Saturday, November 30, 2013


Well, I'm back in Utah for the third time in eight weeks. I think my parents are starting to suspect that I've moved back in, but the goal of this trip was to see a portion of my extended family and spend a legitimate holiday with everyone in my immediate family. Since Beat and I haven fallen into a tradition of spending Christmas in Alaska, Thanksgiving has taken on a more significant meaning as a traditional family gathering. Also for this trip, I packed out a large suitcase of Alaska-specific gear with hopes that an Arctic cold front would blow in and offer ample testing opportunities. No such luck, as the weather has been clear, ten to fifteen degrees above normal, and absolutely gorgeous. Sigh. So disappointing.

Having just escaped mob madness at the SLC airport on Wednesday afternoon, with a little over two hours of daylight to spare, my dad and I took a leisurely walk up Bells Canyon. When I was a child in the Salt Lake Valley, I believed November was the ugliest month of the year. Nothing but gray skies, blah temperatures, and brown trees stripped of all of their leaves. Right? November. Blech.

Obviously, I feel a little differently these days.

Dad and Lower Bells Canyon Falls.

On Black Friday, Dad and I continued another tradition of ignoring all things Black Friday and enjoying a post-Thanksgiving slog up the appropriately named Gobbler's Knob. Temperatures on this day were in the mid-40s, which felt toasty despite my Californiafied blood. However, because of sea level acclimation, hiking at elevation always makes me feel as though I've suddenly lost a lot of fitness. Add a 3,500-foot climb, breaking trail in knee-deep slush with a sun crust, and a summit push up a relentlessly steep pitch over chunky boulders masked with thin snow, and you have all the ingredients for a fantastic workout. I love a good slog.

The snow was never quite deep enough for us to put on snowshoes, but ranged from a few inches to thigh-deep and everything in between. The snowpack on these south-facing slopes had a thick crust that was breakable enough to collapse under our weight, but condensed enough to trap our feet beneath the snow. This often made it feel like I was hiking with 50-pound weights strapped to each leg, tearing my quads apart just to lift a knee. Tough walking. It took us 2.5 hours to hike four miles.

It was worth it.

I packed my new windproof fleece jacket along for the slog with gear-testing ambitions in mind, only to reach the summit and discover there wasn't a breath of wind, and temperatures were still above freezing, at 10,300 feet. I have memories of summer afternoons on Wasatch summits that felt colder than this. We took a long lunch break, lounging in the sun and eating leftover Thanksgiving rolls for lunch, when a skier tromped up from the north side of the mountain. He was an older guy, wearing faded cargo pants and scuffed skis, with long beard and a shock of tangled strawberry blond hair stuffed beneath a trucker hat. He was aghast that we'd climbed all the way up the mountain but didn't bring skis. Then he told us a fascinating story about a massive avalanche he barely survived on the face of Gobbler's Knob — took a 1,500-foot ride and caught his arm on a tree, dislocating his shoulder but managing to stay afloat. "It was a peaceful experience, floating along on my back next to those big blocks of snow. I mean, I knew I was going 70 miles per hour, but it was like time stood still, riding with those blocks of snow."

I forgot to ask his name, but he told us the exact date of the avalanche — February 7, 2010 — so looked up the slide he described; he wasn't exaggerating. Thanks to the wonders of Google I was able to learn more about him — turns out he's a Utah backcountry ski fixture nicknamed "The Wizard of the Wasatch" and has been employed by the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. We didn't believe him when he said he had 3,500 lifetime ski days so far, but maybe he wasn't exaggerating about that, either. You meet the most fascinating people in the mountains.

On the way back down the canyon, we saw a bull moose foraging in the brush. You meet fascinating animals in the mountains, too.

Of course there was plenty of quality family time and pie eating between the outdoor adventures. When in Salt Lake over the holidays, there's of course the obligatory visit to the Christmas light display at the Salt Lake Temple grounds.

My Surly Karate Monkey is going to live with my sister Lisa, and today I finally put the bike together and set out to deliver "Kim" to Lisa's home in West Jordan. Of course I couldn't ride out there without taking a spin around the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Corner Canyon. This was the trail system where I trained in the weeks prior to the 2009 Tour Divide, so taking Kim on one last ride here seemed apt. Some trail sections were muddy like this, but most were bone dry and it was another warm day. I wore a T-shirt and knee-length tights, no need for hat and gloves — although the Utahns I encountered were all bundled up.

I don't necessarily agree with the platitudes of giving thanks. It's ridiculous to dedicate just one day out of the year to gratitude, just as it would be ridiculous to designate a "happiness day." But I do appreciate the ceremonies that Thanksgiving encourages, the tradition of families coming together for the sake of coming together, and the tradition of going home for the sake of going home. Every year at Thanksgiving, my grandmother upheld the before-dinner tradition of having everyone name one thing we're thankful for. With upwards of forty people crammed in the house, this ritual would often go on until the turkey was cold and a white film had formed on top of the candied yams. Nobody loved the ritual, but we were all surprised when this year, at the age of 83, she simply forgot to request this. But I actually had a plan this year, for what I was going to say — I'm thankful for my past. For my past, the places where it resides, and everyone and everything in it. It's been a wonderful journey so far. 
Monday, November 25, 2013

Week 2, Nov. 18 to 24

Given our vague but long-term plans for the Snoots in winter touring, I don't intend to put many pavement and dirt miles on this bike, thereby wearing down expensive tires and other parts unnecessarily. But the temptation to go out and play with this fun new toy is hard to resist, even though I feel a little silly waiting at stop lights while straddling an expedition fat bike. Plus, there is the issue of being a somewhat stranger-shy introvert, riding a bike that couldn't be more conspicuous. As I was pedaling up Foothill Boulevard, at least three road cyclists on the other side of the wide street called out to me — "fat bikes rule!," "what is that?" and another greeting I didn't catch. Near the top of Black Mountain, while spinning the granny up a 15-percent-grade on loose gravel, a hiker walking down the hill wanted to ask me a dozen questions. "It's for snow," I gasped. "To ride in Alaska." And finally, "sorry, can't stop, won't be able to start again."

My main goal for the Sunday ride, besides playing with the fun new toy and confronting social anxieties, was to ride the Snoots on familiar trails to get a better sense of the handling and fit compared to my other bikes. But it is more work, pedaling this bike, and some feeble attempts at power bursts on the steeper hills made it apparent how empty my legs felt on Sunday. The combination of a big week in terms of effort, combined with a light lunch and late-day ride, brought on feelings of weakness and fatigue. I used to get frustrated with these emotions, but now I let it go. I make a conscious decision to do so. "My legs are torched. Oh well."

And it's funny, but since I started making a choice to shrug off fatigue, these "empty leg" rides have become some of my favorite rides. Don't get me wrong, I love those strong days when all systems seem to be firing on high and I feel like I can conquer anything with ease. But the weak days have their own quiet appeal — a decision to let go of the illusion of control, sit back, and see what happens. Enjoy the rich colors cast by the afternoon sun. Listen to some Regina Spektor. What I've found is a serene, Zen-like state that quiets the chatter in my mind and propels my body forward all the same. Meditative movement. It's a great thing to practice for those long hauls.

Monday: Road bike, 2:28, 33.5 miles, 3,800 feet climbing. Highway 9 to Page Mill. I climbed Highway 9 faster than I intended, because there were two long sections of construction. I hate to feel like I'm holding up traffic in the single lane, so I try my best to keep up. Drivers may feel like they're inching along at 15 to 20 miles per hour up a 9-percent grade, but it feels like hyper-drive into the pain cave on a road bike.

Tuesday: Run, 1:01, 6.6 miles, 688 feet climbing. Typical Tuesday run through the Monta Vista substation to Rancho, but as an out-and-back instead of the loop. I didn't push hard on the hills because I was still wary of the bike crash knee injury, but the pain didn't return once this week. Maybe it was the wound all along, and it's finally healed enough to no longer be a concern.

Wednesday: Run, 2:16, 11.4 miles, 1,652 feet climbing. Started out in the pouring rain, some of the trails were bogged down in sticky/slippery clay mud, and I did not feel well. The truth is, I felt really bad when I started out, enough that I made my first pit stop at Trader Joes, which is a whole 0.25 miles away from my apartment. Normally I would opt out in a case like this, since running in such a state is unlikely to yield many fitness benefits. But given what I'm preparing for, I feel it's important to practice the art of moving forward when I feel bad. And then a strange thing happened. I never felt markedly better, but I did slip into that meditative movement state, got buzzed on the endorphins and the novelty of the weather, and ended up running much further than I even intended before I started out. I did pay for this effort, though, in the form of feeling spaced out and depleted for the rest of the evening.

Thursday: Road bike, 1:30, 17.5 miles, 2,702 feet climbing. Felt fine the next day, though. I usually bounce back quickly from tough workouts, unless that workout involves relative "speed" and have to recover from muscle micro-tears and other actual physical damage. This was just the usual Montebello Road climb, at a good recovery pace.

Friday: Road bike, 1:15, 18.5 miles, 1,925 feet climbing. I only had one Highway 9 construction zone sprint during this ride. My heart rate probably did climb into the 180s, which reminds me that I should try to sync my heart-rate-monitor with my current GPS so I can gauge intensity. I do get spurts of high intensity in nearly every workout I do, just by nature of choosing routes with a fair amount of elevation gain. But I like to keep the high-intensity bursts organic instead of calculated, because I'm not actually training to get faster. I'm training to get more efficient — which translates to faster — at a sustained multiday effort.

Saturday: Run, 5:45, 23.5 miles, 4,377 feet climbing. The Point Reyes Run that I blogged about yesterday. We kept the pace casual and made plenty of stops, but I felt great the whole time. There were a few instances of a strange sensation in my right knee, which I can't even describe as pain — more like a flash of instability, perhaps an anticipation of pain. But it never actually hurt. Beat and Steve started laying down some relatively fast miles for the final five miles as I tried to keep up, and there was about 1.5 miles total of beach running that was reasonably strenuous.

Sunday: Fat bike, 2:45, 25 miles, 3,384 feet climbing. Perhaps a little ambitious for the day after a long run, but this turned out to be a rather enjoyable if bonky ride.

Total: 17 hours, 94.5 miles ride, 41.5 miles run, 18,533 feet climbing

This was a big week. I'd be lying if I said I can't feel it, but it is interesting how painlessly it can all pass at the right pace. That said, it's probably best to dial back a bit this coming week. I figure that will happen anyway with Thanksgiving travel and festivities. I'm headed to Utah to spend the holiday with my extended family, and hoping to get some hiking and winter gear testing in the mountains while I'm there. Crossing my fingers for an Arctic cold front. Sorry, Sara. 
Saturday, November 23, 2013

A relaxing day at the beach

I'm not sure I could ever get excited about training for a calculated, reasonable fitness goal — not when there are outlandish adventures to be had. And, like many milestones in life, it's not even so much about the outcome of the outlandish adventure as it is about the journey there. The preparations. The training. How do you train for an outlandish adventure? With smaller adventures, wherever they can be found and woven into the fabric of daily life. Fitness for the sake of fitness? Sure, that's great. But fitness for the sake of adventure? There's the hook for something meaningful.

Now that it's winter training season, I'm hoping to put in weekly long, leisurely paced runs and/or hikes. The very best part of this goal is asking myself, "Okay, where do I want to run this week?" For more than a year now, I've followed Leor Pantilat's fantastic adventure running blog, and at this point I must have twenty of his route ideas saved in my "Life List" file. The guy covers big miles on jaw-dropping routes across Northern California and the High Sierra, taking fabulous photos along the way. One of the more local runs is his Point Reyes Pilgrimage, a 24-mile, figure-8 loop through the hills and along the coast of this National Seashore. I recruited our friends Harry, Martina, and Steve to join us for the Saturday outing.

The weather couldn't have been more sublime. Sixty degrees, clear skies, comfortable humidity, no wind — not even an errant breeze. Summers on the Northern California coast are frequently cool and foggy, but winters here have a higher frequency of clear and warm weather. The best part about this mix-up of seasons is, summer is still the busy season for tourism. During the fall and winter, beautiful days such as this can be enjoyed in relative peace and solitude.

Descending the Woodward Valley Trail toward Drakes Bay.

Leor's route had spurs leading out to a few beaches, but he noted that some of these beaches were only accessible at low tide. We knew that high tide was right in the middle of the day, but there wasn't much we could do about it — we also only have nine hours of daylight to work with this time of year. Still, we scrambled along the rocks of Sculptured Beach with tempered hopes that we'd be able to attain access to Secret Beach.

Within a few hundred yards, we were debating whether it was worth wading through this keyhole. Currents are strong in this region and can rip a swimmer out to sea without much warning. If you lost your balance in the wrong wave at the wrong time, things could go bad in a hurry. We opted to turn around.

There was still fun scrambling to be had, though, even if it wasn't completely necessary.

There was 4,300 feet of climbing on this route, but by far the most strenuous part of the run was jogging through the sand along the shoreline. Despite mild temperatures, my face and arms cascaded sweat. Steve and I joked about working this hard for 350 miles of Alaska snow while wearing primaloft body armor and towing a 30-pound sled, and then stopped laughing because it wasn't a joke. This is actually how tough the ITI is going to be, pretty much the entire way. I try not to think too much about it on a beautiful November afternoon on a beach in California. At least I have a justifiable excuse to come back here soon.

Arch Rock. Running toward this cliff, I thought, there's no way we're ever going to get around that. Lo and behold, there was an arch under Arch Rock, allowing us to slip under the cliff and climb up a drainage on the other side.

Martina and Harry are both recovering from injuries and opted to skip the second ten-mile loop. We left them on Arch Rock and began the long climb back to the ridge.

While we nibbled on snacks above Wildcat Camp, Steve said, "This is why I became a trail runner. I wanted to have the fitness to just run and hike places like this all day, without it being a big deal." Yes. Exactly that. It doesn't have to be outlandish, extreme, epic, whatever superlative you feel like using — it can just be a relaxing day at the beach.

We crossed Wildcat Beach to Alamere Falls. When we arrived here, there were at least two dozen other people milling about the area. We ran 15 miles to this point and had only seen a handful of people so far all day, so the crowds shattered our illusions that Point Reyes, despite its proximity to San Francisco, is a hidden secret of an idyllic coastline. But the falls were a gorgeous destination, and the point were we turned to run north again.

The Glen Trail was a fun romp through a lush Douglas Fir forest, with more green than I have seen in a while. It was a great day. Thanks, friends. And thanks to Leor for the inspiration. I can see Point Reyes becoming a pilgrimage of our own.