Friday, June 28, 2013

Authentic experience

I'm working on getting my knee back, and I believe motion is important for this. Swelling went down, but the joint remains partially frozen. Bending hurts. It improves every day, which keeps me optimistic, but progress seems slow for a bashed knee. On Tuesday I successfully coaxed it to spin rotations on Beat's bike trainer, and on Wednesday I went out for a relatively flat road ride. Today I decided to climb a hill — my benchmark, Montebello Road — and I was taken aback by how tough it was. I didn't realize how much I was compensating for my sore left knee by putting all of the power into my right leg. Also, I couldn't stand out of the saddle. Any time I shifted pressure to the left, I got a shot of sharp pain.

So I effectively one-leg climbed in the saddle, and the effect left me feeling like I hadn't ridden a bike up a hill in a year. Like all of my strength had drained away, all of that hard-won fitness smothered by a minor and easily obtained injury.

Fitness, for me at least, is an illusion, I decided. The quickness and frequency with which my body's physical abilities can be dramatically cut back is, if not surprising, at least humbling. As I mashed the right pedal and weaved drunken switchbacks up a pitch my friends call "The Mitt Romney," a little smile cracked through the grimace. "This is the body that's supposed to get you through PTL in two months," I thought. "RTP even sooner. I'm going to need crutches. Why do I continue to fool myself into this ridiculous farce?"

Edward Abbey called the motivation "some sort of authentic experience" when he asked these questions of himself. I tend to think of authenticity in terms of sharpness — an experience that cuts deep enough to withstand the scouring effects of time. Memory is my greatest asset, because memory is the filter that gathers and preserves these pieces of my life amid the chaos. But when I am comfortable, I am forgetful. The realization hits whenever I click back through my blog and learn how much I've forgotten. I think this is one of the tragedies of life — that so much of what we experience is lost while we’re still alive.

When I let my mind settle — by which I mean let go of the act of deliberately thinking — I often sink into the reel of memories that is forever playing through the background of my consciousness. What I find there is often surprising. The big life events — first kiss, first car, college graduation — are all but gone now, little more than vague flickers of images that may or may not even belong to me. But there are many seemingly innocuous and meaningless moments that I remember with sharp clarity — pedaling my bicycle after dark in a drizzling rain near the end of the Glacier Highway of Juneau, or swimming across a lake in West Texas as the whole sky turned a bright shade of crimson. These kinds of images are the first to emerge when my mind goes quiet. 

Often, the intensity of emotion surrounding these memories kicks my conscious mind back into gear. “Why then?” my mind asks. “And why now?” My rational mind longs to find a correlation between these long-ago experiences and the present. Otherwise, why do they haunt me?

Perhaps it’s because I’m grinding out a pavement ride beneath the glaring sunshine and it’s 90 degrees; I’m missing cold and rain. Indeed, I can still feel the chill trickling down my shoulders, the numb fingers, the yawning black void beyond the dim beam of my headlight. My knee is stiff and it hurts to push these pedals; I miss the absolute freedom of movement I felt in that Texas lake, gliding across the surface of the glass-still water. 

But there's something else about those experiences that keeps them sharp, an authenticity that preserves them over the dozens of rainy rides I did in Juneau, the entire cross-country road trip surrounding that sunset swim. What was it? What did they mean? When I chip away at the surface, the first thought that comes to me is "uncertainty." On that particular bike ride, I was headed out the road to camp in an effort to practice setting up and staying in a winter bivy after after a long ride. I thought it would snow but it rained instead, and I was intensely afraid of being so wet and facing a night out in near-freezing conditions. Everything surrounding me came alive with malice and awe — the eerie blue light of the moon filtered by high clouds, the fog-shrouded channel, the ominous bend of towering spruce trees. I remember them in a way that's viscerally real, all of these years later. 

My memories of Texas surround the return swim, after I overzealously nearly crossed the small lake and suddenly wasn't sure whether I could make it back to shore. My arms were burning and my legs felt like cement blocks. The sky resembled a wildfire, with streaks of blaze-red light framing mountains of dark clouds. I was scared, and yet I felt calm, deeply — almost meditatively — calm. I knew I could swim all the way back because, well, I had to. For those minutes, it was my one responsibility in the world; that flowing movement was everything. It was beautiful in its necessity, freeing in its stark simplicity. 

Is risk necessary for an authentic experience? Do we need to approach the edge and gaze out into the abyss to jolt the sensations of being alive? Clearly I'm drawn to experiences such as PTL because such a vast curtain of uncertainty surrounds them, as well as a level of life-affirming risk. There's also not a small amount of wide-eyed disbelief surrounding the whole endeavor. "I am gimpy and weak. Could I really cross mountain after mountain after mountain for days on end?" I would never believe it if I hadn't tried, and succeeded, at similar endeavors before. But I've never tried anything exactly like this. Therein lies the intrigue — reaching out to the unknown. 

And, also, connecting the foundation of our our awareness with the building blocks of our lives — our memories.

"Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.) Why? Well, it's the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker, once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head. (Will there be water at Cabeza Tank?)" — Edward Abbey, "Beyond the Wall"

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I avoided my blog for a few days out of embarrassment, or maybe just to avoid starting a post with the phrase, "You know, maybe some of us just weren't born to run." I thought once the pain subsided, I might feel better about my chances at PTL in two months. But no, no ... I still feel like a gimpy little deer who wandered into a tunnel only to see the lights of a fast-approaching freight train.

On Saturday, Beat and I headed out to Santa Cruz for the San Lorenzo River 50K. Beat had been sick all week and nearly stayed home, but I was feeling better than I had in a while. My training runs were going well again after a few weeks of somewhat mystifying respiratory and nausea issues, and I was feeling particularly strong during bike rides. Confidence levels were still low, but I was getting there. At least I felt confident that I had the strength to bust out 31 miles.

But at mile 2.5, I went down. There was a brief distraction from a group of six or seven who were  passing on a short climb, and before I even realized that I had hooked my foot on a rock, I was face down in the dirt. This happens to me a lot. Why? Because I don't lift my feet high enough, I guess. Beat calls it "slurring your feet." He tells me I need to work on my technique. I frequently focus on correcting bad habits, but fatigue and distraction seem to unravel any and all re-education efforts. It seems my natural (bad) inclinations will always overrule my better intentions.

A woman stopped to help me up and I took off at top speed up the trail as blood streamed from my right elbow and knee. It was a slow-moving crash, but it ended in a jumble of rocks that punched a number of impressive bruises into my body. And even though my right side slapped the rocks like a dead fish, my left knee was particularly painful. A large goose egg lump formed over the inside end of the femur, and swelling built around the knee cap. I could feel the joint stiffening up and knew if I stopped moving it would probably freeze entirely. I needed to at least wait for the initial impact fade before I let that happen, so I kept running.

The trail crossed the thigh-deep San Lorenzo river, and I took advantage of the crossing to wash the dirt and blood off my limbs. The cold water felt fantastic, but as soon as we started climbing out of the river, I could feel endorphins fading, replaced by blunt pain. It seemed to be simple soft-tissue bruising rather than something more serious, and I couldn't decide what to do. Call it an education in pain management and continue running? Walk out the first leg of the race and stop at 30 kilometers? Turn around right there, DNF another race, and risk a full-blown crisis of confidence? I suspected that my knee could handle this little setback just fine, but my morale was more fragile.

It's funny that I didn't want to face a DNF. I never wanted to one of those types of runners, gutting out a race with an injury just to say I finished the thing. Deep down, I didn't really care. But I also didn't believe I was seriously injured — at least not enough to convince myself that continuing would do more harm. I was already banged up, so what did it matter if I ran or stopped? One thing I knew, however, was that I was in a moderate amount of pain, and it was getting worse, not better.

Beat, nice guy that he is, decided to stick with me during another race in which I fell apart less than 10 percent of the way in, even though he wasn't feeling well himself. I thought that continuing to jog and walk gently would help "unfreeze" my joint, but the goose egg hardened and the joint became more stiff, until I could no longer bend it more than a few measly degrees. I marched in place at aid stations to stave off full rigor mortis. "This is really kind of dumb," I thought. "I'm just dragging my leg along for a limpy jog and I'm not even getting much of a workout." I begged Beat for painkillers but he would only give me one more pill (wisely, of course, as I'd already taken the maximum dosage for the amount of time I'd be out there. Luckily I'd forgotten my own stash of Advil, as I am prone to caving into temptation.) He did encourage me to bail if I thought I was damaging my knee, and also cautioned that running with a limp risked damaging something else. Still, I felt justified in this latest experiment. After all, I'm pretty damn clumsy. If I want to continue propelling myself over rugged mountains, I'm going to have to learn to cope with a few bruises.

Beat joked about making up a phrase for the act of stubbornly ignoring gravity-induced injuries — "Pulling a Homer." "To the uninitiated, most would think that means sitting on the couch and eating a donut," he said. "But those who know the Homer family know that it means replacing grace with toughness." Heh heh.

After mile twelve my knee still wasn't willing to bend, so I made up my mind to drop at 30K point, reasoning that "running" this out was kind of pointless. But once I'd limped into the start/finish, I'd developed renewed resolve to see this thing through. Beat grabbed a bandage to tightly wrap my knee, and the compression did help me feel more stable. He then took off to run the last 20K at his own pace. As I suspected, the brief stop locked up the joint almost completely. Any bending at all caused a shock of pain. I peg-legged it up the climb and felt like an idiot encountering those who were finishing up the 30K, marathon, and 50K distances, because I was clearly going the wrong direction for a runner who was visibly limping. One of the 30K runners actually stopped and told me he would go back to an aid station about a mile away to get help. "Oh, I'll be fine, no problem, heh heh."

Surely enough, motion did eventually loosen up my knee. But the pain never went away, not even for a minute. I distracted myself with iPod songs that I put on repeat just to block out the passage of time. One of them was this kitschy death metal song, "Army of the Damned" by LoneWolf, which has been my go-to angry song for Alaska winter racing: "We run straight into a frozen hell; defeated by snow, blizzard and ice." It's silly but comforting background noise when I want to feel sorry for myself but need to keep in check that this self-imposed ridiculousness is my decision, and my responsibility. "Trapped in this white and cold cemetery; I can still walk; God seems to like me."

Still, I was openly angry when I arrived at the finish after a painful downhill stretch. I got a bit snippy with a medic who offered to help clean up my elbow and retrieve an ice pack for my knee. She was very nice and I'm grateful she offered to help (which I finally did accept), but I was in once of those embarrassed "don't look at me" moods. They were already cleaning up because I came in with 8:20 on the clock and these races have a nine-hour cutoff.

It was a beautiful course. The redwood forests are peaceful, the sandy hills are challenging, and the San Lorenzo River crossings are a lot of fun. I can't say I enjoyed myself much. I'm still contemplating what I was trying to do out there. On some level, I think I was trying to prove to myself again that I'm more than my fragile and awkward body, that determination can get me through some tough hours, and that pain does eventually get better (it did, on some level. I was running better in the final five miles than I had since I fell. Until the last downhill mile, that is, which was actually quite painful.)

Still, this series of bad races has trampled my mojo. I'm all for unknown challenges, but I prefer to have a little more faith in my known abilities. Part of my continuation strategy on Saturday involved promises to myself that in 2014 I would skip the ultramarathon circuit entirely and go back to my bike touring roots. Perhaps I'll still do that. But I have a lot of 2013 to get through yet.

I'm slowly gaining mobility back in my knee. I've been working on my range of motion and the swelling is going down, but I probably have a few more days at least before I'll be able to run, ride a bike, or walk normally. Still, I remain convinced that this was probably going to be the case whether I stopped at mile three or mile 31. Even mild knee contusions can be quite painful despite relatively shallow damage. But, alas, crisis of confidence. I finished the race, and it crept in anyway. 
Thursday, June 20, 2013

Hunting for mojo

Since I came back to California a week and a half ago, I've been on the prowl for my mojo. It's been a stealth hunt, stalking from a distance so as to not terrify the little guy into darting off a cliff. Pennsylvania and the Laurel Highlands left their mark. I found myself becoming terribly winded just walking up the stairs of my apartment building, and difficulty breathing at night led me to wonder if I was figthing a respiratory infection. Needless to say it wasn't a heavy week of training. I backed off considerably. I think I only did two trail runs last week, one four miles and the other nine. (Despite promises to myself to keep track of all of my training ahead of PTL, I temporarily lost my GPS watch in a drop bag that disappeared during the Bryce 100 and I didn't even bother to write anything down, so now I have no idea what my numbers have been for the past four weeks.)

Physically, my running isn't in all that bad of shape right now. On Monday I accidentally locked myself out of my house with just a water bottle, a cell phone, and $7 in cash. Since there was little else I could do until Beat got home, I extended my planned six-mile run into a climby from-home loop I call the "Big PG&E," which has about 2,300 feet of climbing and comes in at exactly 13.1 miles. My half-marathon "PR" is 2:04, and I was able to wrap up this trail run in 2:21 without pushing any boundaries.

I could say it went well — no leg pain, no more breathing trouble, happy feet, nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I wasn't quite feeling it. What can I say? Bryce Canyon beat me down. Ever since that race, I have felt a growing sense of terror about Petite Trotte a Leon, to the point where I'm starting to have PTL-specific nightmares. All of these nightmares involve a brilliant lightning storm and heavy rain on a high mountain ridge, and my two teammates and I are separated on opposite ledges with a huge chasm between us. Then I wake up in a cold sweat. To be honest, I haven't had nightmares about an event I haven't yet participated in since before the 2008 Iditarod. I'd almost forgotten how having this degree of pre-race jitters feels, but it's kind of awful. I'm not sure how I'm going to stave off panic as the race gets closer — and I think it's affecting how I feel about running in general. But while I struggle to capture my badly wounded running mojo, I've found relief in what has become a darker corner of my outdoor hobbies — road biking.

I'm loving road biking right now. Ah, the effortless descents. The steady red-line heart rate of a hard climb. The smooth, flowing lines and leg-pumping flats. I go through phases with road biking; generally a few weeks of loving it until I get mentally worn down by run-ins with traffic, or distracted by deeper outdoor adventures. But right now, it's perfect, it's pressure-free, and it's just what I need.

Today I rode a favorite loop — up Steven's Creek Canyon to Highway 9, along Skyline, down Page Mill, back with a wicked tailwind on Foothill. It's 32 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing, and covers a lot of scenic ground in a mere two hours and 15 minutes. As I was coasting down Page Mill, I came up behind a coyote who was just sauntering down the road, pausing briefly to sniff the grass before continuing on. Even as I pedaled up beside it, Coyote paid me little regard. "Hey Coyote," I said, "How's it going?" I thought it would run away once I started talking to it, but Coyote don't care. Coyote don't give a @$%.

Yeah, Coyote and I are good friends. I pulled out my camera and we rode/strode side by side for the better part of a quarter mile before Coyote's ears perked up and it stopped in its tracks. I stopped too and that's when I heard rusting in the grass. Coyote didn't waste another second; it pounced into the shoulder and chased whatever was rustling (probably a rabbit) behind the trees and out of sight. Ah, well. It was a fun friendship while it lasted.