Monday, August 12, 2013

I move slow and steady

My favorite places are all stark and windswept, expanses of uninterrupted space where my eyes are free to wander over the farthest, often unreachable horizons. I appreciate a great many variations of natural beauty, but my daydreams tend to wander into the deserts and tundra, the high mountains and rugged shorelines ... places where tiny flowers and tufts of moss emerge from the rocks ... places where scraggly spruce trees twist out of the snow ... where hardy plants and animals cling to the outer edges of life, that razor point between existence and the void. Beyond their subtle colors and surreal beauties, the places I love most are those where life is hard, because they demonstrate why life is worth living. And because of my life experiences so far, this love always draws me back to the North.

This draw toward starkness and solitude is juxtaposed by a desire to also experience the loudness of life — to immerse myself in cultures, observe and connect with people, experiment with physical abilities and sensations, and play games. The admittedly strange niche of endurance racing fulfills many of my competing desires in ways that are both organic and satisfying. I am alone but I am in the company of like-minded people. I am independent but I am part of a culture. I am at the limit of my perceived abilities and yet I am comfortable and strong. I am treading the edge of livability and yet I am wholly alive.

Racing the Planet Iceland was a great opportunity to seek this spectrum of experience — to visit the stark northern landscapes of Iceland, to meet other endurance junkies from all over the world, to test a level of self-sustainability over long distances, and to inject at least one high-mileage week into my lackluster summer of PTL training. Stage racing, although not necessarily something that caters to my strengths, is a fun game nonetheless. Can I keep up a consistent pace over the course of the week? Can I bring a good mix of gear and food to stay warm and fed without slowing myself down too much? Can I manage six nights crammed into a canvas tent with seven other people without lapsing into insomnia-fueled insanity?

Pre-race necessities including an extensive gear check and scoldings about the rules were sufficiently exhausting. It was a relief to finally board a crowded bus and travel into the highlands between the Vatnajokull and Langjokull glaciers. During the Middle Ages, Iceland was covered in extensive forests, but a combination of human-caused deforestation and erosion, as well as a shift in the Gulf Stream that cooled Iceland's climate, has left the island mostly barren. Less than one percent of Iceland is forested today, and these tree stands are so sparse and straggly that Icelanders have a saying: "If you ever get lost in the forest, just stand up." As hours passed, we traveled deeper into a moonscape covered in soft moss, patches of grass, and the occasional huddle of hardy sheep.

We did make one stop at a roadside geyser. As I rushed out of the bus to try to catch "Geysir" before it erupted, Beat lingered by the gift shop/cafeteria. "Do you think we should buy some more food?" he asked. The reality of seven days of limited calories was setting in, and we went on a hoarding spree of snacks we planned to cram in our stomachs that night before the diet began — chips, cookies, and ice cream. If we'd thought it through earlier, we could have brought fresh vegetables and pizza, but at least tonight we wouldn't go to bed hungry.

Racing the Planet seems to make a habit of cramming lots of people into small and inadequate tents — probably in the interest of bonding, although I tend to think of this living situation as a more difficult challenge than the running part. We were part of tent Fjallfoss, which means mountain falls, and it was immediately apparent that ours was a fun tent. What we lacked in serious racers, we made up for in quirkiness. Our tent included the "Vikings," two friends from New Jersey who purchased souvenir viking hats earlier in the day and vowed to wear them for the remainder of the race. Paul was at least six-foot-four and 250 pounds. Jakes, an equally tall hedge fund manager, brought an entire shelf's worth of small wine bottles and beer, complete with a plastic wine glass that he actually used for the remainder of the race. We also had Raj, a former special forces fighter with India's military, and another Raj from Bangalore. There was Karley, a diminutive air traffic controller from Australia, and Chloe, an Olympic-distance triathlete from New York. We asked Chole if she'd run a trail ultramarathon before. "No," she admitted. "My longest run ever was about fifteen miles." She'd come to Iceland to run more than 150 miles in what amounted to five days, almost entirely on dirt, through all kinds of weather and rough terrain, "to see if I can." I liked Chloe's style.

The weather at camp one was ... invigorating. It was just a few degrees above freezing with drizzling rain and wind blasting down a narrow canyon to a degree where one couldn't stand sideways with their backpack without getting blown over. I'll be the first to admit it was harsh, but I was disappointed when I learned they completely rerouted stage one to keep the field of 270 racers off the higher ridges and away from a waist-deep river crossing. Instead, we'd be running thirty miles back on the dirt track we'd traveled by bus the day before. I understand the organization's liabilities and desire to keep people happy and safe, but they had a required gear list a mile long precisely to ensure everyone was prepared for this type of weather. I had a similar reaction of disappointment and exasperation that I felt when UTMB was rerouted due to weather last year: "These organized races are too tame. I didn't come all the way to Iceland to run on a road; I'd rather be on a touring bike if that's the case." The reroute took the wind out of my sails, so to speak, and I had almost no energy launching into the chilly morning.

Beat and I stuck close together for the first ten or so miles, but we'd already decided we were going to run our own races in Iceleand, and I began to fall behind on the runnable road. With the previous shin and knee injuries, and also hard races and recoveries this summer, my actual running mileage — as in not walking — has been fairly limited. This showed in my stage one performance. The 30-pound backpack hung off my shoulders in a way that felt like a boat anchor whenever I tried to pick up my pace. I could have been dragging an anvil through the dirt for the way it made me feel. Walking was fine; I hardly noticed the extra weight. But running made made my legs throb and lungs sear, and it was difficult to tell whether I was gaining any ground by doing so. People jogging in front of me weren't getting any closer, but when I started walking, they weren't exactly pulling ahead either. This goes back to my sled-dragging dilemma: I can walk almost as fast as I can run, and yet running is at least 50 percent harder. How does it get any easier? Or faster? Specific training, I suppose.

As disappointed as I'd been about the road running, the scenery was pretty spectacular. Eventually I decided just to jog a steady pace and not worry about walking the uphills or trying to make up time on the downhills, and I found a nice flow. I dug out my iPod shuffle that I'd filled with Icelandic bands like Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men, and went into my happy zone.

One notable aspect of stage one was that I felt continuously hungry, the entire time. I stuck to my planned rations that amounted to about 150 calories an hour, but there was this primal urge to continue devouring everything in my pack. Later in the race, on the same rations after several days of cold weather and calorie depletion, I felt much more satisfied with my intake. It was really just days one and two, while settling into the demands of the race, that my appetite was so out of control. This makes me wonder if it would be possible to go for weeks on similar rations. I ate like a horse during the Tour Divide and still lost nearly 15 pounds, but still I wonder. This trip was much more even despite what felt like massive energy output. It seems the body finds ways to adjust.

I didn't have a watch so I'm not sure how long it took me to reach camp two, but I did have a Garmin eTrex that indicated it was 29 miles. My legs felt surprisingly fresh for all of those loaded miles, so Beat and I decided to explore a small ridge next to the camp in the evening.

This hour-long side excursion made up for any lingering disappointments about the stage one reroute. The clouds had cleared and it was gorgeous up there, with panoramic views of nearby volcanoes and glaciers, and an oh-so-soft moss that I could have easily fallen asleep in had it not been for the biting cold and 40-mile-per-hour winds.

I went to bed excited for stage two, knowing that at the very least, we would still be in this beautiful place when we woke up in the morning. Life out here is hard, and good. 
Sunday, August 11, 2013

Back from RTP Iceland

Beat and I just returned to Reykjavik after a week of fun and scenic running across the highlands and along the southern coast of Iceland during the 2013 Racing the Planet Iceland event. With the exception of extremely crowded tents and resulting sleep deprivation, I loved every part of it and had a great experience. I plan to hammer out a race report with photos for my blog, but I thought I'd drop in a few gear and event notes before we return to California.

• The course was about 154 miles overall according to my measurements. Day one was 29 miles, day two 28, day three 27, day four 25, day five 39, and day six 0 (rest day) and day seven was 6 miles.

• My pace was surprisingly consistent, averaging right around 4 miles per hour every day. Running with the pack was tough and I felt I was wasting a lot of energy at anything higher than a 12-minute-mile, but I could walk efficiently and comfortably at 3.5 miles per hour. I tended to vary my movement between this and a 4.5-mile-per-hour shuffle. Speed was usually determined by the technicality of the terrain. There were relatively few long climbs and these always felt like rest breaks, because I walked them. Even downhill running was strenuous and challenging, which made it fun.

• Final results aren't in yet, but of the 270 starters, about 228 finished all six stages. About 80 women started the race and about 64 finished. After stage five I was in 75th position overall and 13th woman. It's better than I expected to end up in this field, actually. It was a highly runnable course with plenty of fast runners. The "hikers" had no advantages, except for perhaps our consistent speed over long distances. I don't know my positions in each stage but I'm fairly certain my best showing was during the "Long March" 39-mile stage.

• The weather was almost exactly what I expected, but the race officials kept commenting about how unseasonably bad it was. We had one day of sunshine and six days of clouds, four of those with varying levels of precipitation. Every day was windy, some with gusts I would estimate to be over 50 miles per hour. I was knocked off my feet once and pushed out of balance countless times. Temperatures ranged from 21 degrees overnight to daytime highs in the mid-50s. Windchills usually kept the air feeling quite brisk, and I'd say the "feels like" temperature was rarely above 40.

• My favorite piece of gear was my DriDucks "astronaut suit," named as such by a fellow competitor from Cleveland because it was billowing and light gray with U.S.A. flag patches on the shoulders. The FroggToggs brand is cheap and ugly and amazingly effective at keeping wind and rain from driving in that bone-chilling cold that I remember all too well from my Juneau days. The material never feels wet, and its lack of breathability holds in a nice warm microclimate of body heat. The one drawback is that this clothing is not durable. My jacket and pants are pretty tattered from the wind and lava rocks, and I don't think they'll be leaving Iceland. But I would certainly buy another set in the future.

• My daily meals were bland and monotonous. Breakfast was always two packets of coffee, one serving of peanut butter, and one granola bar. Mid-day calories were two candy bars, one granola bar, and one five-ounce package of gummy candy. Post-run was a single serving of Pringles and a bullion cube dissolved in hot water, and dinner was one freeze-dried meal and one hot chocolate. I thought it was going to be awful to eat this way but it wasn't that bad. I was always grateful for whatever I put in my mouth when my "ration" time came around, and I didn't crave fresh fruits and vegetables as much as I thought I would.

• I consumed 2,700 calories per day. This was slightly supplemented so it was probably a bit higher. Foods I picked up from fellow competitors during the race included one freeze-dried meal, one Honey Stinger waffle, two pieces of bread, two pieces of flat bread, and a chocolate bar. I gave away two servings of peanut butter, two granola bars, and finished the race with two candy bars and two granola bars.

• This food intake was surprisingly adequate to stay warm, energetic, and happy for 6.5 days. Ever since my four-day-long bonk during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, I have been terrified of the prospect of being underfed in cold-weather endurance efforts. There was no way I was going into this event with its 2,000-calorie-per-day minimum. I thought 2,700 would be a sacrifice, but in this carb-loaded, quick-energy format with a hot meal to end the day, it remained effective and satisfying over the course of the race, even while running for seven-plus hours each day. This makes me think I eat too much in my day-to-day life.

• Before the race started, my pack weighed in at 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) without my RidgeRest sleeping pad and without any water (but with the clothes I wore on my body at the start of the race.) Still, ouch. But after asking around I found out this number was fairly comparable to others with much smaller packs.

• Our 50-liter GoLite Jam backpacks were among the largest in the field. The large majority of the group had 30-liter packs and the fast runners usually cram minimal stuff into 20-liter packs. I'm not swayed by minimalism for the sake of minimalism, and I was actually really happy with my pack. I watched my tentmates struggle to cram their stuff into their packs each morning while Beat and I could pack up in under five minutes flat. I had one spot of chaffing on my lower back after the single "warm" day, and only slight collar bone soreness. Except for suddenly gaining 30 pounds, it was as comfortable as wearing a small hydration pack. And it was fairly effective at holding off the elements, including rain, graupel, and sharp volcanic sand.

• Iceland is so cool. I am a northerner at heart at felt at home in this stark, gloomy landscape. I'd love to return for a more intimate exploratory backpacking trip, with the solitude I feel this landscape merits. Someday.

Okay, this is going long. Race report soon. 
Friday, August 02, 2013

Jill loves the Northlands

We arrived in Reykjavik on Friday afternoon, and are in the midst of a whirlwind of last-minute preparations before we leave for our weeklong trek on Saturday afternoon. I sadly don't even have a new photo yet to add to this post, but I wanted to post a quick update of my whereabouts, mostly for my mom, who I may or may not have time to call tomorrow. 

This week we'll be participating in Racing the Planet Iceland, which can be tracked over the week with photos and news updates at this link. The course is 250 kilometers over six stages, mostly self supported (the race organization provides water and group tents.) The course (as yet unrevealed. We don't find out the route until the pre-race meeting on Saturday) seems to follow relatively flat terrain (I think the highest we'll be is about 3,500 feet, and this is the elevation we start at.) Still, I expect a fair amount of highly technical terrain, over tundra and boulder fields of volcanic rocks, so the whole "running" thing is going to be iffy, especially with a 27-pound pack. 

Gear is always a huge focus for folks in these events, and there's definite bragging rights for managing the lightest pack with all the mandatory gear. I care far more about avoiding hypothermia than I do about a few extra pounds, so my pack is equipped with the question, "If I were backpacking self-supported for a week in Juneau in September, what would I bring?" The forecast for the highlands, where we're starting the race on Sunday, is 6 degrees C for a high, 0 for a low. Add any sort of precip, and I'm mentally preparing for hours of low-level hypothermia even with all the gear I brought. 

 The only concession I made in my big pack is probably not enough calories, which is actually often not a psychological disadvantage for me personally during an endurance event. I have enough fuel to get through the day, although at a deficit, but I feel hopeful that it's enough to get by without feeling emotional distress about hunger. I ended up not changing much about my food rations; it's ~2,700 calories per day with one freeze-dried meal, and probably 70 or even 75 percent carbs. My body has never been efficient at burning fat as an energy fuel; I'm convinced that body fat works almost as well as dietary fat, for me at least. But I need carbs in order to not feel too bonky/hangry. I hope. For the record, 2,700 calories is probably fewer than I eat on a normal day without running 30 miles through near-freezing cold and wind and rain. But I do want to experiment with fuel efficiency and this kind of event is a good, safe environment in which to try. 

As for my conditioning, I feel undertrained. The rough early-summer races and knee injury seemed to prevent me from ever getting my endurance training off the ground. This will be another case of "let's see what I can do with what I have." Of course, Iceland is just a warm-up for PTL. If it goes badly, I will likely have to reassess my chances with a more realistic outlook. As it is, I have serious doubts about PTL, so in my imagination I am doing everything in my power to make sure Iceland goes well.

But beyond all that silly race stuff, I am so happy to be here. As I write at 10:27 Reykjavik time (12:27 a.m. in Zurich, 3:27 p.m. in California), the sun hasn't yet set. It's 11 degrees Celsius on a warm summer evening and the low-angle sun is casting a thick, rich light over the city. Behind these buildings seems to be nothing but stark mountains and boulder-strewn green valleys, and ahead, the coastal cliffs and north Pacific. Iceland feels close to home, and I'm really looking forward to a week of trekking in the Interior highlands and along the rugged coast.