Monday, January 07, 2013

But it wasn't 65 and sunny

I said it more than once last week, when admitting how sad I'd be to leave Alaska, "Well, at least when I go back to California, it will be 65 degrees and sunny." And when I recorded our stay in the Colorado Creek Cabin log, I signed out, "Back to the land of bright sunshine and 65 degrees." I'm not really sure where I formed the opinion that Bay-area winters are just like its summers, without those pesky 90-degree days. But this view is seriously skewed toward warm-weather optimism, not usually in my nature. Reality has fallen closer to days in the 50s, nights in the 30s, and when it rains, it's 40-something. Weirdly, this sometimes feels colder than Fairbanks' dry frigidity.

I had a hard time getting back into the swing of things earlier this week. Alaska took a lot out of me, and readjusting to squinting at the sun whenever I went outside was strange. Many of my friends are declaring their 2013 goals and launching their new-year fitness routines. In a way, I'm doing the same, and after much consideration, I have but one goal — sustainable excess. You may ask, "Jill, how is this different than any other fitness goal you've ever had?" The answer is — not so much different as sharper. I want to continue to chip my way closer to the edge.

We all have to define what fitness means to each of us individually; for me, ideal fitness would be that of a through-hiker or distance bicycle tourist, putting in long day after long day and only becoming stronger as I went. Of course, infinite progress is impossible, and rest and recovery are crucial. But finding the last rung of balance before the tipping point is a wonderful challenge, and one I hope to take up whole-heartedly this year, both in my writing and my running. (Yes, running. A far-out hope tells me that this is the year to try the big distance thing with running.) There will be plenty of biking in 2013, of course, but mostly for fun and travel. I would go into my specific goals for 2013 but that will be a long-winded post. Soon.

For now, it's the first week of 2013-in-training. Fairbanks had me nicely wiped out and I had to ease into it slowly. I spent the early part of the week riding, because it was just so fun to use bikes that I could propel at speeds faster than six miles per hour, seemingly without effort. Leah came out on Friday and we rode the Steven's Creek Canyon loop, 25 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing. She rocked the mud and water crossings on her skinny cross tires, and I only froze my feet and fingers a little bit in the moist, 50-degree air.

Steve and Beat, both Iditarod hopefuls, at the start of the Crystal Springs 50K. 
Saturday was the Crystal Springs 50K in Woodside. There were going to be lots of friends there, including our mountain-biker friend Liehann (in for the 35K, his longest run to date), Michele the ultra-ironman woman (she once participated in an event that featured ten Ironmans in ten consecutive days), and Karen, a cool chick from northern Northern Cali. I felt a bit uncertain about this race because I hadn't run all that much since my last 50K trail run, which was three weeks earlier. Actually, after glancing through my blog, I should amend that to no running. Sled dragging doesn't exactly count. But, in the name of sustainable excess, I decided that my ideal fit self should be able to cover this distance on foot every day (my friend Leslie hiked an average of nearly fifty kilometers a day for three solid months on the Pacific Crest Trail earlier this year. It is doable.)

Ah, running. Sometimes I try to take quick impromptu selfies without posing or changing my expression beforehand to see if I look similar to the way I feel when I am running. This photo would seem to indicate ... yes. Sweat beads, slack jaw from mouth breathing, wayward Camelbak hose, wet wipes in easy reach, earbuds, and Oreo crumbs on my lips — yes, exactly. Is it any wonder why I want to figure out how I can do this all day, day after day?

Crystal Springs actually went well for me. I was running solid until mile 21, when my hips locked up and my IT band in my right leg tightened as well, forcing me to walk most of the small hills along Skyline Ridge. The hip pain was left over from sled dragging, as it was the same nagging pain that dogged me on the strenuous hike into Tolovana Hot Springs. Compensating for my hips is what likely led to the IT/knee issue. Anyway, typical boring runner complaints, but it was demoralizing to suddenly drag so much on the one thing I consider myself good at — climbing. It was also frustrating because I had been having a good day, and even though I didn't know my pace (GPS conked out) I thought I might be in range of a 50K PR. But instead of fighting it, I settled back and gratefully accepted what my body could do at that moment. Important lessons to remember in the long-distance game.

I was able to loosen up the hip joints a bit on the final three-mile descent, and finished in 5:53, still my second-fastest time in a 50K. I also finished ahead of Beat and Steve by a fair margin because they were too consumed with Iditarod fretting and scheming to run fast.

A bad photograph of Beat chasing some deer down the High Meadow Trail. 
On Sunday, I had grand schemes to attempt another long run, but it was 45 degrees, raining, a lazy Sunday morning, and admittedly easy to demotivate. We boosted ourselves out the door for an eight-mile run on the sometimes brutally steep PG&E climb. To up the ante, it was about 2 p.m. and we had only eaten a small breakfast so far, on a 50K recovery day. The "bonk run" part wasn't intended, but it did add to the overall effect I was going for in this particular training run. My hips were a bit angry on the climb, but once we started down I thought I was doing okay. That is, until Beat teased me about running slowly. I protested that "I'm running this as fast as I always do," then looked down at my watch and realized I was running an 11-minute-mile, down a smooth fireroad. Ah, well. It's a start ... start of a brand new year. 
Thursday, January 03, 2013

Snow biking bliss

 In between our overnight trips into the wilderness north of Fairbanks, Beat and I spent a few days kicking around town.  Our friend Joel was vacationing in Hawaii, and graciously allowed us to stay at his house near the university. Fairbanks city life was an adventure in itself. The day after we arrived, the water tank froze, actually froze solid. Since it was also Christmas Eve, Joel's roommate Nathan couldn't get it sorted out until after the holiday. Nathan made a valiant effort by collecting a few dozen five-gallon jugs' worth of water from at a local water station and pouring them on top of the ice (Fairbanks has actual water stations, just like gas stations, where the many people who live off the grid go to buy water.) That and a few small pots of boiling water didn't even make a dent, so we were without running water until we got back from Tolovana Hot Springs. This added to the whole rustic Fairbanks cabin living experience. Also, we helped extract a taxi from a snowbank by pushing on the bumper with a truck. That was fun.
On these inbetween days, I had a chance to explore Fairbanks trails on a fatbike. I borrowed a bright orange 9:Zero:7 from Amy Breen, the woman who narrowly beat me for the title of "Cutest Skirt" during the 2012 White Mountains 100 race (mine was blue and hers was pink; how can I compete with that?) She was bike touring in Southern California over the holidays (this seemed to be a common theme with many of the people we know in Fairbanks. We came up to Alaska and they all went somewhere warm. What gives?) and generously offered to let me use her bike while she was gone. It was a little small for me, but otherwise the perfect adventure vehicle for exploring town. (All of these trails are within city limits.)

 Joel lives on the edge of a large network of Alaska Dog Mushing Association trails, so this was the obvious place to start. On Christmas Day, Beat went out for a session of running and gear testing, and I went for a ride. It was still quite cold in the valley, around 10 or 15 below zero. I got dressed the way I remember dressing to ride in Juneau, and let's just say I froze a little bit. Snow biking is hard work but surprisingly more difficult to stay warm than walking/running, perhaps because I'm working some muscles hard while not using others much at all (upper body, feet.) I got off the bike every ten minutes or so to run, in an effort to bring some feeling back to my toes. On the way back to Joel's house, I met a huge tractor of a groomer that had doubled the width of the trail, and also smoothed a bunch of loose power over the surface. Suddenly my narrow and fast trail was soft and punchy. I took this photo while I was venturing off the groomed track in search of something better. I didn't find much, so it was back to the groomer for a return ride that was double the effort and took double the time. Ah, snow biking. At least it was easier to stay warm.

 My next opportunity to ride was December 28, and I ventured back out on the newly groomed trail that by then had at least set up a bit. While slogging through the fluff a few days earlier, I let a bunch of air out of both tires in an effort to increase the floatation. This marginally improved my handling on the soft trail, but later I discovered that Amy had no bike pump in her frame bag, and Joel didn't have any at his house. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down a pump, and found nothing. So the rest of the trip I had to ride a bike whose tires were half-flat, probably around 4 or 5 psi. It was still super fun on the soft stuff, but annoyingly bouncy and slow on hard surfaces. I ended up seeking out marginal trails because my progress on the good trails was so infuriating.

 But, wow, the light. The color. The beauty. I found it all so enthralling and took lots of photos. This day, temperatures in the valley were about five below zero. I put on a few more layers to ride but my feet were still cold, and even though the soft tires allowed me to ride pretty much everything, I still frequently jumped off the 9:Zero:7 to run until the blood returned to my toes.

I finished my ride more than an hour after sunset and didn't ever have to use my headlamp. The light in Fairbanks is so great this time of year. Living here would have its perks, which I think would trump most of the hardships. As long as I could get outside for a short time during the daylight hours most days during the winter, I'm not sure I would even notice the twenty hours of darkness. Of course, most people have to work during these hours, which is one of the factors that makes winters so hard. My two-plus-hour ride ended up netting me thirteen miles. Average speed: 5.6 mph. Hardest half marathon ever.

On December 29, I made use of all of the daylight to go for a "long" exploratory ride. I set out not really knowing where I would end up, but aiming indirectly for either the Ester Dome or Goldstream Valley. When a few attempts at climbing the dome ended in dead ends, I dropped into the valley. Temperatures on this day had risen into the single digits. But coasting road descents = brrrrr. Oh, yeah, this is what "road" riding looks like in Fairbanks in December. Stunningly beautiful commuting.

 Down in Goldstream, I stumbled across the winter trail network. Dog mushers make the most enjoyable trails, narrow and winding through the snow-frosted forests. The only people I saw on the trails that day were two different mushers. I pulled off the trail to let them by, watching in awe as their dog teams sprinted past with single-minded focus. I'm not really a dog person, but I am fascinated with well-trained sled dogs — possibly the best endurance athletes in the animal kingdom.

 Becoming more blissed out with every slow pedal stroke.

 And the light. The color. The beauty. The narrow strip of low-angle sunlight that escaped beneath a ceiling of clouds was enough to set entire hillsides ablaze.

 I started venturing off the main trails to explore side trails that sometimes seemed to be no more than a single snowmachine track. The bike's deflated tires spread out over the soft snow and allowed me to ride trails I wouldn't have been able to walk, evidenced by the fact that whenever I stepped off my bike, I post-holed up to my shins. While fatbikes certainly can't go everywhere, it continues to surprise me just how well they perform on marginal terrain.

 If I lived in this cabin I would go snowbiking every day, and be even less productive than now. It's probably good I don't have these kinds of outdoor recreation temptations here in sunny, warm California.

But these few cherished snowbike outings were the delicious frosting on top of a rich and successful week of winter trekking. I can't really express how much I enjoyed our holiday vacation without gushing; I loved every part of it. Even freezing my toes on the way to Fred Meyer had a bemusing novelty. We went to the BLM office to purchase our White Mountains permit, and discovered that even the most mundane buildings around Fairbanks were beautiful in their winter settings — surrounded by a forest of frost crystals that glittered in the pink light of sunrise/midday/sunset. We browsed Beaver Sports and discovered winter gear we didn't even know existed (down-filled overboots? What a great idea!) We relaxed by the wood stove at Joel's house and drank cup after cup of hot chocolate, mostly without guilt, because we were so ravenously hungry all the time from playing in the cold. We visited fun people and slept under incredible moonlight. And the light. The color. The beauty. I can't wait to go back. 
Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Final trip of the year

We exceeded our expectations for our Fairbanks holiday training week by squeezing in a third overnight trip, this time into the Colorado Creek Cabin on the western edge of the White Mountains Recreation Area. Our friends warned us that this trail was "boring" compared to other routes in the Whites, but it was new ground for us, and was also one of the only cabins available at the last minute during the New Year's weekend. So we booked Sunday night and set out for our solo trip, just the two of us. We're both pretty good at the winter travel thing, but relatively new to cabin living — gathering deadfall, chopping wood, stoking a wood stove, melting snow, cooking a real dinner that isn't just candy bars. I was honestly more nervous about managing this aspect than I was about the fourteen-mile trek in. 

The temperature at the low-lying trailhead, milepost 57 of the Elliot Highway, was a balmy 5 degrees above zero. Someone asked me about this the other day, and yes, I am still referring to the Fahrenheit temperature scale (So -15˚C). It's interesting when you arrive to the cold shock of 39 below zero (-39.4˚C) and freeze your toes during a drive to the store — the internal heat gauge almost instantly resets and suddenly anything warmer kinda feels "warm," whether you're from Interior Alaska or coastal California. We were so toasty that I set out with my minimal layers of a shell coat, single fleece, thin hat, no gloves and the pole pogies pushed down to allow me to vent heat through my bare hands. 

The Colorado Creek Trail gradually climbed through a wide valley that had burned somewhat recently — there was a lot of deadfall and nothing green poking out of the minimal snow cover. The trail had likely been broken only a few days prior and was still quite soft. Travel was slow and tough despite the lack of steep hills.

I am getting better at the sled dragging, though — stronger. I actually wish I could drag a sled as a workout more often. I enjoy the mindless but hard effort, it makes me strong like bull, and it actually accomplishes a useful goal of hauling necessary supplies into incredible winter landscapes. And even though I would likely become an even slower runner than I already am, well ... Alaska doesn't much care if I can run fast or not. No one can outrun a stampeding moose or a grizzly bear.

After about ten miles of slogging through the burned forest, the trail climbed up onto a ridge with our first views of the limestone peaks of the Whites. It was beautiful up there, the kind of spot where I really would have loved to have the time, strength, and opportunity to keep traveling deeper into the mountains. This high valley was also a funnel for a powerful wind, blasting at our side. Single digits with no wind is like summer. Single digits with harsh windchill had my underdressed body well chilled within minutes. It was one of those situations where we were less than two miles from the cabin and I had naively buried my best wind layers in my sled. I had to weigh my reluctance not to stop with how cold I'd become before I reached the cabin if I didn't put on a balaclava and gloves. I waited until I couldn't feel my nose and my numb hands were no longer effective at thawing my cheeks, and stopped to dig around in my sled. Then I took the time to document the moment of frigidity. This photo sure looks cold to me.

Colorado Creek Cabin — our oasis in the valley of The Wind. We started a fire with the meager icy branches left behind by the last cabin user, along with a bunch of Beat's Esbit cubes. Beat set to the task of gathering and chopping wood while I started working on making water. The first batch of snow I gathered had floaties, so I pressed deeper into the woods to look for a clean patch. While I was fiddling with the pot on the stove, I noticed a strange burnt-hair kind of smell, followed by a snowstorm of white feathers. Ahhh! I'd brushed the sleeve of Beat's big down coat against the stove pipe and burned a hole into the sleeve. It happened so fast it was surreal. I took the coat off and darted around the cabin, trying to collect the feathers before they fell on the ground. This was the coat that got Beat through the Iditarod last year, and although he's acquired an even better one since then, I was shaken and upset by what I'd done to this much-appreciated piece of gear. Beat took it well and said he could fix the coat (and in fact, already has), but the mishap did cast a dark cloud over my cabin experience. Cabin living — sometimes it seems easier to just not stop.

The rest of the night went smoothly, though. I made better water and fried up sausage and couscous for dinner, followed by hot chocolate and dulce de leche ice cream for dessert. I wrote a rambling entry in the cabin log about the hilarity of two Californians melting snow and chopping wood in the Alaskan backcountry. Although temperatures were still in the single digits when we arrived, the south wind carried some amazingly warm air; temperatures rose as high as 27 degrees (-2.7˚C) and quickly dropped back to single digits whenever the wind calmed for more than a few minutes. Crazy weather. After ice cream, we went out for a moonlight stroll on the ridge, postholing in big drifts as we marched toward a high point that always seemed right there on the horizon, but the open slope only continued to climb.

The next day was New Year's Eve, and our last full day in Fairbanks, a reality that bummed me out a little. I wasn't ready to leave just yet, not ready at all. In fact, the idea of returning to full yellow sunshine, dry dirt, green redwood forests, and 60-degree temperatures made me feel melancholy. I enjoy my life in California, a lot. Everything is close by if I want it, including mountains and snow. But there's something about Alaska, every part of Alaska, that needles its way into my soul, every time.

We descended back into the burned forest. I didn't even realize how much elevation we'd gained the day before; the trail out was almost runnable, and we moved well. Although I was sad about leaving, I savored the hike out. Winter sled dragging is just my kind of thing. Tough enough to keep me on the edge, but mindless enough to let me turn inward, consistently beautiful, and functional in its own way. Four hours and fourteen miles is just enough effort to leave me satisfactorily knackered, which is perfect because that's all the daylight we have to work with in Fairbanks' December.

Beat was able to squeeze in more gear testing, trying out his lightweight ice creepers on frozen overflow.

The final sunset of the year gave a fitting sendoff for a great trip. Happy New Year.