, and even he couldn't quite discern which way to go. We settled on the deer trail and sure enough found a pink ribbon about a quarter mile later. Kermit was a faster runner than me, but I didn't want to let him out of my sight. I managed to shadow him for two and a half miles, which is probably the longest I've ever sustained a downhill pace that I didn't quite feel comfortable with. But, sure enough, when the trail started trending upward again, Kermit pulled away. I was on my own in a maze of sporadic ribbons.

My GPS said I had traveled 26.1 miles when I reached another intersection. The arrow sign had blown over but pointed distinctively to the left, and all of the pink ribbons went that way. When I looked down the dirt road, I could not see any ribbons. I figured I had to be really close to the finish, but GPS watches can be wrong, course distances vary, and I had traveled a small amount of extra mileage. I turned left and soon began climbing up a steep slope.

The trail just kept on climbing. I was convinced this couldn't be right, but there were still pink ribbons, and in trail racing, you don't question the ribbons. When my GPS registered 27 miles I was at nearly 1,500 feet elevation, which didn't seem right at all given the race finish was closer to 500 feet. A quarter mile later I reached a ridge and finally understood where I was — right back where I had started, climbing Mount Diablo. I idiotically managed to turn off course right at the very end — and consequently beginning — which is why there were still ribbons and signs on the trail.

Since I had already botched the race, I briefly considered just running another mile and half up the trail to register a solid 50K. But I knew I'd have to climb another 1,000 feet in the process, plus I was already out of water and nearly out of electrolyte drink. So I turned around, laughing at myself because out of all of the confusing intersections, this mistake really was my fault.

Sure enough, the finish was less than a quarter mile from my wrong turn. I finished the race with 28.5 miles and 8,300 feet of climbing. As I was explaining to Kermit why I came in more than a half hour after him even though he last saw me just a mile from the finish, the race director walked up and handed me this coaster. Despite all I was actually the first woman to finish the marathon distance, and the fifth overall of 18 finishers (probably about 20-22 starters. There were definitely a few drops.) Although Strava placed my marathon finishing time at 6:32, my actual finishing time was 6:58. A seven-hour marathon. I think Pearl Izumi would agree that's a pillar of excellence. Beat finished the 60K in 9:31, coming in sixth.

I am happy with how it went, because I managed all of these challenges that are really difficult for me — heat, technical descending, feeling horribly lost — quite well. I kept a solid but sustainable pace so I didn't screw up my taper for the big test next weekend. I ended up fueling solely on Clif Shot Bloks and the mysterious pink electrolyte drink. My fueling strategy for supported (and unsupported) races is usually just to pick the first thing that looks good to me and stick with it for the duration of the race. The surprise of what food that might be is a fun bonus, but as an actual fueling technique, it seems to work well for me. And I only fell five times! Oh, and I won the race. Even though it was a small race, that was a nice reward for the brutal beatdown of the Devil Mountain.