Friday, November 02, 2012

Heading down to Frog Town

Photo from the 2011 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. I don't remember who sent it to me, so unfortunately I can't credit it.
On Wednesday I made another long trek across northern Nevada with three mountain bikes wedged inside the Subaru and a sharing-size package of Pretzel M&Ms to keep me company. A secret shame of mine is that I sorta love endurance driving/road trips, but not so much when anchored to Interstates because of time constraints. If I had my druthers I would take twice as long to reach Salt Lake City via a slow drive over the Sierras through Yosemite National Park, followed by a thirsty traverse of Nevada and the Great Basin on U.S. Route 50, i.e. "The Loneliest Highway." Someday. But until then I battle the hypnotic effect of I-80 with tried and true endurance-racing sleep deprivation techniques, such as sucking on M&Ms or Life Savers, and blasting myself in the face with frigid air. I only stop long enough to empty my bladder and refill my caffeinated beverage supply, and I've managed to whittle the 800-mile trip to twelve hours.

But the reason I am returning the the Beehive State for the third time in just over a month is this race that Beat and I signed up for back in May; this late-season race neither of us really trained for despite the fact we're both a bit overtrained and tired in general; this random Utah race that we've made something of a tradition just because it's so full of silly fun; this mountain bike race that just happens to also be really long and arduous, called the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow.

The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow is "The Longest One-Day Race Evah!" because it takes place over Daylight Savings Time, so the clocks fall back and add another hour to the day. And how does one make a long day last even longer? How about continually riding laps around the same thirteen-mile loop of dirt, sand, singletrack, and rocks, for twenty-five hours, at least fourteen of which are going to be pitch dark because hey, it's November. And even though this race is held in the desert of Southern Utah, it's still November, so temps can and usually do drop well below freezing at night. And no matter how much fun I'm having when my wheels first hit the sand, eventually I realize that it's 5 a.m. and the sun has been gone for twelve hours, I've probably run over at least one kangaroo rat and witnessed the disturbing carnage of many more, my fingers are frozen and my shoulders feel like someone is stabbing me with a hot fork, I've ridden a mountain bike 150 miles and am still hoping for fifty more, but there are so many things I'd rather do than ride my mountain bike, including stabbing myself with hot forks. And still, when I think back to the 23 laps and 300 miles I've already ridden in two years of Frog Hollow, my memories are filled with scenes accompanied by playful music like "Naked Kids" by Grouplove:

Yeah, racing a mountain bike for 25 hours is kinda like that ... in a magical world where the desert washes are filled with Pepsi and fairies and unicorns ride mountain bikes. I fully expect to see some fairies or unicorns in Frog Town, given this race starts only three days after Halloween.

Clearly I don't have high ambitions for this race. There's going to be some fast ladies lining up and I expect them to put in inspiring efforts as I dawdle far too much, doing whatever it is I actually do out there in mountain bike fairyland. I got on the podium last year by slowly picking my way through the field as temperatures dropped into the low twenties and some of the faster women slowed down in that water-bottle-freezing cold. I might have even won outright if I hadn't eaten a can of tuna and sent my stomach into a tailspin. It's all fun and games until someone eats a can of tuna. Then it's just unpleasantness, vomiting, and flickering moments of lucidity when all the tough realities emerge — "Actually, riding a mountain bike for 25 hours isn't silly fun. It's really hard. And I love the Jem Trail but I've already descended it thirteen times. I mean, really, Jill? Really?"

So I will stay away from tuna this year, and otherwise just focus on fun. Beat unfortunately is injured, again. He crashed his mountain bike two weeks ago and took a hard handlebar punch in the rib cage. He finally visited his doctor earlier this week and confirmed that one of his ribs is cracked. Beat's doctor knows him all too well and admitted that he can probably race his bike because there's little he can do for a cracked rib anyway. But it causes him a lot of pain, so we'll see how long he holds out at Frog Hollow. I'm glad he's still flying out here tomorrow and hope he can have at least one fun lap. In all likelihood he'll stubbornly push through a hundred-plus miles because he's just like that. His capacity for largely purposeless suffering never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, this is just my blog post signing out for a few days. Have a great Daylight Savings Weekend, everyone. And take comfort in the fact that Election Day is nearly here, and no matter what happens, at least the election will be over. 
Monday, October 29, 2012

Go with the Flow

Shortly after I finished my Kokopelli Trail ride in Utah last weekend, I found myself in a position I land in frequently — trying to explain to skeptics what it is about long bike rides that I find so appealing. When attempting to verbally describe this concept while my mind is still fried from the physical demands of the ride, I often hem and haw and mutter buzz words such as "pretty" and "mountains." One non-cyclist friend speculated that she would become "crazy bored" on a six-hour solo ride; another mountain biker friend called this particular redrock canyon route "cheesy" because it lacked the necessary amount of adrenaline-pumping singletrack. "I can't really explain it," I finally concluded. "But long-distance rides are one of the few activities I can fully immerse myself in. Sometimes when I'm on my bike, I get so caught up in the movement that I let go of everything else; nothing else matters. It's liberating, really, to lose myself so completely."

A couple of days later, while chatting about music on our way home from Moab, my friend Craig shared similar sentiments as he described improvising on his saxophone. After his wife and daughter go to bed, he sometimes slips into his garage and lets the whole world disappear into the music. He's playing the instrument, but the harmony seems to be creating itself, an independent energy that pulls him along for the ride. As the conversation continued, I realized that Craig wasn't just describing the same emotions I feel during long bike rides. He was describing the same experience.

When I pointed out the similarities of our reactions to these two otherwise unrelated activities, Craig recommended I read "Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This was a fairly popular pop psychology book written in the 1980s that I had never heard of before this past weekend; strangely, as Csikszentmihalyi's theories bolster the same ideas I have been forming — and writing about — for years. "Flow" proposes that optimal experiences are formed when people focus so fully on an achieving a goal that they shed all excess distractions, and in the process experience energized attention, enlightenment, and joy. He proposes that the happiest people are those who consistently enter this kind of "flow" state, funneling all of their energy and emotions into the singular satisfaction of the moment.

"I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it," Csikszentmihalyi wrote in "Flow." Later, when describing his clinical research, he explained, "What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy."

And another quote that will resonate with endurance junkies everywhere: "The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."

It's a compelling concept that can obviously be applied far beyond the simple acts of riding bicycles or playing jazz music. A painter creating a mural, a lawyer building a case, two friends engaged in an engrossing conversation, and a worker on an assembly line are among examples of flow states described in the book. I just started reading "Flow" and am only a quarter way in (27 percent according to my Kindle), but it's been quite illuminating reading. I considered some of the times in my life during which I've entered into a fully immersive state, and the activities that generated this flow:

1. Long-distance cycling, especially in wild and scenic landscapes
2. Hiking and running, especially in physically demanding conditions or on difficult terrain (i.e. climbing steep mountains)
3. Piecing together all the components of a daily newspaper under tight deadline pressure (i.e. editing and designing newspaper pages — sadly not a high-demand skill these days.)
4. Writing

In fact, flow is exactly what has been missing from my writing lately. Reading this book has sparked consideration as to how I can get this back. For the past year, my strategy has largely consisted of aggressively pursuing the first two activities. This has kept me saturated in flow experiences and subsequent feelings of contentedness and happiness, but admittedly at the expense of more traditional productivity. Still, I feel grateful that I'm healthy and secure enough to have regular access to this enriching state — even if relatively few can understand what's so great about riding a bicycle. It means something to me — and in an existence formed by inner experiences, that's what matters.

I'll continue reading this book and working harder to apply this satisfying singular focus to other aspects of my life. But I'm blogging about it now because I believe the concept of flow can be an effective shield in the widespread battle against anxiety, depression, and discontent. It's something worth reflecting on — What activities bring you to a state where you forget about time, hunger, exhaustion, even fear? How can these activities become more of a central focus in your life? I think these are important questions. 
Saturday, October 27, 2012

Love, Utah

Sunday afternoon after the half marathon, the California crew headed into Arches National Park to do some sightseeing. We decided to treat or tired legs to an easy walk, so Delicate Arch became the destination. At three miles with 500 feet of climbing, it's not nothing — but the rewards are much greater than your average three-mile hike. Despite all of my excursions into Southeastern Utah as a youth, I haven't ventured inside Arches National Park in many years, and have not hiked to Delicate Arch since I was a teenager.

Admittedly, visiting Delicate Arch is on the cheesy end of the outdoor activity spectrum. The iconic landmark has been so exploited to death that now it's most common to hear things like, "Wow, that's what's on the license plates!" from fellow hikers while standing in the presence of this wholly unique entrada sandstone formation. Still, being there made me feel like a little kid again. The weather was gorgeous and we sprinted out onto the sandstone bowl beneath the arch, climbing boulders and basking in the sun.

I'm pretty sure I have a similar photograph of me and other friends sitting on this exact same rock that was taken when I was seventeen years old. I wish I could find it for comparison's sake. The whole excursion was a relaxing and satisfying addition to nostalgia weekend.

On Monday, I headed back to Salt Lake with Craig and Jen. It was Craig's daughter's fourth birthday that day, and he wanted to take her to Sand Dune Arch to play in the sand. I took advantage of the Arches stop to go for a quick six-mile sandy trail run. It was, in a strange way, my most satisfying outing of the week — even moreso than my long mountain bike ride on Saturday or half marathon on Sunday. The weekend crowds had gone home and I seemingly had the trails all to myself, revving my high gears to make good time in the sand and experiencing truly breathtaking surprise when I encountered a new arch around nearly every corner.

The Colorado Plateau is a magical place, and for me rivals the Alaskan tundra in its intimidating expansiveness and bewildering beauty. And like Alaska, the desert can be unforgivably harsh, not the kind of place many people seek to venture very far off the beaten paths. I certainly didn't venture out this weekend, but returning to these spots and looking out over these horizons reminds me that I want to come back, someday, and trace the hidden contours that have been permanently seared in my imagination. I love Moab.

By the time I returned to Salt Lake, winter had arrived, including the first real valley snowstorm of the year. On Tuesday morning I had a few hours to kill before my flight, and found myself standing near the window of my parent's house in Sandy, watching drizzling raindrops hit the sidewalk. "I want to go for a run, but it's really too cold," I told my mom. Then I had a had a moment of self-awareness when I realized that 43 degrees and raining was exactly the kind of weather I went out in nearly every single day when I lived in Juneau. The deep shame of being California-wimpified pushed me out the door, and I had a fantastic 7.5-mile power-hike/run with 3,000 feet of climbing on the Bear Canyon trail, also signed as the Orson Smith and Cherry Canyon Logging trail. Basically, I was working my way up the lower slope of Lone Peak and daydreaming about scenarios in which I had both the time and hardcoreness to ascend above snowline all the way to the summit. I love the Wasatch Mountains.

I did see a little bit of sleet above 7,000 feet elevation, which made me very excited as that's my first hit of snow this season. Winter is my favorite season, even though these days I see so little of it that I've lost nearly all of my cold-weather street cred and even tolerance (see above.) But it was a great end to a very full and rewarding last-minute trip. Thanks, Utah.