Monday, May 06, 2013

Canadians in San Fran

Some Canadian friends from the cold and snowy Yukon have been in California all week, traveling in an RV and riding mountain bikes along the central coast. I'd been hoping to connect with them, but nothing worked out until they reached San Francisco on Sunday. By then, five of the six were tired and a little burnt out from the unseasonably-warm-even-for-us heat snap. But Sierra, always reliably "sharky" when she goes on bikecation, was raring to ride.

I mapped out a route starting from the girls' rental home in Noe Valley, warning Sierra that it might be a "little bit hilly." One block from the house, we made a left turn and churned up a wall that took us to nearly a level sightline with Twin Peaks, the highest point in San Francisco. We'd been climbing a 17 percent grade for a half mile. We caught our breath as I set my GPS and Sierra said something to the effect of "Is the whole ride going to be like this?" I shrugged. Well, kind of, yes. First city, then open hillsides, but the topography doesn't change much. A big grin spread across her face, indicating genuine excitement for the punishing nature of this ride. I remembered why, for all of our personality and geographical differences, Sierra and I make great partners in crime.

Sierra was most excited about crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to warn her that this mile-and-a-half-long span could be clogged with erratically weaving tourists on rental bicycles, loud and smelly from vehicular traffic, and even the bridge didn't have a level grade (it arches quite a bit.) But with a stiff wind and temperatures in the 60s, it wasn't a perfect weather day by San Francisco standards, and tourist traffic was mercifully light. As we rolled across the bridge, a giant cruise ship passed underneath, with many of the passengers standing on the deck and waving at us. It was a fun snapshot of city life that reminded me of the days when I would hike up Mount Roberts in Juneau and dangle my feet 1,800 feet over the cruise ship docks.

After we crossed into the Headlands, I led her on a familiar route that follows long the lines of "Climb 1,000 feet. Drop 1,000 feet. Climb 1,000 feet. Drop 1,000 feet." Sierra is more into all-mountain type riding than dirt touring, so I tried to pick out the best legal singletrack that we could access. Still, it was indicative of how limiting California riding can be compared to a much less populated and more inclusive place like the Yukon. In this photo, she is probably pointing to a trail that looks fun as I'm shaking my head. "Nope, no bikes allowed, sorry. If a ranger catches us we'd get a big ticket."

Those disappointments aside, we had a great ride and Sierra was leaving me in the dust on the last few climbs. After we dropped to the bottom of Tennessee Valley, I said, "Well, we can climb one more big hill, or we can turn around and go back now." Sierra looked at her watch, calculated the time and smiled. "One more big hill," she agreed. I love riding with someone who will always say yes to "one more hill." We do make great partners in crime.

Sunday night brought pre-birthday celebrations for Jenn, who turned 40 on Monday. We hiked up and down a series of steep pitches to reach the Mission, while Sierra commented that "this city is going to murder my calves." Sierra organized dinner at a dark and funky place called Kronnerburger, where only burgers and really salty sides graced the menu. My digestive system isn't great with this type of food (or meat in general), so I went soft with a grilled crab burger. Sierra, on the other hand, ordered the Kronnerburger extra rare ("tartare" she emphasized to us) with marrow on the side. It was actually served with a chunk of beef bone that she had to dig the gooey marrow out of, with a spoon, before spreading it on her burger. "That is some PhD-level meat eating right there," Monica said, and we all laughed at our own sophomoric efforts. Even my crab burger with a few bites of pickled green tomatoes, onion rings, and poutine (which we call fries with cheese and gravy around here), left me feeling ill. I don't deny it's delicious, though.

On the training front, I had a decent week. I went light on running and my sore shin seems to be improving, although I managed to burn my skin with an ice pack earlier this week. Beat asked me why I recently started tracking my training again and I told him that I want to better keep track of my patterns so I can interpret potential injury indicators. I also saw my doctor today for an annual physical and got a clean bill of health, which is encouraging.

Monday: Trail run, 9.1 miles, 1,611 feet of climbing
Tuesday: 0
Wednesday: Road bike, 31.1 miles, 3,442 feet of climbing
Thursday: Road bike, 17.8 miles, 2,504 feet of climbing
Friday: Mountain bike, 17.1 miles, 2,594 feet of climbing
Saturday: Trail run, 13.6 miles, 1,980 feet of climbing
Sunday: Mountain bike, 36.1 miles, 4,930 feet of climbing

Total: 22.6 miles run, 102.1 miles ride, 17,061 feet of climbing
Friday, May 03, 2013

Heat training

I have to admit this shin-resting short break from running has been well-timed. A heat wave settled in to central California this week, bringing temperatures well into the 90s. When it comes to outdoor activities in the heat, biking is considerably more tolerable than running. There's less chafing, more coasting, and a guaranteed wind chill. Still, next week I am participating in a 50-mile race that's likely to see some toasty temps, and I've been trying to acclimate myself by spending a half hour every evening suffering in a 180-degree sauna. Although 90-degree weather often has me using any excuse I can find to stay indoors, it seemed prudent to get some heat-training bike rides this week.

On tap for Thursday: The good old "lunchtime climb," Monte Bello Road. It was 95 degrees at lunchtime so I put off leaving until 5:30. It was still 91 degrees. I had cleverly put my water bottles in the freezer for pre-ride chilling, and then pedaled about a mile up the road before I realized that I'd forgotten them. Blast! There was a few moments of panic, then hedging on whether to turn around, then resolve that this ride was only about 80 minutes and doing it with no water would be good heat training, good heat training indeed.

I am always trying to better my time from home to the top of Monte Bello, a one-way distance of 8.5 miles with about 2,500 feet of climbing. My best time is just a few seconds over 50 minutes, but I'm not in the kind of shape for such quickness right now. Still, my plan was to go hard. As I wrapped around Steven's Creek Reservoir, before I even started the brunt of the climbing, my lips were already parched and tongue felt swollen. My arms and face were coated in a thick film of sweat complete with bugs that had drowned in glistening beads. Monte Bello is a dead-end road that sees relatively minimal traffic, especially late in the day, and I admit I often use my iPod to boost my resolve to ride hard (volume low enough to hear approaching vehicles. But I also admit I don't always hear approaching cyclists if they overtake me.)

Anyway, lecture me if you must. I love my iPod. Sometimes in the throes of a tough effort, I escape into daydreams of future adventures. I like to make a storyline out of things that haven't happened yet (sometimes, I become so fixated on these storylines I invent that surprising pieces of them become reality — including pieces I have no control over, such as the fantastical display of Northern Lights at the Homer Epic. But that's a subject for another blog post.) Lately I have been dreaming about the PTL. During this climb, the Shuffle clicked over to the motivating grandiosity of a Muse anthem about the second law of thermodynamics as a metaphor for environmental destruction and human involution, "Unsustainable." Listen and roll your eyes if you must; I love this song. (Also, the video depicts people running through the woods and is perfect.)

I imagined "Unsustainable" as the soundtrack for a video about PTL. As orchestral rock music blared, the camera would pan out to sweeping mountain vistas, craggy ridges, snow-swept mountainsides, narrow ledges, and tiny ants of racers marching across a bewildering moonscape of high-alpine tundra. There would be clips of mud-soaked people picking their way around rock ledges and slumped over boulders, trying to regain their composure. And of course the lyrics serve as the ironic commentary: "Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is... Un-sus-tain-able ..."

That's the reality, right? Energy cannot be generated from non-energy. Every day our own life force becomes more depleted, our bodies more broken down, our cells more fatigued, our DNA more dispersed (thanks to Jan for the link to a scientific paper about potential molecular markers of overtraining. An interesting read for sure.) Everything we do furthers this process, and the harder we try, the faster we diminish. Right?

I have been giving more thought to the notion of general overtraining recently. Especially with such a daunting few months of adventures in front of me, I long for insight into that magic formula that balances that need to increase endurance while minimizing long-term fatigue. Still, I refuse to believe that the perfect formula is the play-it-safe numbers thrown around by the health complex. A half hour a day, five days a week? Surely our species didn't get to where we are now by sitting around for 23.5 hours every day. I know I am happiest, and arguably most productive — at least in regard to the contributions I feel most compelled to make — when I am active. Passivity has never been particularly good for me, often self-perpetuating to a dull stagnation that seeps into all aspects of my life. Forced into a non-active life, I believe I could adapt. But for the present, I wrestle with the life I want to pursue and the fear that it's inevitably "unsustainable."

Interestingly, a few minutes later, "Perpetual Motion Machine" by Modest Mouse started playing on the iPod. By this point, I was seeing dots and stars through a narrow tunnel of pain cave vision, and could only gasp the lyrics in my head "Everyone wants to be a perpetual motion machine. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days ... run ... out."

I was still gasping to Modest Mouse when I rolled up to the Monte Bello gate and realized with an air of surprise that I made it to the top without succumbing to heat exhaustion or dying of thirst. The valley below was cast in golden light by the late afternoon sun, which had yet to loosen its grip on the stagnant heat in the air. I looked at my watch. 55:14. "Arg, I could have done better," I muttered, startled by how scratchy my voice sounded. But the truth is I haven't even been that fast in a while. My lips and throat were still parched, but I managed to crack a smile.

"I showed you, brutal sun," I thought. And suddenly, I couldn't wait to go back out in the hot hot heat the next day. I can't help it, and almost don't care that it's physically impossible. I want to be a perpetual motion machine. 
Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Slow build

Beat "running" in the 2012 La Petite Trotte a Leon
Physically, this spring feels a bit like last year. There's an unfocused, largely inexplicable body malaise. In my outdoor pursuits, there are amazing high-energy "good days" interspersed with much-rougher-than-they-should-be "down days." Not much in the way of comfortable middle ground. I've never been one to stick to a nicely arching training pattern — and in all honestly such things don't capture my imagination — but payback comes in the way I still, after all these years, don't really understand my body.

Today I'm icing my left shin because I fear I'm developing a splint (thank you, road running. Yes, I blame you.) I had a similar dull ache in my right leg for most of last spring that continued to escalate until I hiked Mount Whitney in June, where it flared up to a full-blown shin splint that kept me off running for a couple of weeks and put a ding in my UTMB training that lasted through August. Injury isn't something I can well afford right now, so I'll take it easy this week, go for some bike rides, and maybe do a real kind of taper for the Quicksilver 50 on May 11.

Given that I haven't climbed out of my spring slump and have been running like crap for most of the month, this is probably for the best. But I wasn't going to "taper" the Quicksilver because it's just a training race to get my mind and feet ready for the rigors of the Bryce Canyon 100 on May 31. A hundred miles with 18,000 feet of climbing at a lung-busting average elevation of 8,500 feet? That should be enough to strike the fear of purgatory in my weak legs, but even that's just a training race for summer adventures — fastpacking in the Sierras, and a stage race in Iceland (!! Iceland has been on my "to visit" list since I was a teenager, so when Beat and I found out that Racing the Planet was putting on an 250-km stage race in early August, we signed up. I'm very excited.) Both are planned for the sake of an awesome adventure, but they're also geared to better prepare my mind and feet for the rigors of La Petite Trotte à Léon.

I haven't been ready to talk about PTL, but it's May now, and well, yesterday I found out I've been accepted into the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational as a foot racer. *That* is going to be quite a build but it's still a ways off. The PTL is closer and arguably even harder. As a physical endeavor, the PTL is probably going to be more difficult for me than the Tour Divide. It's shorter but relentless. For five-plus days of my life there will be nothing but crawling over mountains, up and down, up and down, along the steep and rocky spines of the Alps. After last year's shortened-course disappointment at UTMB, I wanted to try the less supported version — taking the "long" way around Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland, and Italy.

The numbers don't paint an even close to accurate picture of the difficulty, but they look burly on their own — 186 miles with more than 78,000 feet of climbing, for an *average* gain or loss of a thousand feet per mile. The route is often highly technical terrain that occasionally ventures into Class 4 scrambling territory (although in the Alps, the more exposed sections of established routes are generally assisted with fixed ropes and ladders.) Last year, when Beat was racing the PTL, I described it to my dad as hiking Lone Peak — one of the hardest established trails in the Wasatch Mountains — sixteen times back to back without stopping for more than a couple hours of rest per day, including eating and sleeping.

This is Ana, racing the 2012 Tor des Geants with a sprained
ankle. She's crazy. And awesome. 
Why, oh why, oh why? PTL started as the way most big ventures do for me — a kind of joking consideration that suddenly became real. A friend who lives halfway around the world was interested, and we both needed a partner (PTL requires participants to travel in teams for safety reasons.) Ana Sebastian is much crazier than I am; she's effectively a female version of Beat, and she's stronger than me too. Since she lives in Spain we won't be able to train together, so this partnership is a leap of faith for both of us. We will probably be one of the few if not only two-female team in the 2013 PTL, although Ana also recruited an Italian man to join our group, flippantly called "Too Cute to Quit." It's quite the international team and the language barrier is going to be large. We won't have the ability to carry on complicated conversations, although after day one, there won't be much to say beyond, "My feet hurt," "Do you want to stop now?" "I'm terrified of that cliff," and "Uh oh, that looks like lightning." Once I learn those phrases in Spanish and Italian, I'm set.

It's going to be beautiful and brutal, and it's been a couple of years since I got into something so completely over my head and beyond my pay grade. It's exactly where I prefer to be — perched on the ledge of a psychological precipice, knowing I'm either going to climb to new heights or fall hard, and likely both, but either way I'm in for a wholly submersive and memorable experience.

Some of my friends have asked me why I'm so focused on foot racing right now, especially when met with the surprise that after a five-year absence, I've opted to try the race to McGrath without my beloved fat bike. Part of it stems from all the bad runs, these pre-shin-splints, clumsiness, downhill side-stitches, and the suspicion that I'm just not biologically cut out for running of any sort. An act of defiance if you will, in my continuing experiments with mind over matter. PTL and the ITI are both arguably hiking races and do play to some of my strengths, but the fact is I'm going to have to get a much better grip on my weaknesses to see any kind of success in these endeavors. The confrontation with weakness is my reward — that age-old rationalization "to see if I can."

So here's to (hopefully) avoiding shin splints and staying healthy for the slow build. There's a big year ahead, and who knows? Maybe by summer 2014 I'll be ready to return to test my own speed limit in the Tour Divide. ;-)