Friday, January 17, 2014

Driven to disperse

When I ride my bike, I am always traveling. Sometimes I travel through the past, coasting effortlessly across the landscape of my memories. Sometimes I travel in the most immediate present, a space that spans no farther than each breath and pedal rotation. Sometimes I travel into the future, through the stories I tell myself about the things that haven't happened yet. Occasionally I venture far into the future, the places beyond my own lifetime, and the stories that ignite my most unsettling existential fears. Even less frequently, I take trips far into the past, to times long before my own and places that only exist in the stories I've been told. On Wednesday, I rode my bike from home up and over a nearby mountain that I'd never before climbed, and traveled to this deep past — specifically, the journeys of ancient people who ventured across the Bering Strait and set the first human footprints on the New World.

If I could be a human at any time and place in history, I might just choose then — if only to satisfy some of my deepest curiosities and drives for adventure. The Bering Land Bridge migration is still a hotly debated theory. It's most widely accepted that small bands of people crossed over from Siberia on ice-free corridors of land some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. But even scientists who adhere to this theory don't know exactly what these people were pursuing. Big game hunting seems the most likely candidate, but some geological evidence suggests that the climate on the lowlands of Beringia was not as conducive to big game habitat as previously thought. What exactly were these trailblazers searching for when they left the world they knew, for the sparse and barren tundra that today resides below the Bering Sea? I would love to know, which, as any good reporter understands, can only come from actually being there to witness what happened. Yes, becoming a human who lived 15,000 years ago would mean choosing a life as difficult as it was simple, defined by discomfort and heavy labor, and even if I lived to old age I'd be dead already, at 34, lucky if my only contribution was successfully reproducing before I met a violent or painful end. But still, I wonder. And wonder is where I travel sometimes, when I ride my bike.

Bohlman - On Orbit turns out to be a brutally steep climb —paved, but the mountain bike requires working my quad muscles to the point of failure just to maintain respectable forward motion. The January sun beats down — it was 74 degrees when I left my house, but feels like something closer to 90. My skin is slick with sweat and black flies are buzzing around my face and becoming lodged in the sticky film near my eyes and nose. The swarm grows in number, and I can't pedal fast enough to ward them off. "Ugh, it might as well be August," I think. But it's even worse than August because it's January, and with a winter like this, who knows what summer will bring? My imagination conjures up dust storms, stifling heat, dry hillsides, and fire. "I would probably do okay in the Ice Age," I think. "I wonder how many people would take a time machine to that point in history?"

Sweeping views of the smog-blanketed Silicon Valley become more defined as I rise higher into clear air. At the ridge I join a dirt road that ripples across the spine of a 2,500-foot mountain, and this is El Sereno Open Space. As the crow flies it's probably ten miles from my house, but I've never been here before. The fact that I'm in a new place, covering new ground, fills me with renewed excitement and purpose. Suddenly I'm no longer grumpy about the January heat or the fact that my bike legs seem oddly lacking in strength. Gravel crackles beneath the wheels as I gaze left, and then right, and then left again, taking in expansive blocks of urban sprawl and oak-covered mountainsides in equal turn. The descent steepens and frequent berms appear off to the side; I ride as many of them as I dare, swooping up and down near-vertical walls with squeals of glee. Caution remains because this doubletrack trail is very dry, slicked with fine moondust and littered with loose jagged rocks, which would become a veritable cheese grater in the event of any kind of crash. The scar I incurred in my last gravel road crash, at Frog Hollow in November, still aches every time I go out in the cold. I am fearful but I am joyful, because I have never been here before. This is bike-sploration, and I love this stuff.

A popular theory holds that sport is just a modern adaptation to our evolutionary makeup — the physical traits and abilities developed over millennia but rendered less necessary for survival in modern times. Technological advances outpaced our physical evolution, and our human instincts and emotions still adhere to primitive drives. When I think about my own basic drives, the one that most stands out is a desire — no, a need — to keep moving. Some people are nesters and cultivators, and they thrive at home. Some people are hunters and conquerers, and they thrive in production and competition. And yet others are dispersers, and they thrive most when they're advancing toward an unknown horizon, unsure whether the grass is greener on the other side, but driven to take a look and find out.

The ancient dispersers spread and populated the whole world; now even Antarctica and the bottom of the oceans are mapped in detail, and most modern discovery comes from within. And yet I ride because I remain driven to disperse, to discover for myself the contours and features that make up the world. It may not be an entire previously undiscovered continent, but it's a start. 
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Week 9, Jan. 6 to 12

At the mile 26 aid station of the Crystal Springs 50K. My favorite calorie source during a long run is cold sugary carbonated beverages, but the aid stations usually run out of soda later in these races. This volunteer/photographer just happened to capture that moment of joy when I discovered they still had Sprite. It's the simple things that make life.
Post-Fairbanks training panic spurred a high-mileage week of running, as my bikes sat woefully neglected on yet another unseasonably warm and dry January week. I've had several debates about my training approach with Beat, and the conclusion seems to be that any workout I do at this point will likely have little to no impact on my overall physical preparedness for the upcoming seven- to ten-day effort. Still, I tend to thrive on higher-volume endurance training; since I started this training block ten weeks ago, I have become progressively stronger as a runner. A fast-for-me 50K and an 80-mile week of trail running had no negative impacts in terms of pain or fatigue. I definitely wouldn't have been able to manage the same volume so naturally one year ago. This coming week I'm incorporating at least one "trailer-pull" and more bike rides, because actually, I can't neglect maintaining a bike base if I want to enjoy summer (not the mention the White Mountains 100.) The Iditarod will come and go and life will go on again, I hope. If I survive.

Monday, Jan. 6: Run, 1:28, 8 miles, 1,668 feet climbing. Average pace 11:07/mile. The first of three "bonk runs" this week, up the High Meadow Trail and down PG&E in Rancho.

Tuesday, Jan. 7: Run, 0:57, 5.7 miles, 635 feet climbing. Average pace 10:08/mile. Monta Vista with Beat. I became quite dizzy at mile four.

Wednesday, Jan. 8: Run, 2:50, 15 miles, 3,049 feet climbing. Average pace 11:23/mile. Black Mountain loop, also on the low-cal plan. Some light-headedness on the steep climbs between miles two and six. Felt much better after I worked through / ignored that initial low point.

Thursday, Jan. 9: Road bike, 1:30, 17.5 miles, 2,566 feet climbing. Montebello Road. I've started to use this ride as a recovery-type effort, but a flatter route might be better for this.

Friday, Jan. 10: Run, 1:04, 5.5 miles, 1,220 feet climbing. Average pace 11:55/mile. Run in Berkeley with Ann. She was dog-sitting an unruly dog who was impossible to control on a leash, so we cut the run short and jogged/walked back. I thought we'd do something longer and faster and was initially disappointed, but this turned out to be the perfect lead-up to a great race the next day.

Beat running at Crystal Springs. So smiley. :)
Saturday, Jan. 11: Run, 5:36, 31.1 miles, 6,611 feet climbing. Average pace 10:56/mile. Crystal Springs 50K. Probably my best 50K effort yet, partly due to having run this course enough times to have it "figured out." I sometimes let my imagination ponder how well I could nail a 50K if I ever specifically and effectively trained for that distance. But the truth is, I have negative interest in the speedwork it takes to get fast (injury fears) and too much love for the long haul. Plus, all these miles I do that speedsters refer to as "junk miles," I think of as "running that is actually fun for me." But I never say never.

Sunday, Jan. 12: Run, 2:44, 13.3 miles, 2,353 feet climbing. Average pace 12:24/mile. I waited a little too long to start this run, after all of the post-race zeal had worn off, and as a result struggled with motivation. Climbing up PG&E, I had one of those "I'd rather be doing something else" moments, and after that it was difficult to fight off the lazy urges. Plus, I left late enough in the afternoon, after only a small lunch, that the final half turned into the more miserable kind of bonk run. Still, I stuck with the plan, and had surprisingly little muscle fatigue from Saturday's race.

Total: 16 hours 9 minutes, 78.6 miles run, 17.5 miles ride, 18,102 feet climbing.
Monday, January 13, 2014

50K PR

After we returned from Fairbanks, I caught a touch of the training panic. Sled-towing was so hard, and I felt so slow, that I came back to California with a number of resolutions. I need more running! Less biking, more time on my feet! More back-to-backs! More hills! More weight! The weight goal is still in progress. I opted against running with a heavy pack because it's so hard on my knees. Then Beat acquired a bike cargo trailer that he is going to outfit with disc brakes to add resistance, and today I purchased 60 pounds of kitty litter for the purpose of hauling around in the trailer. As soon as he gets the brakes set up, we'll trade off a weight-training session here and there. If I can add just a little more strength-building and volume to my routine in the next three weeks, I'll feel more confident about my conditioning for the ITI.

On Saturday we ran the Crystal Springs 50K, a pleasant trail run through the redwoods along Skyline Ridge. The course is almost identical to the Woodside Ramble 50K that I ran a month ago (directed by a different race organizer), but I do love running these trails, and Beat and I enjoy participating in these events as fun, well-supported training runs. When I caught up to Beat on the first long climb, he had already found a cute girl to run with, Celine (Beat often makes friends during races, both male and female, because running makes him happy and thus chatty and friendly. I find this endearing, even when his new friends are cute girls.) Celine looked to be in her early 20s, was running her first 50K, told us her dad worked for Google, and seemed enthralled with Beat's tales of derring do. We all ran together for about five miles before they dropped me on the descent into Wunderlich Park.

As I padded the soft dirt along Salamander Flat, it occurred to me that I was nearly 15 miles into this race, and yet hardly felt it. Somehow the first half just coasted by, so I decided that for the second, I was going to put in a decent effort. Nothing crazy — I'm not trying to injure myself with untrained speed. But I could work a little bit for it.

Beat teased me when I passed them again on the second long climb. "I can't descend worth anything so I might as well run the uphill," I called out as I motioned them to follow. They nearly caught up when I was snacking at the 20-mile aid station, but I didn't see them and took off again before they arrived. The next section is six miles of rollers. I passed quite a few people during this segment, some running the marathon distance at a slower pace, but at one point I passed a woman who had slowed to walk one of the short uphills. She blazed past me on the next downhill, and after that I noticed that any time I got close to her again, she'd speed up. "She's racing me!" I thought, and then, "Okay, it's on."

We passed each other a few times — she couldn't quite hold me off on the longer ascents, but she was more willing to let go on the descents. Finally I started to feel embarrassed about our leapfrog game, and decided just to keep her in sight. As such, I sometimes got a little rest on the climbs, and her downhill speed would spur me to take a few more risks on the descents. It was a lot of fun — relaxing and thrilling at the same time.

The final five miles has two short climbs, but it's mostly a long descent. I assumed I'd never see her again, but thought I should at least try. I managed to maintain the shadow all the way through the final mile, a much more gradual descent on a gravel road. When it was nearly flat, she started to slow. My legs felt surprisingly fresh. I pondered engaging a sprint to the finish, but the prospect of racing a random woman for one less notch in the standings seemed too embarrassing. I just can't bring myself to behave that way, which is one of many reasons I'm not much of a racer. As we coasted into the finish, I noticed the clock read 5:36. My initial reaction was that I'd mis-read the number, because that would be 15 minutes faster than I've ever run a 50K, and that didn't seem likely. You have to run hard to run fast(er), right? But as I strode back around to watch for Beat, the clock was still in the 5:30s.

Celine came in a couple minutes later, informing me that Beat was a minute or so behind after she surged to the finish, wherein Beat accused Celine of disrespecting her elders. "Mid-fives, is that pretty good for a 50K?" she asked. "It's fast for me," I answered, "and I think it's great for a first 50K trail race on a hilly course." Beat came in at 5:42, and we headed to the barbecue table just as Celine's dad approached to pick her up. Beat recognized him instantly because he was Patrick Pichette, Google's CFO. In all those hours Celine didn't share that detail. She was very down-to-earth — just a young woman from Montreal who was studying in Scotland with aspirations to become a surgeon, visiting her Google-employee father at their home in San Francisco, and running a 50K for fun. She would be running a 15K with her dad in the city the following day. I encouraged her to check to see if she won an age-group award, and that's when I learned she was 19. Nineteen! Girl's going places.

Oh, the woman who finished 8 seconds in front of me was third female, 12 minutes behind first place. Missed the podium by that much, ha!

The plan was to finish the 50K with plenty left in the tank, and then put in another moderate run on Sunday. I fluctuated with my ambitions but ended up running a 13-miler on the steep PG&E loop at Rancho San Antonio. This "tired-legs" run mainly suffered from flagging motivation and subsequent laziness, but for the most part I felt good. Little to no soreness in the legs, no issue at all with feet, some "bonkiness" (sudden blood sugar crash, felt fine before and wasn't thrilled about low-energy running this time around), and subsequent minor gastro issues.

I am pleased that I was able to run a personal best 50K time, comfortably, having fun the whole time. Tonight I was able to meet with "Sea Legs Girl" Tracy, who was interviewing at Stanford, for dinner in Palo Alto. Amid engaging conversation about overtraining patterns and life in the Bay Area, the topic turned to what part of my winter training could have helped me become faster when my entire focus has been long-term endurance building. I speculated that I'm still feeling the after-effects of the Fairbanks training, where pulling around a 30- to 40-pound sled on difficult terrain helped build uphill strength. I can actually go back and compare mile-for-mile splits to previous races on the Crystal Springs course, and almost all of my extra time was gained on the climbs, and by effectively negative-splitting the final half. If pulling a sled makes me a stronger uphiller, I still wonder whether running lots of hills can make me a stronger sled-puller. My brain expresses doubt but my heart wants to believe. Mostly because I just want to keep running.