Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving through the world

Sometimes Beat complains when I go too many days without updating my blog. I tell him I just want to avoid writing anything that sounds too defeatist or whiny. It's just been one of those weeks. Or months, I guess. Even at age 33 I find myself thinking things like, "I don't like July 2013. How many days until July is over?" As though the simple flip of a calendar page can turn everything around.

Not that I should complain. Work is going well — both Alaska newspapers and collaborative book projects (my own projects, sigh ... they need a boost. But it's hard to motivate toward creative projects when I'm feeling blue.) Beat is on fire at his job, and he's pumped about that. We have great adventures planned ... all the more reasons to count down the days in July. But I've been feeling frustrated about my physical state. My left knee continues to improve daily on an incremental basis, but the fact that it isn't 100 percent yet seems worrisome. I wonder if the bashing three weeks ago triggered some underlying overuse stuff. It feels a bit like chondromalacia, which gripped my right knee for years but strangely doesn't seem to crop up anymore. Maybe it's left knee's turn? I wonder.

Careful (perhaps arguably over careful) handling of this minor injury has limited what I can do outside, which also makes me feel a bit blue. I fight it, though. Motivation slips with my mood, but I get myself out there anyway even if I have to run easy, just so I can look at the world. Even when it's hot again and running feels like the last thing I want to do, I do it anyway. Inevitably, the simple act of going outside lifts me up. Yesterday I had to take my car in for service, and spent the two hours it took wandering the neighborhood — in the outskirts of San Jose. Pawn shops, car dealerships, and an outdoor mall. But the simple act of just walking around and observing the traffic of life had a positive effect on my mood; I was happier and more fired up for Beat's and my planned run in the evening. Staying on the move, looking at the world — that I think is my base motivation for nearly everything I do. I am just not wired to sit happily in one spot.

Our Wednesday run was relatively difficult (relative, that is, to my current abilities and perceived fitness, which is a disconcerting realization in itself.) So I decided to go for an easy road ride today, just up to the top of Steven's Creek Canyon and back. As I was pedaling up the canyon, a black truck with tape across one of the taillights buzzed me close, pulled into a pullout directly ahead, and turned around. I didn't think much of it until about a minute later, when the same truck buzzed me again, this time even closer. I could feel a whisk of forced air against my shoulder, and then I saw the driver waving his middle finger out the window. About a hundred meters ahead, he flipped another U-turn. At this point, I was frightened and wondering, "What's wrong with this guy that he's so angry at me?" I was just a solo cyclist, pedaling on the right edge of winding dead-end canyon road with a posted speed limit of 25 mph. And the next thought, "Well, here it is, the incident that's going to turn me off to road biking for another year. Who knows what he'll do when he turns around again?" And then, "What is he going to do? Why does he have to be so ragey? Why the hell do people hate cyclists so much? We cost them seconds of time and they respond with acts of terror."

After several more minutes he had not returned, but I was still frightened. Maybe he was waiting for me in a darker corner near the bottom of the canyon. I had no desire to turn around and find out, so even though I planned an easy out-and-back ride, I veered onto a spur road called Redwood Gulch, which climbs 1,000 feet in less than two miles. Some of the switchbacks are way too steep for my tender knee, but I figured a little knee pain was better than being assaulted.

The climb was strenuous and instead of feeling better at the top of Redwood Gulch, I just felt more upset about the incident, so I kept climbing. I pedaled a little bit harder to try to push out some of the anger. The knee pinched a bit but really, it's probably in better shape than I give it credit for. I climbed to the crest and turned onto Skyline Drive. There was still this irrational fear that this guy was back there somewhere, and I was not keen on turning around. I passed the Long Ridge trailhead, and even though it rightfully annoys Beat when I ride his nice carbon road bike on dirt, I decided I could use a brief off-pavement venture to relax at the overlook, away from cars.

Funny, but plowing those skinny tires through a thick layer of summer moondust on singletrack did wonders for my foul mood. It was kind of silly, kind of exciting, and required enough concentration to funnel my thoughts into the moment. Fifteen minutes later at the overlook, with the marine haze shrouding the golden hills, I was smiling again. I pedaled down Page Mill and turned a one-hour ride into something closer to three, but it was worth it.

It doesn't need to be much. I just like to get out there. At the base of my outdoor, endurance-focused lifestyle, that's really all it's about. 
Saturday, July 06, 2013

Summertime blues

I have a mild case of summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as the "summertime blues." I've always been susceptible to this — overly sensitive to sun, allergic to lots of green things and bugs, find heat oppressive and too easily lapse into lethargy. "Most people are summer people but some of us genuinely are winter people," I try to explain, but am more often then not met with confused stares, especially now that I live in the Golden State. "Who doesn't like summer?"

I don't not like summer. I just struggle when it's 90 or 100 degrees and my favorite activity, going outside, becomes a chore. Outside isn't as much of a sanctuary for me in the depth of summer; it burns my skin, blisters my lips, dries out my throat, wears me down. I slow down and feel unreasonably stale. I spend days working indoors with beads of sweat clinging to my arms and legs, looking grimly out the open patio door at the white-washed sky and dreading whatever short outdoor activity I have planned for the afternoon. Because of my knee injury, I haven't run in two weeks. Occasionally I force myself out the door to ride my bike because low-impact movement really is therapeutic; it helps keep the joint loose and seemingly pushes out some of the inflammation or whatever tightness is causing pain — in other words, I feel worse after a long day of sitting and better after riding. But the rides are pretty sad; they just have no power, no heart. Truth is, if I didn't think light exercise was helping my knee, I might not even bother. Yeah, might as well curl up on my couch in a pool of my own sweat with a tub of ice cream and a spoon. It's that time of year.

But, I'm not despondent. I recognize this for what it is, a bit of SAD, not at all anchored in reality. I have awesome adventures coming up. I don't even really care if I'm a tub of melted goo because just being there will be an amazing experience. Anyway, past experience has shown that my fitness doesn't fluctuate all that much, and perhaps doesn't even matter when it comes to multi-day adventures. After about twelve hours of continuous activity, I'm the same tub of goo no matter how much ass I kicked in the months leading up to the grand adventure. It's all maintenance after that. Endurance I have.

Not having much power in my left knee means I've avoided riding my mountain bike, which really is more of a task-master than the gentle spin of the road bike. Beat had to work over the holiday weekend so I had some solo time and potential for quiet trails that I didn't want to waste, so I resolved to set out on Thursday.

Because the high that day was 98 degrees, I waited until as late as I possibly could and still squeeze in a three-hour ride before dark. Problem is, that time was 6 p.m., which is usually around the time we eat dinner. Creatures of habit sometimes forget their emergency trail snacks. A surprisingly flexible knee spurred me to climb hard, relishing in that searing sensation coursing through my legs for the first time in what feels like weeks. Of course, by 7:15 p.m. at the top of Monte Bello, I hit the bonk wall. Meaning, I actually felt reasonably light-headed. Temperatures were still in the high 80s; I'd been shedding so much sweat that my top tube was soaked, and this was hard work. I did not have a snack. But, like SAD, I know that bonking is largely an emotional response — especially at my lower wattage capabilities — and it's usually more satisfying to keep powering through.

I climbed over Black Mountain with the saturated light of late afternoon, as dry grass swayed in a gentle breeze that finally wicked the sticky layer of sweat from my skin. Without extra energy I couldn't concentrate on much besides the spinning pedals, the crackle of tires on loose dirt, the warm breeze on my cheeks. Living in the present. Curtains of marine fog poured over the mountains, sucked inland by a high-pressure vacuum of heat. Normally in my SAD state of mind I would think, "Wow, I live so close to the coast. Why don't I just go there? I could just lay on the beach until I start shivering. But it's like two hours of driving. If it wasn't for these dumb mountains blocking the way." But on this afternoon, reduced by low blood sugar to a simpler, more animal state of mind, I simply thought, "Wow."

I launched into the singletrack descent, dried by weeks of no rain and churned into a slippery, gravelly chunder. Normally I fret about these conditions and actually dislike mountain biking during the depths of summer in California, as summer is when I experience my worst slip-out crashes. But on this day, I just flew, flowing with the loose trail, leaning into curves without losing my traction and grinning with the flickering golden sunlight. Time no longer registered, only moments — trees in varying shades of green, deer loping through the tall golden grass, long shadows stretching across the hillside. "Sometimes," I thought later, "I just need to get out of my head." Most times? At least outside, in motion, I operate so much better in the present.

Living in the present — not anchored in time, not imprisoned in a season, just experiencing the world one moment at a time. I needed that.
Tuesday, July 02, 2013

From the sidelines of Western States

One question I am occasionally asked when I tell people I like this distance-running thing is whether or not I've seen the movie "Unbreakable." The answer is no, I haven't — and while one of the reasons for this is probably obvious to some, another reason was that I never mustered much enthusiasm for the mythology surrounding the Western States 100. Yes, I do understand why it's become its own legend — after all, it's the first. Back in 1974, Tevas Cup competitor Gordy Ainsleigh decided to try his own chances against the horses on foot. He finished the course in just under 24 hours and effectively invented the 100-mile ultramarathon. The Western States Endurance Run became official in 1977 and has since grown into most prestigious 100-miler in North America, attracting a deep field of ultrarunning talent and a lottery that brings in thousands of entries for less than 300 free spots. But — and I only admit this in the interest of honesty — I couldn't get past my prejudice that Western States was just a basic, somewhat bland California course with a corporate sheen. People only want to run it because all the fast guys are there and because it's the first, I thought. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it wasn't for me.

Still, the journalist in me wants to be where the action is, and there was admittedly a flickering desire to check out the scene. Earlier this year, I was chatting about cameras with an acquaintance, Amy Sproston, when I mentioned off-handily that I'd be happy for a chance to come out to the race if she needed any help on her crew. I think we both forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when she e-mailed me to ask if I still wanted to crew for her at the race. Amy is part of Team Montrail and the 2012 100K World Champion. She'd be gunning for a top finish at Western States against a lot of strong women, I knew it would be a fun race to spectate from the front lines.

I may have not harbored a ton of enthusiasm for Western States itself, but like anyone, I love a good hero story. For better or worse, Western States is where this small sport makes its heroes, and race-day speculations are fine entertainment. Who will come out victorious? The hot young talent who has been enjoying a killer year? The seasoned veteran who comes from behind late in the race to prove that experience can trump youth? The local favorite? The dark horse who no one expected? Watching these stories unfold is like watching a great sports movie without the formulaic dialogue or pandering sentimentality. It's a true story happening in real time, over many hours, through the sweat-drenched heat and fatigued night. The sidelines are a great place to witness the sides of the stories that few bother to tell. And because my own running journey has been a bit of a disaster recently, I didn't think it would hurt to venture to the grand stage to search for inspiration.

My job was to join Amy's sister Lisa at half of the crewed aid stations. Lisa comes out from Wisconsin every year for some sisterly bonding, but she often handles the bulk of the crewing herself and it can be stressful. Amy actually had an entire entourage this year, with two friends, Jason and Dillon, from her home state (Oregon) to help with crewing, and a pacer in her friend Robyn, a fast road marathoner who had never participated in a trail race or ultramarathon. It's true that we all had some outside interest in being there, and also that Amy probably didn't need any of us (with the exception of her sister.) She's pretty efficient and self-contained. But Amy was gracious in letting us all be a part of her Western States experience, and for that I'm grateful.

2013 will be remembered as "The hot year." It was officially just the second hottest Western States in history, but I have a difficult time imagining anything hotter. I saw 110 degrees in Sacramento the day before the race. It barely dipped below 70 overnight in Squaw Valley at 6,200 feet, and the heat-trapping canyons along the American River easily saw ambient temperatures in the 110s with brutal sun exposure and no breeze. My car thermometer repeatedly showed 100-degrees-plus while driving along the Foresthill Road. I slathered my skin in sunscreen and vied for the tiniest slivers of shade along the course. Lisa and I carried camp chairs and coolers up and down steep paved approaches to the aid stations; it was actually the first time I had done much walking in the week since my knee injury, and it was tough. We had our share of mishaps — leaving the cooler with all of Amy's cold drinks in Squaw Valley, miscommunication with the guys as we shuttled between aid stations, frantic rushes when the schedule got tight. All of this time, Amy was running steady, hitting her splits from 2012 almost exactly despite the extreme heat, and coming into the aid stations quiet but collected.

Meanwhile, the story that was unfolding in the women's race was an exciting one. Amy's U.S. teammate Pam Smith, who hadn't been on anyone's list of race favorites after struggling to a 29-hour finish in last year's Western States, surged ahead before the halfway point and continued to build her lead. Because of our aid station schedule, we didn't see what was happening at the front of the men's race, but we did see a lot of the faster chasers come through, wild-eyed and determined to keep up a strong pace in the hot hot heat. It was exciting and fun, with the added bonus of frantic, wild scrambling for two minutes every three hours. We tried to do anything we could for Amy, who was methodically chipping away at the miles — nauseated, pale-faced, and suffering just like everyone else, but moving strong.

What these men and women do at the front of these races is baffling. I know — hard work, smart training, decent genetics, blah blah blah. It's still the human element that intrigues me the most — the "whys" of every runner, not the "hows." Western States is a prizeless race in a fairly esoteric sport. Yes, you get a belt buckle if you finish, but I think belt buckles are terrible prizes. There, I admitted that too. I'd rather have a coaster. You have to admire the grit and raw energy these people give to a decidedly unglamorous endeavor.

We had an interesting mishap with Amy's pacer, Robyn, that became perhaps my favorite story of the day. Robyn was set to pace Amy from mile 62 to the American River crossing at mile 78. Amy actually prefers to run without pacers, but Robyn is her speedy training partner who Amy wanted to entice into the world of trail running by showing her the ropes at Western States. Robyn has run a marathon in three hours flat, but never anything longer and never a race on trails. Throughout the day she was visibly nervous about the prospect of pacing Amy for sixteen miles, and asked a lot of questions about trail racing customs and strategies.

Lisa and I were waiting for Amy at the final crewed aid station, mile 93, when the guys surprised us by arriving there as well — without Robyn. When we asked what happened to her, they admitted they "lost her." "We were climbing up the hill when we looked down at the river and saw Robyn crossing," they said. "We yelled and screamed as much as we could, but they couldn't hear us. I don't think Amy knew she was back there. We're not sure if she's still out there or not."

Um ... really? Robyn didn't have a headlamp or even trail shoes. She'd never run anything longer than a marathon. Was she really out there running an unplanned 50K, possibly in a condition where she'd need assistance from Amy, who was supposed to be racing? I felt a pit of dread in my stomach, and I could see all the color flushed from Lisa's face. "We lost Robyn."

They arrived at mile 93 and Amy took off almost immediately, as she was in close proximity to second position runner Nikki Kimball and fourth Meghan Arboghast. Lisa went with her, as it's their tradition for Lisa to pace her sister in the final seven miles. Robyn was excited and flustered, explaining that she didn't realize she wasn't supposed to cross the river, and when Amy noticed her at the other side, it was too late to turn around. With the rope and other runners crossing, a backward crossing would have caused an obstruction. Robyn asked people around her if she could borrow a headlamp and actually obtained one, and then spent the next fifteen miles doing everything in her power to follow Amy's lead as they climbed hills, danced over rocks, and ran through the forest in the fading light. We congratulated Robyn on running her first ultra, and she was visibly glowing and openly emotional about the experience she'd had.

Amy arrived at the Placer High School track without Lisa, as she'd surged so much that she actually dropped her sister. She ran a steady race and finished in 19:25, in third place behind Pam and Nikki. I thought she looked strong at the finish line, but just a few minutes later all the color drained from her skin and she ended up in a fetal position on the grass, and then in the medical tent. Ultimately she was okay, but you could tell that she'd left a lot of herself out there, strewn across the sun-baked dirt of the Western States course.

Generally, once the podium is filled, the journalists go home and the race carries out its quiet conclusion. Western States encourages lingering with a big awards ceremony after the 30-hour time limit has been reached, so we had a chance to spend another half-day in the hot hot heat watching the final finishers. Although I appreciate the talent and determination at the front of the race, as an individual I identify more with the back-of-packers — their quiet determination and internal rewards.

One guy finished just one minute past thirty hours, which drew a standing ovation from the entire crowd — although that guy ran every inch of a hundred miles, he would not be officially recognized as a finisher under race rules. Then nearly everyone turned and started filing away, and five minutes later, another guy crossed onto the track. A few photographers jumped back into finish line, and a few people turned to clap, but this last finisher's arrival went largely unnoticed. I admit I started tearing up as he and his pacer passed with their arms clasped. It's so hard to chase cutoffs. Those at the back of any race are there for a reason — they're having a particularly tough day, or experienced unexpected setbacks. And once you fall behind, you have to fight and you can't stop fighting. This guy fought so hard, but in the end he only just lost the battle. In the end, sometimes you fight just for the sake of fighting. I bet this guy is proud of what he accomplished.

Amy, of course, has much to be proud of herself. I have a lot more respect for Western States now, as an event and as a journey. It's a great race, and it's the people involved who make it so.